Outstanding Figures in the Musical History of Paterson


An address delivered before the Society May 13, 1928
By William L. R. Wurts, Vice-President of the Orpheus Club
Passaic County Historical Society Publication, September 1, 1928


My childhood recollections begin at a time just after the Civil War.  Among musical leaders of that era may be mentioned Charles E. Atherton, violinist, tenor singer and songwriter.  He sang in the choirs of St. Paul’s and the First Presbyterian Churches.  He led a male quartet, known as the American Bards, who sang at political rallies in the Old Wigwam.

William Rauchfuss

William Rauchfuss, born in Prussia in 1839, came here in 1865.  He was the father of Dr. William H. Rauchfuss.  He was organist, in succession, of Holy Communion, Episcopal, Grace Methodist Episcopal, First Reformed, St. Joseph’s, Our Lady of Victories, and Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Churches and several Masonic lodges, and led German singing societies.  The river baths, where he taught swimming, are remembered by many old residents.  He died in 1902.

William Davis

William Davis, born in Germany in 1849, made his advent here in 1866.  He was organist and choirmaster of St. John’s Roman Catholic Church forty-two years, from 1868 to his death in 1910, and conductor of the Germania Singing Society eighteen years.  One of his achievements was the direction of the local amateur performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance twice for the benefit of the hospitals, when there was a chorus of real Paterson policemen and Big Sam Lockwood, champion heavyweight singer of New Jersey, was the Pirate King.

Thomas Benson

In 1866 also came Thomas Benson, born in Birmingham, England, in 1843, and who lived to be dean of the musical profession in Paterson.  Forty-seven years choirmaster of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, from 1872 to his death in 1919, was his distinction.  As organist there, he was succeeded in 1898 by John G. Zabriskie but retained the other position.  Previously he had been for a short time at Market Street and Cross Street Methodist Episcopal Churches.  He organized in 18871 the Paterson Choral Society, the city’s first English speaking body of that kind, and led it until the dissolution eleven years later. His widow, contralto singer, formerly Miss Sadie Halstead, this year was in the choir of St. Paul’s Church for her fifty-fifth Easter, as the Rev. Dr. Hamilton then announced from the chancel.

Percy Goetschius

Percy Goetschius is a native Patersonian who has won international fame in the teaching of the theory of composition.  Born in this city in 1853, he was piano pupil of Robert E. H. Gehring, a prominent teacher of that era.  Mr. Goetschius was the organist of the Second Presbyterian Church 1868-1870 and of the First Presbyterian 1870-73, and pianist of Mr. Benson’s Paterson Choral Society.  He went to Stuttgart, Wurtenberg, in 1873 to study in the Conservatory, and soon advanced to the teaching ranks.  The King conferred upon him the title of royal professor.  He composed much, and reviewed performances for the press.  In 1892 he took a like position in the New England Conservatory, Boston, and four years later opened a studio in that city.  In 1905 he went to the staff of the New York Institute of Music and Art, headed by Dr. Frank Damrosch.  Prof. Goetschius has published nine textbooks on theory, which are accepted as standards in the musical world.

Florian Oborski

Twenty years of musical uplift for Paterson is the story of Florian Oborski, Polish émigré, born in Warsaw in 1839.  He came to Paterson by chance, a stranger in a strange land, in the summer of 1872, as one of a band of strolling musicians who gave a concert in Kuett’s Military Hall, Ellison and Cross Streets.  His artistry at the piano drew the notice of German auditors who, learning that he was almost destitute, although he had been eminent in his native land, secured for him some pupils and the position of organist and choirmaster of St. Boniface’s Roman Catholic Church.  William Davis was the judge who passed upon his qualifications. Mr. Orboski organized his choir as the St. Cecilia Society, which took part in the first concert he directed in the city, early in 1873.  He also was made leader of the Paterson Quartet Club, of German men, and the Arion Society.  Introducing himself to the general public at a concert in October, 1873, at the Opera House, in which Percy Goetschius took part as pianist, his personality and talent soon won a large circle of friends and pupils.

Paterson Musical Union

Leading citizens of Paterson gave a court dress concert January 15, 1874, directed by Mr. Oborski, for the benefit of the many jobless in those hard times.  About $500 was realized.  This was the genesis of the Paterson Musical Union, organized a few days later, with Henry Waters, principal of the Paterson Seminary, as president.  Mr. Oborski led the society until 1887, when he resigned, and Henry G. Hanchell conducted in his stead until its dissolution in 1888.  In its heyday, about 1884, the society had eighty-six active singing and seventy-four associate members.  The Union in all gave thirty-four concerts, twenty-one of which were classed as public rehearsals, and took part in a score of others, many of them for charitable or patriotic ends.  One of its distinctions was to give, in 1883, the first performance in the world of Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Christus.”  The society during its career performed more than 100 compositions by sixty-one different composers, including several by great masters never before given in Paterson.

Other Societies

The Grutli Maennerchor, Swiss men’s chorus, organized 1872, had Mr. Orborski as its leader from 1873 to 1880.  J. H. Weiler and F. A. Horn have been among his successors.  It is still in existence, and cherishes fourteen trophies, chiefly silver cups, won in competition at national or intersectional festivals.

Nicholas Murray Butler, now (1928) president of Columbus University, was the first president of the Boys’ Musical Club, which Mr. Oborski directed in songs and children’s symphonies during its career, 1876-80.  It gave three concerts and took part in eight others.  Other members now (1928) surviving are Dr. Butler’s brothers, Henry M. and William C.; Henry W. Gledhill, A. D. King, Frank A. Piaget, and Charles Blundell.

The city’s first English speaking make chorus was another of Mr. Orborski’s enterprises.  The Paterson Glee Club, Organized in 1879, lasted only a few months.  Its speedy end was unforeseen and was brought about by the fact that the Paterson Light Guard was formed about that time, and Mr. Oborski and several members of the chorus went into the new military outfit with enthusiasm and were soon too busy to keep up the singing society.  It took part in two concerts but gave none of its own.

An offshoot of the Paterson Musical Union was organized in April 1886 by some of its former members in the shape of the Mendelssohn Circle, a mixed chorus, with J. A. Reinhart, principal of the High School, as its first president, and Mr. Oborski as its leader.  It gave three concerts, took part in several others, and dissolved about the close of 1889.

The Schubert Octet, a mixed double quartet, was under Mr. Oborski’s direction, 1886-91.  Mrs. S. A. Barbour, formerly Miss Laura Lee, and John G. Zabriskie, are among its surviving members.  It gave three concerts and aided in three others.

Paterson Philharmonic Society

The amateur orchestra of young men, mere boys at its outset, which came under Mr. Oborski’s care and was one of his pet institutions, was immensely popular in the city.  The nucleus of the Paterson Philharmonic Society was an instrumental trio composed of Frederick L. Borden, regarded as the founder; Walter B. and William S. Ackerman.  They were joined by the sons of the late James Inglis and others, and the society was organized in January 1885.  In 1888 Mr. Oborski accepted the baton.  Under his leadership, until his last illness in 1892, the society gave nine subscription concerts; H. Skalmer conducted one, George Wiegand three, Carl Hauder three, August Hasse four and C. Mortimer Wiske two.  The society, having outgrown the juvenility that made it chief charm for the public, passed out of being in 1899.

Besides all these activities of leadership and his private teaching, Mr. Oborski was organist of St. Boniface’s Church, 1887-1874, and the First Presbyterian Church 1888874-1892.  He was on the staff of the New York College of Music from 1868 to his decease.  His compositions included his popular Polonaise a Te Deum, Evening Hymn, Our Father, a Masonic ode, First Battalion March and two songs, Why Turn Away? and I Cannot Spin Tonight.  During his career in this city he led fifteen musical organizations, conducted or took part in eighty-four concerts, many of them for charitable or patriotic objects; was organist of the Grand Lodge of New Jersey Freemasons and active in the First Battalion, where he was color-sergeant, writing and publishing a treatise on the use of the colors which was commended by military authorities and afterward lieutenant in command of the gun-detachment.  His last public appearance was a patriotic occasion, conducting the music July 4, 1892, at the Paterson centennial exercises in a tent at Market and Carroll Streets.

His death in St. Joseph’s Hospital, November 23, 1892, after a lingering illness, of bronchial pneumonia, came as a public calamity.  His funeral in the Church of the Redeemer was attended by a huge throng of mourners.  Members of the old Musical Union sang chorales.  The Rev. Dr. Magie in his eulogy said the departed musician had wrought in this city a great and varied work of which it stood in need, and which remains as his noblest monument.

Incidentally to the review of Mr. Oborski’s career, we must mention a couple that had been early friends of the leader here – Gustav Zittel and his wife.  He made his home with them on Pearl Street for years, and the place was a center of the city’s musical life.  Mr. Zittel was a bass singer, and organist of the Broadway Reformed Church for fourteen years.  He died in 1881. Mme. Bertha Zittel, soprano, was the city’s leading exponent of the German songs of Schubert, Schumann and Robert Franz.  She sang in the choir of St. Paul’s.  Her death occurred in 1894.

The Wiske Era

Paterson’s Wiske Era of about twenty-two years was inaugurated by the Orpheus Club, male singing society when it brought C. Mortimer Wiske here as its conductor.  The founder and first president of the club were Robert H. Fordyce, and his inspiration was a concert given by the Orpheus Club of Newark, organized in 1889, and led by Samuel A. Ward, in the Park Avenue Baptist Church in 1893.  The Paterson Orpheus Club was organized in Mr. Fordyce’s house February 23, 1894.  Mr. Wiske, born in Vermont, in 1863, had attained eminence as a leader of societies in Brooklyn and other places, and as chorus-master of Theodore Thomas’ Wagner festivals throughout the country.  There was a connecting link between The Orborski and Wiske eras in the fact that nine members of the Paterson Glee Club of fifteen years before took part in the Orpheus Club’s introductory concert May 22, 1894.

The club’s first subscription concert was given December 18, 1894, and for twenty-two years ensuing three of these events were given each season.  The club is still in flourishing existence as a purely social body, holding quarterly dinners.  Francis Porter is its president.

In the spring of 1896, Mr. Wiske removed with his family from Brooklyn to Paterson and occupied as his studio the former Hamil mansion, at Broadway and Summer Streets, where the Second Presbyterian Church now stands.  In 1900, needing more room, he took the former D. G. Scott Mansion, Broadway, and Straight Street, had a large addition built as the first Orpheus Hall, and made it the center of varied activities.  When the site was sold for the erection of St. Mark’s Church in 1902, the old Emmanuel Baptist Church, at Broadway and Carroll Street was obtained and renovated as the Second Orpheus Hall – only recently demolished.

Pupils were organized into classes for study and lectures, and the Ladies’ Cecilia Vocal Society was formed.  Several cantatas were given, and one notable event was a performance of Massenet’s Eve in the Waldorf-Astoria, New York, by Mr. Wiske’s chorus in 1897, which was highly commended by metropolitan critics, and repeated in Paterson.

Mr. Wiske decided to inaugurate something new for Paterson, in the line of music festivals, and he organized a large chorus and gave Handel’s “Messiah” in the Armory May 18, 1897.  The next year the Paterson Festival Association was organized.  Mendelssohn’s Elijah” was rendered in the armory in May of that year, occupying one night, Josef Hofmann pianist, featuring the other.  The Messiah was repeated in 1902.  Haydn’s Creation was given in the Opera House in 1903;  Rossini’s Stabet Mater in the same place in 1904.  For lack of financial support, it became necessary to use a smaller chorus and orchestra, and revert to Orpheus Hall, for a few years, Mendelssohn’s St. Paul, Gounod’s Redemption, Balfe’s Bohemian Girl, Barnby’s Rebekah, Barnett’s Ancient Mariner and Flotow’s Marta being offered.  Later a return was made to the armory with Ellijah, and in 1911 Handel’s Israel in Egypt, the People’s Choral Union of Paterson and Passaic and the Young People’s Orchestra having been organized.

Altogether under Mr. Wiske’s direction between 1895 and 1917 fifteen festivals were given in Paterson, some of the important works besides those already named being St. Saens Samson and Delilah, Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise, and concert performances of Faust, Aida, Cavalliera Rusticana, and Chimes of Normandy.

Mr. Wiske took the position of organist of the Church of the Redeemer in May 1899, and was choirmaster of the First Presbyterian Church from May 1909, until his removal from Paterson about twelve years ago.  He directed the music at the funeral of Vice-President Hobart in the Church of the Redeemer in 1899, and at the McKinley Memorial exercises in Eastside Park in 1901.

Among noted solo artists brought to Paterson for the Wiske festivals were Ernestine Schurmann-Heink, Lillian Nordica, Mary Garden, Margaret Matzenauer, Louise Homer, Marcella Sembrich, Marie Rappold, Alma Gluck, GiovanniMartinelli, Bonci, John McCormack, Giuseppe Campanari, Henri Scott and Herbert Witherspoon, singers; Josef Hofmann, Ethel Leginska and Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler, pianist; Maude Poweil and Mischa Elman, Violinists.

Amateur Opera

Popular performances of light opera intermittently over a span of seventeen years was the record of the Paterson Amateur Opera Association under the musical direction of John G. Zabriskie, with such able amateurs as Laura Lee-Barbour, Wood McKee, the late Edward J. MacDonald and Frederick A. Parker, figuring prominently.  The germ of all this was the performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience under auspices of the Paterson High School senior class at Apollo Hall in 1891 with Miss Lee in the title part and Mr. Zabriskie director.  In 1893 the Association was organized and the Mikado was given with great triumph in the Opera House.  Other performances have been of The Beggar Student, Paul Jones, Wang, Half a King, The Viceroy, Erminie, The Girl from Paris, and three of Mr. Zabriskie’s own works, King Con, the Gray Goose, and The Jolly Prince.

Brass Bands

We finally revert to earlier times to mention some of the historic brass bands of the city, beginning with that of Albert (Obby) Zabriskie, grandfather of John G. in the 50’s (1850’s).  There were also Fred Johnson’s, Ed Wilkinson’s, Wohlrab and Nicholls’, John Woolley’s, and Gus Saalfeld’s.  A remarkable organization was Saal’s Band, originally composed of a father and nine sons, from Germany, which flourished for about fifteen years from 1882.  The late Albert J. Robinson organized his American Band in 1898, and it became the enlisted band of the Second and Fifth Regiments, and won third prize at the national meet of the Elks at Baltimore in 1903.