White House Musicales: The Rest of the Story

by Spencer Howard

As noted previously in this blog, the Hoovers continued the tradition, which began during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, of sponsoring concerts or “musicales” at the White House, usually following important dinners or receptions. The Hoovers’ tastes, and therefore the programming, tended toward classical music. Unfortunately, as far as we know, none of the programs were recorded or photographed.

Almost all of the musicales held at the Hoover White House were held in the ornate East Room of the White House, which boasted an impressive custom Steinway piano. Following the practice of that time, programs typically consisted of a vocalist alternating with an instrumentalist; the musical selections usually included short formal works and lighter fare such as folk songs or folk dances. Some of the renowned artists who performed at the Hoover White House included opera star Lawrence Tibbet, violinist Efram Zimbalist, and cellists Alfred Wallenstein and Gregor Piatigorsky.

The task of choosing programs and securing artists was the responsibility of Henry Junge, a senior staff member at the Steinway & Sons piano company in New York. First Lady Lou Henry Hoover and Mr. Junge feuded behind the scenes about the appropriate selections and artists engaged for the musicales, but Mrs. Hoover was unwilling to embarrass Junge and Steinway by ending the arrangement.

Mrs. Hoover frequently requested that Junge schedule more American artists rather than the European artists he preferred.  Mrs. Hoover prevailed upon Junge, despite his disapproval, to program the American harpist Mildred Dilling, pianist and harpsichordist Lewis Richards, and violinist Albert Spalding. It helped that all three had performed extensively in Europe.

Some of the foreign artists who appeared at the White House became American citizens. For example, one musicale featured Ukrainian pianist Vladimir Horowitz paired with German soprano Claire Dux. Dux was an opera star who sang frequently in Chicago and Europe; at the time of her White House performance she was married to Charles H. Swift of the Swift meatpacking family. Horowitz was an ascending young star who had escaped from the Soviet Union in 1925 on the pretense of studying abroad. He became an American citizen in 1944

Programs, guest lists, and other documentation for the Hoover Administration musicales are preserved in the Lou Henry Hoover Papers at the Hoover Library.

Vladimir Horowitz

 

Claire Dux