Ernest Seeman 1940 – 1976
Ernest Seeman was born December 23, 1913 in Union Hill, New Jersey, son of Ernest Seeman of Schlingen, Germany and Rosina Schlozer of Riehen, Switzerland. His father died of influenza when he was 6, and his family moved to Freeport to be near Swiss neighbors. His musical training began with fiddlette lessons from Edmond Bergh at Union School. Then his mother bought him a half-size violin, and he took lessons for two years from Orville Westgor for 25 cents per session. Seeman’s mother took on washing and ironing to pay for lessons with Professor Ludwig Schmidt of Rockford. Schmidt came to Freeport once every two weeks and also gave lessons to Alvin Niblo and Gaylord Browne. He had a hefty fee of $3 per lesson, so when Seeman learned of his mother’s sacrifice, he really began to practice diligently. Seeman rapidly progressed to first chair of the newly formed junior high orchestra directed by Karl Kubitz, who had just been hired to direct the high school band and orchestra and form instrument classes in the five grade schools. Kubitz needed a French horn in the high school band and asked Seeman to learn. Shortly thereafter, he began walking to the high school every Monday and Wednesday for band rehearsals. Seeman’s ability earned him the position of concertmaster of the orchestra and principal French horn in band all three years of high school (1930-1932). Kubitz also introduced him to viola, for which he earned many honors. Seeman received a scholarship to the NHSOC both his junior and senior year, earned first chair in the 3rd and 4th annual All-State Orchestra in 1930 and 1931, and earned a seat with the NHSO in 1930. Seeman graduated during the Depression, and Principal Fulwider withheld his diploma, allowing him to continue with his music and stay an extra year. Seeman considered Kubitz his mentor, and during this time, Seeman was acting director whenever Kubitz was absent.
Freeport School Music:
Three of the most beloved Freeport High School Orchestra traditions can be traced to Ernest Seeman as their founder: the Holiday Pageant, the harp program, and Tri-II music festival. Many students, past and present, recall that these two music concerts made for some of their most memorable experiences.
The Christmas concert began as an annual vesper service including vocal ensembles and orchestra. In 1934, 160 high school students were involved in this presentation / service held in a local cathedral. The orchestra performed a medley of Christmas tunes and the finale, the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah (Polaris, 1935, p. 67). The following year, the orchestra added “Pastoral Symphony” and “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” by Handel (Polaris, 1936, p. 93). The program moved to the school auditorium and officially became the Christmas Pageant in 1959. It included choral, orchestra, drama, art, science, home economic, and industrial arts departments. Scriptural verse from Isaiah 9:6, Luke 1:20-39, Luke 2:1-8, Matthew 2:1-13, and Luke 2:8-21 were read and rendered. It is described as the Christmas story told in verse, music, and tableaux. It begins with a harp prelude and orchestra overture. Then the choirs and orchestra alternate performances after readings and during tableaux presentations of: I. The Angel Gabriel, II. The Annunciation, III. The Nativity, IV. The Shepherds, V. The Shepherds and the Angles, VI. The Shepherds at Bethlehem, VII. Three Kings Before Herod, VIII. The Star, IX. The Kings at Bethlehem, and X. The Adoration. The program always concludes with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah and an orchestra postlude. It is a very large production. Students practiced Wednesday after school and Thursday (and Friday if necessary) afternoons during school, with an all-school assembly on Friday morning as a dress run for Sunday’s two shows.
Mary Magdalene sits honoring the infant Jesus. Round about her are the women of Bethlehem in rich dress, their robes celebrational, their attention rapt. Beneath the elevated portrait and off to one side, three harpists grace the scene with heavenly glissandos…and suddenly, an orchestra breaks into a fugue. From the rear of the hall, a choir floods the air with music. Then a verse choir intones the wonderment of the birth itself. And, from some distant hall is heard a brass ensemble, rich and pure of tone, heralding Christ the King…. The tumultuous scene is worthy of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera doing the triumphal scene from Verdi’s Aida. But this is not the Met. Nor is it Orchestra Hall in Chicago during concert season. Freeport High School did all this…with the diverse talents of sophomores, juniors, and seniors – 295 in all, one-fifth the total high school enrollment. (December 22, 1973)
Two performances are given each year to standing-room only crowds. Originally, tickets were free but necessary for admission. If any seats remained five minutes before the shows, non-ticket holders were allowed to enter. The program changed in name only to the Holiday Pageant in 1996. It is now in its 50th year.
Ernie Seeman was instrumental in creating the harp program in Freeport Public Schools. He was introduced to the instrument while a student at the National High School Orchestra Camp. He requisitioned the school to buy concert harps year after year while he had a very supportive superintendent (P. Seeman, personal communication, December 30, 2009). In 1945, Merrilyn Hecht was listed in the orchestra personnel under cello and harp. The next time a harpist is recorded is in 1950 when one is shown with the junior high orchestra. Then by 1953, the high school orchestra photograph shows one. Myron McLain recounted that when he was a student (1944-1952), they did not own any harps, but by the time he arrived as a teacher, they owned two concert pedal harps. Seeman would announce that they were offering lessons to any pianist who wanted to audition and had a method for transporting a harp. Once Carl Sandburg Junior High formed in 1969, they bought a troubadour harp so they could start students even earlier. Ted Carpenter, the business manager for the school district, was a good friend to Seeman and assisted in the requisition of the many instruments. Initially, Seeman taught the lessons himself. Later, the harp professor from UW-Madison came once per month and gave private lessons to several students who paid for her to come (personal communication, January 10, 2010). Faye Seeman, now a professional harpist, took harp lessons from her father in grade school and high school. She stated that, although he was not a harpist, he was able to provide the basics for students.
The most important thing he taught me from the beginning was how to tune the harp, and that playing scales and theory were important. I should not
neglect to mention that, thanks to my dad, the school owned three pedal harps, which is almost unheard of then and now. (personal communication,
February 1, 2010)
The Tri-II Festival is another annual Freeport High School music event with a long history. The Mississippi Valley Music Festival included students from 9 schools. Students from Freeport worked in cooperation with students from Galesburg, Moline, Rochelle, Monmouth, and Kewanee. In 1950, although the junior high students continued to participate in this festival for at least another 8 years, the high school portion of the festival disbanded. Due to drastic increases in student population, the festival became too large to manage. Clinton and Dubuque schools formed a new event, called II (Double I for two Iowa schools). The inclusion of Freeport, Illinois in 1950 brought the name change to Tri-II. Tri-Double-I stands for three schools and their two states. Karl Kubitz, Ernest Seeman, and vocal music supervisor Dorothy Nelson were instrumental in organizing and promoting this event. Stephen Hempstead High School in Dubuque joined in 1969 (50th Anniversary program). The festival is a two-day event in which each school’s orchestra, band, and choral group presents an audition before three guest directors, each an authority in his field, and their peers from the other schools. After a massive ensemble has been formed, students are put through two days of strenuous practice by the guest directors, and an evening concert is given by the massed groups. Each high school takes its turn at hosting, students being transported by bus and entertained overnight in local homes with a dance mixer on the first evening. Myron McLain was a student during the first Tri-II in 1950. He recalled that it was held in Dubuque and Clinton the first two years because the junior high was under construction, and Freeport’s auditorium would not be complete until May 1952 (personal communication, January 10, 2010). Housing in Freeport has been difficult since Dubuque Hempstead formed, increasing the number of students needing to be housed in Freeport. Currently, the festival includes 240 students from Freeport High School and 430 from the two Dubuque high schools (J. Lehman, personal communication, December 28, 2009).
What a great pleasure it was for me to participate in your Tri-City Festival. Yes, those youngsters did it again—they gave a magnificent performance of Sine Monine, and I loved working with them. Time and again I marvel at the technical skill, musical maturity, enthusiasm and dedication of young musicians such as yours…. I must confess that at first I was a bit shocked when I saw that row of harps; but they did help the strings quite a lot! Thank you again for two wonderful days and a most rewarding experience.
The world premiere performance of “Sine Nomine” was given by Nelhybel just two years earlier at the International Music Education Society meeting in Dijon, France. Interestingly enough, the connections with Dr. Joseph Maddy continue through Tri-II as well when he served as guest conductor of the 1953 festival (Polaris, 1953, p. 123).
Items of Interest:
In 1951, orchestra rehearsals were held daily, and sectional tryouts were given every 6 weeks (Polaris, p. 124). By 1952, renovations to the junior high were finished, including a new rehearsal room for the high school ensembles (Polaris, p. 118). Students no longer needed to traverse the spiral metal staircase to rehearse in the small tower of the high school. Typically, the orchestra performed ten times per school year, concerts spaced a month apart. The orchestra of 1954 included 63 students with 3 harpists. Besides its normal appearances, the ensemble also performed at a new Easter concert, combining with the Janesville high school orchestra. Seven district entrants received a 1st rating, and 5 members earned membership in All-State (Polaris, p. 115).
we moved into long overdue quarters which afford us the finest facilities and acoustics. Our orchestra unit contains a large 40’ x 60’ rehearsal room properly treated acoustically, and office with telephone, two libraries, two workshops – one for repairing all string instruments and rehairing bows. We do all our own adjusting and repairing of string instruments including our harps, which are sent to us from the National Music Camp for use during the year. We train our own student librarians who spend one school hour per day here on the job in the orchestra library attending to most details of filling folios, setting up festivals, etc. They receive library credit toward graduation and also are paid a meager sum for their work. (personal communication, 1955)
Myron McLain noted that the facilities at Carl Sandburg were not done to the same quality as the junior high/high school music wing. The music room floor was made of cement and the ceiling was steel. The sound echoed in the chamber (personal communication, January 10, 2010).
Such a student performance is a good antidote to the published accounts of teen-age promiscuity and the increasing numbers of youngsters who drink, smoke, and take pep pills. The “Special” displayed to the public the leaders of the next decades. (Freeport Journal-Standard, February 24, 1964, p. 4)
Many outstanding students came up through the high school orchestra during the tenure of Ernest Seeman. In 1964, the following Freeport orchestra students earned positions in the Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago, performing at Orchestra Hall: Lance Elbeck, concertmaster; Daniel Irwin and Anne Woodhouse, violins; and Martha Babcock, cello. Miss Babcock also won the position of principal cellist at All-State that year (Polaris, p. 67). In 1967, 5 students were selected for a summer, European tour. Greg Ray, Kathy Nichols, Ruth Woo, Suzanne Silver, and Mark Ascher traveled to Dijon, France with the 90-member Illinois All-State Orchestra at the International Society of Music Educators’ Annual Convention (Polaris, p. 93). Coincidentally, this is the same convention mentioned earlier as having premiered Nelhybel’s “Sine Nomine.”
The general level of interest and attitude was excellent. Being given the opportunity to travel, perform often, and have weekly lessons was really important in the total success of the program. My dad was a character and always found ways to make us laugh, had fun with the music, and really put his heart and soul into teaching. He was an inspiration to many students who passed through his doors. (personal communication, February 1, 2010)