A historic miniature replica of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is on display once again at Glessner House.
Late in 1912, Frances Glessner Lee began to make a miniature replica of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that she had so often watched from her parents’ box—Box M, the one dead center and directly across from the conductor’s podium. Frances was the 34-year-old daughter of John and Frances Glessner, the prominent Chicagoans that Theodore Thomas, who founded the orchestra, and then Frederick Stock, who succeeded him as its second music director, had come to think of as its first family—a couple whose devotion to the Chicago Orchestra had been unparalleled since its founding in 1891.
Frances planned to present the miniature orchestra to her mother on Jan. 1, her 65th birthday. “New Year’s was Frances[’s] birthday,” John Glessner noted in his wife’s journal, “& that afternoon Frances Lee gave her the wonderful ‘little orchestra’—the full orchestra stage & full 90 men & their instruments, doll-size, all worked out in exquisite detail, & most of it done by Frances[’s] own fingers.”
Frances had asked Stock for permission to attended rehearsals, so she could observe the players carefully, take notes and make detailed sketches from her parents’ box. At rehearsal breaks, she milled among the musicians to draw on a doll’s head the details she needed to study up close—the shape of the mustache, or how a player wore his hair. Some of the musicians came to her home to pose for her, and Enrico Tramonti, the harpist, helped her make the intricate miniature of his instrument (and its tiny storage case). It took her many weeks “of infinite pains,” as her father said, to make a model of the stage, to replicate all of the instruments (some of them cut out of candy boxes), and to customize Viennese dolls by adjusting the stuffing to mirror the shape and height of each player and painting the bisque porcelain heads with their faces. “Dressmakers and painters were called in to properly attire and color and patch hair on the tiny figures,” the Chicago Daily News reported.
Stock, five inches tall in Frances’ re-creation, towers over his men. On each music stand is an orchestral part, written with the correct clef for its instrument, with a few lines of music copied out by Stock himself. (The composition chosen was “The Drum Major of Schneider’s Band”—a song by Arthur J. Mundy that Frances Glessner loved playing on the family Steinway piano.) “Nothing could be more complete or perfectly done,” John Glessner wrote.
On Friday, Jan. 17, the Glessners and their daughter invited the Stocks and the entire orchestra to their house for dinner, so they would all have a chance to see their orchestra in miniature. Frances sat at the piano and played “The Drum Major of Schneider’s Band,” while Stock conducted and the musicians sang along. “We thought there was more freedom & spirit among the men than on any previous occasion,” John later wrote. “The men were much interested in the ‘little orchestra’ & seeing themselves as others see them.”
John offered two toasts at dinner—one to Thomas, another to Stock and the orchestra: “May they live as long as Chicago lives.” No one, he said, rejoiced more in their art than he and his wife. “The orchestra itself is now of age—21 years old,” he said. “If we can keep this little model safe for 21 years, how interesting it will be to those of us who are alive then as a record of what we are now.”
But now, more than a century later, it is something of a miracle that we still have Frances Lee Glessner’s little orchestra at all. Sometime after 1921, the Glessners turned the doll collection over to the Orchestral Association. Eventually it was forgotten. Then, in the late 1940s, Harold Matthies, a custodian in Orchestra Hall, was ordered to toss an old, musty, miniature doll collection that was taking up storage space. Instead, he spied an unused bookshelf tucked away in a corner of the basement, and he stashed the dolls and instruments and set pieces there. They were discovered only in the summer of 1964, and at first no one could even remember when they were made in the first place. They went on display, for the first time in some 50 years, the day the CSO’s 74th season opened. They have only occasionally been available for public viewing since.
For Frances Glessner Lee, crafting the miniature orchestra turned out to be the prelude to a pioneering career as a criminologist—with her inheritance, she founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard Medical School—and the creator, in the 1940s and 1950s, of the celebrated Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, impeccably detailed miniature dioramas of unsolved crime scenes designed as teaching tools. The Nutshell Studies were on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum last year. This month’s exhibition of the much-earlier miniature Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a rare opportunity for Chicago music lovers to see their orchestra as the Glessners saw it in 1912.
Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Note: The miniature orchestra will be available for viewing at Glessner House, 1800 S. Prairie Ave., from March 27 through April 28. Tours are offered Wednesday through Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2:30 p.m. Private group tours for eight or more people may be arranged at other times. For further information, visit glessnerhouse.org.
TOP: Second music director Frederick Stock on the podium, “leading” the miniature version of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra