Edwin Lemare was Chattanooga's First Municipal Organist

Monday, August 5, 2013 - by Harmon Jolley

It was the evening of Saturday, July 6 at the American Legion in East Ridge.   The Legionnaires band was playing familiar tunes of the big band era.  The couples were dancing to the music like it was 1949.  On the song “Moonlight and Roses,” I once again sat next to 1st trombonist Rev. Bill Cross and admired his beautiful tone on the solo.  “Some day when I grow up, I want to sound like Bill on trombone,” I once again told myself.

Quickly after the song ended, saxophonist Don Worley turned around and asked me, “Did you know that the composer of that melody was the Memorial Auditorium’s first organist?”  Saxophonists don’t often talk to trombonists during sets, but Don and I share a love of Chattanooga history.  I didn’t know that fact, but knew that Don had once again given me the lead for a Memories article.  “Hang around us old folks, Harmon, and you’ll learn lots of history,” Don once told me.

My first step in researching Don’s lead was to contact Tom Shields, organist at my church.   I knew that Tom knew lots of music trivia.  He came through again this time.  “Yes, Edwin Lemare was the first organist at the auditorium.  His contract and salary were arranged by Adolph Ochs.  You really need to contact Evelyn Gibbs, though – she can tell you all about him.” 

Evelyn Gibbs has made it part of her life’s work to see the auditorium’s Austin pipe organ restored.   In a phone interview, we talked about Edwin Lemare and his connection to Chattanooga.  She closed by saying that she would provide a packet of information that she had compiled on the famous organist.

In her large envelope were copies of Lemare’s biography by Nelson Barden, a concert program, his endorsement for the Austin Organ Company, newspaper clippings, obituary, and photographs.  There were also two letters written by daughter Betty Lemare Biza to her in 1987.  The following is what I learned from all of the documents.

Edwin Henry Lemare was born in Ventnor, Isle of Wight, England in 1866.  At a young age, he received musical training from his father.   He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London at age eleven.   Soon, he was serving as church organist and performing organ concerts throughout the world. 

“Moonlight and Roses,” the tune often heard at the monthly East Ridge Legion dances, was written by Lemare in 1888 as “Andantino in D-flat, op.83 no.2.”  Thinking that the melody was public domain, American songwriters Ben Black and Charles N. Daniels (under the name Neil Moret)., added lyrics, without permission of the composer, in 1921.  Lemare obtained a share of the royalties in 1925 after threatening a lawsuit.   The popular tune was played at many of his concerts.

The organist became associated with Austin Organs, Inc., a Hartford, CT-based pipe organ manufacturer since 1899.  In a product endorsement, Mr. Lemare said, “I am happy to subscribe my name with those who have had the pleasure of playing upon your organs.  I have had the experience, during several extended series of recitals, of presiding over some of your finest and greatest achievements in organ building, notably in the Civic Auditorium, San Francisco; City Hall, Portland, Maine; and more recently in the Memorial Hall, Chattanooga. Tenn.  The Chattanooga organ is an artistic triumph – tonally and mechanically.”

In the February 12, 1925 concert program for the dedication of the Austin organ at our Memorial Auditorium, E.Y. Chapin documented the history behind the organ and its famous first organist.

In a meeting on December 10, 1922, the Chattanooga Music Club “resolved that an organ of adequate range and size should form a part of the equipment of the main auditorium.”  Coordinating with the City Commission, the club worked out details of how the organ would be installed in the new event facility.  On August 7, 1923, a contract with the Austin Organ Company for building and installing their Opus 1206 organ was signed, at a cost of $45,000.

A musical instrument of such quality needed a highly-talented organist who knew how to use all of its built-in functions.   Mr. Chapin noted, “Through the generous public spirit of Mr. A.S. Ochs, Chattanooga’s Citizen Emeritus, a contract was signed whereby Mr. Edwin H. Lemare, an organist of world-wide experience and world-wide renown, was placed in charge of it.”  The famous musician then worked with the builders and installers of the organ on all details, such as the types of stops to include.

On the evening prior to the dedication service for the organ, the Chattanooga Music Club feted Edwin Lemare with a banquet at the Hotel Patten.  More than one hundred guests from local government and civic endeavors attended. 

Chattanooga Mayor Richard Hardy spoke, and declared that the famous organist was brought to the city not only to furnish amusement, but to be a teacher.  Once a month, local children would hear concerts especially for them at the auditorium.

At the banquet, Edwin Lemare observed that the organ at the Memorial was “different from most organs installed in motion picture theaters."  At the local Tivoli Theater was an example of a theater organ used in providing musical accompaniment to silent movies.   Lemare continued, "The memorial organ is not designed to take the place of an orchestra to be used in illustrating the various views as they are flashed on the screen, but is supplied with the stops which produce music similar to that rendered by a symphony orchestra.”  

An audience of around 4,000 people attended the dedicatory concert on February 12, 1925.  Mayor Hardy opened with these remarks, “It is with much pride that we dedicate this organ to the service, pleasure, and education of the citizens of Chattanooga and to the stronger who is within our gates.  Music is one of the greatest of the cultural arts and its place is forever established in the lives of all cultured peoples.” 

The organist Lemare then gave a concert which opened with “The Star Spangled Banner,” and included “Toccata and Figure in D minor,” Barcarolle from “Tales of Hoffman,” “Spring Song,” “Suwanee River,” and “Overture, Tannhauser” and other selections.   For those aspiring to play the organ like Edwin Lemare, the concert program mentioned that sheet music of the various pieces was available at the Standard Music Company at 724 Market Street.

For the next five years, every Sunday from October to June, Lemare played concerts at the auditorium.  His annual salary was $5,000 and was funded by Adolph Ochs.   Edwin and his family, including wife, Charlotte, and daughter, Betty, lived first at the Signal Mountain Hotel and then at a nearby rental house. 

Betty Lemare Biza wrote a letter to Evelyn Gibbs in 1987 about her memories of the area.  “I loved Signal Mountain.  My bicycle and I were inseparable.  We went everywhere – even down the “W” Road.“

Betty recalled going to many of her father’s recitals, observing that “Ride of the Valkyries” made her hair stand on end.    She also recalled that he was “surprised and unhappy to see that the black community was only allowed in the peanut gallery (a reference to the cheapest seats with the worst view in a theater). “  “His English upbringing had not prepared him for segregation, so he arranged a separate concert for the black community only, and packed the house.”

Edwin Lemare’s final Chattanooga concert was on May 26, 1929.  The family relocated to southern California, and all hoped that Edwin’s itinerant musical career would give way to permanent bookings at the Hollywood Bowl or San Diego’s Balboa Park.  However, things did not work as planned.  He lost most of his savings when the stock market crashed in October, 1929.  His health began to deteriorate to the point that he could no longer give as many concerts.  Edwin Lemare died on September 24, 1935. 

For further reading on Edwin Lemare and the Austin pipe organ of the Memorial Auditorium, please consult the following:

o   The biography of Edwin Lemare by Nelson Barden may be viewed at http://www.orgel.com/music/ehl/

o   The Chattanooga Music Club’s Web site http://chattanoogamusicclub.org/Austin_Pipe_Organ.php  has many of the details of the organ, its rise during the 1920’s, its fall during the Great Depression and World War II, and its restoration led by Evelyn Gibbs and the Chattanooga Music Club beginning in 1985.

If you have additional information on Edwin Lemare or the Memorial Auditorium pipe organ, or have ever played “Moonlight and Roses,” please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.


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