18 April 2007


When I wrote that Mansour Rahbani's Zenobia "is not the first play about Zenobia, although it's probably the first that sets her to music", I prudently did say 'probably'. An anonymous reader then drove a coach & horses through the gap in my knowledge: Chicago’s favourite 19th-century composer, Silas Gamaliel Pratt (I’m not even tempted to laugh) composed an opera in 4 acts, Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, having written his own libretto, too. Zenobia was staged on 26 March 1883 at the McVickers Theater in Chicago, and never – as far as I know – again.

For afficionados of US opera, Pratt wrote three more pieces (Antonio, Lucille, and Ollante), none of them ever fully performed. More positively, he was the first to put to music the hymn ‘America the Beautiful’,* but, sadly, this is not the version sung today. I wonder if Pratt’s music for this most popular patriotic song still exists (it can’t have been less singable than the 'Star Spangled Banner'). The only other noteworthy event recorded about him is that he conducted three bands on the Fourth of July, 1893 – the Second Regiment Band, Pullman Band, and the Chicago Band – "in national airs" at the Chicago World's Fair, and led a 100,000-person sing-along with the Columbian Chorus of 1,500 men and women (I didn’t make this up: it’s in the New York Times, 5 July 1893).

* the words were written in 1895 by Katharine Lee Bates, poet & teacher

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