Edward Joseph Collins: An American Composer
BY ERIK ERIKSSON
“My father was a composer and concert pianist and required a piano in the cottage for his work. Martha Farr, Dr. Welcker’s niece who managed the hotel after his death, was very accommodating. She provided my father with an upright piano placed in a large clothes closet with two windows. One faced an apple orchard and the other the Friedmann garage. There was just room for a small writing table. He loved this little nook, drawing inspiration from the view of the orchard.”
“My parents loved Fish Creek. My father would say when it applied, ‘What a perfect Fish creek day!’ This meant a cool day, blue sky, a Northwest breeze and white caps on Green Bay. On such a day they enjoyed walking down Cottage Row [a row of large, elegant waterfront vacation homes on a sequestered road running south from Fish Creek] to the stairs of the cliff walk and returned to town ending up behind Thorp’s tennis court. Another memorable ritual was the evening walk to Sunset Beach.”
This vignette of life in Fish Creek notes that following breakfast each day, she and her sister Dorothy would be taken by their mother on a ride in order that her father could spend the morning hours composing.
She recalled that the entire family “loved the movies after dinner at the Fish Creek Town Hall. One night there was a long delay in the projection booth and the crowd became very impatient. Dad went to the little piano in the front and played ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’ He brought down the house. The people were mesmerized.”
“Every year Dorothy and I spent the first two weeks of August in Fish Creek. When Louise and Eddie came along, they stayed the last two weeks. Meanwhile, Dorothy and I were returned to our Grandfather’s home at Cedar Lake, Wisconsin.”
“Every summer, my father gave a concert at the Casino, the social center of Welcker’s. This was an eagerly awaited event and was well attended. He usually played Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and some of his own compositions. When Miss Farr died, Dad played the Moonlight Sonata at her memorial service.”
On 29 October 1931, Collins completed the orchestration of his Concert Piece, promised to Stock for performance with the Chicago Symphony. The second of two journal entries for that day contained this outburst: “Years ago I thought the battle scene in Strauss’ ‘Ein Heldenleben’ was a magnificent thing; now I think it is the silliest god dam piece of childishness I know. In fact this idea of being inspired by a woman to go out and knock the blocks off our neighbors has been responsible for a lot of heartaches. Coming home then to put on your house-slippers and wait for death is the teaching of man’s second love—religion. Why can’t we sail through life on a high place of courage tempered with charity, and shake off these crazy substitutes for man’s marvelous intelligence?”
Two days later, Edward Joseph Jr. was born. “The idea of a having a son thrilled and scared me. I hope this little fellow will get a break in life; I wish him health, character, and genius in the order named; may his life be rich and successful.”
The Concert Piece (actually Collins’ second piano concerto) was premiered just over a month later (3 December 1931) with Collins as soloist and was generously praised, not the least by Claudia Cassidy, then writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, who found “splendor in its imagery, and a faunish hint of capricious gaiety and something gallant that captured fantasy in terms of modern melody”.
On 23 March 1933, a lengthy journal entry contained this: “Creative work demands clean living and much rest. The amateur or the layman insists on making a dope fiend and a drunkard of his ideal but the more I see of genius the more I realize that it is made up of concentration and sacrifice.”
In 1933, Collins had moved his studio to the American Conservatory of Music where he remained on faculty until the time of his death. This once venerable institution has experienced some unfortunate times in recent years, and records of Collins’s work and accomplishments there are, sadly, available only in sketchy form through outside sources.
Daughter Marianna Collins’s brief family history, previously mentioned, describes a turning point in the composer’s life near the end of the decade. “In 1938, Edward and Frieda Collins bought a log house on Highway 42, halfway between Fish Creek and Egg Harbor. It belonged to Mrs. George Bass, a friend of F.D.R. [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt], with whom she exchanged cartons of mystery stories.” [Author’s note: presumably, she was not told of Edward Collins’s intense antipathy to the sitting president, confided to his journals in biting terms.]
“The long logs for the two-storied living room were brought to Door County over the ice from Northern Michigan. My mother designed the studio for my father which was constructed with the rocks from a stone fence that went along the highway. Dad would spend mornings and afternoons working there. We were neighbors of the Peninsula Players [the nation’s oldest professional outdoor theater]. My sisters and brother and I were often called upon to become supernumeraries in various productions. Richard Fisher, the artistic director, often borrowed furniture from my mother for stage settings. She was thrilled to see her things on the stage.”