Irwin Leroy Fischer
Composer, Conductor, Organist, Pianist, Theroist, Teacher,
Christian Gentleman and Loving & Loyal Friend
Born July 5, 1903 in Iowa City, Iowa, died in Wilmette, Illinois May 7, 1977
Hear My Musical Tribute to Irwin
Read About My Tribute Piece
(Extrapolated from notes by Marion Fischer and recollections and notes by Robert Getz)
Irwin's paternal grandparents, Vaclav and Katherine Cihlar Fischer,* came from Prague to become farmers in Iowa. Vaclav had been a soldier in Emperor Franz Josef's army, and a member of his personal bodyguard. Irwin's maternal grandparents, Leonard and Mary Heninger Hornung, came from Wurttemberg, Germany in 1857 and also settled in Iowa City where Leonard followed the family trade of carpentry. *The original name was Fiser (acording to Irwin) and was changed to first include an h and later ch at an undisclosed point in time.
Irwin's parents, Ella and Christopher Fischer, were married in 1902 . They tried farming but Christopher claimed that he "farmed five years in one Summer!" It was in this setting in 1903 that Irwin was born. Having had enough of farming, Christopher started a combination barbershop and variety store in Lisbon, Iowa, where Irwin's sister, Renetta Ella was born. Father Fischer loved music and played trombone in the town band. He also sold pianos and bought one for his family. They hired a neighbor girl to teach Irwin to play ($.25 per lesson!) which was the start of Irwin's musical education.
In 1914 Christopher moved his family to Chicago's south side where he again opened a variety store barbershop. To supplement his income he often worked nights unloading cattle cars at the stockyards. During this time he taught Irwin barbering, which skill Irwin never lost. As Christopher saved money, he began to buy apartment buildings, which he and his wife rehabilitated and sold at a profit.
In 1917 Irwin graduated from Oakland Grammar School and started high school. As industrious as his father, in his early teens Irwin maintained both a paper route and a newsstand. In high school he served on the school newspaper as a writer and sang and acted in school plays, including being the Pirate king in The Pirates of Penzance.
One of the happiest experiences of his high school years was his introduction to an excellent piano teacher, Kathryn Williams, who recognized his natural gifts and gave him free piano lessons for four years! They remained friends for life and his gratitude never diminished. Another encouraging teacher in these years was his French teacher, Josephine Allin - also a life-long friend. Irwin believed that these two women gave him the foundation for the fulfillment of his life-dreams.
He completed high school in just three and a half years as co-valedictorian. He received a scholarship to The University of Chicago. While at university he worked loading heavy crates of shoes for a rubber shoe company (which he later credited his broad and strong shoulders to.) At the U of C he acted in plays and wrote for school publications, one of which was The Circle. This publication published one of his early pieces for piano, From Far, From Eve and Morning. His career interest at the time was creative writing, but at the University it was discovered that he was colorblind and he was advised that this could be a serious hindrance to a writing career. As his musical gifts and interest bubbled to the surface, his studies shifted in that direction as well. He ushered regularly at the opera, where (due to his height) he was assigned to the front of the main floor. The bright red sash across his large chest made him easy to spot by patrons! In his junior year at U of C he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and made a marshal in his senior year.
The manager of the rubber shoe factory offered Irwin an administrative position in the company at the same time the University offered him a position teaching English. However, his strong and growing interest in music focused his energy there and he declined both offers. Hiss father died in 1923, and this put a natural strain on the family. Despite the great loss, and appreciating Irwin's great musical gifts, his mother and sister helped make it possible for him to enroll at The American Conservatory of Music in Chicago after graduating from The U of C in 1924.
At the conservatory he studied piano with louise Robyn, organ with Wilhelm Middleschulte, and theory and composition with Adolf Weidig. It was here that he discovered that he had what is often called perfect pitch. He progressed rapidly and was soon teaching piano and theory in the children's department. He became organist of the Hyde Park Congregational Church in 1926 and in the summer of 1927 enjoyed his first trip to Europe.
In 1928 he married Marion Heineman and moved to the Beverly Hills area of Chicago. He won gold medals at the conservatory in 1928 and 1929 and received his Master's Degree in 1930. This same year saw the birth of his first child, Frederic Irwin, and the purchase of his first home. At this time he became organist of Ninth Church of Christ Scientist, Chicago, where he remained for twenty years.
In the summer of 1931 he went to Europe for a second time and studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, with whom he remained a life-long friend. In 1932 his second child, Alan Robert, was born. During these early years Irwin composed primarily for piano, voice and organ.
In 1935 Eric DeLamarter, with whom Irwin had been studying conducting, suggested that Irwin compose something for Bastille Day to be performed on the Swift Bridge by the Chicago Symphony at the Century of Progress Exposition. The result was Irwin's Rhapsody of French Folk Tunes which was performed under Irwin's baton.
During the Great Depression, Irwin did whatever work he could find to support his family. He had the great good fortune to meet a woman poet, Mrs. Bertha Kendall Lingle, who composed melodies for her poems and desired someone to compose accompaniments for them. Irwin enjoyed the work and the income and many volumes of beautiful songs resulted. In the end, her copies were lost, so Irwin donated his only copies to her grandchildren. (Recall that everything was hand-copied in those days, no Xerox!)
She was so appreciative of his work that in 1936 she gave him money for another Summer of study in Europe. This time he went to Budapest to work with Zoltan Kodaly. He met and became friends with Bartok and others at this time, collected materials and made sketches for his Hungarian Set for strings and celesta (later recorded by Thor Johnson and the Fish Creek Peninsula Orchestra.)
In 1935 he had started working on a new composition and discovered that one theme was pianistic and another was orchestral. Combining them resulted in his first Piano Cconcerto In E Minor. He performed it with the Chicago Civic Orchestra under Clarende Evans, on WGN Radio with Henry Weber conducting and later with The Chicago Symphony Orchestra where he got one of the extremely rare good reviews for both the work and the performance (as well as his handsome appearance!) from the Chicago Tribune's fearsome Claudia Cassidy.
The concerto received many more performances, several by his eldest son, Fred, as soloist. Fred became a redoubtable pianist in his own right and often championed his fathers piano compositions. Irwin's other son, Alan, a gifted string bass player, played in his father's orchestras until his engineering work took him to Michigan's auto industry.
In 1927 Irwin was awarded a Summer scholarship to study at The Mozartarium in Austria. He studied conducting with Bernard Paumgartner, Nikolai Malko and Bruno Walter. Here he began work on his beautiful Chorale Fantasy For Organ And Orchestra. It had its first performance in 1954 with Mario Salvador playing it with The St. Louis Symphony under Vladamir Golschmann. Also in 1937 Irwin conducted the premiere performance of his Marco Polo Fantasy Overture with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra.
1939 was a busy year. Irwin became conductor of the National Youth Orchestra (NYA) in Chicago. This group rehearsed several times a week, and had frequent concerts. In 1941 he composed music for a NYA film and conducted a concert version of this with the orchestra. The orchestra dissolved in 1942 because of the war when many of the young men enlisted. Upon their return, many became members of prominent symphony orchestras, including The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
In 1942 Colonel Harry Otway, of The Salvation Army, came to The American Conservatory to study composition with Irwin. Otway was Music Director for the eleven central states in the Army and in charge of their top music camp - The Central Music Institute - at Wonderland Camp, Camp Lake, Wisconsin. Otway invited Irwin to be a special guest faculty at the ten day Institute that year. This happy arrangement lasted for thirty two years. Features of the camp were his faculty-band readings of transcriptions of the music of the masters always under Irwin's baton. Irwin never charged for his services or for his expenses in all those years. It was among the most beloved of all of his activities in life. His family was always invited and often attended, enriching the experience for all -- especially Marion's work with puppets, which enthralled the campers for years. Irwin was profoundly respected by all, and adored by most whom he touched at CMI (including, perhaps especially, this writer!) In the early 1950's he wrote an unusual, descriptive march, Wonderland Camp for the faculty band. It became an annual feature of the Institute. The piece features a theme based on the tritone, because of the "wonder" of the interval. It may well be the world's first use of a muted alto horn, which opens the march on the augmented fourth, answered by flugel horn, cornet and finally soprano cornet, each entrance higher than the last. The effect was to represent the sun rising over the camp, reflecting on the lake. As the sun is finally up, the activity of the camp is represented by the non-stop thematic energy. This non-typical march ends with a majestic group of chords representing the joy and love Irwin felt for each person there. It is a masterpiece of scoring and innovation.
Irwin was not only known for his musical prowess at CMI but as a redoubtable tennis player and swimmer. He regularly trounced younger folk at tennis and swam the mile-wide lake across and back frequently during each 10-day camp, even into his seventies! He was also the first one to brave Lake Michigan in Evanston in Spring!
It was at CMI that I first encountered Irwin. I was a cheeky kid that didn't want any part of "that old guy" . . . (pushing 50!) I misbehaved in his class and was dismissed to see the camp director, Captain Bernard Smith. Bernie was a wonderful man and a close friend of my Father. He stated simply that we had two options . . . we could call my Father and have him come and take me home . . . OR I could humbly and sincerely apologize to Mr. Fischer and behave myself hereafter. I don't think he even saw me disappear in Mr. Fischer's direction! Mr. Fischer put his arm around men and graciously accepted my apology. He then asked me to play tennis with him later, and perhaps swim the lake with him. He ran me into the cement of the court and saved my life whilst attempting to swim further than I 'd ever tried before! I was smitten and a life-long, deep and most rewarding friendship was born.
In about 1960 I applied for acceptance at The American Conservatory Of Music in Chicago, stating that I wanted to study everything with Mr. Fischer. I was still cheeky and stated that I would carry quadruple majors . . . which brought sniggers from the Registrar, Charles Moore. Piano, Composition, Conducting and Music Education. I had never had a piano lesson in my life and was quite naive of what it takes. I dropped the education major due to most who were in that major cheated and seemed superficial to me. It became clear to me that I would never be a concert pianist, but I did play, in recital and for jury exams, (among many other things) the Pathetic sonata, a five voice Bach fugue (D major, book 1, WTC) and other demanding works. I didn't even own a piano and used to sneak into the Conservatory late at night to practice. Conducting and Composition were naturals for me and I did so well that Irwin once wrote that I had "entered into my studies more deeply than any pupil" he could recall. I always marveled at his ability to sight-read amazingly difficult pieces, flawlessly, with a wooden pencil between his first and middle finger! I later learned from his son, Al, that this had its genesis from his days as a heavy smoker wherein it was a cigarette, not a pencil!! In all of my time of knowing him I never learned that of him. He was a VERY health-conscious saint . . . devoted to his Christian Science!
In 1970, I (as Bandmaster of the Massachusetts Salvation Army Cambridge Citadel Silver Band) commissioned Irwin to write a major piece for our band. I told him of the strengths of each player and offered other ideas for the piece (far too many specifics!) The result was a wondrous and, in the words of musicologist Edith Borroff, "Most Majestic!" meditation, The Strength Of God's Love. It is a big work that will test the endurance of any band, which effort will be reward to any who persevere. It features Praise To The Lord The Almighty in addition to a rich mix of original material. At one point, if the acoustics are just right, one of Irwin's original themes emerges due entirely to overtones (not written in the score at all!) In the end (due to some SA administrative SNAFU) official payment was denied for the commission. I was angry and mortified, so took every penny I had saved personally at the time - a whopping $300! - and sent it to Irwin. He was gracious about the whole mess as he was about everything. The piece has received very few readings due to its difficulties, and the Cambridge band no longer exists. (The piece is available only through injofferings.com)
Irwin was not altogether graciously retired from CMI. I ascribe no ill-intent to this event, but rather mere clumsiness or insensitivity. In 1974, after over 30 years of voluntary and exemplary service, Mr. Fischer simply was not invited. There was no telephone call or letter of explanation until Irwin called the Music Director (Brigadier Ronald Rowland) to inquire if the date he had was correct. In that phone conversation he was simply informed, mere days before camp started, that the committee no longer required his services -- this, allegedly due to the effects of aging. A year later(!) he was called on Saturday, August 23, 1975 and asked to come out to camp that night to conduct at CMI for a last time. No rehearsal was offered. None asked if he wasn't too old to drive over two hours each way! He and Marion arrived just before the concert and were loving and gracious as always. (Please forgive my apparent bitterness, but Irwin selflessly gave his best for over thirty two years, asked nothing and was given less than that for his offerings over nearly half of his lifetime!) Nonetheless, he was presented with a small plaque (which was bequeathed to me upon his passing) which reads:
"The Salvation Army Central Music Institute honors Irwin Fischer for his thirty years as a teacher, conductor and composer at CMI. His godly influence, exemplary musicianship and gracious spirit have contributed immeasurably to the lives of hundreds of students and faculty who have been privileged to know him at Wonderland Camp. August 23, 1975"
This was given to him just before he conducted a brass band (made up of the faculty) for the last time. After giving typically gracious credit to the rehearsal-conductor, and assigning blame himself for any mishaps that might occur, he conducted one of the most memorable performances CMI is likely to experience. This is not a mere claim, there is recorded proof of the triumph of his reading of a transcription of Mozart's Overture to The Magic Flute. He was apparently spry enough to nail The Magic Flute to the barn door on the way out! He was also spry enough to complete a commission from The Pearson (family Foundation the following year for a major work (more on that later).
At CMI Irwin was never asked to conduct anything but the transcriptions of works of classical masters. It was almost as though they thought he could only do that. I tried to alter this to no avail. I do recall one camp director berating Irwin's pianistic skills (behind his back) because he was not instantly prepared to play and improvise an accompaniment to a hymn he'd never heard!? He finally did improvise a credible accompaniment nonetheless. In any event, I extended an invitation for him to conduct The Salvation Army Chicago Belmont Corps Band, of which I was bandmaster. The concert took place on September 19, 1964 and included such famous CMI soloists as Ron Rowland (cornet), Carl Lindstrom (trombone), Victor Danielson (piano), Ernest Miller (bass-baritone), and Howard Chersham (Alto Horn). Irwin conducted Eric Ball's Tone Poem The Triumph of Peace, and Ray Steadman-Allen's Festival March Youth's Adventure. Both went as brilliantly under his inspired baton as they ever will. That night he also provided a wonderful piano accompaniment for Howard Chesham's first reading of my Fantasy Suite For Horn And Piano, commissioned by Chesham for that occasion. Irwin, of course, saw into the soul of Salvation Army music as well as he did Beethoven or any of the others, and measurably better than any Salvation Army conductor.
The Women's Symphony Orchestra, with Izler Solomon conducting, preformed the orchestral version of Irwin's Ariadne Abandoned in 1941. And 1942 saw the premiere of his Lament for Violoncello and Orchestra, performed by The Illinois Symphony Orchestra also with Izler Solomon conducting and Jenska Slebos as soloist.
In 1942 he became official organist of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as for the Lyric Opera Orchestra. He remained with the symphony until 1964 when the organ was damage beyond use by heedless construction crews remodeling Orchestra Hall - "heedless" because Irwin warned both orchestra management and construction managers of the presence of the pipes and works that did not look like one would expect in the organ room. "Every precaution is being taken!" was the curt rebuff . . . He remained on with the opera orchestra. In 1942 he also became conductor of the South Side Symphony and composed Variations On An Original Theme. With new assignments like CMI, the symphony and opera, and South Side Symphony all in 1942, his work at The American Conservatory never slackened nor did his composing, church work, or writing for scholarly journals.
In 1945 he became conductor of The American Conservatory Orchestra. In 1946, Irwin's composition The Pearly Bouquet for strings and celesta, based on a collection of Hungarian folk songs by that name (gathered in Hungary when he was there with Bartok and Kodaly), was performed by the Columbus Philharmonic Orchestra under Izler Solomon. The piece was later recorded by Thor Johnson and the Fish Creek Festival Orchestra under the name Hungarian Set.
1948 was another busy year. Irwin moved his family to Wilmette, became conductor of the Gary Symphony Orchestra (a post held for five years) and started work on his Idyll For Violin and Orchestra - which was first performed the following year.
Three things motivated Irwin's move to Wilmette - family, transportation and swimming in Lake Michigan. When the Chicago Symphony played in Milwaukee or at Rivinia there was always a late train home to Wilmette, but not always available to Beverly Hills near Chicago. The convenience of living in Wilmett also afforded him more time with his family and the possibility of swims in Lake Michigan, which he did as often as possible, even when the water was in the fifty degree range!
In 1950 he took his final organ post, which lasted for twenty seven years - First Church of Christ Scientist , Evanston. In 1952 he performed as soloist with The Chicago Symphony playing the Concerto for Organ Strings and Percussion by Poulenc under Rafael Kubelik. He was conductor of the Evanston Symphony from 1953 to 1958, where in 1955 his son, Fred, played Irwin's Piano Concerto in E Minor, with his father at the podium.
1955 saw the beginning of one of his happiest associations when he was appointed conductor of the West Suburban Symphony Orchestra (where I was privileged to serve as his principal trombone for e a few years) - a podium he held for the rest of his life. In 1956 he substituted on the organ bench of the Christian Science Mother Church in Boston. In 1959 he composed Poem For Violin And Orchestra and in 1960 he completed Mountain Tune Trilogy which was premiered by the Shreveport Symphony with Irwin conducting. Shreveport honored Irwin at this time with an entire program of his music, including his first symphony.
In 1961 he composed Passacaglia And Fugue for Orchestra. In 1964 he wrote Overture On An Exuberant Tone Row, which had its premiere in Shreveport under John Shenaut, and was later recorded by The Louisville Symphony Orchestra under Robert Whitney as part of their famous "First Edition" series.
In 1967 Macmillan published A Handbook Of Modal Counterpoint co-authored by Irwin and Stella Roberts (also faculty at the conservatory). He also became Dean of The Faculty at The American Conservatory of Music. In 1972 he orchestrated his piano sonata which became A Short Symphony for Full Orchestra, which the West Suburban Symphony Orchestra played that year under his baton. During this same period he was commissioned to write Concerto Giocoso for Clarinet and Orchestra, first performed by Jean Piper with Irwin conducting (The WSSO) in 1973.
In 1974 The Chicago Symphony Orchestra played Irwin's Orchestral Adventures Of A Little Tune under Henry Mazer, with Lady Solti narrating. This, for a children's concert in the "Petites Promenades" series. In 1975 Irwin was commissioned by Mr. & Mrs. Richard Pearson (via their foundation) to write a piece to be performed at the United Church on The Green in memory of their son, Steven Avery Pearson. Statement 1976 for soprano, chorus, organ, brass and strings was premiered at the United Church On The Green in New Haven for our bicentennial. This concert also featured his Chorale Fantasy For Organ And Orchestra, with Paul Jordan at the organ (Paul being the author of the commission and event). In November of 1976 he completed his last composition, Fanfare for Brass And Percussion.
On the evening of May 5, 1977, while seated at his work-table working on what was to be his Second Piano Concerto, he peacefully fell into his final sleep. His memorial service featured tapes of Jean Hayden and Alan Rogers singing some of Irwin's sacred songs, accompanied by the master himself at the organ.
It was a long, challenging and satisfying career, but much more it was a personal ministry in music and life that touched thousands of lives, making them better in the process. Irwin was a rare talent and an even rarer man who served God in everything he did from being a father and husband and friend to performing to composing to teaching . . . yes, even to swimming across the lake and trouncing younger folk at tennis!
Thank God there was an Irwin Fischer!!
Return to Home Page