“Music Is My Life,” the title of the book Adella Prentiss Hughes wrote, expresses her life work in four words. She devoted herself to the promotion of musical interests in the greater Cleveland area for more than 40 years.
Adella Prentiss was born on November 29, 1869, at the Prentiss home at East 9th Street and Chester Avenue in Cleveland. However, she spend most of her life in Cleveland Heights. As a young woman she attended Vassar College. Later she studied piano in Berlin, Germany. She thought of becoming a concert pianist at one time. She attained such skill that several times in emergencies she had the pleasure of accompanying such artists a Madam Schumann-Heink and Fritz Kreisler.
Mrs. Hughes was a direct descendant of Moses Warren, one of the surveyors in Moses Cleaveland’s party. She believed her love of music came from her Grandfather Rouse who sang in the choir of the First Baptist Church for many years. Her interest in civic affairs, she liked to think, came from her Grandmother Rouse who founded an orphanage in New York City and worked during the Civil War with what is now the Red Cross. Whatever came to Mrs. Hughes from her ancestry, she made more than a splendid record for herself.
Mrs. Hughes promoted her first Cleveland concert in 1898. A news item or a program that carried “Adella Prentiss Hughes Presents” meant good music to the music lovers of the greater Cleveland area. She made it possible for people of this region to hear all the great musical artists of that day. The walls of her living room on Kenilworth Lane were covered with autographed pictures of her friends in the music world. The pictures may be seen now at Severance Hall.
The first series of three symphony concerts of visiting orchestras that Mrs. Hughes presented went so well that she set up a series of five the next year. “Why should there not be a Cleveland Symphony Orchestra since people are interested in that kind of music?” she thought. In 1915 she organized the Musical Arts Association which leading citizens of that time enjoyed. Such well known names as Severance, Norton, Eells, Mather, Blossom, and Halle were included. Today that organization continues to support the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. “Sokoloff might make a fine conductor for an Orchestra of Cleveland,” she suggested.
It was on December 11, 1918 that the Cleveland Orchestra gave its first performance. There were fifty-four musicians under the direction of Mr. Sokoloff. James Rodgers, a critic for The Plain Dealer, said, “Conductor Sokoloff succeeded in getting an orchestra of adequate size and excellent quality.” This concert came about in an unusual way. Archie Bell as music critic of the Cleveland News was approached by Father John Powers of St. Ann’s Parish. He wanted to arrange for a benefit concert for his parish. He loved to use his tenor voice in song and knew that music was attractive to many people. Mr. Bell told Father Powers that he should talk to Mrs. Hughes, who could help him. The concert was arranged to take place in Gray’s Central Armory. The ladies of the parish sold tickets. Father Powers sang several numbers and the concert was a great success.
The Musical Arts Association took over the support of the orchestra in 1918. Its first season was delayed by the flu epidemic of that year but concerts have been given each year since, first in the Masonic Auditorium at the East 36th Street and Euclid Avenue, and then the splendid Severance Hall.
Mrs. Hughes, having the orchestra well launched, turned her attention to the children of Cleveland who would make the future audiences. She persuaded the Cleveland Board of Education to employ Russell Morgan as a supervisor of instrumental music. In time Lillian Baldwin came to the Cleveland Schools as Supervisor of Music Appreciation. Mrs. Hughes obtained the cooperation of the Cleveland and Suburban School Boards so that children’s concerts could be given during school hours. Mrs. Hughes and Miss Baldwin watched with great pleasure as hundreds of children poured out of streetcars in the early years, and then buses, into the concerts they had planned. In the season of 1956-1957 children’s concerts reached their peak, as 60,000 children heard a symphony that year.
Mrs. Hughes was the first woman in America to establish and manage a symphony orchestra. Ill health forced her to give up active work in 1945. She died on August 23, 1950. This distinguished resident of Cleveland Heights had achieved her purpose of interesting people in this area in the music she loved so very much.
Reprinted with permission from “The Proud Heritage of Cleveland Heights,” © 1965 by the Women’s Civic Club of Cleveland Heights