Saving a lifetime of music

July 15, 2013 by



TRYING TO TELL THE STORY of the Katherine Hart Music Collection requires telling four stories.

The first one is about a girl born in 1917 in the tiny town of Minneapolis, Kan., who went on to write more than 400 compositions, including 61 piano sonatas and 14 symphonies — but who died without ever hearing her music performed.

Then there’s one about a girl born 14 years later in the same Kansas farm town who idolized the older musician and considers it her good fortune that they eventually became fast friends.

And then there’s the Sister of St. Joseph of Concordia who lives in Grayslake, Ill., and who is a composer herself.

Finally, there’s the story of the music — a collection that grew in Kansas and Chicago and now finds itself housed in a climate-controlled library at a seaside college in Connecticut.

Katherine Hart, from the 1939 Marymount College yearbook

Katherine Hart was born in the north-central Kansas farming community of Minneapolis and attended Marymount College, operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Salina, Kan. She graduated in 1939 with a bachelor’s degree in music, majoring in piano, and then went on to study at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago.

Not long after arriving there, she began working as a pianist with the well-known Frances Allis School of Dance. Through improvisations for the modern dance company, Katherine discovered her composing ability — and by 1943 had completed her first symphony.

Katherine’s music has been described as neo-classic with a distinctive, well defined tonality.  Her friend Marianna Wilcox described her style as “very sparse, very clean; in a piano sonata she doesn’t have big globs of notes for each hand.”

But Hart’s body of work was growing at a time when women composers received virtually no recognition. In the early 1950s, as her manuscripts were repeatedly returned by publishers, she tried signing her work “Gorman Hart” — using her mother’s maiden name in place of Katherine — and even just “Hart.” Eventually, though, she decided simply to compose rather than interrupt her work to promote it.

And compose she did.

She was just 61 when she died, but her collection by then included works for piano, solo instruments, chamber groups, concertos, symphonies, vocal solos and various sacred choral compositions. There’s also a children’s operetta titled “The Selfless Elf” and song cycles to the words of Emily Dickinson and A.A. Milne.

Sister Philomene Reiland, left, and Marianna Wilcox spent five days last fall in the Connecticut College library going through boxes of Katherine Hart’s music.

And that brings us to the second story and a woman named Marianna Wilcox.

Marianna was also born in Minneapolis, Kan., but 14 years after Katherine Hart.

“I knew about her for a long time, and I was fascinated by her,” Wilcox remembers. “She just didn’t fit the profile of a typical Kansas woman of that generation.”
Wilcox was studying music at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan., when a mutual friend in their hometown introduced them — “and we instantly became quite fast friends,” Wilcox says.

That friendship included encouragement, the younger woman recalls. “I looked at her as a musician who had gone to the ‘big city’  — for her it was Chicago — and I admired her courage and determination in doing that.”

For Wilcox, the big city was New York, where she studied cello at Mannes College. She then went to the Hartt School in Hartford, Conn., for a graduate program in cello.

And while she had always had a “church job” as organist or music director to provide a steady income, she eventually decided to go back to school.

She earned a degree in social work from the University of Connecticut and worked for 20 years in that field.

Throughout the years, she maintained her friendship with Katherine Hart, often stopping to visit as she traveled from her home first in New York and later Connecticut to her family’s home in Kansas.

Katherine never married and her other relatives had little idea of the scope of her musical production. So when she died in 1978, Wilcox recalls,

“There was me saying, ‘What happens to the music collection?’ At the time there wasn’t any person in Chicago who could assume the responsibility.”
The collection is technically the property of one of Hart’s two surviving nieces, but Wilcox is the curator of the work.

So Marianna and her husband John made arrangements to move the original manuscripts, along with 75 fragile reel-to-reel tapes to Connecticut.

She had a friend who was a librarian at Connecticut College in New London, and there was space available in a climate-controlled area — so the collection was moved there.

And there it sat, for years, as Wilcox’s attention shifted to a book her husband was writing, and ultimately to his death.

She eventually felt the call to return to music and she found another church position in southeast Connecticut. In 1997 she was the founding director of The Anglican Singers, a choral evensong group based at the historic St. James Episcopal Church in New London, Conn. Wilcox ended what she calls her “active music career” when she retired from The Anglican Singers in 2007.

“Once I had retired, it became obvious to me that I needed to pick up Katherine’s music,” the now 81-year-old Wilcox says – but that turned out to be easier said than done.
She chipped away at cataloguing all the pieces and focused her attention on figuring out how to make Katherine Hart’s music accessible.

That’s when she thought of Marymount College and the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Even though the college closed in 1989, “I thought, ‘Well, surely there’s an alumni organization and someone there would be interested in knowing about this alumna who is so unique,’ and so I started calling,” Wilcox explains.

Through the first call — to a sister who was fascinated by the story but unfamiliar with this type of music — Wilcox got connected to Sister Philomene Reiland, who lives outside Chicago and is a lifelong musician and music teacher.

Sister Philomene — with a bachelor’s degree in music education from Marymount and a master’s in sacred music and liturgy from St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., and a composer in her own right — had exactly the background needed to work with Wilcox.

“I jumped at the chance,” Sister Philomene says. “I enjoy listening to what other people have written, seeing how other composers approached something — and that’s what we did, for five days.”

Just weeks after Hurricane Sandy blasted the Connecticut coastline last fall, Sister Philomene traveled to New London to spend a week in the library with Wilcox.

“The darling little children’s operetta would fly tomorrow,” Sister Philomene says with a laugh. “It’s all hand-written, and it’s precious.”
Other pieces will require much more work to transcribe them into a format that can be performed, she adds.

Back in Connecticut, work of a different kind is still going on.

Wilcox has recruited a friend to help convert the fragile reel-to-reel tapes into a digital format.

Curiously, the first one converted — “It was just the one we pulled out; we had no idea what was on it,” Wilcox says now with a laugh — includes a 20-minute radio interview from 1951 with broadcaster, author and historian Studs Terkel.

One story Katherine tells during the interview is about coming home to Kansas in the summer and making a commitment to write a song a day for the entire visit.

Somewhere among the tapes is a second interview Terkel did with Katherine Hart in 1961.

Finding that interview is just one more entry on a growing list of next-steps for Wilcox. Another one is finding a permanent home for the collection.

“I have assurance that the music is safe at Connecticut College, and I am very grateful for their careful stewardship of these pieces for so long,” Wilcox explains. “But now I need to find music theorists and performers — so the search goes on.”

Those “music theorists and performers” are another next-step because they could take the hand-written manuscripts and put it in a computer program. “But it has to be a person with a good theory background,” Wilcox emphasizes. “Ideally, a graduate student could take it on as a thesis subject.”

Or perhaps it would be a Sister of St. Joseph in Grayslake, Ill.

“I’d love to be working on this,” says Sister Philomene. “If we could get it down so it can be performed. I think that’s Marianna’s main goal: To get this out to the world.”

Wilcox agrees.

“I’ve had some musicians locally look at Katherine’s music, and they take it very seriously,” she says. “They say, ‘There’s too much and it’s too good not to be known.’ ”


2 Responses to “Saving a lifetime of music”

  1. Junior on April 21st, 2017 1:47 pm

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  2. S. Faye on April 21st, 2013 1:37 pm

    This is a phenomenal story and I’m so glad S. Philomene is working on it. She can do it! Philomene, I’ve always admired your musical ability and expertise and love to hear you make the Motherhouse chapel rock.

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