West Virginia does not lack for musical talent. The Charleston and greater Kanawha Valley area boasts a good number of their own musical standouts. Country star Kathy Matea, jazz singer Ann Baker, Grand Ole Opry singer Red Sovine, and singer/actress Ann Magnuson are familiar names to many. Collectively they have amassed armloads of awards and honors.
A little known name, yet with perhaps the most coveted award of all is George Crumb. He was the recipient of a 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral work Echoes of Time and the River. His Poem for Orchestra was given its premiere performance by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra with his father playing clarinet and his mother playing in the cello section, when he was only 17 years old.
Crumb’s journey to fame began at the Mason School of Music and Fine Arts in Charleston. In 1906, Dr. William Sandheger (“Sandy”) Mason, an accomplished violinist began teaching violin lessons to individuals, and voice lessons to individuals and groups at a studio in his home at 1206 Quarrier Street. Although the date isn’t clear when he began the college, it was sometime around 1909, as a concert was given that year. A faculty of four taught music theory, piano, violin, voice, and sight singing.
By 1921, the school had grown, and had diversified classes to include music history, dance, drama, and the visual arts. Having outgrown his home studio, the school relocated to 1316 Kanawha Street. The staff was increased to over twenty instructors, including George Crumb, who taught woodwind instruments.
In 1936, the school was chartered as Mason College of Music and Fine Arts. It offered preparatory classes for children, college classes for undergraduates, training for public school teachers, and arts classes for adults. Teachers ranged from Charleston natives to some who were fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe.
Mason College’s biggest educational competitor was Morris Harvey College. Morris Harvey, now the University of Charleston, was a Methodist school that relocated from Barboursville to Charleston in 1935 to take advantage of the area’s larger population from which to draw students. Initially, Morris Harvey and Mason College were affiliated through the Charleston Educational Center, a program that sought to unify Morris Harvey with other degree-granting institutions in the city. After Mason’s death in 1941, his sister-in-law, Matilda Mason, was the college’s president for 14 years. Even though Mason College boasted a larger student body, in 1956, Mason College of Music and Fine Arts merged with Morris Harvey College.
From humble beginnings in a Quarrier Street studio, to the grandiose Riggleman Hall of Morris Harvey College, Sandy Mason was key in creating and maintaining a creative arts community for the enjoyment and enrichment of Charlestonians. He was closely tied to the community through various vocal and instrumental groups he either started or supported.
His influence was seen in the Charleston area as early as 1907, when he staged the Mikado to glowing reviews. He formed a string quartet, The Mason Quartet. Around 1912, he founded the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. A rival orchestra, the Charleston Civic Orchestra, was founded by William R. Wiant. While Mason’s orchestra was founded earlier, it was smaller and eventually folded. Wiant’s orchestra continued on and is now the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
The various buildings that housed the Mason College of Music and Fine Arts no longer stand. Riggleman Hall absorbed Mason College and now, surrounded by a growing campus, continues to this day to educate in music and other arts. Dr. William Sandheger Mason’s quiet legacy lives on in the vibrant arts community of Charleston.
Next month, Looking Back remembers Staats Hospital.
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