Background and Education
Largely forgotten, composer and orchestra leader Harry Runkle Auracher was born in Creston, Iowa, on February 21, 1886, to George Auracher, a plumber, and Mary F. Runkle Auracher. Harry's sister Ruth, born just under two years after Harry and also a professional musician, later told a reporter, “My mother was a fine pianist, and she taught my brother and me the foundation of music, the rest I have learned in the world of experience. I started playing for shows at the theatre in my home town when I was a little girl.”
Young Harry seems to have led a similar life because he was nicknamed “the boy pianist.” The November 6, 1914 issue of the Baltimore Evening Sun states that Auracher wrote his first march at 14. As a youth, Harry also traveled and performed locally in Agnew’s Juvenile Band, directed by Frank E. Agnew, who owned a Creston clothing store.
Harry Auracher attended Michigan Military Academy where, according to the Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society, he played tuba in the band. Other sources, including David Jasen, say he played trombone. Michigan Military Academy, Orchard Lake, Michigan, Twenty-eighth Year, September, 1904 lists Auracher among the 1903 graduates.
After leaving Michigan Military Academy, Auracher attended Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, where he joined Phi Delta Theta fraternity and, according to a 1925 Saratoga, New York newspaper, “thumped pianos at fraternity house parties.” The 1907 yearbook--the year of his graduation--reveals that he sang in the Men's Glee Club and served as accompanist.
Multiple newspaper sources indicate that Auracher caught the attention of Princeton University, said to have recognized his potential for contributing to its music productions. The Catalogue of Princeton University, 1906-1907 lists H. R. Auracher as a “Student Qualifying for Regular Standing,” which may indicate the university had admitted him based on his talent rather than standard academic qualifications.
In April 1907, Pittsburgh's Daily Post credits Harry Auracher and six other Princeton Triangle Club members with writing The Mummy Monarch, an original show then on tour in Pittsburgh. “The performance of The Mummy Monarch demonstrated that while the boys may be getting an education in the classics, they are managing to keep pace with the moderns," the paper declared; “There are men who are responsible for some of the late comic operas given us by the professionals who might go learn of these Princeton undergraduates how to do the thing well. For both the book and music of The Mummy Monarch were composed by the students who presented it, and the opera has more go and fun in it than many a work that has been palmed off on the public as ‘the hit of the season.’”
In the Directory of Living Alumni of Princeton University, 1917, Auracher’s name appears second in an alphabetical list of 1910 graduates, but the volume provides neither an abbreviation to indicate his major, nor a current address, both of which are included for the majority of alumni.
Auracher's Music Career: The Beginnings, 1908-1912
After stumbling across a funny anecdote involving Jean Lenox and Harry O. Sutton's visit to an "Old Ladies Home," I originally intended to share that one item, which sounded like something that could happen where my mom lives. However, one thing led to another.
When I decided to see what else I might easily turn up about the song-writing team, I found other anecdotes. A few contradictory newspaper items led me on a quest to determine Lenox's relationship to Sutton.
How far should we trust the newspaper anecdotes? To what extent might they have served as good public relations, perhaps to enhance the song writing team's reputation? Exactly who were Jean Lenox and Harry O. Sutton? What can we learn from newspapers and public records? I'll freely admit to not finding clear-cut answers to some of my questions but will offer several reasons for the remaining mysteries. Perhaps someone will have the curiosity and time to look for more.
Biographical Information and Issues for Further Research
Harry O. Sutton (1881-1911)
The 1892 New York State Census further places young Harry O. Sutton, then 11, in Naples, living with Frank and Mary Louise Pierce, who ran a music business. Examination of other census records reveals that Mary Louise was Harry's aunt, younger sister of O. E. Sutton, and that she had married a former neighbor, Frank Pierce.
In 1898, when 16-year-old Harry O. Sutton copyrighted Sweet Nancy Lee, he was living in Olean, NY, presumably with his mother; the 1900 U. S.Federal Census places 18-year-old Harry, "musician," in Olean with his mother, 38. Living with them are Harry's older brother Carl M, younger sister Gertrude L., his maternal grandmother, and his mother's sister.
The following year, young Harry copyrighted three instrumental pieces including those pictured below and a cakewalk, Aunt Jemima's Birthday Party. All were self-published.
Scott Joplin could not have conceived and composed a more suitable musical and dramatic finale for Treemonisha. Ed Berlin provides an excellent overview of Joplin’s accomplishment:
Treemonisha stands on a bench and calls the steps, sometimes assisted by Lucy. She leads the townspeople on two levels: on the literal level, she calls the steps for the dancers of “A Real Slow Drag”; metaphorically, she guides the people to a better life—“Marching onward.” But they march not to the military strains of a John Philip Sousa; rather, they march to a characteristically African American music—a rag, a slow rag. This finale is a fitting and glorious conclusion, summing up Joplin’s philosophy that African Americans choose education as their means to a brighter future. (King of Ragtime, 2016, 270)
Although Berlin’s multifaceted interpretation encompasses the message inherent in Joplin’s lyric and the culturally appropriate music genre in which Joplin couches that message and dramatically concludes the opera, there is more. This slow march forward to a brighter future mirrors the Hampton-Tuskegee ideology—a way of thinking repeatedly driven home to the schools’ students, to potential Northern benefactors, and to white Southern neighbors, a way of thinking adopted by many other African American schools throughout the former slave states, including Sedalia's George R. Smith College, which Joplin had attended.
Will R. Anderson, the author of Just Someone, by far the catchiest little song, both to melody and words that has been offered the American public in some years, has at last come out of his long, deep silence and told how he did it.
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
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