Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, photo Fabien Sevitzky, vintage booking Ad, 1938

Culture Comes to the Capital…

While the roots of Indianapolis’s musical heritage trace back to the region’s earliest inhabitants, there is no question that performing arts, as we know them today, were boosted by an infusion of German immigrants that escaped the various European revolutions in the 1840s to settle in Marion County. Germans, who would comprise 25% of the city’s population by the 1890s, brought with them a traditional continental music training previously unknown on the Midwestern prairies.

Traveling musicians visited the “capital in the wilderness” as early as the 1830s, and the first piano appeared on the scene in 1831 — as a gift from a Mr. James Blake to his wife who gave private concerts in their home. But, the first official Indianapolis band (the first such group not associated with church services, that is) was formed by German immigrant, Abraham Protzmann in 1840. That initial group faltered along for about five years until it was replaced by a German military band which also tanked a few years later.

By the mid-1800s, however, Indianapolis had gained quite a large contingent of musical instructors, or “professors,” (More Germans! … Bahr and Weegman playing Haydn, Handel, and Beethoven) who promoted their private schools with small musical soirees in their homes, or by traveling around the region with their repertoire. After the Civil War, interest in the musical and performing arts exploded — even becoming part of the curriculum in the city’s public schools. The 1860s and 70s witnessed the emergence of competing philharmonic groups and an profusion of civic organizations that nurtured and supported the arts.

In 1895, another German immigrant, Karl Schneider, established the first group to call itself the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO). Though it performed for 10 years, it’s not considered the predecessor of the current ISO.


The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as we know it today, was founded in 1930 by German-born conductor and local violin teacher Ferdinand Schaefer. The organization was, at first, comprised of volunteer musicians who could occasionally split the revenue from ticket sales. In 1937, the ISO became a professional orchestra with salaried musicians and a conductor (Russian-born Fabien Sevitzky). Quickly, the ISO blossomed into one of the nation’s most renowned orchestras.

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Rare Box Set of “45s”.. Dlibes Excerpts from the Ballets “Coppelia and Sylvia.” Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra with Fabien Sevitzky as Conductor.

According to the ISO’s history:

Sevitzky worked to promote the ISO through a variety of national radio broadcasts, and his successor, Izler Solomon, ensured the creation of the Clowes Memorial Hall as a venue meant specifically for the ISO. (Until then, the ISO had been performing at the Murat Theater). Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the ISO traveled around the world to perform “Salute” concerts in countries such as Finland, Korea, Japan, Formosa, Portugal, The Netherlands, Israel, Mexico, Austria, Venezuela, Thailand, Greece and Chile – earning the Orchestra a Citation from the Voice of America and the United States Information Agency as well as a letter of commendation from John F. Kennedy – the first ever such commendation from a president to a symphony orchestra. Solomon’s successor, John Nelson, is associated both with the founding of the Marsh Symphony on the Prairie Series in 1982 as well as the Orchestra’s move downtown to the restored venue the Hilbert Circle Theatre. In 1993 and 1997, under Music Director Raymond Leppard, the Orchestra embarked on European tours, performing at world-famous concert halls such as the Barbican Centre in London and the Musikverein in Vienna. It was also during Leppard’s tenure that the ISO’s beloved Yuletide Celebration shows began to delight audiences during December.”

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Program from the Murat theatre issued for a two-day “pop concert” by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on February 17-18, 1963.

Today, the ISO is the largest performing arts organization in Indiana and performs hundreds of concerts every year… including many… quite literally… on the prairie.

For the comment box below:
Have you or a relative performed with the ISO?
What are your favorite recollection of ISO performances?

Resources: Indiana State Library vintage newspaper collections, The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (Bodenhamer and Barrows), the Indiana Symphonic Orchestra, eBay.