By: Ronald L. Davis and Lota M. Spell

Type: Overview Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: September 23, 2020

This entry is a compilation of the "Music" entries published in the 1952, 1976, and 1996 editions of The Handbook of Texas.

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MUSIC. Music of virtually every Western genre has flourished in Texas, from before the advent of Europeans through the times of colonization, settlement, and revolution, until the present-the outgrowth of a fusion of races and nations.

Before 1950. The earliest Texas music was the monophonic song of Indians, of which few accounts survive. The first European music was that of the Catholic Church, which came by way of Mexico City, where a European music school was established in 1525. In the missions around El Paso, in East Texas, and near San Antonio, music attracted Indians and formed an integral part of the liturgy. Spanish folk music and guitars came with soldiers and settlers to the missions; French songs drifted in from Louisiana during the eighteenth century. After 1820 Anglo-Americans introduced music from the United States, especially songs of the English, Scots, and Irish. The first pianos and many other instruments came during the 1830s. At the battle of San Jacinto "Yankee Doodle" and "Will You Come to the Bower?" were played. In the theater opened at Houston in 1838 an orchestra and singers from Europe and the United States performed excerpts from popular operas and other music. Sacred music societies were organized in several towns. Bishop Jean Marie Odin had an organ for his cathedral in Galveston in 1848. Beginning about 1845, the greatest contributors to musical development were the Germans, whose first singing society was organized at New Braunfels in 1850. Beginning in 1853 the Germans of Texas held biennial singing festivals (see TEXAS STATE SÄNGERBUND); after 1877 they imported an orchestra and soloists who were replaced by Texas musicians by 1894. Colonies of French and Swiss also included musicians; among those who settled near Dallas was Allyre Bureau, a Parisian composer and director. Among Hispanics, singing and dancing to stringed orchestras was common in the homes and on the plazas. The German music centers were the beer gardens. At the Casino Club in San Antonio and the Turnverein Hall in Austin, and later at the Scholz Garten under the direction of William Besserer, there were operettas and choral productions. The Anglo-Americans brought visiting concert groups in the early 1840s; a few small opera companies came from New Orleans and Mexico before 1860. Local bands, sometimes military, played in the larger communities before 1850; by 1900 most of the towns had bands.

Music instruction was introduced into the public schools of Galveston in 1845, and most private schools offered music instruction to girls, but no marked progress was made in teaching music, except among the Germans, until introduction of the phonograph and radio. The first powerful broadcasting station was WFAA (established in 1922) at Dallas; after 1936 state networks developed rapidly, and music was widely disseminated. Within a decade entire radio programs were devoted to Texas music, and national programs were given by Texas musicians. With these media of diffusion, other agencies joined. Artist concerts were provided by plans of advanced subscriptions. Opera was encouraged by college and civic groups. After the establishment of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra (1904), the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (1911), and the Houston Symphony Orchestra (originally founded in 1913 and reconstituted in 1931), more than a dozen such organizations developed, while the pioneer orchestras attained national distinction. By 1949 there were more than thirty schools of music in Texas colleges. Church music conferences, instituted in 1928, encouraged choirs, sacred concerts, and oratorio performances. Folk music, especially the songs of Mexicans, Blacks, and cowboys, has flourished in Texas. John A. Lomax was outstanding as a collector of such material, and his Cowboy Ballads (1910) was a pioneer work that received national recognition.

Texas-born composers of distinction include Frank Valentine Van der Stucken, Oscar J. Fox, David W. Guion, Harold Morris, Radie Britain, and Julia Smith. Olga Samaroff, born in San Antonio in 1882, was recognized as an outstanding pianist, teacher, and music critic. Composers who have lived in Texas include John M. Steinfeldt, Arthur Claasen, William J. Marsh, Carl Venth, Carl Hahn, Ruben Davies, and Julius Jahn. Texas operatic singers have included Josephine Lucchese, May Peterson Thompson, Rafaelo Diaz, and Mack Harrell. Works by Texas composers were first featured by the Houston Symphony in 1933; in 1948 the orchestra played an entire program of music by native or adventive Texans. The first firm in Texas that published music extensively was that of Thomas Goggan and Brothers, established in 1866.

Lota M. Spell

After 1950. The history of music in Texas since 1950 is largely a reflection of the cultural boom that has swept the United States since World War II. Musical activities of every type have increased, resident opera and ballet companies have been founded, symphonies have been reorganized and expanded, choral groups have been formed, and all have played to larger audiences and received more financial support than ever before. At the same time each of these groups has suffered from rising costs and, in many cases, general public apathy. Foundation grants, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and generous support from civic-minded individuals and businesses have made possible much of the progress achieved by musical organizations in the state.

In large measure classical music in Texas has come of age during the past fifty years. In 1958 pianist Van Cliburn of Kilgore won the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. The resulting acclaim given to the Texan led to the establishment of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth in the early 1960s. A number of the state's musical institutions have become truly professional, several of them internationally renowned. The Houston Symphony, for example, has grown phenomenally. While Efrem Kurtz was conductor (from 1948 to 1954), the orchestra during the 1954–55 season gave ten concerts under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham. In 1955 Leopold Stokowski was engaged as conductor and musical director; he remained in that capacity for six seasons. In 1961 Sir John Barbirolli, formerly conductor of Halle Orchestra of Manchester, England, became musical director. During the 1963–64 season, Barbirolli took the group on a three-week tour of the East, whereupon the Houston Symphony became the first orchestra from the Southwest to play in New York and Washington, D.C. In 1969 Barbirolli was conductor emeritus, and Andre Previn was named musical director for a brief period. From 1971 to 1978 Lawrence Foster conducted the orchestra; then followed a decade of decline under the directorship of Sergiu Comissiona. In 1988 pianist Christoph Eschenbach was appointed music director, and the orchestra returned to a high level of technical and interpretive proficiency. For many years Miss Ima Hogg was a principal benefactress of the Houston Symphony. The orchestra developed financially with urban growth until in 1995 it had an annual budget of $17 million, consisted of ninety-eight full-time musicians, and performed approximately 200 concerts, mainly in Jesse H. Jones Hall, one of several world-class concert halls in the state.

The Dallas Symphony also has had considerable success under former conductors including Antal Dorati, Walter Hendl, Paul Kletzki, and George Solti. In 1967 the orchestra was under the musical direction of Donald Johanos and performed in the renovated McFarlin Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University. In the decade between 1950 and 1960 the symphony grew from seventy to ninety-two musicians, and the number of concerts increased from thirty a year to 150. After ten seasons in McFarlin Auditorium, the orchestra, under Anshel Brusilow's baton, returned to the State Fair Music Hall, although the facilities there were judged inadequate. Eduardo Mata became music director in 1977, and in September 1989 the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center opened to wide acclaim. Thirty-four-year-old Andrew Litton was named conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1994, thus becoming the first native-born musician appointed head of a major American orchestra in a decade.

When the founder and initial director of the San Antonio Symphony, Max Reiter, died in December 1950, Victor N. Alessandro became that orchestra's head and at the time was the only native-born Texan to serve as musical director of a major symphony orchestra. Under Alessandro's leadership the San Antonio Symphony's budget more than doubled, and its artistic accomplishments revealed a similar growth. A grant from the Ford Foundation made possible the production of several American operas as part of the regular symphony season, including Floyd's Susannah, Hanson's Merry Mount, and Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti. In 1961 Alessandro initiated an annual Rio Grande Valley International Music Festival, which attracted music lovers from South Texas and northern Mexico for a week of concerts, operas, and student performances. Since Alessandro's retirement in 1976, François Huybrechts, Lawrence Leighton Smith, Zdenek Macal, and Christopher Wilkins have served successively as music directors of the orchestra, and innovative programming has remained a pattern.

Community orchestras like the Amarillo Symphony have also achieved notable progress. In 1967 the Amarillo orchestra consisted of eighty-five members, all local talent; although the symphony had not grown in size, its budget in 1995 had risen to almost $800,000. Comparable organizations exist in Fort Worth, Austin, Wichita Falls, Corpus Christi, Beaumont, and Lubbock. The El Paso orchestra, the oldest continuous symphony orchestra in the state, celebrated its sixty-fifth consecutive season in 1995. Midland and Odessa strengthened their musical resources in 1964 by combining their two symphonies into an interurban orchestra. Each of the state's symphonic groups has played a significant role in bringing live concerts to its area—often with high artistic results and despite sharp financial limitations. In 1995 the Fort Worth Symphony, for instance, under the direction of John Giordano, had an annual budget of $5 million, maintained an active education program, and served as the host orchestra for the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. In addition to its regular season, the Austin Symphony, under the direction of Korean-born Sung Kwak, offers two pops series during the year and supports an innovative youth program aimed at primary school students. Suburban orchestras, such as the Richardson Symphony Orchestra and the Irving Symphony, have increased in number and improved in quality since 1960. The Richardson orchestra began in 1961; thirty-four years later it consisted of seventy members drawn from Richardson and fifteen neighboring communities.

The San Antonio Symphony was the first professional resident opera producer in Texas. In 1945 conductor Max Reiter conceived a plan for extending the symphony season by adding a spring opera festival and launched the venture with La Bohème, starring Grace Moore. From 1945 until 1983 the San Antonio Symphony presented an annual season of opera-four different works given each year, one performance each, divided between two successive weekends. While stars from the Metropolitan and New York City operas were imported for leading roles, the chorus was drawn largely from three local colleges. Most of the sets were designed by Peter Wolf of Dallas. With few exceptions the opera festival closed its seasons financially in the black, in part because the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium would seat nearly 6,000 and symphony officials looked upon a audience of 4,500 as a poor showing. Inflation plus a move into less spacious housing forced a termination of the annual opera festival, although the San Antonio Symphony has continued to present concert versions of theatrical works. Fort Worth followed San Antonio's resident opera productions in 1946 with the formation of the Fort Worth Opera Association. One of the company's prime ambitions has been to provide opportunity for gifted local singers, with professionals used only in stellar roles. La Traviata launched the organization in November 1946. From 1955 to 1969 conductor Rudolf Kruger, who formerly worked with the Columbia (South Carolina) Symphony and the Chicago Light Opera, served as the Fort Worth musical director and general manager. Under his supervision four operas were performed each season, spaced over fall, winter, and spring; two performances were given of each work, and most productions were in English. Beginning in the late 1960s more of the company's operas were sung in the original language. Economic constraints in subsequent decades forced the company to reduce its number of yearly productions to three. The third Texas resident opera organization, the Houston Grand Opera Association, began in January 1956 with Salomé, starring Brenda Lewis. In 1969 the company's musical director was Walter Herbert, who had held similar posts earlier with the New Orleans and Fort Worth operas. Under Herbert's leadership the Houston company presented four or five works annually, usually in the original language. Noted singers were used only for leading roles, and local talent was employed whenever artistically feasible. The Houston company proved dynamic in repertory by presenting such seldom-heard works as Rossini's La Cenerentola and La Donna del Lago, the Texas premiere of Richard Strauss's Elektra, a rare Texas staging of Wagner's Die Walküre, Handel's Rinaldo, Ralph Vaughan Williams's Hugh the Drover, and world premieres of John Adams's Nixon in China, Carlisle Floyd's Willie Stark, and Thomas Pasatieri's The Seagull. In 1987, under general director David Gockley, the Houston Grand Opera moved its productions to the Wortham Center; the company's budget in 1995 exceeded $14 million.

The Dallas Opera, founded in 1957 by Lawrence V. Kelly and Nicola Rescigno, formerly of the Chicago Lyric Theatre, received immediate national and international acclaim. A concert by legendary soprano Maria Callas got the project off to a brilliant start on November 21, 1957, followed shortly by a production of Rossini's novelty L'Italiana in Algeri, with Giulietta Simionato in the title role. "For a couple of nights running," Newsweek reported, "Dallas was the operatic capital of the United States." Afterward, Dallas presented a number of remarkable productions and artists. In 1958 Callas returned for La Traviata, in a production designed by the renowned Italian stage director Franco Zeffirelli, and highly praised performances of Cherubini's Medea, staged by Alexis Minotis of the Greek National Theater-a production later loaned to Covent Garden (London) and La Scala (Milan). The 1960 Dallas season saw the United States debut of Joan Sutherland in Zeffirelli's production of Handel's Alcina, an American premiere. Other American premieres for the company have included Monteverdi's seventeenth-century classic Coronation of Poppea and Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso. The Dallas Opera also staged the state's first complete cycle of Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen and in 1988 gave the world premiere of Dominick Argento's The Aspern Papers. Since the city sampled the Metropolitan Opera's tour in the spring from 1939 until 1984, the Dallas Opera tried not to duplicate the New York company's repertoire and artists. Instead, the resident company's aim was to give Texas a look at European productions; each year manager Kelly borrowed at least one production from abroad—in 1960 Alcina from La Fenice (Venice) and Figlia del Regimento from Palermo, and in 1961 La Bohème from Spoleto. In addition to Sutherland's United States debut, the Dallas company benefited from those of Teresa Berganza, Luigi Alva, Denise Duval, Placido Domingo, Montserrat Caballe, Gwyneth Jones, Jon Vickers, Magda Olivero, Linda Esther Gray, and Ghena Dimitrova. Under general director Plato Karayanis, the Dallas Opera has expanded its offering to six productions a year, with most performances attracting capacity audiences.

The Austin Lyric Opera was formed in 1985 with Walter Ducloux as artistic director, and within a decade the company had built its season to three productions. In 1995 the annual budget was $2.25 million, and the repertoire included Wagner's Tannhäuser, sung in German. The Austin Lyric Opera employs major international artists, as well as American talent, and stages its productions in the Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas.

Resident ballet companies exist in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and Corpus Christi. Musical comedy has also received considerable attention in Texas since World War II. The Starlight Operettas were begun in Dallas in 1941 in an outdoor arena and bandshell on the fairgrounds and were renamed the State Fair Musicals in 1951, when the shows were moved into the Music Hall. Outstanding Broadway and Hollywood talent was imported each summer for musicals of recent vintage, as well as the older "operetta" show. In 1952 the musicals opened with William Warfield and Leontyne Price in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the premiere of a production that the State Department later sent to Moscow. Each year during the State Fair of Texas the national company of a recent Broadway musical has been brought to the Music Hall. Mary Martin began her tour in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun at the fair in October 1947, and succeeding years saw productions of South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, The King and I, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, A Chorus Line, and Cats. Houston instituted a summer season of Broadway musicals. Casa Mañana in Fort Worth introduced "musicals-in-the-round" to the Southwest and staged an occasional show not seen elsewhere in the state.


Ronald L. Davis, A History of Opera in the American West (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1965). "Deep in the Heart of Dallas," Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, Fall 1995. Hubert Roussel, The Houston Symphony Orchestra, 1913–1971 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972). Lota M. Spell, Music in Texas (Austin, 1936; rpt., New York: AMS, 1973). Moritz Tiling, History of the German Element in Texas (Houston: Rein and Sons, 1913).

  • Music
  • Peoples
  • French
  • Germans
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ronald L. Davis and Lota M. Spell, “Music,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022,

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September 23, 2020

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