Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Remembering Francis Joseph Zeisberg, Eminent Jefferson City Musician

Has Jefferson City forgotten one of its most eminent musicians?


Franz Josef Zeisberg, organist, violinist, pianist, composer, and teacher, was born in 1862 in the Sudeten mountains of Prussian Silesia, now part of Poland. Raised on a farm by musical parents, the teenager emigrated to Jefferson City in 1881 (he was only eighteen!) and first worked as a manual laborer in a brickyard where he learned English.

He began his musical career in Jefferson City in 1884 by opening the City Conservatory in the Conrath House on Madison Street in partnership with immigrant Carl Preyer. Zeisberg was organist at the Central German Evangelical Church (now Central United Church of Christ).

In 1887 he married Clara Hugershoff, stepdaughter of Fred H. Binder (who had been elected mayor in 1884). That marriage allowed Zeisberg entrance into the highest levels of Jefferson City society, because of Binder’s prominence in civic affairs. Zeisberg’s career took off.

I wish I could find a photo of Zeisberg. Here, at least, is his physical description at age forty-four, according to his 1906 American passport:

Stature: 5 feet, 11½ inches. Forehead: High. Eyes: Blue. Nose: Prominent. Mouth: Average. Chin: Sharp. Hair: Dark blonde. Complexion: Fair. Face: Average. Thin, full beard.


Zeisberg went to Lexington, Missouri, to teach at the Elizabeth Aull Seminary for women, then to Chicago, where his musical talents became more widely known and appreciated. With a solid reputation in the musical world, in 1892 he began a thirty-year career as conservatory director at Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia.

He retired at age sixty in 1922 for health reasons, and the Zeisbergs returned to Jefferson City, leaving their three grown children in good professions on the East Coast. He retained a home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, to which he returned annually in summers until the 1940s.

In Jefferson City, the professor and Clara moved into the substantial Fred Binder house at 210 East Dunklin, unoccupied after Papa Fred Binder’s death in 1911 and Mrs. Binder’s death in 1920. The Zeisbergs continued to live there in the Southside until their deaths.

The Binder property included the southeast corner of Dunklin and Madison, catercorner from Busch’s Florist. While the Zeisbergs lived there, it was a wooded tract with a small creek running through it before going out of sight into a long tunnel under the street intersection.

This is how the corner looked around 1951. Madison Street is in the foreground; Dunklin is in the distance. The view is almost true east.


Here is the same view, as of September 2, 2012:


Professor Zeisberg gave organ concerts at the Southside’s Central Evangelical Church, where the Zeisbergs were members, and other local churches, always to full and appreciative attendances. He was the first in Jefferson City to broadcast organ music over the new WOS radio station, directly from Central Church’s organ.


He taught students in piano, organ, and violin. His best-known student, by far, was Carl E. Burkel, who received his first organ lessons as a preteen on Central Church’s large Möller pipe organ. Burkel is well remembered in Jefferson City for his forty-one years of teaching music at Jefferson City High School and directing the Jefferson City Symphony and Capitol Caroling at Christmas. Carl later told me about sitting as a boy on the church organ bench with “that old German” teaching him the intricacies of a multiregister organ.


I was one of Professor Zeisberg’s piano students from age nine to eleven. The nineteenth-century Binder house was spacious and had a big, airy sunroom with windows on three sides overlooking the corner woods and little creek.

Mrs. Zeisberg filled the sunroom to overflowing with pots of ferns and other large plants, making it a tropical paradise just as luxurious as Busch’s greenhouses across the corner.

Professor Zeisberg gave his lessons at an upright piano in an adjacent room, and as I sat on the piano bench I could see the great abundance of Mrs. Zeisberg’s ferns and the woods beyond. I imagined I was playing a piano in a park!

You can see the sunroom in this sketch that my wife, Pat, made of the Binder house in 1950 while an art student in high school.


Professor Zeisberg emphasized German music, especially Beethoven sonatas. When I got reasonably proficient in one, the professor uncased his violin and played the melody with embellishments along with me on the piano.

At times he would lean over me to get close to the music to read it, and the backs of his hands showed the huge, bulging veins of an active eighty-two-year old man. When I made a mistake, he rapped my hands gently with his violin bow and slipped into German to say “Es ist nicht so, Walter!” (That isn’t right, Walter!) In 1944 he gave me a manuscript copy of one of his compositions for children, titled “Kris Kringle,” composed in 1922.


Professor Zeisberg promenaded daily throughout the Southside. He was tall, bearded, and very much the proud German professor. He wore an old-fashioned black suit and top hat, which made him look like Abraham Lincoln. Though in his eighties, he walked very erect in long strides, tapping his black cane as he went briskly along.

Professor Francis Joseph Zeisberg died in 1951 at age eighty-nine. Clara, his wife for fifty-nine years, had died five years earlier. They were buried in the large Binder plot in Riverview Cemetery.


The Zeisbergs’ unmarried daughter Elsa had returned to Jefferson City to care for them when they were aging. She continued to live in the house in the woods at 210 East Dunklin until 1958 (she died 1985), when the property was sold to the Milo H. Walz family, which saw an opportunity to develop the corner commercially.

Here is another view of that corner. This time the view is almost true north, toward the intersection of Madison and Dunklin. The brick building at the left is the Madison side of the Wel-Com-In. The horizontal white structure to its right are the greenhouses for Busch’s Florist. The upright storefront for Busch’s is to the right of that.


Here is the same view as of September 2, 2012:


The beautiful, sturdy Binder/Zeisberg house is now encased within a modern commercial building at 210 E. Dunklin, with its nineteenth-century brick chimneys projecting bizarrely above a flat, modern roofline. Here are some views of the building.




. . . And the shady woods has been totally cut down. The pretty little creek now runs underground as a drainage sewer.

That corner of Madison and Dunklin became the Bolten Southside Conoco and most recently is Doug’s Blvd. Motors. Fred Binder’s well-preserved 1800s black surrey (with a fringe on top!), which was still housed in a carriage house on the property when it was sold in 1958, was given to the Missouri State Museum in the Capitol, where was on exhibit for many years. Most recently it has been displayed at the museum at Lohhman’s Landing, but as of Labor Day weekend 2012, that museum is closed for renovations and the surrey will be placed into storage indefinitely.

Professor Zeisberg’s legacy endures not only in the huge number of students he taught in Jefferson City and Virginia, but also in his enormous volume of compositions. He began publishing in the 1890s with the Theodore Presser Company of Philadelphia. He composed numerous children’s songs for both piano and violin, transcriptions of well-known American melodies like Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe,” and other, longer works.


He composed secular and church music for male and mixed choruses. Central United Church of Christ still uses some of the anthems and choral responses he composed or arranged for it more than eighty years ago. Most impressively, he composed two full-length masses and at least eighty-five—yes, eighty-five!—fugues for the organ.


His immense trove of compositions, some published and others in manuscript, was given to his star student, Carl Burkel. A few of the organ fugues are in the music library of Central Church.


Special thanks to Albert Case for sharing his personal memories of Professor Zeisberg. Mr. Case drove the “Dutchy” professor to his summer home in Virginia in the Zeisberg touring auto. Thanks also to Shirley Klein, organist at Central United Church of Christ, for sharing the manuscript copies of Zeisberg’s fugues. Thanks also to the late Don Walz for his photographs of the Binder woods. The photo of Carl Burkel is from Carl’s collection and was made by Bob Elliott; it is used with permission. And thanks to my wife for sharing her schoolgirl artistic talents. I cannot find a photo of the Binder house!

Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.