San Antonio singer’s career hijacked by musical writing


A relative of mine, Nellie Borden, was once the music critic for The Light, but was brutally fired when she shot Paderewski’s performance in San Antonio. After that, she made ends meet as a milliner. Or so the story goes. He was a colorful character. I don’t think she ever married or had children. We have always included Nellie and Carol King, both young aunts, in all of our family vacations.

Penelope Hamilton “Nellie” Borden was born June 21, 1884 to Guy Borden Sr., identified in San Antonio city directories as a “rancher” (operator of a cattle ranching business) and his wife, Fannie. Quarles. The family – which grew to include Nellie’s brother Paschal, born in 1889 – lived at 117 Jackson St., near what is now Fox Tech High School, from 1887.

Nellie was a lucky child, whose talents were fostered through art and music lessons. She won children’s art exhibition awards alongside young Julian Onderdonk, the future “father of Texan painting,” a renowned landscape artist who would study in New York City and find success as a Texan Impressionist.

As a young teenager, Nellie made a name for herself in the region as a singer, performing as a soloist at weddings, church services and recitals. As one of the first student members of the Tuesday Musical Club, she was the organizer of its choir section. The newspaper accounts of these events distinguished her as the highlight of each program.

After her father’s death in 1910, the family – just Nellie and her mother now, as Paschal had passed away in 1905 after a long illness – adjusted. Nellie spent a year in Mexico with friends. She studied voice in New York, traveled to Europe, and studied for at least a semester at the University of Texas and later at Sophie Newcombe College in New Orleans.

Fannie was appointed librarian of Main Avenue High School (now Fox Tech) in 1912, and Nellie followed her to the same school as music director three years later. She took a year off to study at Columbia University Teachers College and returned to teach at Main Avenue and later at Brackenridge High School. As a teacher, she led the school choir and conducted the orchestra; at the start of her teaching career (1915-1926), she occasionally lent her own voice to music programs.

There is some overlap between his years of teaching and writing; she was music editor for the San Antonio Express, starting in 1923. This was probably a freelance position, as she continued to teach, and she wrote a few reports for rival San Antonio Light. At the Express, his main responsibility seems to have been to produce a weekly Sunday page on all things music in San Antonio. His column, Music and Musicians, provided regular updates on guest performers, amateur performances, church music, even marching bands and dance bands. Borden wrote advances on concerts, music teacher student recitals, and club programs. Music was her beat, and she covered it like the proverbial tent.

If Russian or Welsh speaking choral groups came to town, she would provide details of their programs. If a teenage violinist won a scholarship, the Express had his picture and shared his plans for the future. The distribution lists for school and small theater productions of musical theater have been printed in their entirety. Borden covered annual elections and schedules for the Tuesday Musical Club, San Antonio Musical Club, B Major Musical Club, Mozart Society, and Philharmonic Society, and notified the city when an elementary school was planning a choir for students in grades three to five. If Jimmie’s Joys, the popular St. Anthony Roof Garden dance group, took a sabbatical to record for Okeh Records, the Music page Express could tell you which ensembles would replace them. She also interviewed former San Antonians who had succeeded as professional musicians, such as Rafaelo Diaz, a member of the Metropolitan Opera Company, and Joséphine Lucchese, a coloratura soprano who had an international career in opera and as as a soloist.

In his signed pieces, Borden is neutral or even improving. In a recap article on where to go to listen to Christmas music, she reassures readers that it is not the quality of the singing that matters as much as the “heartwarming nature” of the Christmas carols themselves. It was a rich and diverse scene at the time. In addition to the proliferation of amateur and up-and-coming singers and instrumentalists, top musicians made a stop in San Antonio during these years, including opera bass Feodor Chaliapin, violinists Efrem Zimbalist, and Mischa Elma and Paul. Whiteman with his jazz orchestra.

Ignace Paderewski (1860-1941), Polish pianist and composer, was one of the best musicians to perform in San Antonio. Former Prime Minister of his country, he has toured in concert in Europe and the United States.

Borden wrote an advance of Paderewski’s appearance here for the Express on February 14, 1926, calling him an “extraordinary pianist” and classing him “in the class of supermen” who have accomplished great accomplishments in “fields of ‘very varied activity’. In a summary of her previous tour of the United States in 1923, she writes that Paderewski “made a sensation unmatched by any other pianist”.

The Express published an unsigned review of Paderewski’s March 5, 1926 concert at the Majestic Theater (the “old” Majestic, 207 Main Ave., later State, not present-day Majestic at 224 E. Houston St.). The “genius artist” performed in front of a packed house with “all seats occupied and all standing places available”. In selections by Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert and others, Paderewski has demonstrated that without sacrificing the precision of his “crystal technique,” the “fire and ice of previous performances” had “mellowed into a warmth and an indescribable tenderness ”.

The writer feels “a much greater distance than from the stage to orchestral chairs” between the artist and his audience: “In the half-light of the stage, he seemed infinitely distant from his daily environment, but nevertheless so sympathetic a space, he could, through his own vision, share with them the beauty and the fulfillment that he knows in music.

Did she – if Nellie was the critic – say in that last reference that it was a low-energy performance, not up to the usual Paderewski standards, with the pianist somewhat unresponsive to her San Antonio’s large audience? May be. But if so, she seems to be trying to put a positive spin on the night, as was her habit as a supporter of the San Antonio music scene.

She was not fired and continued in her role with the Express for over three years, until she left for a tour of Europe in May 1929.

On her return the following year, she was greeted home with a “nicely furnished lunch” at a friend’s house, as reported in the Express of February 7, 1930, but no other signature appears in the documents. two local dailies. The Express has hired a new music critic, Pitts Sanborn. Whether Nellie was singing or writing, no newspaper ever reported it again. The city directory shows that she worked for the USAA first as a clerk and then as a purchasing agent from 1934 to 1940.

For most of the rest of her life, Borden was frequently mentioned on society pages, as a hostess at military-civilian club events, on reception committees for cultural occasions, or spotted in the audience during symphonic concerts or appearances by famous artists. Her whereabouts as a visitor to out of town friends and family are noted, and she continued to give and attend parties until the 1950s.

Nellie’s mother died in 1933, leaving her alone in the Jackson Street house, where she lived the rest of her life. If she had a hat business it could have been informal, going out of her house with friends as clients.

She died at home on November 26, 1966, of a “cerebrovascular incident” (stroke), with her cousin Carol King as an informant. His profession is given as “Retired music critic and writer / journalist. Borden’s ashes were buried at Sunset Memorial Park.

Thanks to Jim Kerr, Joe Kerr and the other members of the Kerr family for providing information and photos. The family would love to hear from anyone who knew their “Aunt Nellie”. Contact this column to share memories with them.

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