MUSCATINE, Iowa — Oscar Grossheim’s work lives on more than 50 years after the Muscatine photographer’s death.
A Saturday night performance by the Muscatine Symphony Orchestra, “Photographic Memories,” will feature a side show of Grossheim’s historic photos and a four-part symphony written by Iowa composer Tracey Rush.
“The whole process has been cool,” symphony director Brian Dollinger said. “We wanted to make everything about Iowa, so we just needed an Iowa composer.”
Dollinger put out a call for composers. Between 12 and 14 people responded, and the contestants were whittled down to four finalists.
“The musicians (Muscatine Symphony Orchestra) guild and members voted,” Dollinger said regarding the choice of Rush. “It’s more of a connection they can have in the process.”
Rush, 54, who has lived in Dubuque for more than 25 years, finished the piece about three weeks ago.
“I really enjoyed the experience,” she Rush said. “I loved doing the research for it and spending time in Muscatine.”
Last summer, Rush and her husband, John, traveled to Muscatine, wandered the downtown area and sifted through thousands of Grossheim’s treasured black-and-white photographs.
Grossheim was a Muscatine photographer and business owner who chronicled everyday life in the city from the late 1800s to the mid-1950s through the lens of his cameras. He eventually amassed a collection of 55,000 negatives that have since been housed at the Musser Public Library, where they are being scanned and posted online.
“The idea was to write a multi-movement suite for the orchestra based on groups of photos, like the river or industry or something that would trigger inspiration,” Rush said.
So that’s just what she did.
By the end of her months of work, she had arranged five movements into an 20-minute-plus suite. The themed movements focus on early churches, the bustling downtown district, members of the armed forces, Muscatine’s industrial roots and the families who settled in the Pearl of the Mississippi.
In the fourth movement, “Industrial Revolution,” Rush said she hides a Morse code of flutes, spelling out “M-U-S-C-A-T-I-N-E” in the code.
“I knew around the two-minute mark the ear will need a break from the repetition (used to represent machines and industry), so the telegraph machine inspired me,” she said.
The family photographs also inspired Rush, she said, adding that the photographs reveal what was “in vogue or in fashion” at the time.
“Usually, if you have a family portrait done, you go to a studio, but a lot of these photos are taken in front of their home or in parlors,” she said. “You get a lot more than just the face. They were proud of their homes.”
Dollinger said the multimedia effect of adding a side show is one of many ways symphonies are reaching across generations.
“This is a small way to not just make it about the symphony doing music,” he said. “So many aspects of Muscatine are in it. We’re very fortunate to have such a large collection (of photographs).”
He said the symphony members have been eager to perform, and Rush said she can’t wait to see the final product.
“I believe strongly in melody, and ‘Photographic Memories’ is very audience-friendly,” she said. “I wrote it for them. I do hope they will all come to hear it. If for no other reason, I hope they do it for Oscar.”