Making Sweet Music: Saint Paul’s Schubert Club

The Schubert Club has been prominent in Saint Paul for well over a century.
Tine Thing Helseth of Tenthing playing in the crowd at Aria event center.

The Schubert Club started in 1882 when a group of educated women began to get together in one another’s homes to play music. Saint Paul was the rugged frontier in those days, and many of the founding members had followed their husbands from comfortable lives in big cities as they searched for new opportunities in the growing industries of Saint Paul. The Schubert Club gave them an outlet for both social connection and artistic expression.  

Barry Kempton, artistic and executive director of the Schubert Club, says he finds it noteworthy that those women moved so quickly from playing for one another
in their drawing rooms to public concerts.

“The first public concert came 11 years after the founding,” says Kempton. “Anyone who knows anything about organizing public concerts will be impressed by how quickly they evolved into a producing organization.”  

Kempton has been director for five years—“a relatively short amount of time when you view the whole history of the organization,” he says. Kempton describes the Schubert Club as a year-round presentation group with a focus on education. There are schedules for nine different concert series on the club’s website.

The International Artist Series brings the world’s great concert musicians to Saint Paul. Artists such as Isaac Stern, Beverly Sills, Yo-Yo Ma and Renée Fleming have performed in the series. In 2014, the club began a series called Schubert Club Mix, which brings music to non-traditional venues and offers a more relaxed, casual way to hear great music. There’s also the Music in the Park Series in the Saint Anthony neighborhood, the free weekly lunchtime Courtroom Concerts and a whole host of other weekday concerts and events in downtown Saint Paul as well as events throughout both cities and the suburbs.

In addition to producing a wide range of performances, the club runs the Schubert Club Museum in Landmark Center. The museum houses a world-class collection of historic keyboards and instruments from around the world. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the collection are the original letters and manuscripts of famous composers.

“The letters are especially important,” Kempton says, “because they are one-of-a-kind. We also have beautiful old instruments, some of which visitors can play; but the letters are unique.”

Playing an old harpsichord and comparing the sound to a modern piano is a way to interest people in the history of music. Children are especially attracted to that kind of hands-on approach to understanding. And that isn’t the only way the Schubert Club is furthering music education.
In 1911, the club began offering music lessons to children in Saint Paul who couldn’t afford private lessons. The tradition of scholarships continues today.

“We want to be good advocates for music education.” Kempton says. “We can be advocates for the difference music education can make.”

The Schubert Club also has a composer-in-residence position, which for the past 12 years has been shared by Abbie Betinis and Edie Hill. This year will see a change in that position. Future resident composers will be appointed for a two-year term and their mission will be directed by the strengths of each new artist. The Schubert Club is founded on tradition, but it is an organization that isn’t afraid of change.

Change and tradition; music and education; a museum with precious documents and beautiful but approachable instruments. the Schubert Club has a history of delighting Saint Paulites and that is a tradition that is not likely to change.