Emma Roberto Steiner (1856-1929) was an American composer and conductor who, in her 73 years of life, managed to do nearly everything under the sun, refusing to be limited by the gender barriers of the day. Not only did she become an incredibly accomplished musician and composer, but also took the roles of Director and Producer, “Prospector” (miner), Humanitarian, Lecturer, and Commissioner during her life-time. Although there are no surviving pieces of music by her, and no recordings of them either, her musical corpus extends into the 100s and includes 7+ operas and many songs.
She began her life as a child prodigy, quickly growing up to become a woman of incredible strength and fortitude, not to mention an industrious conductor and composer who challenged the patriarchal standards of her time. She would later make groundbreaking discoveries of Alaskan tin-deposits and become an outspoken advocate for Alaskan wildlife, only to finish her full life off with humanitarian work. This woman par excellence is no longer talked about when speaking about American music history, nor is any of her music heard in concert halls and opera theatres today. But the impact she left behind should never be forgotten, as her unbreakable confidence in her musical abilities and intellectual capabilities helped lay the foundation for women in music today, nearly 165 years later.
This was no ordinary woman or composer, and certainly no ordinary conductor. Her life was full of harrowing choices and exciting firsts, twists of fate which quickly became feats of inspiration. Here is the daunting life of Emma Roberta Steiner!
What an Upbringing
Emma was born in Baltimore, Maryland to a family of mixed talents and temperaments. Her father, Colonel Frederick Steiner, was a veteran of the Mexican-American war, while her mother was a chronically-ill, yet gifted pianist. It was said that when she was born, instead of aimlessly crying she instead was wide-eyed and engaged with the world, the bird calls, the piano melodies her mother played. In this atmosphere, Emma adopted a sensitive, but headstrong personality. She began her compositional career at age 7 after several years of piano tutorship from her mother, writing her first duet at age 9, although what the piece was is unknown. She proved to have exceptional skill in piano and composition, as well as playing other instruments.
Regardless of her prodigal talent, her family didn’t encourage her nor let her study music professionally, despite being advised to send her to the Paris Conservatory in France for further training. This had little effect, as by age 11 Emma had composed her first opera, Aminaide, and had its first scene performed at The Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. It’s said that her father was strongly against the operatic genre “on principle,” and had refused to even look at the score. Further still, because of her father’s strictness and traditional character, when she had escaped her home to go conduct a concert in Pennsylvania in secret, he had forbidden her from public performance. Great news was that she didn’t obey, but her tenuous relationship with her Corporal father would come to haunt her later in life.
From Boston to New York
It’s not certain how at the age of 21 she managed to escape her family’s tight control over her musical aptitude, three possibilities are the put forth. Either, 1) her vocal beauty caught the ear of the public, 2) her “light music” compositions attracted considerable attention, or 3) she took a job as Assistant Director to American music-theatre composer and Theatre Director Edward Everett Rice.
The general consensus is the third, that the eccentric and daring Rice hired her for the position in 1873, taking a bold and progressive step during those times when hiring women was practically unheard of. With this appointment by E. E. Rice, one of the most important moments in musical-theatre history would happen. Rice is an important figure himself, as he had put together the musical “Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cake Walk,” the first musical-theatre show to feature an all-black cast. With this musical, representation of African-Americans on Broadway would begin. It were these kinds of people and inclusionist activities that Emma became involved within, and this democratic air would impact the way she viewed herself and her potential going forward. According to accounts, she wanted her compositions and talent to be treated just as objectively as anyone else, and adamantly refused special treatment due to her feminine status.
In the first-half of her career she worked for many influential people including Maurice Grau, the third member of “Abbey, Schoeffel and Grau,” a late 19th c. US theatre management and production firm, and Director/Manager Heinrich Conried. During this time, she learned the ways of Directorship, and the technicalities of theatrical productions, all the while composing as she went. In 1877 she wrote the opera Fleurette (French for ‘little flower’), with its San Francisco debut in 1889, which was generally well-accepted, with critics noting how she valiantly collected journalists when none showed up on their own to her performance.
The 1890s was when Emma’s career formally began, and her determination to succeed, mixed with masterful compositional talent, would bring her immediate, international success when in 1893 four pieces of hers were shown at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition by German-American conductor and violinist Theodore Thomas. The years 1893 to 1894 were a busy time for her, the same year she founded The New York Ladies Orchestra, and the next year she would have her self-proclaimed proudest moment, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (then under the direction of Hungarian conductor Anton Seidl) at Chickering Hall in New York. During that same year, she also wrote three operas and three songs. In 1896, she founded The Emma R. Steiner Gaiety Opera Company. And in 1897, a series of concerts with the New York Metropolitan Orchestra would further solidify your conductorial skills, all the while continuing to compose. But once the “fin de siecle” left and the 1900s began, Emma found herself in a difficult position.
From New York to Alaska
In 1900, as a result of having pneumonia four years prior, Emma’s eyesight was beginning to deteriorate. However, that wasn’t the most pressing issue, as necessary funding for her operas was beginning to dry up. But this was the early 1900s, and up in Alaska the “Klondike Gold Rush” had only just begun. Hence, in order to raise some much needed money Emma went (North) Westerward in search of gold to finance her future operatic productions. As soon as she got to Nome, Alaska that first summer, bringing along her close-friend Florence Holly-Handy as company, both her musical and mining life collided, as to generate needed income to continue her proprietorship she set up a performance of her operetta The Little Hussar (based on the German folk song “The Faithful Hussar”). It generated enough profit that Emma and Florence were able to continue their search for gold.
But it wasn’t gold that they would find, but tin and a lot of it. In fact, Emma’s discovery of untapped placer tin deposits would instigate the creation of a mine, and bring prosperity to Nome for a good amount of time into the early 20th century. It’s also said that Emma considered herself the first white woman to venture to the Seward Peninsula, a “land bridge” used by prehistoric humans to cross from Asia to America!
Having sparked an interest in natural resources, she enrolled in classes at Columbia University during the winters between 1900 to 1910, studying mineralogy and metallurgy in order to learn more about this newly exhumed resource. Her musical career had not stopped though, and during these 10 years she composed two operetta, The Man From Paris and The Burra Pundit, as well as spending 1902 with Heinrich Conried and 1903 conducting at the Metropolitan Opera House. But tragedy would strike twice, as in 1902 a warehouse storing many of her original manuscripts (including her first opera Alminaide) would burn down, while in 1907 she would find out that she was written out of her father’s will and would receive not a cent of a large, million dollar fortune. Emma took the will to court but unfortunately, got nothing for it.
After her mining experiences and family troubles, she became inspired to do environmental advocacy around Alaskian wildlife and from 1905 to 1911 was engaged in a variety of jobs like educational Lecturer and Commissioner to the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. In 1911, she capped off her civic duties with a technologically-advanced lecture entitled “'Alaska and her wonderful resources,” given at St Anselm's Hall in New York using the newly created “moving pictures.”
And Back to Music
Here is where things get interesting, as in the later stages of a composer's careers either they become really well-known or they fall off the map. For Emma, it was unfortunately a mixture of both. From the early 1910s to 1921, there is very little to almost nothing on the stalwart heroine except for four compositions written during this, Mengeli gavotte (piano concerto: 1914), The Flag, forever may it wave (orchestrated song: 1918), Beautiful eyes (song: 1921), and Tecolate (song: 1921).
When Emma did reemerge in the historical record, she was back in New York City publicly programming her works again. The first appearance after her break was a self-produced concert of her repertoire entitled “Harmony and Discord,” presented in 1921 at The American Museum of Natural History, accepted by critics with good favors. The crown jewel of Emma’s comeback was her 50th Anniversary Concert at The Metropolitan Opera House in 1925, marking the half-century long career and artistic prominence. This was a huge event back then, as the MET (even to this day) has a very difficult and unjust relationship with female composers and conductors. Metropolitan Opera’s 2019/2020 season didn’t feature one single female conductor or composer, and historically it wasn’t until 1976 that another female would conduct there after Emma’s celebration. That means they went 51 years without a single female, even more reason why Emma should be remembered as one of the greatest figures in musical history.
But this concert celebration marked the beginning of her final act of goodwill, the founding of her “Home for Musicians,” a place where disabled and elderly musicians could come and live in peace and with dignity until the end. In a 1926 interview Emma is recorded as saying,
“It has been the inspiration of my life’s work to build a refuge for incapacitated musicians...My aim is such a home – and mind you, I mean home, not institution of charity – in every State in the Union. But it takes time – and money. But we have – art.”
So with the money earned from her Metropolitan commemoration performance, she bought a house on Long Island and worked towards realizing her dream of a safe haven for musical people less fortunate than she. Her final act was in service of the art that gave her a taste of the world outside herself, outside even of the arbitrary barriers put upon her that she worked her entire life to repel. Her entire life was dedicated to music, her career, and to serving her fellow man.
In February of 1929, Emma Roberto Steiner passed away from heart fatigue brought upon the stress of operating her home. However, her passing did not mean the end of her influence. Emma’s life-long success story is an inspirational testament to how much a person can accomplish when they choose to have faith in themselves and their dreams. Aside from the 7,000 concerts she conducted in her lifetime, and having a lifetime of firsts (first woman to conduct a Theatre orchestra in New York, first woman to make a career of conducting), she was known for being a woman of high character, warm heart, piercing gaze, and acute intelligence. Emma’s incredible legacy cannot and should not be forgotten.
“Miss Steiner has come and gone and her memory is like a whiff of violets
or the echo of a beautiful song. She is a woman in whose rich nature are depths
unsounded by the world and whom it is a privilege to know aside from her art.”
The Democratic Advocate [June 12, 1908]