Hughes had deep roots in Cleveland. Her paternal grandfather, Moses Warren, arrived to Cleveland in 1796 with MOSES CLEAVELAND’S surveying team. Her maternal grandparents, BENJAMIN and REBECCA ROUSE, came to Cleveland in 1830 as agents for the American Sunday School Union. Benjamin organized the FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH and sang in its choir, and Rebecca was director of the Protestant Orphan Asylum (the forerunner of BEECH BROOK) and president of the SOLDIERS’ AID SOCIETY OF NORTHERN OHIO. Hughes’ parents, Loren and Ellen Rouse Prentiss, sent her to Miss Fisher’s School for Girls, and in 1886 to Vassar College, where she began her career as a professional musician and musical impresario.
At Vassar, Hughes majored in music. She also sang in the glee club, established a banjo society, and organized concerts for both. She graduated in 1890, Phi Beta Kappa.
After her graduation, Hughes toured Europe with her mother, continuing her piano studies and learning from some of the great European orchestras. Hughes returned to Cleveland in 1891 and found work as a piano accompanist for local musicians. Women often taught voice or instrumental music, and some – like Hughes herself - made their living as performers. The Cleveland Federation of Musicians had a handful of female members in the first decade of the twentieth century.
She launched her career as a concert manager in 1898 when she brought to town and then took on tour a group of professional musicians to perform the song-cycle, “In a Persian Garden.” Local newspapers would describe her as the only woman orchestra manager in America.
In 1904, she married baritone Felix Hughes, and became his accompanist and manager. They moved into a home in 1910, which is now a designated CLEVELAND HEIGHTS Landmark. They divorced in 1923.
In conjunction with the FORTNIGHTLY MUSICAL CLUB, a group of women musicians and music lovers, she managed the Symphony Orchestra Concert series from 1901 to 1920, which included arranging the booking, publicity, funding, and the myriad details of visiting and local orchestras and soloists, sometimes accompanying them on the piano. Hughes introduced Clevelanders to contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heinck, Leopold Stokowski, then conductor of the Cincinnati Orchestra, and composer/directors Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.
In 1912, Hughes met ALMEDA ADAMS, the blind musician whose experience in settlement houses convinced Adams that music could teach immigrant children to enjoy American life. She persuaded Hughes, who in turn persuaded the Fortnightly Musical Club to donate the first $1,000 to establish the Cleveland Music School Settlement in its first home at GOODRICH HOUSE.
Clevelanders had long enjoyed concerts and operas provided by local amateur musicians or visiting professionals, but efforts to establish a local professional orchestra failed. In 1915, the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra (briefly renamed the Cleveland Municipal Orchestra) collapsed, despite Hughes’ management, when it lost funding from the City of Cleveland.
Hughes became convinced that classical music needed stable moral and financial support. She enlisted wealthy music lovers in her social circle, most notably JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER ,whose daughter Elisabeth Rockefeller was a close friend, to incorporate the Musical Arts Association in 1915. Its first president was DAVID Z. NORTON, and its vice-presidents were JOHN L. SEVERANCE and Howard P. Eells. Hughes served as its secretary for three decades. The association first sponsored performances of Igor Stravinsky’s Ballet Russe in March 1916, whose contemporary music was not a hit. In June, however, an outdoor production of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried at LEAGUE PARK, drew an enthusiastic audience of thousands.
At Hughes’ urging, the association hired in September 1918 violinist NIKOLAI SOKOLOFF to assess the music education of Cleveland public school children. He found it sorely lacking, an argument that supported his – and Hughes’ – goal of establishing a permanent orchestra for Cleveland. That goal was achieved, sooner than either had hoped, when Father John Mary Powers needed an orchestra for a grand fund-raiser for his St. Ann Church (now Communion of Saints) in Cleveland Heights. Within weeks, Sokoloff had assembled 54 musicians to what became today’s Cleveland Orchestra, as Hughes as its first manager. The orchestra made its debut on December 11, 1918, at GRAY’S ARMORY.
In its first decade, the orchestra conducted radio broadcasts, made recordings, and held children’s concerts. Orchestra members also taught in Cleveland public schools to supplement their incomes. Visiting artists included Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, and Sergei Prokofiev.
Hughes lobbied hard throughout the 1920s for a permanent home for the fledgling orchestra. It played most often in Masonic Auditorium, which was not designed for a symphony orchestra and had no rehearsal space. She and the orchestra’s Women’s Committee concluded, on the strength of a survey of orchestra subscribers, that a new concert hall should be built not downtown, where the orchestra had always played, but at UNIVERSITY CIRCLE, already the home of the CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART and other cultural institutions. Western Reserve University (now CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY) president Robert E. Vinson offered to donate a site.
On the tenth anniversary of the orchestra’s first performance, DUDLEY S. BLOSSOM made the surprise announcement that John L. Severance, then president of the Musical Arts Association, had pledged $1 million dollars for a new concert hall. Hughes had long courted Severance, a professional and social acquaintance, and persuaded him to underwrite Sokoloff’s first months’ stipend in Cleveland as well as to cover the orchestra’s occasional deficits. Blossom and his wife Elizabeth pledged $750,000 for an endowment. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had refused Hughes’s earlier requests, also pledged, as did hundreds of large and small donors. Severance’s final gift would be more than twice his initial pledge in order to honor the memory of his wife Elisabeth. The firm of WALKER AND WEEKS designed the building, which had its grand opening in February 1931.
Hughes retired as orchestra manager in 1933 but remained on the board of the Musical Arts Association until her retirement in 1945. She published her memoir Music Is My Life in 1947.
Hughes is buried in LAKE VIEW CEMETERY.
Marian J. Morton
Hughes, Adella Prentiss. Music is My Life. 1947
Rosenberg, Donald. The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None.” (2000).