Performing Archive

Curtis' Musicale

Beatrice Schuster, Scripps College

In 1911, Edward S. Curtis partnered with up-and-coming composer Henry Franklin Belknap Gilbert to create a musicale using his photographs of Native Americans. Gilbert composed Indian-inspired music to accompany Curtis’ photos and films. Curtis would often give lectures or speeches about the “vanishing race” between musical pieces, often beginning with something like this:

My greatest desire tonight is that each and every person here enter into the spirit of our evening with the Indians. We cannot weigh, measure, or judge their culture with our philosophy. From our analytical and materialistic view-point, theirs is a strange world. Deity is not alone in a supreme being after their own image, but rather is everywhere present--world or universal voice, universal spirit. I want you to see this beautiful, poetic, mysterious, yet simple life, as I have grown to see it through the long years with the many tribes 1.

Curtis would teach musicale audiences about the tribes he worked with, emphasizing “the ethnological importance of the American Indian.2” He also used these performances as an opportunity to promote his photographs to potential benefactors. Curtis toured with the musicale throughout the winter of 1911-1912. He had planned to resume the tour the following winter, but the musicale was a financial failure.

In 2006, Mosa Motion Graphics released a motion picture version of Curtis’ musicale entitled The Indian Picture Opera, which was exhibited at the Anchorage, Alaska International Film Festival and the Heard Museum’s Film Festival in Phoenix, Arizona.

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