How a 1904 Bronx born musician became the grad with the single largest alumni gift to the Faculty of Music. #tbt

Following his death 20 years ago on February 13, 1999, a bequest of about $450,000 in 1999 was made to the Faculty of Music that was matched by the province of Ontario. This established an endowment to support merit-based scholarships for undergraduate and graduate music students.

Since then, the endowment has paid out over $1 million dollars to support hundreds of Faculty of Music students.

Who made this generous gift?

Arthur Plettner at his piano

Arthur Plettner (1904-1999) began his career under serendipitous circumstances. His mother had arranged for a piano teacher to come teach his older brother Edwin at their house and when Ed went on to other endeavours, Arthur’s mother wanted the teacher to remain employed, so she had Arthur take lessons in his brother’s place. And, when Arthur went with his parents to a symphony concert when he was 15, he observed the conductor and declared “That’s what I want to be!”

His parents, Frederick and Louise (Haarbrucker) immigrated from Germany to the United States; he from Wurzburg, Bavaria and she from Karklienen, East Prussia. Arthur’s father became a U.S. citizen in 1892 and played the trombone in the U.S. Navy. Louise had been married, but her husband and two young children had died, all within a year of each other. Widowed, she subsequently began a business as a seamstress. One day, fortuitously while crossing 14th street in New York City, she and Frederick recognized each other; he had been a friend of her deceased husband. They were married in June 1896. Arthur’s brother Edwin was born in March 1897, and Arthur on November 15, 1904 in Bronx, New York.

Arthur’s parents took him to Germany when he was five or six years old. They may have meant to only stay for a few years, but the outbreak of World War I delayed their return. As a result, Arthur was educated in Germany. He studied flute and piano at the oldest conservatory in the country, the State (prior to WW I, Royal Bavarian) Conservatory in Wurzburg. The family returned to New York in 1924.

At this time, Arthur became Associate Conductor and Chorus Master for the German Comic Opera Company in New York. From 1928 to 1931, he served in a similar capacity at the Ziegfield, New Amsterdam, and New Yorker Theaters in New York. Following the onset of the Depression, Arthur joined the faculty of the Emma Willard Conservatory as a piano and harmony teacher in November 1931. As the effects of the Depression continued, the school decided to cut back the music department and he left in the spring of 1932.

Undaunted, Arthur soon won a three year fellowship in 1932 at the Juilliard Graduate School in conducting where he studied under Albert Stoessel. During this period, until 1936, Arthur was staff arranger and member (flute and piccolo) with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, and was pianist for the Children’s Concerts and Opera Orchestra as well. Simultaneously, he was staff arranger and member of the Worcester (Massachusetts) Festival Orchestra. Arthur’s association (and later his wife’s) with the Chautauqua Symphony continued into the 1940s.

In 1937 Arthur was appointed Juilliard Professor of Music at the University of Chattanooga, now the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He was elected Conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra in October 1937 and continued in that capacity until 1949.

Arthur’s personal life changed at this time as well. In July 1938 he married Isa McIlwraith, who he had met in the Juilliard Graduate School conducting program, where she also had a three year fellowship. Her musical background was deeply impressive as well, having a BA from Barnard, a MA from Columbia, and a degree in sacred music from Union Theological Seminary. Following their marriage, she joined the Faculty of Music at Chattanooga as an Assistant Professor of Music, teaching history of music, counterpoint, form, and analysis. She also wrote program notes for the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra and conducted when Arthur was a soloist. Later, Isa added the title of University Organist to her responsibilities. In addition to the several orchestral and choral compositions he had to his credit, Arthur wrote many organ compositions specifically for his wife’s use. More info on Isa’s career can be found in this thesis “Choral Activities at the University of Chattanooga From 1886-1969” by Ashley Nolan Cisto.

While a Professor, Arthur furthered his own education earning a Bachelor of Music degree in 1943 and a Doctor of Music in 1951, both from the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Most of his studies were completed off-campus, although he travelled to Toronto periodically.

In addition to his mastery of Music, Arthur had a breadth and depth of knowledge of topics outside of his chosen field. His grasp of history was impressive and he had a special interest in model trains and a fascination with railroads in general.

Following their retirement from the University in 1973, the couple remained in their home in Signal Mountain, Tennessee. Dr. Plettner’s wife Isa passed away in December 1997 at the age of 88 and he died on February 13, 1999 at the age of 94.

Biography largely taken from letter from niece in 1999.

Top photo of Arthur and Isa from The Chattanooga Times, 27 November 1938.