H. L. Mencken was a lifelong musician. In his preface to “Happy Days,” he writes that he spent half a century boasting that he could read music by the age of 6. But, upon finding a bill for the family’s first piano, he discovered that he didn’t begin playing until he was 8. Still, he wrote music for much of his life. “When I think of anything properly describable as a beautiful idea, it is always in the form of music. Alcohol has the effect of filling my head with such ideas, and I daresay hashish would do even better,” he writes in “Happy Days” and goes on to list the number of musical pieces he composed. One of his great frustrations was that his musical ability never matched his ambition. Nevertheless, he spent decades playing as regularly as possible with the Saturday Night Club, which was founded in 1904 and came to a halt sometime around 1950, six years before Mencken’s death.
In addition to Mencken, the core group consisted of Adolf Torovsky, band leader of the U.S. Naval Academy; Louis Cheslock, an instructor at Peabody and the diarist of the group; Gustav Strube, a founder of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; and W.M. Woolcott, brother of Algonquin Round Table wag Alexander, and the only non-player of the group. The group would play their favorite pieces and eventually compose a few of their own. Mencken’s favorite piece was Beethoven’s “Eroica,” a line from which appears on the group’s shield, which is both mysterious and funny and adorns one of the walls of the Mencken room at the Pratt.
“The shield is what got me. There were a few mysteries about it,” says Dave Donovan, an associate of the Fine Arts Department at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Libraries. “It’s dated 1905, when the group was founded in 1904, and there’s a lobster instead of a crab,” he says. The shield’s date has nothing really to do with the club, however. It actually marks the 100-year anniversary of when “Eroica” was played in public. The lobster, Donovan theorizes, comes from the fact that the painter of the shield was from Connecticut, and used his local shellfish to adorn his work. There’s also a Cross of St. Andrew made out of sausage links and a pretzel and white radishes.
In 1991 Donovan uncovered 23 boxes that contained about 660 pieces of sheet music from the Saturday Night Club. His previous interest in the mysteries of the shield led him, a former professional bassoon player, to immerse himself in the sheet music, where he found symphonies, waltzes, and short operas with movements missing.
“They took parts [of the songs] out so they could drink beer and eat,” Donovan says. “It’s really quite funny.” Among the original pieces, Donovan cites Cheslock’s ‘Valse Voda,’ a Russian-inspired piece written in 1933 when the world recognized the U.S.S.R. as a country.
“There’s a photo of the group playing the piece in Russian costumes and calling themselves ‘comrades,’” Donovan says.
The Concert Artists Of Baltimore played and recorded selections of the music in 2010.
“It was wonderful,” Donovan says. “We really loved playing the music of the Saturday Night Club.”
Hear a selection of the Saturday Night Club’s music: