CSI: Atonality

In 1914 young Frances Glessner fabricated a model of the famed Swiss quartette, the Flonzaley Quartette. Her handiwork was presented to the musicians at dinner one evening, an event remembered by her son: “It was covered with a large floral piece in the center of the table, which gave no hint as to what was underneath…. After dinner, the floral piece was removed with a flourish, and there, two feet from their noses, was this model of themselves playing!… For a moment nobody spoke, and then all four members of the quartette burst out in voluble language…. Each one of them pointed with delight to the eccentricities of the other three. I still remember Mr. Betti, with a magnifying glass peering over the shoulder of his own miniature, trying to read the music on the music rack. It had been specially written by Frederick Stock, the conductor of the Chicago Symphony, in the style of Schoenberg, but was impossible to play—a fact which Mr. Betti soon appreciated.”

—Carol Callahan, Prairie Avenue Cookbook:
Recipes and Recollections from Prominent
19th-Century Chicago Families
, p. 54

Prairie Avenue, on Chicago’s South Side, was the address of choice for the city’s Gilded Age industrial barons; the Glessner family—John Jacob Glessner was a vice-president of International Harvester—fit the profile in style, living in a mansion designed by H. H. Richardson and dispensing largesse as major supporters of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Due to family pressure, however, Frances Glessner Lee would have to wait until her 50s before she was able to pursue her true calling: forensic pathology. With George Magrath, the chief medical examiner in Boston, she founded Harvard’s department of legal medicine. One can surmise that her model of the Flonzaley Quartet was impressive indeed; she later produced her famous “Nutshell Series of Unexplained Death” (example pictured above, via), intricately detailed one-inch-to-one-foot dioramas of crime scenes, designed as case studies for prospective investigators. Now located at the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, the Nutshell Studies still serve their purpose, training the forensic eye to notice their crucial, grisly eccentricities.


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