(Dec. 11, 1861-Apr. 18, 1953). Born in Dotzheim, Germany, Ferdinand Schaefer attended public schools, and he received his first violin lesson from his father as punishment for a boyish prank.

Ferdinand Schaefer rehearses with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for a spring festival concert in 1934.
Credit: IndyStar

Schaefer entered the military at age 17, where he played in an orchestra in the Kaiser’s army. He resumed his violin studies and made financial ends meet by tutoring. During his years in Europe, he graduated with honors from the University of Leipzig in Germany, formed and directed many orchestras, taught violin to Crown Prince Gustave of Sweden, and performed under the direction of Johannes Brahms as a member of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Schaefer came to Indianapolis in 1903 to become a violin teacher at the Indiana College of Music and Fine Arts. He taught at the old Indianapolis Conservatory of Music, at Lafayette Conservatory, and at Ball State Teachers College.

He conducted an orchestra at the Kirschbaum Community Center prior to starting the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in November 1929, undaunted by the beginning of the Great Depression. The symphony musicians were paid by splitting the box office receipts, sometimes making $5 a night. The orchestra’s first performance took place on November 2, 1930. Schaefer resigned as ISO director in 1937 but continued to perform occasional concerts until his farewell appearances on February 6-7, 1943.

Schaefer became a U.S. citizen in 1921 and received an honorary doctor of music degree from Indiana University in 1940. Known affectionately as “Papa” by the city’s music-loving community, he remained in Indianapolis following his retirement from the symphony, continued to offer violin instruction into his late eighties, and was feted with a gala celebration at the Athenaeum shortly before his death.

Revised February 2021

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