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The Schmitt Music Mural

It’s a five-story mural on the side of a building and has been a landmark for almost 50 years. The Schmitt Music mural is one of the oldest and most iconic pieces of street art in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the painting is a must-see for connoisseurs of public art and classical music alike. Its history is rooted in the 1970s when the Schmitt Music Company, which at the time was housed in the building, selected a piece of classical music to paint on the exterior wall.

The mural recently made the news as the large painting may one day become hidden from view. Not painted over but destined to be out of clear sight due to a building that is being planned on the parking lot next to it. As of yet there are no concrete plans or timetable for construction by the Houston based company that purchased the lot.

Here is the January 2021 story:

The mural is on the wall of the building at 88 South 10th Street near the corner of Marquette and South 10th St. in Minneapolis where The CPG (The Creative Partners Group) is located. CPG calls itself  “…a comprehensive retail firm that takes a consumer-centric, collaborative approach to helping our partners grow their businesses. We offer the multi-dimensional expertise necessary for making a brand successful in a constantly changing landscape.”

Before that, it was the headquarters of the Schmitt Music Company from 1942-2000. Schmitt Music Company was founded in 1896 by Paul Schmitt and was a thriving music store becoming one of the country’s largest full-service music retailers with 11 stores. The store has been a family-owned and operated store for four generations.

Paul and Margaret Schmitt
Robert Schmitt

The company’s Minneapolis headquarters became an unofficial landmark when Robert P. Schmitt (grandson of the founder) decided to beautify one of the large exposed exterior brick walls. Like other American cities of the 1970s, citizens and business owners in Minneapolis were concerned about beautifying the older downtown buildings.

Barbara Flanagan

A columnist for what was then the Minneapolis Star, Barbara Flanagan, thought the wall was ugly and wrote about it in an article on February 22, 1972. She suggested painting “big and colorful” notes on the wall even mentioning tunes like “Minnesota Rouser”, the “National Anthem,” “Downtown,” and others. She ended the short paragraph with an admonition, “The point is, Mr. Schmitt, to make that wall sing!”

Robert P. Schmitt, then president of the company, thought the idea was good, and Mrs. Jill Sprangers, the firm’s advertising art director carried it out. It was to be a large undertaking. Sprangers was charged with finding a challenging piece that would look good on a wall that size.

Mrs. Sprangers chose “Gaspard de la Nuit,” by the French composer Maurice Ravel making the decision based on what was the most visually pleasing composition of notes. The section depicted on the building comes from the third movement entitled “Scarbo.”

Once the music had been decided, work began to paint to the mural. The music was projected in segments onto long sheets of paper. The projection was then traced with a heavy graphite marker in reverse. Then each segment was taken on a scaffold up the side of the wall, where the painters pressed it against the wall, making a graphite transfer. The rest of the process was like filling in a child’s coloring book. The whole process took ten working days.

Preparing the wall, which included bricking up 32 windows, tuckpointing all the bricks, and painting the whole thing with two coats of off-gloss white cost approximately $12,000. The actual painting of the notes on the prepared wall cost $5,500.

 Mrs. Sprangers chose the Ravel piece for its visual appeal, and was delighted with the comments it caused. At first she received three to five telephone calls a day but reduced to a slower rate. The only unhappy call was from the firm that held the copyright, but they did not sue. It seemed unlikely that this method of publishing would offer dangerous competition to publishers of sheet music. It is hardly economical.

Even though Schmitt Music Company moved to other locations, the mural has continued to receive notoriety. The esotericism of the song itself has attracted attention. For many years, nobody knew what the song was or why it was selected. The five-story painting of sheet music on the building projected an aura of mystery and intrigue, and it caught the eye of several prominent musicians.

Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr. posed with a Steinway concert grand piano in front of “the music wall” on Sunday morning, March 28, 1977. He was in town for an engagement with the Minnesota Orchestra, and the photo attracted the attention of national newspapers.

Also in 1977, the Minneapolis born artist Prince (then 19 years old) had his first professional photo shoot in front of the mural. Photographer Robert Whitman remembered, “I wasn’t in the music business, but I thought he was amazing. My gut said that he was going to be huge. And my friends in the music business said, ‘This guy is going to be huge.’ And they were totally right.”

While the building of the business tower wouldn’t destroy the mural itself, it would mean you could no longer see it from the same vantage point where photographer Robert Whitman stood to take the Prince photo. Since Prince’s rise to superstardom and his death, the spot has been a must-see for fans visiting Minneapolis, many posing for their own photos there. Photos from Whitman’s session were published in the book Prince Pre-Fame. Among those who have paid tribute to the 1977 image is onetime Prince collaborator Lizzo, who stood in front of the mural in her 2018 “Boys” video.

According to Tom Schmitt said, great-grandson of the founder of the store, “She (Jill Sprangers ) wanted something that had kind of a dramatic visual appeal.”  She succeeded.

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