A CONCERT performance is never insulated from the milieu in which it has its being. It cannot function without a set of congenial circumstances—a social soil—which permit its existence and determine its content. The sources of its economic support, the traditional cultural values, the expectations of the audiences, the pedagogical institutions which propagate the art, the political climate, the technology which produced the instruments, the lure of competitive alternative pleasures, are only a few of the miscellany of factors that mold the concert system into a reflection of themselves. No one can hazard a responsible opinion on trends without adequate consideration of these, and other, determining conditions.
These convictions would seem to run counter to the popular cliche, that “there is no accounting for taste.” Wholly aside from the disputed translation of that frayed Latin proverb, it is the assumption of the present work that tastes can be accounted for. In fact, scholars have for some time thrown considerable light on their formation. The discouraging doctrine that aesthetic taste is a mystical and elusive gift has been challenged by researches in the social function of the arts and in the social determinants of style. In recent years there has been an increasing degree of cross-fertilization between the arts on the one hand and the social and psychological disciplines on the other. The present work was planned in the spirit of this expanding trend.
Its contribution is in terms of an analysis and survey of the public life of orchestral compositions as performed in American symphony orchestras, with the intention of tracing their fluctuations and identifying, as far as possible in such a survey, some of the factors that condition these fluctuations. This is a particularly appropriate moment to undertake such a task. The American symphony orchestra has been in existence about a century—a period long enough to uncover trends and to yield historical perspective. In this sense, the study is a contribution to musical Americana.
Since the symphony orchestra is anchored to our social institutions and to the principles of human nature that supply it with its vital energy, an understanding of symphonic trends is dependent upon a certain familiarity with the larger social practices. Hence, in addition to the profiles of the individual orchestras, extended consideration must be given to the ancestry of the American orchestra in European cultures, to the American economic system in which the orchestra has matured, to the class structure of the audience and its behavior, and finally to the social psychology of taste formation as it is rooted in human nature.
This work is not an encyclopedia of symphonic affairs. Many phases of orchestral life are touched but lightly when not essential to the main stream of thought. Thus, radio and records1 as vehicles for the dissemination of orchestral music comprise such an extended field that they are mentioned only in passing. Although the destinies of “live” music and mechanical reproduction are interwoven, it is improbable that their respective taste trends coincide. The respective locales in which they are enjoyed, the population segments which they serve, the occasions and circumstances attending their enjoyment, the financial transactions involved in the purchase of the musical services—all constitute powerful forces which differentiate their operating conditions.
However, radio and recordings cannot very well by-pass the symphony orchestra, which is the very source of their documents. The orchestras cannot record what they do not play, and they do not play what they do not perform in public. However, when once the musical document is made, it embarks on a life of its own over the record bars, in the homes, and in the radio studio, from which it flows into an immense market that is not bounded by the limited geography of the local orchestra.
Actual musical performances are, of course, ephemeral and can only be recaptured by means of historical documents. In this respect they differ from architecture, literature, and other forms of material human achievement. Although it is difficult to recoup the public appreciation that accompanied them, effective efforts to comprehend their significance can be made by resurrecting contemporary critical comment. Musical programs can similarly be reconstructed, which permit the re-creation of past musical’epochs for fresh study and for the analysis of the aesthetic attitudes that supported them.
A few musicologists have, in that manner, uncovered certain periods in early American musical history. O. G. Sonneck2 has reproduced the colonial period, while Earle Johnson3 has reviewed in great detail the early musical history of Boston from 1800 to 1825. The present work represents a continuation of these efforts. Programs have been itemized, contemporary critical comments have been exhumed, and news reports have been examined. It is hoped that the work of students who follow a century hence will thus be greatly facilitated by permitting them to recall more adequately the musical experiences of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
More specifically, this study should be useful to persons of various interests: (1) to historians, musicologists, and annotators who follow the popularity trends of composers and compositions; (2) to aestheticians and critics who can profit by the analysis of the fluctuations in taste that are discussed too frequently with more ecstasy than insight into the social and psychological orbits within which these fluctuations occur; (3) to the academic fraternity, for whom it should serve as welcome collateral in hitherto unplowed fields of musical taste, empirical aesthetics, and general musical Americana as the academic curtain between the conservatory of music and the liberal arts is gradually lifted; (4) to social scientists who are intent on dissecting the body politic in order to understand the principles of social change in the various categories of culture; and finally, (5) to the large audience of laymen who have been introduced by radio, recordings, and concert, to the composer and his music—a privilege formerly reserved for a small and select class propitiously located in culture centers. In being guided through the life history of orchestral societies, and through the maze of aesthetic trends, the cultivated listener should arrive at a new comprehension of the problems of the symphony orchestras and their programs.
The student, as well as the general lover of symphonic music, will be able to find in this work a discussion of the following, and other, questions:
Why do conductors almost universally choose programs “over the heads” of the audience? Was this true in the days of Bach, Mozart and Haydn?
Since when, and why, are composers composing for the future rather than for the current audience?
What is happening to Beethoven, Wagner, Tschaikowsky and other composers in respect to the volume of their music performed in the symphonic repertoire?
Is it true that great composers of the past eras were not appreciated in their day?
Can musical taste be accounted for? Can future tastes be predicted?
What is the history of the methods of economic support of the American orchestras?
To what extent is the American composer performed in the symphony orchestra? Is he successfully competing with foreign composers of comparable age?
What are the different schools of conducting? What is the history of the seating of the orchestra?
What was the nature of the programs played a century ago?
Why did the United States produce early sculptors, painters, and authors of international renown, but not musicians?
Is there such a thing as “national” music? If not, why do so many people think so? Why do other countries have “national” music, but not the United States?
When was the first musicians’ strike in an American symphony orchestra? What were the circumstances?
Do cities differ in their repertoires? To what extent?
What are some of the principles of program-building?
Who are the forgotten masters of the past?
Is there a basic, standard repertoire? How rapid is the turnover in the repertoire?
How influential is the conductor in the determination of the repertoires?
What can one learn of the “qualities” that determine the survival of a composition? What other factors contribute to survival?
What is the probability of another “Beethoven” who will dominate the repertoire for a century?