ACCESS to the public concert is today not a class privilege but rather a purchasable right limited only by the ability and willingness to pay the price of admission. This is one of the symptoms of the rise of the middle class and the growth of urban economy. It marked the invention of the box office, with its manifold social implications. A corollary to this economic transition was, of course, the atrophy of the feudal system, which, by a policy of personal employment and patronage, had nourished the institution of closed, private musicales in court and castle. This system had provided a livelihood for an innumerable host of Kapellmeister, instrumentalists, and singers, whose services were ordinarily restricted to the orbit of courtly circles defined by the prince, and whose productions were normally the property of their employer or patron. Johann Sebastian Bach in Weimar and Cothen, his son, Philipp Emanuel, at the court of Frederick the Great at Potsdam, and Franz Joseph Haydn at Esterhaz, were illustrations of this type of feudal “servitude.” If Mozart suffered from the lack of such a satisfactory and congenial appointment during most of his professional career, it was not because he did not seek one most fervently. Without this attachment he was, by the standards of the day, virtually an unemployed musician, dependent on the irregular commissions that came his way* which were insufficient to lift him from the poverty that plagued him throughout his life.
Roughly parallel to this decline of feudalism was the waning wealth, prestige, and consequent patronage of the church in both Protestant and Catholic centers, as it faced the growing competition of the secular institutions. The Church had been for centuries a steady consumer of the arts and an employer of artists. Like the murals of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, some of the most magnificent creations of Bach and Mozart, to say nothing of earlier composers such as Palestrina, had been produced under strictly religious auspices, and these works were therefore bound to share the adverse destiny of their ecclesiastical sponsors. Their consequent passing into relative oblivion was often the result, not of any artistic insufficiency, but of the secularization of public interest. If, in spite of this new channeling of public activity, any have survived, it is only within the framework of the institutions of the new civil life. Thus the pious Bach, were he to return to us today, would, after recovering from his astonishment at seeing his music performed at all, probably be scandalized to witness the routine annual revival of the St. Matthew Passion, conducted by Catholic, Jew, or unbeliever, for the aesthetic edification of a miscellaneous population in Carnegie Hall for an admission fee of $3.60, federal tax included. This Passion, like the several hundred religious cantatas, was conceived as an integral and inseparable portion of the Divine service. Today the church is no longer the magnificent employer of creative artists, whose inspiration serves the populace both socially and aesthetically. Creative artists are now drawing their sustenance from a more profane source, and this is visibly reflected in the character of their works, the occasions for which they are produced, the mechanism of remuneration which sustains them, and the repertoire which finally emerges from them.
The chronological line of demarcation between the dissolution of feudalism and the germination of the new commercial order with its public concerts cannot, of course, be precisely drawn, first, because all historical transitions are gradual, and second, because these transitions did not occur simultaneously in all countries. It is commonly asserted that the earliest public concert took place in London in 1673, although Venice, as a very prosperous mercantile republic, was conspicuous for its public opera houses nearly half a century earlier. Other cities on the world’s commercial highways similarly evolved the pattern of public concerts. In Paris were the extremely significant and prophetic Concerts Spirituels, founded by Philidor in 1725, which became the model for similar series in Vienna (1771), Berlin (1783), and other centers. St. Petersburg organized its Philharmonic Society in 1802.
The industrial revolution, the emergence of private enterprise and an urban economy encouraged the public concert in England, while on the continent such ventures generally still remained in the private hands of royalty, nobility, and clergy within the walls of court and castle. By way of exception, Hamburg, undamaged in the Thirty Years’ War, profited from its favorable geographical location and was rich, commercial, and secular-minded. As early as 1704 Handel’s Almira was produced there and had a run of seven weeks, a great success for that day, or any other day for that matter. By 1711 Rinaldo, his first opera in England, enjoyed sold-out houses in London. From 1748 to 1840 the Oxford Music Room,1 to mention only one of several public enterprises, presented a series of weekly subscription concerts of choral and instrumental music, both solo and ensemble with a permanent orchestra of sixteen to twenty players, the conventional complement of that day. After 1800 the emphasis on oratorio diminished in favor of the instrumental works of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and other contemporaries. But not all the records of these series have been preserved for us in musical lore as have the brief subscription series of the Salomon-Haydn concerts in London (1791-95), or the Leipzig Gewandhaus series, which began so modestly in 1743, established itself in the old Gewandhaus in 1781, and flowered into one of the most brilliant orchestral series in Europe.
As compared to Europe, the American colonies were provided with almost none of these ingredients for a rich musical life. Private court orchestras and opera, the remnants of which stimulated the rising bourgeoisie of Europe to similar projects, had of course never existed in the Western world. There were no sophisticated institutions, no imperial courts like Vienna, no prodigal noblemen, no prosperous crossroads of commerce like Hamburg, Leipzig, and Venice, in the raw and hardy pioneer environment. There was no Catholic Church with sumptuous baroque traditions, nor a Protestant parish to employ a Bach. Finally, there was no reservoir of trained personnel in the musical arts, no orphan school for choir boys from which might have graduated so many adult practitioners, no architectural conveniences for concerted music that could compare with the spacious homes of the nobility or the public theatres in the large urban centers of Europe. Austere American Protestant churches, in which frequently even the organ was tabu, took the place of the elaborate ritualistic musical ceremonies of continental traditions. Musical instruments, every last ounce and inch of them, had to be imported in cargo space that was not always ample and certainly not cheap.
The very ideology of many colonists was totally incompatible with the aristocratic public cultivation of the secular arts. While the New England Puritans were engaged in such rudimentary musical disputations, as whether the Bible sanctioned the reading or the singing of the psalms, and the organ in King’s Chapel was threateningly characterized as an “infernal box of whistles with the devil inside,” Bach and Handel were composing their masterpieces for church and concert stage. While Boston’s “tanner-composer” William Billings (1746-1800) was composing his “fugueing pieces” and compiling the Psalm Singer, Haydn and Mozart were laying the foundation for the modern symphony, and Beethoven was beginning his sensational career as pianist and composer in glittering Vienna, the literal hub of the musical world.
Few of the early patriots could see as clearly as John Adams that several generations of effort would be required to realize the new country’s cultural potential. In 1780, he wrote to his wife from Paris:
I could fill volumes with descriptions of temples and palaces, paintings, sculpture, tapestry, porcelain, etc., if I could have the time, but I could not do this without neglecting my duty. My duty is to study the science of government that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and science. My sons ought to study geography, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study philosophy, painting, poetry, music, architecture, sculpture, tapestry, and porcelan.2
In contrast to the state of music, the achievements of the new world in the realm of the other arts and sciences, after all, were not so rudimentary. In painting, Copley, Peale, West, Trumbull, and Gilbert Stuart had permanently enriched their field before the nineteenth century was well begun. In sculpture, Thomas Crawford, Horatio Greenough, and Hiram Powers had achieved an international reputation before the middle of the century.3 At a time when the New York Philharmonic was still in its incubation period, the New England school of literature had attained early and respected maturity, not only at home but abroad.
Possible reasons for the precocity of these favored arts may be gleaned from an examination of their content, their social functions, and antecedent background. The early painters and sculptors celebrated the heroics of the new nation, a task which abstract tonal combinations were able to do less picturesquely. Further, these arts could be cultivated on an individual basis by individual patrons, while music derives most of its aesthetic sustenance from collective cultivation. Skills in painting and literature could and did easily migrate (West, Hiram Powers, and Horatio Greenough spent part of their professional life in Europe), but the whole constellation of institutions that had brought European music to such an exalted state of efflorescence was lacking in the United States. In Europe, the feudal state had bowed to the inevitable and relinquished its protective authority over the Muses, but its material and cultural heritage had been readily adopted by its new patrons and continued to flourish with almost no interruption. It was a heritage far too indigenous to be uprooted successfully and to transport across the seas to thrive in the new and different soil of America.
Musical beginnings in America were therefore bound to be rudimentary, but perhaps no more so than could be expected from the size of the population, the social opportunities, facilities for travel and communication, and above all, from the absence of the tradition and technical accoutrements of the hundreds of courts that dotted the continent of Europe. Late colonial America could exhibit four centers of commerce and culture, which were, in order of population, Quaker Philadelphia, commercial New York, Puritan Boston, and prosperous Charleston. Until about 1750 Boston had been the most populous town, then numbering about 15,000 inhabitants, while Charleston, the gateway to the rich agricultural south, with a population of only 8,000 enjoyed an importance out of proportion to its census returns.
In Boston, New York, and Charleston, the evidence of concert life, of a sort, extends as far back as 1731-33. Since records, principally newspaper articles, are both sparse and ambiguous, there is some ground for speculation that the earliest newspaper accounts do not necessarily coincide with actual historical beginnings. Philadelphia, however, in spite of the fairly complete files of newspapers since 1719, does not yield evidence of public concerts until 1757. So late an entry of the Quaker City into public music seems “doubtful, not to say incredible” to the most authoritative student of colonial concert life,4 although it is freely granted that in “Philadelphia especially the Quakers were more inclined to reject worldly amusements than the southerners, or even the Puritans.” Whether such doubts are justified will probably remain forever unknown, but after the 1750’s, the city of “brotherly love” entered a period of unprecedented expansion and prosperity that, within ten years, placed her at the forefront of colonial communities, weir in advance of Boston, and even ahead of New York, with whom she had been in virtual tie.5 It is no doubt quite safe to accept this extraordinary growth as an index to other social changes, which would include at least a partial relaxation of her traditional austerity—a reputation the city has to this day not been able to shake off.
The concert “season” of two centuries ago was only an embryonic precursor of modern practices. Although various seasons may have been remarkable for individual achievements (a very abbreviated version of Handel’s Messiah was given in New York, January 1770, about a year before its introduction into Germany), most of the concerts consisted of what are now deprecatingly referred to as “tutti-frutti” programs, an admixture of vocal and instrumental solo and ensemble numbers. In contrast to the present taste, the concert programs of the pioneer period evince a heterogeneity in type and quality that seems shocking to the modern ear. Sentimental and even ribald ditties are found mated with serious Haydn symphonies. The popular Battle of Prague of Kotzwara, one of the many battle pieces of the convulsed Napoleonic period, appears in all sorts of instrumental permutations and undoubtedly served as an exciting compensation for the more “cerebral” overtures of Gluck and symphonies of Christian Bach. Perhaps if one recalls that Beethoven’s own forgotten Battle Symphony was launched in 1813 by the composer himself on the same program with his new Seventh Symphony, this sense of incongruity may be discounted as an aesthetic idiosyncrasy of our own time.
Orchestral numbers were usually pushed out to the beginning and the end of the programs to frame the more glamorous solo offerings. It required a full century for the various orchestral forms to differentiate themselves into independent status, eligible to stand alone in their own behalf. With Paganini, Liszt, and Clara Schumann, solo recitals assumed an assured position, but orchestral concerts, in spite of the jealous efforts of a Nikisch, Muck, or a Koussevitzky, have not even today altogether achieved a complete “solo” standing. In most cities the visiting star performers are still an essential part of a concert, who more than pay their way at the box office.
All in all, however, the repertoire of these provincial days does not suffer too much by comparison with that of aristocratic Europe. The symphonies of Haydn, Stamitz, the “London” Bach, Pleyel, and Gyrowetz, would constitute good ballast for any concert season in much more recent years. Nor were local composers lacking. Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809) of Philadelphia and New York, Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), song composer and statesman, and William Billings (1746-1800), composer and compiler, were given, as some Americans are today, at least a courtesy appearance on the program.
Although some of the early concerts were given in series of several weeks to a season in duration, most of the concerts were offered as single enterprises. After 1800, with more abundant facilities, musical amateurs as well as professionals began to organize more permanent bodies to enjoy at regular intervals the exhilaration of musical participation and to share these accomplishments with friends or the general public. The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston was founded in 1815 for the purpose of “cultivation and improving a correct taste in the performances of sacred music.” Its offer of a commission to Beethoven for an oratorio in 1823 testifies to an early affinity for serious music. Gottlieb Graupner sparked the organization of an instrumental group, the Philharmonic Orchestra, in 1810, which persisted for about fifteen years. The Harvard Musical Association (1837), which itself had fissioned from a previous society founded in 1808, was a forerunner to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In New York, the Euterpian Society (1800-1850), similarly offered public performances that fostered a salubrious musical climate in which their descendents could flourish.
In December, 1909, just after he had assumed the direction of the New York Philharmonic Society, Gustav Mahler wrote to his protege and friend Bruno Walter in Vienna, “Mein Orchester hier is das richtige Amerikanische Orchester, talentlos and phlegmatisch”6 Although on another occasion he enthusiastically characterized the Boston orchestra as u ersten Ranges “ the derogatory reference to his own musicians approximates more nearly the typical judgment of Europeans on the condition of music in the United States before and at the turn of the century. This evaluation of American art was, to be sure, not wrapped up in a phrase so cruelly laconic as the usual reference to England as Das Land ohne Musik, but that was merely because the more modest pretensions of the United States made such a formulation almost irrelevant. Both before Mahler, and many years after him, it was claimed in Europe and freely admitted by word and action in this country, that any merit to which American musical life might lay claim was largely attributable to the migration of men and ideas from across the seas. It holds true in cultural as well as in military matters that weaker countries are invaded by the stronger.
The long history of music in America is a saga of growth from the early embryonic dependence on the rich cumulation of European culture to the present era, which manifests an admirable degree of maturity, independence, and self-respect. To be sure, it has been only during the most recent decades that even this partial emancipation from European tutelage has been effected. But there has been a discernible and inexorable trend toward independence, which has gained acceleration from every political crisis in Europe during the last 150 years. Not only have these crises expelled from her midst some of the most energetic exponents of the arts; but, likewise, in more recent periods, they have left her fatigued and harassed with an ever diminishing potency for further accomplishment. The French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848, and World Wars I and II are only the major and more obvious disturbances highlighting a continuous period of political and economic restlessness, which propelled in a steady stream of unprecedented volume the more volatile population in all the arts and crafts from their disorganized homelands into the fresh opportunities of a pioneer country. To this “push” from inside Europe one must add the “pull” of the fantastic economic expansion of the new world where dollars flowed like the “milk and honey” of old and promised fabulous rewards for every effort from coal mining to concertizing. This was a positive attraction for all who were either stifled by the monarchic atmosphere and other restraints, or crowded out by the saturated economic market of the old country. According to the Viennese critic, Eduard Hanslick, who never fumbled a chance for a sarcastic jafy “America was truly the promised land, if not of music, at least of the musician.”7
To obtain, for the purposes of objective history, an honest and balanced perspective of the actual material rewards of this migration—a perspective which of course many a nervously optimistic immigrant never achieved—it is obviously necessary to set off against the spectacular rewards of a Jenny Lind (nearly $175,000 net in two seasons), of an Anton Rubinstein, a Paderewski, and a score of other luminaries, the insolvent integrity of a Theodore Thomas and the frustrated dignity of a Leopold Damrosch. Both of them held valiantly to the course without a Barnum to embellish their paths, setting the pattern for innumerable but nameless teachers, performers, and chorus masters whose modest and collective efforts laid the foundation for whatever indigenous musical culture has since been erected. But by and large they were all well recompensed, for there was established in the New World a musical standard which not only competed very successfully with the Old World in monetary considerations, but eventually equalled and often surpassed it in professional excellence, so that by the time of World War I there remained very few masters—performers, teachers, and conductors—who could not be prevailed upon to share its prospects for a brief or lengthy period.
The most conspicuous single phenomenon in the evolution of this nineteenth-century American musical romance was the rise of the symphony orchestra. Although built on the German model, and although its basic repertoire has always been and still is largely Teutonic, it is nevertheless more peculiarly typical of America than is any other phase of serious music; and, similarly, there is no country in the world in which the symphony orchestra carries more prestige than in the United States. In no other country in the world has the symphony orchestra won the priority in status accorded it in the United States.
AN ENGLISH CONCERT IN THE 1840’S
Until about 1850, the conductor customarily faced the audience. (The Bettmann Archive)
THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF MUSIC,
FOURTEENTH STREET AND IRVING PLACE
The home of the best music in New York for many years,, until the Metropolitan Opera House was built. (The BettmannArchive)
If this claim seems inflated, one must be reminded that even in Germany, its ancestral home, the orchestra assumed a rank second to opera, while in the United States the opera furnished only periodic competition to the orchestra. With few possible exceptions, such as the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, the Meiningen orchestra under Biilow, and the Berlin Philharmonic under Nikisch and Furtwangler, most of the orchestras of central Europe, including the celebrated Vienna Philharmonic, were appendages to the opera, gained their livelihood from the opera, and could not compete with the opera in general patronage. That these conditions prevailed in early, as well as later days, is attested by Ottmar Schreiber, the historian of German orchestras, who explains the inferior position of the Munich orchestra in 1803 by the fact that the regular opera performances were the center of interest, which precluded the possibility of even a good orchestra attaining a high status in its own right. Later (1822-23), the Leipzig orchestra claims the “peculiar and unique virtue” of cultivating symphonic music as such, since in nearly every other orchestra it is considered secondary to other types of performances.8 At the time of the launching of the Boston orchestra in 1881, it was proudly declared by Boston rhapsodists with approximate accuracy that
in Germany, no unsubventioned orchestra can maintain itself without offering the public the additional attractions of lager beer and tobacco. A symphony orchestra pure and simple does not exist in all Europe. That is to say, that in no city in Germany, Italy, France or Russia is there an orchestra which is made up of players whose only business it is to perform such music as is to be found on programmes of symphony concerts. . . . This sounds sweeping. ... Bilse, supported by liquor, plays every day. But the orchestra is artistic bait merely. . . . All other orchestras are recruited from the opera.9
Even though German opera, from Mozart to Wagner, stressed the symphonic element as a copartner of the other arts, in contrast to the Italian opera, which subordinated the orchestra in the role of accompaniment to the vocal stars, such an emphasis was still far from according the solo orchestra a position of comparable dignity.
An examination of conductors’ careers further underscores this division of public interest between orchestra and opera. From the latter part of the century down to the present day almost all noted German conductors, many of whom subsequently sought fame in the United States, were, during their German careers, opera conductors first and orchestra leaders secondarily. Among these were Richter, Seidl, Gericke, Muck, Mahler, Reiner, Fritz Busch, and Bruno Walter. Even Billow, Nikisch, Furtwangler, and Weingartner, all of whom are associated by the American observer with the orchestra, shared their German professional life with the opera. Nowhere except in the United States do we find that almost lifelong, exclusive, and single-minded devotion to the orchestra that was permitted to Theodore Thomas, Stock, Stokowski, Goossens, Stransky, Ormandy, Koussevitzky, Mitropoulos, Golschmann, and a host of other conductors of the American symphony orchestras that have mushroomed “in the provinces” since the opening of this century. Others, like Walter Damrosch (very briefly), Seidl, Toscanini, Mahler, Hertz, Leinsdorf, Monteux, and Szell, gave their first services to the only opera company in the United States that survived to accumulate a history of dignified length and achievement. The continued growth of their reputations, however, proceeded not from the Metropolitan Opera Association, but from their consecration to their respective orchestras.
If the German orchestra had to content itself with sharing both prestige and conductors with the opera, this was all the more the case with the French orchestras and decidedly so in Italy, the traditional home of the opera itself. Habeneck, today remembered as the founder of the Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire in 1828, and who “taught” Wagner how to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth, was in his day best known as the conductor of the Paris Opera—a post to which Berlioz aspired, for it was “the only place where a French composer of that day could hope to find real fame and fortune.”10 The French interest in instrumental music, kindled by Habeneck and rekindled by Berlioz, Saint-Saens, and Cesar Franck, did not burst forth into a warm flame until the latter part of the century. Franck insisted on the dignity of chamber music and orchestral composition, but was hampered by the fact that the symphony was associated with the Germans who had ignominiously defeated the French (1871), a humiliation that solidified their musical sentiments by converting them into a patriotic issue.
In Italy, during the nineteenth century, there was almost no independent cultivation of the orchestra, though every town of any pretensions supported one or more opera houses. Thereby was created that prodigious demand for new operas, the setting in which Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti spawned their numerous musical progeny and Verdi rose to the pinnacle as the “grand old man of music.” It was Italian opera that inundated all Europe as far north as London and St. Petersburg, and left, like a receding glacier, the legacy of the Italian musical vocabulary, which has now become a sort of lingua franca for migratory conductors and musicians.
Even England, which boasts the oldest symphonic body in existence—the London Philharmonic was founded in 1813—could not show us an example of an orchestra competing successfully with the Royal Opera of Covent Garden for length of season and international eminence. The venerable “Phil,” whose history is studded with the most brilliant composers and conductors, never played more than six to ten concerts a season until the 1930’s. Though Sir Henry Wood achieved great popularity for the Promenade concerts in Queen’s Hall, established in 1895, and Hans Richter and Halle regaled London and Manchester with authoritative concerts for thirty years, Sir Thomas Beecham, the most scintillating of British conductors, has11 divided both his allegiance and his personal fortune between his operatic ventures and his orchestral exploits.
Circumstances and situations such as these are in sharp contrast to the almost monopolistic orchestra of the American scene and confirm the claim that the symphony orchestra has found in America its most congenial home. But previous to the emergence of the American symphony orchestra, which dates roughly from the middle of the nineteenth century, America, like Europe, generally accorded greater prestige to vocal and dramatic music.
When Wagner declared that Beethoven’s Choral Symphony evidenced the exhaustion of the expressive potentialities of instrumental or “absolute” music, he was of course guilty of an egregious miscalculation of the trend. But what was more significant, he was merely echoing a sentiment that had not only been repeatedly formulated, but had never really lost currency. From Rousseau, through Gluck, Weber, and Wagner, the inseparability of music and poetry had been proclaimed.12 Even the popularity of absolute music achieved by Haydn in England, the fame of the Mannheim orchestra, or the eminence of Beethoven—all of which loom large in the light of subsequent music history—could not shake the accumulated vocal traditions of Handel and of the Italian opera. The literal engulfment of all Europe in Italian vocal music during the early nineteenth century greatly embittered the declining years of the instrumentally minded Beethoven.
In France, according to Berlioz, instrumental music had indeed been regarded as “respectable, but distinctly inferior . . . Haydn and Mozart had achieved all that could be looked for in that direction.”13 When Habeneck first introduced well-disciplined performances of the sturdy Beethoven symphonies to the puzzled French, who had a sweet tooth for Italian vocal monody but no appetite for the heavy German symphonies, he was himself definitely cultivating a sideline. In a word, the general musical public, which was habituated to instrumental music as an expressive accompaniment to vocal themes, could not quickly accustom themselves to an autonomous and complex instrumental medium, An orchestra without a voice was like a pedestal without a statue. It had been suggested that, if instrumental music could emulate, or simulate, the voice, it could perhaps justify an independent existence. Therefore, K. P. E. B;ich endeavored to compose in as vocal a manner as possible. Charles Burney, a follower of French Encyclopedist thought, declared that
of musical tones the most grateful are such as are produced by the vocal organs. And next to singing, the most pleasing kinds are those which approach the nearest to vocal, such as can be sustained, swelled and diminished at pleasure. Of these the first in rank are such as the most excellent performers produce from the violin, flute, and hautbois.14
When such convictions become well established in the unconscious experience of a people, theorists will rationalize an explanation for what everybody already accepts. Thus the English Busby in his Dictionary avers that
The music of the voice, when good, is universally acknowledged to be infinitely superior in its effect to that of any instrument, for the tone is not only more natural, and therefore gratifying in itself, but with the union of sense with sound, by means of the words, the mind is entertained while the ear is delighted. ... Instrumental music is very inferior in its powers to vocal, yet it claims an honorable prerogative in having contributed so materially to the advancement of the vocal.15
There was some appreciation, however, for the fact that instrumental music was at least beginning to challenge this superiority, and that Germany was, of course, the leader in this development. Burney very early advanced the opinion that
though Italy has carried vocal music to a perfection unknown in any other country, much of the present excellence of instrumental music is owing to the natives of Germany, as wind and keyed instruments have never perhaps in any age or country been brought to a greater degree of refinement, either in construction or in use than by the modern Germans.16
Except for a few such rudimentary stirrings, the story in the United States after 1800 follows faithfully the European tradition. The pioneer period was safely past and the singing societies were gathering force. Even such organizations as the New York Philharmonic Society, founded in 1842 for the express purpose of cultivating the neglected instrumental field, garnished its programs liberally with vocal solos. That they dared not forsake the vocal art is evident from a complaint voiced in the Sixth Annual Report for that society: “We are living in a community where considerable prejudice exists unfavorable particularly to instrumental music.”
As late as 1881, Theodore Thomas, frustrated temporarily in his mission to establish orchestral music on a firm foundation, confessed that “although the contrary has been asserted, I think that it is in the vocal direction, and not in the instrumental, that the present development of the art lies. . . . Singing . . . appeals to everyone.”17 A similarly discouraged pronouncement (1895) is occasioned by the inhospitable reception of the orchestral strivings of the St. Louis Choral-Symphony Society:
It is a well known fact that instrumental concerts, i.e. symphony concerts, are as a rule not well patronized. ... As soon as it is known that only ‘mysterious’ symphonies and ‘learned’ overtures are offered, they take it for granted that such concerts are not intended for them. Here is where so many program dictators make a serious mistake. Why not compromise? Must people be converted in one season?18
Psychologically the reason for the allegiance enjoyed by vocal music is not remote. Vocal music in song, oratorio, or opera betokens dramatic action; it involves personalities and plots; there is “always something going on.” On the other hand, abstract tonal patterns do not ordinarily revive personal experiences, do not deal with or solve life’s problems. It is only after an adequate fund of tonal experiences has been accumulated that these tonal patterns awaken a meaningful reaction. That many instrumental composers have themselves supplemented their tonal creations with a “program” testifies to this. That program music is usually ranked low in the hierarchy of musical values is partially a result of the wounded pride of the instrumental purist for whom instrumental music is entirely self-sufficient, noble, and sublime, and who sees the literary element as an intrusion that corrupts the integrity of the tonal structure.
Again, much of the homage tendered vocal music was derived from the enthusiastic amateur participants in choral societies. Enormously less training and preparation were required for the chorus than for participation in instrumental ensembles. Some of the choral organizations, which always gratified social as well as musical aspirations, achieved a long and honorable history: the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, the Liederkranz of New York, which later merged with the Arion Society, the Apollo Club of Chicago, the Choral-Symphony Society of St. Louis, to say nothing of the veritable rash of Mannerchors in scores of cities, large and small, wherever there existed a minimum German settlement. From 1849 to the period of World War I the choral groups banded together in periodic regional and national festivals. But when these voluntary, amateur organizations were forced to compete with the diverse modern attractions that levy their claims on leisure time, even the strongest organizations perished, and only a few now remain as interesting relics of the golden age of song. In the history of the symphony orchestra, however, they have served a useful purpose, not only in the cultivation of musical taste in general, but also in their frequent collaboration with instrumental groups for presenting the masterpieces of Mass and Oratorio. This collaboration in some cases inspired the formation of the very instrumental orchestras that were destined to displace them.
This shift from popular participation to professionalism set the stage for the numerous orchestras founded since the close of the last century. It drove a fatal wedge between the lay audience, which during the choral days had shuttled rather easily back and forth across the footlights, and the highly trained orchestral body from which they were now barred. The chasm widened with the increasing preoccupation, on the one hand, of the audience in its own personal interests, and the increasing finesse of professional execution of the orchestral bodies on the other. To bridge this gap with a mutually acceptable repertoire, constructed on a common ground of aesthetic tastes and interests, it would be necessary, either for the unprofessional lay audience to reach forth to attain the maturity of the orchestra, or for the orchestras to condescend to the level of the audience which they left behind. It cannot be said that this problem has even yet been solved.
The ascent of instrumental music to its present exalted position required a century or more of growth and development from the epoch when a “symphony” was a mere instrumental fragment within an extended vocal composition, to the time when it had grown in dimensions and assumed an emancipated position. As in the case of every other shift in important social values, whether political, economic, or aesthetic, this canonization of instrumental music in general, and the symphony in particular, constituted a slow evolution in aesthetic values, and had to be ideologically defended and rationalized.
This defense appeared in the revival of Neo-Platonism in the romantic philosophies of the nineteenth century. Since Kant, and more particularly since Hegel, the fine arts were coupled with religion and philosophy as the human version of the Infinite, which only the properly gifted genius could to a certain extent fathom. This supernatural realm was the antithesis of the material world—according to the familiar division of Plato, of Christianity, and other cosmic philosophies—which was the concern of science. Scientific “truths,” conditioned as they are by the limitations of human reasoning and observation, were changeable, unstable, and constantly subject to correction. Aesthetic and religious truths were, however, ultimate and therefore of a higher order. Any industrious person, according to Kant, could become a scientist; but only an inspired person could be an artist and a prophet. Since the artist and philosopher dealt in eternal verities while the ordinary people were concerned with the mutable physical world, the inspiration of the artist, logically, became a higher law than the taste and appreciation of the mundane consumer. Of all the arts, music was often held to be the most removed from the material universe, although Kant accorded this high position to poetry. According to Schopenhauer, music was pure spirit. Even architecture, when it escapes material limitations, is “frozen music,” if Schelling is to be believed.
Music was not, therefore, mere entertainment and pleasure, as Burney and the eighteenth century had “mistakenly” surmised. Music, pure and instrumental, had a social mission, and its practitioners were gripped with the Messianic impulse to bring its finest examples to the people. Theodore Thomas epitomized the guiding philosophy of the nineteenth century:
A symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community . . . the man who does not understand Beethoven and has not been under his spell has not lived half his life. The masterworks of . . . instrumental music are the language of the soul and express more than those of any other art. Light music, “popular” so called, is the sensual side of the art and has more or less the devil in it.19
It was because instrumental music was considered the least sensuous, the least descriptive and mundane of all the arts, that it could never appeal to the masses as does vocal and “popular” music. That the symphony, which is only one of the many instrumental forms, should have won this position of honor and be sanctified as the ultimate fulfillment of musical expression is unquestionably owing to the influence of the nine symphonies of Beethoven. His deification by Schumann, Mendelssohn, and other romanticists followed within two decades after his death. Psychologically, furthermore, a symphony was a complete unit, as Berlioz, too, had emphasized; while overtures and other forms were short and fragmentary. By 1840, Schumann already referred as a matter of course to the symphony as the “highest style of instrumental music”;20 by 1864, Theodore Thomas was announcing “symphonic soirees”; and in 1878, Leopold Damrosch for the first time incorporated the term in the name of an orchestra—a practice that has been all but uniformly followed by the other American orchestras founded since that time. Instrumental music had indeed “arrived,” and the “symphony” orchestra was the most perfect vehicle for its promulgation.
The modern American symphony orchestras, which display so many similarities in their professional and economic organization, are obviously a culmination of a, long series of experimental progenitors. Out of this struggle for mere survival, as well as the lure of professional excellence, there has evolved a form of symphonic organization that appears to have adapted itself moderately well to our current social order; but which will, by the same token, undoubtedly undergo further developmental mutations in the future.
In comparison with European music, the beginnings of the American orchestra were, as already indicated, pathetically meagre. For in this country there were no luxurious courts and castles which could sustain a Haydn, nor a landed nobility which could pension a Beethoven, nor yet the rich tradition in which whole nations take pride, and are thereby automatically impelled to nurture the arts and set standards for emulation. Still awaited in the United States were the counterparts of their European forebears: the philanthropic amateurs who were to deliver such a decisive impetus to the development of music a half century later, and the financiers and captains of industry who would seize upon the symphony orchestra to proclaim their civic pride.
Without such royal or industrial patronage, the early American (as well as English) orchestras were thrown upon their own resources. The Graupner “orchestra,” of Boston, the earliest essay in “permanent” orchestral organization, today would hardly merit the name. A German who had migrated to London and played under Haydn in 1791-92, Gottlieb Graupner subsequently emigrated to Charleston and finally settled in Boston where, as teacher of oboe, flute, and violin and as proprietor of a publishing house, he established himself as the musical factotum in that city of 25,000 inhabitants. Not only did he inspire the founding of the Handel and Haydn Society, but he also gathered together a dozen musicians to play the symphonies of Gyrowetz and Haydn, and to study such other scores as were available in the incipiently cultured Boston of that day. His enterprise has gained for him from some historians the hackneyed but appreciative title of “father of the American Orchestra.”
Every other city also sprouted its musical organizations, even though the cultural soil might have been more stony than that of the precocious East. Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Francisco, and other communities, as they attained a modicum of wealth and leisure, and attracted German and French immigrants, cultivated the Muses. If the beginnings were usually modest, casual, and ephemeral, they still were harbingers of greater things to come.
At mid-century, there appeared from across the waters a source of energy that fertilized the American symphonic movement and accelerated its maturation. In 1848, as a precipitation from the German revolution of that year, a score of impecunious but competent musicians banded themselves together for a concert tour of America. Having gained their initial and greatest success in Boston, this Germania Orchestra responded to a demand from cities as far west as St. Louis, played the Beethoven symphonies together with an assortment of more or less serious music, and inculcated for the first time some appreciation for reasonably dexterous performance of the classics. The members of this group, however, soon became aware of the melancholy truth that traveling orchestras, then as now, were not necessarily profitable enterprises. At their dissolution in 1854, they scattered from Boston to Chicago, thereby continuing the work of fructifying American musical culture to its everlasting benefit. One of these members, Carl Bergmann, cellist and conductor, soon became the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Bergmann was an ardent disciple of Wagner and Liszt, and according to Theodore Thomas, with whom he was associated for many years, he was “the first man in this country who gave proper rendering of Beethoven . . . and the first real conductor to give us an insight of our great composers.”21
More sensational, but less durable in influence, was the French conductor, Louis Antoine Jullien, showman extraordinary, who brought his orchestra of European artists, including many of the most prominent instrumentalists, to the United States in 1853-54. This orchestra was augmented by an American contingent to one hundred players, with whom he presented nightly concerts in New York for a period of two months. After nine months sojourn, during which he conducted two hundred concerts and toured the country from Boston to New Orleans, the irrepressible Jullien instituted the first of America’s “jumbo” concerts—later to take the name of “festival”—in New York in June, 1854. This “Grand Musical Congress,” which was made up of 1,500 instrumentalists and sixteen choral societies, performed selections from the great oratorios as well as symphonic numbers. The less sophisticated of the 20,000 members of the audience satiated their appetite on this occasion with one of the Jullienesque “descriptive pieces,” specially written for the occasion, the Firemaris Quadrille.
Jullien may have been a musical demagogue, for he was never unmindful of the psychological effect of such extramusical trappings, the jewelled baton and spotless white gloves for a Beethoven rendition, or the frenetic gestures for his many quadrilles. But he was definitely not a humbug, as was alleged by some snobbish observers. He received extravagant notices, even in the best press, for his serious achievements: “His fiddles all bowed together .. . . he was painstaking and energetic in rehearsals ... he attained a pianissimo, while the New York Philharmonic could not even achieve a piano, much less a pianissimo” Hz explored the means of reaching the masses, which the austere New York Philharmonic never dreamed of and the dignified Germania barely attempted. While crude megalomania never again reached such heights, it was by no means inconspicuous in the monster festivals of Damrosch, Thomas, or Patrick Gilmore the bandmaster, while the personal career of the virtuoso conductor down to the present day is never quite devoid of a subtle touch of it, intent on sending the music on its way more effectively.
In the local contingent of the Jullien orchestra was an eighteenyear-old violinist, Theodore Thomas, who absorbed his first impressions of disciplined rehearsals, and who was to continue the sowing so that a later generation might reap. Theodore Thomas was the first modern conductor to fulfill completely the promise of symphonic ideals. During the middle years of his pioneering career, this indomitable spirit launched, or participated in, three distinct experiments in symphonic organization, the third of which was destined to become the standard one. The Thomas biography is the evolutionary history of the American symphony orchestra.
As his first venture, in 1863, he founded his own organization, a permanent and fully employed body of men, presented in popular concerts in the famous Central Park Garden, Seventh Avenue near Fifty-eighth Street, and in serious concerts in Steinway Hall on Fourteenth Street. It was this well-disciplined band, held together with minor interruptions for about twenty-five years with modest material assistance from William Steinway and other friends, that imparted the first genuine and substantial impetus to the establishment of sound symphonic standards outside New York City. Essentially it was the product of Thomas’ own financial and artistic responsibility, whose exciting history of alternating frustration and success has been repeatedly told.22 Although it has been averred that the New York Philharmonic stimulated the organization of orchestras in other cities of the United States,23 this is an overstatement. It was the migratory Thomas, with the Thomas orchestra, that whetted the appetite for disciplined performance in Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Chicago.
After a second undertaking—the direction of the New York Philharmonic Society (1879-91), Thomas finally achieved the fulfillment of his dream in the Chicago Orchestra (1891) supported by philanthropic subsidy. (See profiles of the Chicago and New York orchestras.)
This, Thomas’ third type of organizational experiment, bears pointed testimony to the tenacity of his purpose and the eminence of his ideals. Even this persistence would have availed little had it not been supported by resolute philanthropic forces, whose patience was fortified by the powerful stimulant of civic pride and the fierce determination of a frontier city to crash the company of the cultivated East.
In addition to the cooperative system of the New York Philharmonic and the private enterprise of Theodore Thomas, there appeared a variation of the philanthropic systems of administration that is today practically obsolete. This was the personal philanthropy practiced by such persons as Edward Bok in Philadelphia, William Clark in Los Angeles, Clarence Mackay, and H. H. Flagler in New York, but which attained its consummate perfection in the Boston Orchestra, the creation of Henry Higginson, the Boston financier. The first orchestra to profit from an almost unlimited philanthropy, it was modelled on the court troupes of Europe, and was established, owned, and administered by one man who looked upon and treated his musicians as his salaried employees. It differed from its European prototype, however, in two significant respects. First, it was in no sense functionally a private orchestra but was administered solely in the interest of public performance; second, it was dominated by an aesthetic idealism which entrusted the musical director with complete >and autonomous jurisdiction, unrestrained by any economic, political, or personal consideration. Never has the theory of “artistic supremacy” been more perfectly implemented. It set the pattern of things to come. If detailed features have been altered, the general principle of philanthropic support, which permits a certain autonomy to an aesthetic standard, is now well accepted in orchestral administration.
The story of this long and gradual evolution is best told in the histories of the individual major orchestras.