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A Message for Young Musicians and Old Orchestras

I was recently entrusted with delivering the graduation address for the School of Music at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. I wound talking about the future of orchestras. My larger point was that this is a moment for young musicians – and not so young institutions – to hone their sense of mission. Here’s what I had to offer:

A lot of the writing that I’ve done over the past 25 years has explored the story of classical music in America in its most dynamic period – the late nineteenth century.

Here’s a vignette: the Metropolitan Opera presented the premiere of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 1886. When the curtain fell on Isolde’s Liebestod, stunned silence ensued for a period of minutes. Then – as we can read in the Musical Courier – women in the audience stood on their chairs and “screamed their delight for what seemed hours.”

Here’s a second anecdote about the same event. In the third act, Wagner has Tristan tear the bandages off his wound when he sees Isolde’s ship approach. The wound bleeds copiously, and Tristan expires. When Albert Niemann, the Met’s first Tristan, tore his bandages and bared his wound, many in the audience swooned. At subsequent performances, the bandages remained intact. I don’t think that this story is about an audience’s timidity; what it documents is an unbearable intensity of experience.

I would suggest that at least four ingredients account for the astounding urgency and immediacy of this epochal 1886 operatic performance. The first of course is Wagner’s opera – it was radically new. The second is the condition of the people who swooned and screamed. That the vast majority of Wagnerites in late nineteenth century America were women tells us that Wagner answered powerful needs, needs for self-realization not otherwise answered for corseted and sequestered Gilded Age housewives and mothers.

The third ingredient is the Metropolitan Opera of the 1880s and 90s – never again would the Met be such a hotbed of innovation and experimentation. Its visionary mastermind was a charismatic conductor who had lived with Wagner almost as a surrogate son: Anton Seidl, the central missionary for Wagnerism in the United States. Fourth, and finally, Americans of the late nineteenth century were acutely susceptible to sophisticated art and culture: it crucially helped them to discover and define who they were, and what America was as a nation.

I have a new book, published this month, titled Moral Fire. Here are three sentences from my introduction:

“If screaming Wagnerites standing on chairs are unthinkable today, it is partly because we mistrust high feeling. Our children avidly specialize in vicarious forms of electronic interpersonal diversion. Our laptops and televisions ensnare us in a surrogate world that shuns all but facile passions; only Jon Stewart and Bill Maher share moments of moral outrage disguised as comedy.”

The full of title of my new book is Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin de Siecle. The portraits are of Laura Langford, who presented Wagner concerts 14 times a week in summertime at Coney Island; of Henry Krehbiel, the onetime dean of New York’s music critics; of Charles Ives, arguably the most important concert composer that this country ever produced; and of Henry Higginson, who invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The binding theme is that all four of these heroic individuals embraced the notion that art is morally empowering.

They inhabited a moment half a century before the music lovers Hitler and Stalin discredited art as a moral beacon. But we can still, I believe, draw inspiration from their example, and from those screaming Wagnerites at the Met.

This afternoon, I would mainly like to ponder the saga of Henry Higginson and his Boston Symphony – its gestation and subsequent history – and ask what lessons this history might teach today.

Higginson was not born to wealth. As a young man he went to Vienna to become a musician. When he discovered that he lacked sufficient talent to excel, he adopted a different life plan: to amass enough capital to create a world class orchestra for the city of Boston. He entered the family business, which happened to be banking. Then, in 1881, at the age of 47, he placed an announcement in every Boston paper headed “in the interest of great music.”

What Higginson announced was the creation of a Boston Symphony Orchestra, wholly financed by himself. It would perform twice weekly, October thru March. Its membership would be stable – no playing for dances on rehearsal or performance days. Also, a certain number of 25 cent tickets would be set aside for all performances – because Henry Higginson was a cultural democrat.

By 1900, Higginson’s Boston Symphony was already internationally acknowledged as a great orchestra. It was already a catalyst for the creation of important orchestras in Cincinnati and Chicago. It already gave more than 100 concerts a season. It already offered a summer series of Promenade concerts – today’s Boston Pops. In format, length, and ritual, its concerts were virtually identical to the Boston Symphony concerts of today.

That by 1900 Higginson’s orchestra looked and sounded like American concert orchestras a century later either documents resilience – or inertia: resistance to change. Meanwhile, the world was changing – and in ways that impacted on the symphonic experience.

A useful criterion in assessing any cultural event is “sense of occasion.” Higginson was lucky: his concerts created a sense of occasion automatically. In 1900, you couldn’t hear an orchestra in your living room on the radio or phonograph. Also, orchestras the caliber of Boston’s were few and far between. Also, Higginson’s audience was keenly inquisitive about new music: new symphonies by, say, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. Also, Boston’s audience equally appreciated local composers. Everyone understood that George Chadwick was no Beethoven – but every new symphonic work Chadwick composed was promptly premiered by Higginson’s orchestra. Theodore Thomas, the founding father of American symphonic culture, preached that “a symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community.” Higginson’s Boston Symphony did that.

If this late Gilded Age moment marks the apex of classical music in America, that’s because it’s a moment buoyed by a central aspiration, an aspiration influentially pursued by Antonin Dvorak as director of Jeannette Thurber’s courageous National Conservatory of Music – the aspiration to create for American orchestras and opera companies a native repertoire of operas and symphonies that would gird American classical music to come. But this never happened. We instead acquired a mutant musical high culture, a Eurocentric culture privileging masterpieces by dead Europeans.

How that occurred and why are questions that have long preoccupied me. Certainly, after World War I, visionaries like Higginson – or Thurber, or Dvorak, or Anton Seidl, or Henry Krehbiel, or Thedore Thomas – were little in evidence. Instead, the central powerbroker for classical music was a businessman: Arthur Judson, who simultaneously ran the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Columbia Artists Management – the major booking agency for conductors and solo instrumentalists. It was Judson’s frank opinion that an orchestra’s programming could QUOTE “only go as far as the public will go with us.”

This notion that the audience sets taste was something new, a concession unknown to the pioneering tastemakers of turn-of-the-century America.

With the advent of recordings, of radio and TV, orchestras could be heard at home. With the advent of modernism, audiences were estranged from contemporary music as never before. That every concert would generate a sense of occasion, as in Higginson’s Boston, could no longer be assumed. All of this challenged orchestras — or might have — to rethink the concert experience. Then came exigent challenges of another kind. Since 2005, the average orchestral deficit – and most American orchestras run deficits – has more than tripled. Classical music participation has dropped 30 per cent over the past two decades. Costs continue to rise faster than revenues. According to Jesse Rosen, who heads the League of American Orchestras, “The current problems are not cyclical problems. The recession has merely brought home and exacerbated longterm problems.”

And here’s one more statistic – according to a survey of Philadelphia Orchestra subscribers – by reputation, a conservative body of listeners – only 21 per cent are in favor of standard format concerts with no talking. This hunger for information, I would say, reflects both fatigue with business-as-usual among “old listeners” and the growing needs of “new listeners.”

I cannot recommend a panacea. But I’d like to cite one sign of constructive change. As never before, American orchestras are experimenting with what’s known in the field as “contextualized programming.” – explicating music in the context of cultural and political history, and in relationship to literature, the visual arts, dance and theater. The Chicago Symphony calls it “Beyond the Score.” The New York Philharmic has used the rubric “Inside the Music.” Philadelphia offers “Access Concerts.”

In particular, a landmark $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities supports a consortium of orchestras intent on absorbing contextualized programs not as a tangential option, but as part of their central artistic mission.

During the season just concluded – the first year of this NEH “Music Unwound” initiative — three orchestras performed Dvorak’s New World Symphony in tandem with a visual presentation restoring the cultural vocabulary of the symphony’s first New York audience, culling pertinent excerpts from Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, culling iconic paintings of the American West by Albert Biestadt, George Catlin, and Frederic Remington.

The Buffalo Philharmonic’s “Dvorak and America” festival incorporated an event at an art museum exploring the relationship between Dvorak’s symphony and what art historians term “the American sublime.” The North Carolina Symphony’s Dvorak festival, last February, linked to 11th grade American History classrooms that made Dvorak‘s American sojourn a major curricular component. When the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra did its Dvorak festival, last March, all 100 members of the orchestra, grades 9 to 12, studied the Dvorak story in detail, and inquired into the possible impact of extra-musical readings on the way musicians hear and interpret Dvorak’s American symphony.

The success of these festivals – all the participating orchestras are eager for more – suggests that today’s orchestras, unlike Henry Higginson’s Boston Symphony, cannot take their mission for granted. This is a moment for orchestras to refresh and even to reformulate their reasons to exist.

And I would like to further suggest, in closing, that this lesson may pertain to young artists such as those assembled here today.

Certainly those of us in classical music occupy a milieu in flux. It is, I would say, incumbent on us to discover and articulate, as never before, a personal sense of mission. We cannot assume that we can slip into existing niches of professional experience – because those niches are vanishing or evolving. When I meet with young pianists, I urge them to study composition and improvisation, and music outside the Western canon – to identify objectives that are specific, novel, and individual – new pieces or little-known composers that they believe in, or new ways of presenting music in live performance. And in fact a fresh wind of entrepreneurial innovation is everywhere apparent.

Those 1886 Wagnerites screamed and stood in their chairs because Tristan und Isolde answered the needs of the moment – needs demanding a new kind of artistic expression, and new realms of aesthetic experience. Today’s moment again generates substantially new needs, needs impacting on artists and on artistic institutions.

This challenge is equally an opportunity.

Thank you very much.

Comments

  1. A fantastic and thought-provoking piece–thank you.

  2. Honigberg says:

    You make many good points Joe. Orchestras need to experiment, reach out and indeed many are. In Your Neighborhood, residencies in different parts of the country, year long programs teaching and coaching talented youths are just a few of what the National Symphony Orchestra offers. Concerts with large screens, accompanying film classics, Disney classics and video game programs attract younger audiences. The ever popular Pops programs attract a different audience as well. But Joe, the need for Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Schubert, Rachmaninov etc will never wane. Their profundity outweighs all need for sweeping change. No one is swooning at our concerts, thank goodness, but absorption of content is what makes people come back again and again.

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