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Moral Fire and Mitt Romney

As readers of this blog know, I am the author of a recently published book titled “Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle.” My topic is culture as an agent of moral empowerment. That is: my portraits are of four late nineteenth century Americans who believed that exposure to Beethoven and/or Wagner made people “better” – more humane, more compassionate. This is, I argue, a notion far out of fashion – and yet pertinent today.

Last week I received an email from a colleague – an American historian – inquiring if reviewers of Moral Fire “got it.” I wrote back that the reviews have been uniformly favorable, but cursory. Only one reviewer (in the Wall Street Journal) had expressed a caveat. She was disconcerted that I did not seem bothered that Henry Higginson, Laura Langford, and Henry Krehbiel were elitist “paternalists.” This caveat initially perplexed me because Moral Fire emphasizes that Higginson, Langford, and Krehbiel were democrats. That is: as inventor, owner, and operator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Higginson reserved 25 cent tickets for all performances. As founder of the Seidl Society (a remarkable Brooklyn women’s club that presented Wagner at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at Coney Island), Langford brought working women and orphans to her Brighton Beach concerts (which were even less expensive than Higginson’s at Symphony Hall). As the “dean” of New York music critics, Krehbiel opined that the Dahomians at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition (despised and caricatured by other writers) were “amazingly ingenious” musicians, more rhythmically sophisticated than “Berlioz in his supremest efforts with his army of drummers.”

In the context of the late Gilded Age, an “elitist” would be , e.g., John Sullivan Dwight, whose Harvard Musical Association concerts were only attendable by members of the Harvard Musical Association. No less than Higginson or Krehbiel, Dwight believed that Beethoven was morally empowering. But he feared the rabble; Boston’s Irish seemed uneducable to him.

Higginson, Langford, and Krehbiel, by comparison, were zealous democratic pedagogues. Higginson delighted in the variety of his patrons at Symphony Hall (a classless auditorium without boxes). Langford’s Society pioneered in presenting lectures with orchestra. Krehbiel wrote the most widely used primer for musical laymen. They shared a conviction that learning and (especially) the arts would spread sweetness and light.

That Higginson, Langford, and Krehbiel can nonetheless be read as elitists is a function of their language and convictions resituated in our twenty-first century. Persons educated and (especially) cultivated, they believed, were better persons. Beethoven’s symphonies, as experienced by Higginson and Krehbiel, inculcated humanity. Parsifal, as experienced by Langford, inculcated compassion.

The uses of “education” are otherwise understood today. When educators and politicians talk about education, they talk about jobs and about the path to professional status and income. There is no talk, as in the late Gilded Age, of education as a catalyst for character, and of status thereby conferred.

Higginson, who cared about the wellbeing of his city and of his nation about as much as any single human being could, wrote and lectured about “citizenship.” What kinds of citizens comprise our electorate today? I am a cultural historian, inexpert in the history of government and politics. My impression, for what it’s worth, is that the pertinent machinery of propaganda is more pervasive and sophisticated than ever before – that the electorate has never been more manipulable. Education, which could counteract Fox News, is today redefined by learning standards and standardized multiple choice tests. Mitt Romney, in the third Presidential debate, recast himself as amenable and non-confrontational as a strategy to woo women. It seems to have worked. His credibility generally – his status – partly depends on his documented capacity to amass wealth.

When Romney speaks of education in terms of the high rankings enjoyed by Massachusetts schools when he was governor, he is not talking about education as I understand it. What I understand is that he opposes the NEA, the NEH, and PBS. Higginson (who, like Krehbiel, never graduated from college) elucidated an educational ideal different from Romney’s when he wrote that the Eroica Symphony “opens the flood-gates.” “The wail of grief, and then the sympathy which should comfort the sufferer. The wonderful funeral dirge, so solemn, so full, so deep, so splendid, and always with courage and comfort. The delightful march home from the grave in the scherzo . . . and then [in the finale] the climax of the melody, where the gates of heaven open, and we see the angels singing and reaching their hands to us with perfect welcome. No words are of any avail, and never does that passage of entire relief and joy come to me without tears – and I wait for it through life, and hear it, and wonder.”

Another exemplar of Moral Fire from late nineteenth century America is the composer Antonin Dvorak, hired by Jeannette Thurber to direct her National Conservatory of Music. Mrs. Thurber was a fervent, if unsuccessful, advocate of federal funding for the arts. (So was Dvorak.) She inspired Dvorak to help American composers find an “American” voice. Krehbiel eagerly abetted this effort. The notion of American cultural identity embedded in Dvorak’s New World Symphony is one that embraces African Americans and Native Americans as iconic Americans. Dvorak came to this view via moral fire: a butcher’s son raised within a Hapsburg minority, he compassionately identified with the poor and disenfranchised.

Last spring, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra presented a “Dvorak and America’ festival exploring the message of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. JoAnn Falletta, the orchestra’s music director, later wrote: “What was truly astonishing was that many [concert-goers] said that the symphony was completely changed for them — revealed as a work with deep literary roots and steeped in Dvorak’s empathy for the cultural world of Native Americans and African Americans. The composer himself emerged not only as a consummate artist but as a great humanitarian and visionary.”

The crux of this testimonial is that Dvorak’s symphony matters because it conveys a moral message that is timeless and inspirational. I would call Buffalo’s festival an act of education.

P.S.: For more on Romney’s corporate view of American exceptionalism, and its educational content, see E. L. Doctorow’s “Narrative C” in the Winter 2012 Daedalus.


  1. This is a little off-topic, but: As for Dvorak’s splendid works, while they certainly cast in new light the fascinating idioms of native American and African music, I believe the fact is routinely overlooked that he also displays the beauties of European music, eastern and western, that ALL of the above are heard in his compositions, and ALL are to be appreciated in those terms. I believe the forest is missed for the trees in Dvorak: His music exquisitely exemplifies the principle of the American “Melting Pot.” Let’s revel in ALL aspects of his music, not just those that may stand out to as “exotic” in terms of Western Art music. (Also, on another note, am I alone in believing that Antonin Dvorak is the most undeservedly neglected composer in terms of scholarship? I find his gift for melody matches Mozart’s and his treatment of motive was as creative as Beethoven’s! Am I alone in this view? Long live dear Antonin!!)

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