The Traveling Virtuoso

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On September 9, 1839, Edmund Simpson, manager of the Park Theatre in New York, presented a new opera company that had just arrived from England. They brought with them an opera never before heard in the United States, Beethoven’s Fidelio. New Yorkers were used to opera as light fare, and if the critics’ remarks are any guide, locals were perplexed, even bewildered, by the work. The writer for the Corsair, probably Nathaniel Parker Willis, resorted to vague third-person rumor rather than comment directly on the merits of the opera itself: “Musicians tell us that [Fidelio] is a most masterly effort of genius, abounding in all the elements of a sublime, lyrical opera.” In New York at the time, opera and “sublime” were seldom used in the same sentence. Willis then played it safe, praising the singers in the company. The writer for the Knickerbocker pursued a similar strategy; he focused on the instrumental parts, finding them “beautiful and touching.”

Especially noteworthy regarding Beethoven’s reception is this comment from the American, September 10, 1839, which exalted the composer even beyond Parker’s tributes: “Oh! May you give your spirit up to him fearlessly! He will transport you to other worlds, and infuse a thousand strange and thrilling sensations—will cradle you in his arms until, in admiration of his strength, you forget how powerful you are, and when he has poured those notes into your ear, and you are filled with tremblings, of golden wires half conscious of their own thrilling—he leaves you petrified, enchanted—in a silent dream where even the echoes have subsided.”

This statement is something of a landmark in U.S. Beethoven attitudes. It is the first inkling of a reputation that would predominate by the end of the nineteenth century and would culminate in the composer’s virtual deification by the early twentieth century. It was not Fidelio, however, that ushered in a new, widespread appreciation of Beethoven. While the opera did appear occasionally in the repertoire over the next several years, it was only when all the Beethoven symphonies began to appear frequently in the 1840s that the glorification of Beethoven began in earnest.

Beethoven was making other inroads. Out of the spotlight young pianists had begun to plunk away on the Beethoven sonatas, and occasionally their efforts found their way into the historical record. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a cousin of Henry Lee Higginson, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, refers to his sister as “one of the first in this region to play Beethoven,” around 1830. Samuel Jennison, recalling his time at Harvard in the 1830s, remembered a “graduate, a devoted amateur, rooming in Massachusetts,” studying Beethoven sonatas, “then just beginning to become known.”

Thus as late as 1840 Beethoven was known and respected in America, but few were aware of his music. That changed dramatically in two of the largest cities in the 1840s, Boston and New York, and soon spread throughout the country. A conflux of factors came together to transform the American musical landscape and, with that, to establish both Beethoven’s canonicity and popularity.

The first and probably most important factor, which had nothing to do with music directly, was the railroad. As tracks began to appear in the 1830s, distance and time were altered radically. Prior to the railroad most travelers were lucky to manage twenty to thirty miles a day. The trip from Baltimore to Philadelphia took three days, in coaches that were at best uncomfortable and on roads that were subject to delays, difficulties, and danger. Ship travel between ports was possible, but steamships were not yet common, and sailing ships were slow and uncertain. Other water routes, either rivers or canals, offered somewhat better travel, but these did not always connect the important population centers. The Erie Canal, linking the Hudson at Albany with Lake Erie at Buffalo, had been completed in 1825, and, while important as an opening to the West, it soon became obsolete as railroad tracks crawled westward. When Baltimore and Philadelphia were joined, that three-day trip was cut to five hours.

The railroad opened America to the traveling virtuoso. By the 1840s European virtuosi, well established on the continent and starting to feel the competition from their numbers, began to look across the Atlantic to what seemed a lucrative and virgin field ripe for picking. In the early 1840s they began to arrive and created a sensation. One of the first, the violinist Ole Bull, opened American’s ears to what the violin could do. Fiddlers existed everywhere, and even those who had heard Anthony Heinrich had no idea of the level of virtuosic excitement the instrument was capable of in the hands of someone like Bull. Other instrumentalists followed suit, including the violinist Henri Vieuxtemps, the cellist Henry Knoop, and the pianist Harold Meyer.

No one, however, created quite the sensation that the soprano Jenny Lind did on her visit in 1850. P. T. Barnum, showman, shrewd businessman, and possibly the most successful promoter in American history, was keenly tuned to American tastes, or to what could be exploited. Something in both Lind and the rapidly developing American musical scene caught his eye. Thus began a strange, unlikely alliance between the demur, refined “Swedish nightingale” and America’s huckster extraordinaire. Her visit and Barnum’s shrewd tactics succeeded beyond anything the American public had seen, and can best be compared to the Beatles’ invasion of 1964. Barnum auctioned off the first ticket for $225, equivalent to $6,380 in 2009 dollars.

While neither Lind nor the other virtuosi featured Beethoven on their programs, they did much to further the notion of music as a powerful, moving experience. John S. Dwight, who was to become the leading spokesman in America for music as high art (see chapter 2), gave voice to that change in attitude when he first heard Ole Bull. Dwight later came to believe that virtuosic display such as Bull’s and manipulation of public taste à la Barnum only demeaned the nature of the art, but that was not his first impression. On that occasion Dwight wrote to his friend, the poet Lydia Marie Child: “The most glorious sensation I ever had was to sit in one of his audiences, and to feel that all were elevated to the same pitch with myself, that the spirit in every breast had risen to the same level.” Dwight knew that something was changing in musical America, but he had not yet had time to reflect on what it meant.

The factor most directly related to Beethoven’s impact was the development of orchestras in New York and Boston and their success with the American public. Prior to the 1840s, a number of musical societies existed on the East Coast: the St. Cecilia Society of Charleston, the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, the Philoharmonic Society of Boston, three Philharmonic Societies in New York. None of these, however, should be equated with modern orchestras, such as today’s New York Philharmonic. Orchestral ensembles were one part of musical societies, whose concerts featured a wide-ranging potpourri of offerings. As in Charleston and Lexington, a typical concert would normally open and close with a piece by the “full band,” which usually meant orchestra, and in between would be a variety of offerings, solo instrumental or small ensemble pieces, songs, glees, improvisations, by whatever and whoever was available. The concerts were like variety shows meant purely for entertainment and amusement. The orchestras themselves were pickup groups, consisting of members of the society, professional musicians hired for the occasion along with some amateurs. According to most reports, the performance level ranged from barely acceptable to abysmal.

New societies in which orchestral music was more than a stage curtain to open and close a program emerged in both Boston and New York in the 1840s. Even though each city took a strikingly different path to that point, each city arrived at the same place almost simultaneously. In Boston the path spun off from the main road of sacred vocal music that had dominated public musical activity since the founding of the Handel and Haydn Society in 1815. Lowell Mason, the most important figure in the effort to instill in Americans a more uplifting style of hymns and sacred music, had become president of the Handel and Haydn Society in 1827. By 1832 he was discouraged with the level of singing in churches and had come to the conclusion that the only way to improve church music was to found a new society devoted to that cause. The problem, it should be noted, was not the same as the one that so riled the earlier Puritan preachers. Mason believed in a decorous, proper type of music more aligned with the European tradition. To further that end he left the Handel and Haydn Society to found the Boston Academy of Music. Article I of the Academy’s constitution states that “its object shall be to promote knowledge, and correct taste in music, especially such as is adapted to moral and religious purposes.”

The society provided vocal instruction for both adults and “juveniles,” sponsored lectures, formed choirs, and presented concerts. Buried in Point 8 of a long list of objectives specifying how the Academy would realize its goals was what may have been Mason’s real motivation: “To introduce vocal music into the schools.” Mason had come to the conclusion that the only hope for improving church music was to start when people were young, and the only way to make that happen was to get music instruction into the school curriculum.

For the first three years of the society Mason’s plan worked. He was appointed “Professor,” with one assistant, George J. Webb, and by the third year he and Webb were teaching music to some 2,200 pupils, in various locales, including some private schools. By 1835, the Academy had become a success and a major force in the musical community. Then it all began to change because of one person, Samuel Atkins Eliot.

In 1835 Eliot replaced Reverend Jacob Abbott as president of the Boston Academy of Music. How he came to be elected and why he even wanted the position is not known, but in retrospect his agenda was clear. Singlehandedly, he transformed the Academy from a religious-oriented, pedagogical organization into a secular concert-giving institution with an orchestra as its centerpiece. Primarily because of the Academy, Boston witnessed a seismic shift in the musical landscape from 1832 to 1840; symphony replaced Psalmody.

Eliot was an unlikely figure to instigate a musical revolution. As a member of one of the most important families in Boston, he was not expected to disturb the status quo, and he was not expected to be involved in music. At first he did not and was not. Like most wealthy young men from Boston, he graduated from Harvard College, in 1817. He went to Harvard Divinity School but decided not to pursue a ministerial career, although he remained active in his family’s Unitarian church. He spent three years in Europe, from 1820 to 1823, gaining culture, and upon his return he married the daughter of another wealthy merchant, Mary Lyman. Financially he was set for life.

Throughout the 1820s Eliot gave no evidence of any interest in music, other than singing in his church’s choir. During his three-year European sojourn he sent back many letters about the places he visited and the sights he saw, especially the museums and galleries. Eliot was clearly interested in the visual arts, but there is not a single mention of music.

The only known image of Samuel Atkins Eliot, mayor of Boston and president of the Boston Academy of Music, taken from Mayors of Boston: An Illustrated Epitome of Who the Mayors Have Been and What They Have Done (Boston: State Street Trust Company, 1914)

Figure 1.2 The only known image of Samuel Atkins Eliot,
mayor of Boston and president of the Boston Academy of Music,
taken from Mayors of Boston: An Illustrated Epitome
of Who the Mayors Have Been and What They Have Done
(Boston: State Street Trust Company, 1914) 15.
The original of what appears to be a daguerreotype is lost.

What seemed to have changed Eliot’s mind was the sudden death of his brother William in 1829. William was two years older and had displayed as much interest in music as was possible under his class restrictions. It was almost as if the musical mantle had been passed to Samuel, and he felt obliged to take it up. He never became a performer, but he devoted considerable time after that both to musical organizations and to writing about music in various literary journals. As an advocate for music in class-conscious Boston, he was ideally placed; he was not only a member of the socioeconomic elite, but active in politics. He was mayor of Boston from 1837 to 1839 and a member of Congress in 1850 and 1851. Daniel Webster described him as “the impersonification of Boston; ever-intelligent, ever-patriotic, ever-glorious Boston.”

On assuming the presidency of the Boston Academy, Eliot immediately began to make changes, although he had to go slowly. He hired an instrumental professor and made an arrangement with an amateur society to form an orchestra. He also stated in the Third Annual Report (1835) that the academy was not devoted strictly to sacred music “as has been supposed.” By 1837 he hinted at his agenda but felt it was not yet time to reveal it, observing only that “plans of more extensive usefulness, and wider fields of effort have presented themselves to our minds, and these not of a visionary nature; but we have been obliged to content ourselves with merely contemplating them as objects which we should be able to compass at some future time.”

It is not clear whether Lowell Mason’s presence still loomed over the Academy, but by the next year he was for all practical purposes gone, having achieved his long-desired appointment as superintendent of music in the schools of Boston. For whatever reason, in 1838 Eliot brought his agenda into the open. He announced his intention to concentrate on an orchestra and to let the choirs atrophy through calculated neglect. When a member of the choir resigned, no effort was made to replace him. At first Eliot’s efforts met resistance, but not from the sacred music community. Eliot tried to enlist all the instrumental professional musicians in Boston into one orchestra under the Academy’s umbrella, but many were skeptical that it could succeed financially or were concerned about the Academy’s oversight. Lacking was a strong instrumental leader who had the prestige to pull the musicians together. Eliot was also aware that the public itself was familiar only with theater orchestras, which were at best chaotic, haphazard, and undisciplined, whose main function was to bellow out popular tunes, often shouted from the audience, and which performed in an environment so rowdy most men would not bring their wives. The public would need to be persuaded that his orchestra was different.

Eliot proceeded cautiously, at first blending a few lighter orchestral pieces with glees and choruses, but by 1841 he thought they were ready for the final step. Eliot abandoned the chorus completely, used the entire finances of the Academy to secure twenty-five to thirty of the best players in Boston under the direction of Henry Schmidt, whom he had already hired, and announced that from then on the Academy would be devoted to orchestral concerts.

The plan worked. The 1841 season was a success far beyond what Eliot could have imagined. The Musical Cabinet referred to the concerts as “a new era in the history of music in Boston.” John S. Dwight, writing many years later, looked back upon that time: “Many can remember how eagerly these concerts were sought, how frequently the audience was large, and what a theme of enthusiastic comment and congratulation these first fresh hearings of the great masters was.”

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