The Development of America's Musical Institutions
Music has always been a much-practiced, highly variegated activity in the United States. This musical diversity, and the contentious partisanship that has marked certain branches of it (such as the recurrent tension between supporters of "classical" and "popular" music), reflect various more fundamental diversities and tensions within American life, involving such factors as race, ethnicity, social class, geography, and means of livelihood (e.g., agricultural communities vs. cities).
Long before the arrival of settlers from across the sea, Native Americans had developed rich and varied traditions of ritual dance and song; European colonists and enslaved Africans carried with them from across the sea the musical dialects of their various places of origin and the desire to continue making music in ways (and on instruments) familiar and meaningful to them. These various musical traditions—Native American, European, African, and others not yet mentioned—then blended here into new hybrid languages and genres, but the extent and proportions of the blending varied a great deal. The musical melting pot particularly welcomed certain stylistic elements from one or another of these repertoires or musical traditions: for example, the hierarchically structured harmonic vocabulary of European art and dance music combined in diverse ways with certain improvisatory rhythmic practices from African traditions, especially various kinds of syncopation. Other repertoires and traditions, notably the various Native American musics, tended to have much less impact on the country's emerging musical styles and genres. (Scholars cite various inhibiting factors, technical as well as cultural.) This selective process of interethnic musical contact was particularly fruitful in what H. Wiley Hitchcock calls America's "vernacular" genres, such as the African-American spiritual (leading to today's gospel music), the minstrel show and musical comedy, ragtime, jazz, and, more recently, salsa and other styles featuring prominent Caribbean (African-Hispanic) elements.
Parallel with the broad stream of "vernacular" music making (which of course also includes more strictly European-derived genres such as Anglo-American ballads and Country-Western music) flows what Hitchcock calls the "cultivated" stream, which concerns us in this book. In the mid nineteenth century this consisted of an entirely European-based yet cosmopolitan set of practices, preferences, and repertoires, including a more or less canonical yet eclectic corpus of sacred and secular works—for example, Handel's Messiah , Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor , and piano pieces by Stephen Heller, a Hungarian Jew who had, like the Polish Chopin, made Paris his home and successful base of operations. These diverse works were transplanted more or less intact to the New World, and to them were added, increasingly with the passing decades, American works written firmly in this European tradition (e.g., church hymns of Lowell Mason, the Italian-language opera Leonora by William Henry Fry, and piano music of William Mason and the German émigré Charles Grobe).
Certain strands of "cultivated" music making remained stylistically "frozen" for decades after first arriving on these shores: the German-speaking Moravian settlers of Pennsylvania and North Carolina, for example, for decades performed a relatively stable repertoire of string trios, choral motets, and the like, in a style close to that of Franz Joseph Haydn, and occasionally added to it new pieces written in a closely similar style. Such unaltered continuity, though, was the exception to the rule. For the most part, the repertoire of "cultivated" music in America changed a good deal over the course of the nineteenth century, thanks not only to local influences but also to America's continuing contact with the Old World. The latest pieces were shipped over, hot off the press, along with Irish linens, Scotch whiskey, French perfumes, and the latest installments of Dickens's novels.
By around 1870, many of the best young American musicians were going to Europe to study with the pianists Franz Liszt and Theodor Leschetizky, the violinist Martin Marsick, the singer Mathilde Marchesi, and other famed teachers in Paris, Vienna, and elsewhere, then returning to America to perform the pieces they had heard and learned—for example, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Parisian operas of the German-born but Italian-trained Giacomo Meyerbeer—and, in many cases, to compose in up-to-date style and to teach. As early as the 1820s, significant numbers of well-known opera stars and virtuoso instrumentalists, eventually including the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, came from Europe on concert tours. Some stayed for years or even settled here permanently. Also, many of the larger cities, especially on the eastern seaboard, enjoyed performances by traveling opera companies such as the one led by the tenor Manuel García (father of the great singers Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot), since at that point few cities had their own self-supporting resident troupes. New Orleans was the earliest exception and, "for much of the century," one scholar plausibly concludes, enjoyed "the best opera to be heard in America"—sung mainly in French, of course.
"Cultivated" music, it should be stressed, extended its domain far beyond the
A few paragraphs from this chapter appeared, in somewhat different form, in Ralph P. Locke's overview article, "Paradoxes of the Woman Music Patron in America," Musical Quarterly 78 (1994): 798–825. In addition to the people thanked in the Acknowledgments, Laurence Libin (Metropolitan Museum of Art) gave good advice and encouragement.
concert hall and opera house. For one thing, there were few such halls until late in the nineteenth century, and even professional concerts tended to be presented in a wide range of venues: theaters, Masonic halls, parks and pleasure gardens, train stations. But formal (and informal) concerts were but one of many outlets for the love of "cultivated" music in late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. Throughout the land, music of what we might call the "light classical" variety was a prime form of leisure-time activity and social entertainment. Dancing, for example, was accompanied by a few string and wind players, or maybe just a single violinist. (Dancing masters in America, as in Europe, played a special "kit" fiddle small enough to slip into the coat pocket.) Children of the middle and upper classes were early trained to play instruments—for girls, these were most often guitar, harp, harpsichord, or piano—or to sing, delighting family and friends with keyboard pieces such as Frantisek[*] Koczwara's[*] internationally beloved The Battle of Prague (first published in Dublin around 1788) or tuneful vocal excerpts from European operas. (Among the best loved, in the 1860s and 1870s, were Giuseppe Verdi's Il trovatore , Sir Michael Balfe's The Bohemian Girl , and Charles Gounod's Faust .)
Hard as it may be to believe today, amateur music making in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, indeed even in the first half of the twentieth, did not cease when a child finished his or her teenage years. Adults regularly gathered to play chamber music and sing together; Thomas Jefferson, an avid violinist, made frequent use of his large collection of the latest imported trios and such, and many people knew the singing voices of their parents, siblings, or spouses well, having sung hymns, Stephen Foster songs, or operatic excerpts together at the parlor piano. Choral groups thrived in the churches, and by 1800 also in other meeting halls, sometimes handily mastering the hymns and secular partsongs of home-grown composers such as William Billings, and sometimes working their way in determined fashion through the demanding but rewarding oratorios of Handel, Haydn, and other European masters. Bands and small orchestras, too, sprang up everywhere, playing opera overtures, movements of symphonies, song arrangements, marches, waltzes—almost anything that had a pleasant tune and enough regularity of beat and phrase to set toes happily tapping.
All of this—from quadrilles for dancing, to choruses and bands—provided the fertile soil from which many of the musical institutions of America that support and promote "serious" or "classical" music sprang. (Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's attachment to music, for example, was surely rooted in the family musicales of her youth, described lovingly in her mother's little booklet, Pleasant Memories of My Life .) The development was long and troubled, and, in the nation's early decades, little patronage was in place to help it along, whether from institutions or individuals of wealth. As Richard Crawford points out:
[Whereas Europe has had a centuries-long tradition of church, court, and state patronage of] music of the highest quality[,] . . . in America neither a national church,
nor an aristocratic court existed, and the state's need has been limited to simple music for utilitarian functions [e.g., military bands]. . . . Foremost of the shapers [of America's musical life] have been the musicians themselves, who have worked as individuals in a commercial environment seeking to satisfy the needs of various social groups—for artistic expression, worship, instruction, entertainment, or participatory recreation.
Private citizens took lessons from music masters and even hired professionals to play chamber music with them or to perform for their guests. One such melomane, Elizabeth Ridgely, possessed a musical library in the 1820s that testifies to her openness (and that of her French-born teacher) to a wide range of current European music and suggests that a substantial amount of amateur and professional music making went on at the Ridgelys' manor house (Hampton, Maryland).
But the first real "wave" of patronage as it is currently understood seems to come in the 1830s. It was then that Lowell Mason and Boston's Handel and Haydn Society began carrying out energetic organizational and promotional labors on behalf of music in the schools, churches, and concert halls. Far less well known are the efforts, around the same time, of various groups of parishioners—especially women—to raise money to buy organs for their churches (see Vignette A). From then onward into the late twentieth century, patrons increasingly vied with the musicians themselves in their dedication to and active organizational work for the benefit of art music in America.
The crucial, formative moment of music patronage in America, and of "classical music" generally, occurs in the decades just before and after 1900. During those years many of the institutions and practices that have remained characteristic of American musical life ever since were established and put on a firm financial and organizational basis. These institutions and practices include the symphony orchestra, with its season-ticket holders in sober or sometimes even formal attire (and its small-town equivalent: the half-amateur, half-professional community orchestra, often playing in a school or college auditorium, church, or town hall); the opera house with its decor in red plush and brass and its international casts, often singing in a foreign language; the conservatory and music school, earnestly filling the growing demand for trombonists, for coloratura sopranos, even for composers pondering, in newspapers and magazines, such questions as "Should we be writing symphonies in a distinctively American style?"; publishing houses churning out songs and piano pieces in sheet-music format for the amateur to perform at home or in small assembly; the newspaper column boosting or blasting the visiting artist or the local luminary; secondary-school bands and choruses, teacher-training programs for those who would lead them, and of course the private vocal or instrumental studio; instrument factories and dealers to provide homes and schools with cheap but solid flutes and pianos (as well as elaborate, decorated art-case grand pianos for the White House and for mansions ranging from that of the Dohenys in Southern California to the homes of the Marquands and the Vanderbilts in Manhattan); elementary courses in music appreciation,
whether for grade-schoolers, college students, or concertgoing adults; and graduate programs and tenured university chairs in music and its scholarly study. (From this long list of activities in music, a few have long been particularly identified with women: public school teaching, choral conducting—but not orchestral or band, except with all-female ensembles—and of course performance and studio teaching in voice, piano, and harp. Later in this chapter, we shall return to the question of women's expanding place in American musical life.)
Everything mentioned in the previous paragraph existed only in embryonic form, if at all, in the mid nineteenth century; nearly all of it had taken recognizable shape—and much of it was fully developed and flourishing—by the 1920s. As one very concrete example, in 1870 the music holdings of the Library of Congress comprised an oddly assorted five hundred items; by 1917 the Library could boast a well-organized Music Division, its near-million items carefully selected and overseen by Oscar Sonneck, a world-class musicologist. The sudden growth in America's musical life over but a few decades echoed developments taking place in the visual arts—for example, museums—and indeed other sectors of American life entirely, such as hospitals and public schools. The American university, the historian Robert A. McGaughey notes, hardly existed in 1870, but by around 1914, it "had acquired a form little changed since." Furthermore, many of these other "sectors" have their own important musical aspect: it was during the decades just before and after the turn of the century that, consonant with the ideals of the Progressive movement, choral singing and music appreciation courses began finding their way into the public school and into that parallel institution for immigrants, the settlement house.
Of course, the more things stay the same, the more they change. Musical life has been greatly altered since the 1920s by shifts in American demographic patterns (the shift of money and power from our urban centers to the suburbs or indeed to other geographic areas entirely, such as, recently, the Sunbelt) and by cultural values that increasingly emphasize instant gratification as a goal, to be attained through the purchase of commercial goods. More particularly, the rise of technology in the service of the consumption principle just mentioned has resulted in a shift away from "live" and participatory music making and toward listening to recordings; this process, set in motion by the arrival of the home phonograph around 1890 and the home radio around 1925, intensified with the ever-increasing fidelity of sound reproduction and the proliferation, since around 1970, of tape cassette players—especially as portables (ranging from "boomboxes" and pocket-size machines with headsets to sound systems in automobiles). Opera, in particular, has gained a major and often sophisticated "second" audience in the past ten years; thanks to electronic video (whether in the movie theater or on television, videotape, or video disc), opera lovers, even in isolated locations, can "attend" performances of once little-known operas such as Verdi's Stiffelio , experience the dark power of Wagner's Ring cycle or Britten's Peter Grimes , and be devastated by the artistry of Teresa Stratas, Julia Migenes, or—in a gripping black-and-white video of Tosca , act 2—Maria Callas. (For further discussion of the opportunities
and challenges presented by electronic technology, see Chapter 10.) But "canned" music, even at its best, cannot replicate the experience of being part of a performance's "first" audience, that is, of hearing music in person, in a good hall, amidst a mutually inciting throng of several hundred or several thousand attentive listeners; and, for better or worse, America's system for delivering live performances of Western art music to the public (or for the public to make such music itself) remains, in its broad features, the one put in place around 1900.
The growth and systematization—the "modernization," in the sociologist's term—of America's musical life around 1900 resulted in large part from the nation's immense industrial and economic expansion at the time, as the growing middle and upper classes, and even certain sectors of the working masses, increasingly found themselves with surplus cash and the leisure time in which to spend it: on modestly fashionable clothing, on books and magazines filled with enticing ads for consumer products, and, not least, on outings to amusement parks, theaters, and concert halls. Hilda Satt, a young immigrant woman at Jane Addams's Hull House in Chicago, no doubt spoke for throngs of working people when she later recalled as among her chiefest pleasures attending performances of opera and musical comedy; works such as The Merry Widow "were a good tonic after a day of hard work," and she considered herself privileged to have seen and heard such gifted operatic interpreters as Enrico Caruso and Jean de Reszke, Marcella Sembrich and Emma Calvé, and "the great Chaliapin."
Some of the musical institutions mentioned earlier—publishing, journalism, the instrument trade—sprang up more or less spontaneously, in response to the pressures of the marketplace. But Beethoven symphonies and Wagner operas require long, costly rehearsals involving fifty or even a hundred highly trained, specialized performers. (Legendary Tristans, such as Jean de Reszke, do not come cheap.) The laws of supply and demand simply could not produce affordable, accessible, yet still worthy performances of such works, any more than it could produce universities or hospitals. Federal and local governments have throughout most of the twentieth century provided cultural and charitable organizations with certain financial protections through income-tax deductions and local property-tax exemptions, but direct, European-style government aid would have been needed as well in order to fill the gap. Despite the early efforts of Jeannette Thurber and others to change federal policy, direct aid was not a politically acceptable option until the creation of the—relatively modest, by European standards—National Endowment for the Arts under the Johnson administration in 1965. One 1930s precedent for the NEA, though, should be mentioned. The New Deal's program in the arts (e.g., the Federal Theater Project) was intensely controversial and, in the end, more a stopgap measure than a permanent governmental fixture. Memory of it fades with the passing years: its "Dime Concerts" in athletic stadiums, its hundreds of music-teaching centers across the country, and its creation—in 1936, in New York City—of the nation's first public high school for music and art. Still, it may serve to remind us that, if Americans want it
enough, we can do things at the governmental level to increase democratic access to music.