Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin de Siècle

spacer By Joseph Horowitz
University of California Press; 270 pp. $39.95

Books Moral Fire lg 1012

Henry Higginson, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, wrote that there was “no stronger preservative against evil” than music. His view of music’s redemptive powers made him a man typical of his time, the years before the turn of the last century. In sketching Higginson’s life and those of three of his contemporaries, Joseph Horowitz offers a revisionist view of the era — not as a philistine, materialistic “Gilded Age” but as a time when right-minded individuals felt that they could and should improve the lot of their fellow humans. Some, such as the four depicted here, looked to music as a transformative, ennobling force. The idea took a battering later in the twentieth century — Hitler and Stalin, after all, were both music-lovers. But Higginson, critic Henry Krehbiel, the Brooklyn-based impresaria Laura Holloway Langford and Charles Ives all believed in music’s redemptive moral properties. 

Higginson’s creation of his great orchestra was the culmination of a life marked by social conscience. In an early, failed business venture he established a plantation in Georgia, aimed at improving conditions for newly freed slaves. He later became a successful banker in his hometown, using his position and wealth to work toward a greater purpose. Given that Symphony Hall is now considered a redoubt of Boston’s old money, it comes as a surprise to find that Higginson built the acoustically splendid auditorium “for the happiness, the convenience, the education of the inhabitants for twenty miles around this spot.” “The democratic impulse in him,” Horowitz writes, “was ... a pure passion.” 

Krehbiel had a similar belief in music as a social tool. He was an ardent Wagnerian, although his view is much at variance with the usual image of Wagner as an avatar of sensual abandon. As Krehbiel saw it, Wagner’s music was (in Horowitz’s words) “an intellectual tonic ... a gripping therapy for bookish, parched, or sequestered lives”; it also pointed the way toward a homegrown “national” opera. Krehbiel’s quest for an indigenous national music reached its fulfillment with Dvorˇák’s “New World” Symphony. He celebrated the symphony’s evocation of black spirituals: “That which is most characteristic, most beautiful and most vital in our folk-song has come from the negro slaves of the South.” Although, as Horowitz notes, Krehbiel might not have anticipated the ways in which African– American influences would later work their way into our musical culture, his early understanding of the centrality of black song was eerily prescient. 

Langford, the least known of Horowitz’s four subjects, was the founder of the Seidl Society, built around the Wagnerian conductor Anton Seidl and offering low-cost concerts in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, to women and children. In her advocacy of Wagner, Langford was, surprisingly, representative of her era: “Wagnerism in the United States was fundamentally a women’s movement,” Horowitz writes. A southern aristocrat who moved to New York and became a journalist, Langford was drawn to great causes throughout her life. Before becoming a presenter, she had been a follower of the “theosophist” Helena Blavatsky; later in life she formed a financially ruinous bond with the Shakers. But the Seidl Society — “music club, philharmonic society, and shrine; settlement house and self-improvement agency” — was her moment of glory.

Ives in his life and work was inspired by the utopian views of the Transcendentalists — quite explicitly so in his Concord Sonata, with its four movements dedicated to Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts and Thoreau. Horowitz analyzes how his belief in mankind’s essential goodness informed both his music and his “day job” as an insurance executive, where he strove to conduct business as humanely as possible. 

Moral Fire is perhaps best read as a prequel to Horowitz’s 1987 screed Understanding Toscanini, which used the great conductor’s work to exemplify the commodification of classical music in twentieth-century America. But it also registers as an implicit condemnation of the values of our own Gilded Age, when the high moral precepts of a century and a quarter ago seem distant indeed. spacer


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