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When music went highbrow

Joseph Horowitz is the author of numerous books, including "Dvorak in America" and the forthcoming "Classical Music in the United States: A History."

In Gilded Age America, music was widely considered “Queen of the Arts.” This opinion echoed influential German thinkers, for whom music plumbed truths more profoundly than words or pictures. It also registered the rapid pace of American achievements in classical music -- not in the realm of composition (as in Europe) but in performance. Beginning in the 1870s, Theodore Thomas’ barnstorming Thomas Orchestra, touring cities and hamlets, was a marvel of polish and discipline, amazing transatlantic visitors. By the 1890s, the Boston Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera rivaled the most august Old World orchestras and opera companies. The world-class achievements of the Boston and Manhattan operas, and of the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra, followed within two decades.

This lightning transplantation of taste and prowess was mainly the work of Germans, creators of pioneering orchestras and singing societies. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, America’s first internationally important pianist and composer (and a New Orleans Francophile), surveying native conditions after returning from Paris in 1853, encountered in St. Louis “an old German musician with uncombed hair, bushy beard, in constitution like a bear, in disposition the amenity of a boar at bay to a pack of hounds. I know this type; it is found everywhere.”

Virtuosos like Gottschalk -- itinerant pianists and violinists, sopranos and tenors -- also played a substantial role in instilling a musical high culture. “The public has lately begun to weary of virtuosos, and ... we have too,” wrote Robert Schumann in Germany in 1843. “The virtuosos themselves seem to feel this, if we may judge from a recently awakened fancy among them for emigrating to America; and many of their enemies secretly hope they will remain over there.” Yet Schumann’s letters and diaries reveal that he too contemplated an American sojourn that would enable him to pocket a fortune and take it home.

Many others, similarly motivated, were less hesitant. A sudden influx of influential musical visitors coincided with the advent of steamship travel, which in the 1840s shortened the Atlantic crossing by as much as a month. The Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, who bowed all four strings at once, was a perennial American favorite. Among pianists, the king was the Austrian Leopold de Meyer, dubbed “the lion pianist” for his brute strength and flowing mane (and “the lyin’ pianist” for his alleged machinations against certain rivals). A watershed event was Jenny Lind’s United States tour of 1850-51, plausibly assessed by its mastermind, Phineas T. Barnum, as “an enterprise never before ... equaled in managerial annals.” With receipts totaling $712,000 and a top ticket of $650, Jenny’s tour was the greatest triumph of Barnum’s career and also the most profitable.

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As the “Swedish Nightingale” was not the only musical divinity to dazzle Americans, P.T. Barnum was not the only showman to bamboozle them. Of Barnum’s immediate successors, the most flamboyant was Bernard Ullman, whose clients included the pianist Sigismond Thalberg. For an 1857 series of “farewell” matinees by Thalberg at New York’s Dodworth Hall, Ullman announced that nearly nine-tenths of all tickets had been “subscribed for by ladies belonging to the first families in the city.” According to Edward G.P. Wilkins in the New York Herald, “Lunch was served to the audience by Ethiopian servants dressed in black with knee breeches, white gloves, and stockings. Some of the Ethiopians [were] down at the heel, and this made matter of sport for the younger ladies.”

Thalberg, an artist as refined as De Meyer was blunt, was the chief rival in Europe of Franz Liszt. Twenty years later, Liszt’s most influential protege, Hans von Bulow, visited the United States; of his New York programs, one comprised four Beethoven works of nearly indigestible cumulative bulk and complexity -- the sonatas Op. 31 (no. 3), 101 and 106 (the “Hammerklavier”), and the “Diabelli” Variations. No wonder the violinist Henri Vieuxtemps, who first appeared in America in 1843, reported as of 1871 “immense progress” in the American “taste for serious music.”

In R. Allen Lott’s “From Paris to Peoria,” five visiting pianists -- in sequence, De Meyer, Henri Herz, Thalberg, Anton Rubinstein and Bulow -- neatly encapsulate this progress. All told, these five famous keyboard artists logged nearly 1,000 North American concerts between 1845 and 1876 in cities across the continent, from Montreal and Quebec to New Orleans, Natchez, Mobile and Montgomery to San Francisco and Sacramento. Tracing this three-decade trajectory, Lott illustrates -- in greater detail than any previous writer on American music -- the progression from entertainer to “interpreter,” itself a gauge of rapidly ripening audience taste and capacity.

De Meyer’s repertoire of character pieces, fantasias on “airs” from well-known operas, and renderings of “Hail Columbia” and “Yankee Doodle” -- all self-composed -- admitted no firm distinction between popular and classical music. Herz ventured into Beethoven, but only as a chamber musician partnered by violin and cello. Thalberg played movements from Beethoven concertos. Rubinstein administered heady doses of Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann. (His uncharacteristic “ ‘Yankee Doodle’ Variations,” composed for an 1873 farewell recital in New York, was memorably faulted by the New York Times as “prepared in accordance with all the canons of art and ... in opposition to all the canons of taste.”) Bulow, though he famously premiered Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor Concerto in Boston, even more than Rubinstein championed not the living but the dead (his own compositions being a negligible accomplishment).

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By 1900, thanks in large part to the tours of Rubinstein and Bulow, a canonical repertoire had emerged: preludes and fugues by Bach; a sprinkling of Mozart; sonatas by Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Schumann; Chopin scherzos and ballades; and Romantic character and display pieces galore by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt. Another consequence of what Lott chronicles was the emergence of the 20th century performance specialist, a new species of musician who aspired to master a variety of noncontemporary styles: Baroque, Classical, Romantic. A third outcome was new standards of concert decorum. A Memphis newspaper, anticipating Rubinstein’s appearance, warned concertgoers to “maintain the most perfect silence -- a silence that should no more be obtruded upon in the concert room, lecture hall or theater than in the church.”

The general phenomenon here described, much discussed by cultural historians, has been influentially dubbed “sacralization” by Lawrence Levine. Levine’s 1988 “Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America” idealizes the rambunctious audiences and “mixed” programs preceding the high/low stratification that segregated art from entertainment; he is an incurable populist. Lott’s more subtle reading sees taste, repertoire and achievement evolving organically; he refuses to rank his pianists and their changing customs.

To appreciate Bulow’s pathbreaking advocacy of late Beethoven, or of the ecstatic Liszt, or of the religious Wagner (Bulow’s American repertoire included Liszt’s transcription of the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhauser) is to recognize that sacralization was in fact inherent to new aesthetic currents -- and that 19th century audiences, accordingly, needed some taming. At the same time, Lott doesn’t patronize earlier artists and audiences, for whom the piano in performance was an irreverent occasion for roof-rattling display.

Post-Bulow, the parade of visiting pianists continued: Leopold Godowski, Josef Hofmann, Moriz Rosenthal, Eugen d’Albert, Vladimir de Pachmann, Ferruccio Busoni. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the great American piano idol of the late 19th century, arrived in 1891. But early in the 20th century, the orchestra had become the central embodiment of America’s musical high culture, and the deified performers would be conductors first of all.

The resulting culture of performance, peaking with Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Serge Koussevitzky and the “great orchestras” of New York, Philadelphia and Boston, was supported by wave upon wave of eminent musical visitors and immigrants fleeing the Russian Revolution and fascism. This concentration of glamorous performing talent was remarked upon by many; accompanying Wilhelm Furtwangler to New York in the 1920s, his secretary, Berta Geissmar, encountered “such a galaxy of musical genius and brilliance as I have never seen elsewhere.” But the galaxy of stars paradoxically impeded the development of a mature musical high culture based (as abroad) on a native canon. Classical music in the United States became a mutant species; native composers were bystanders to foreign-born great performers.

If Lott’s pianists are an early chapter in this tale, the road not taken is exemplified by Gottschalk, whom Lott mainly overlooks. While Gottschalk’s career has already had abundant attention, it warrants reconsideration in the context of Lott’s European interlopers. More than just the first world-famous American piano virtuoso, Gottschalk was the first significant American composer whose music, with its vernacular Creole roots, sounds “American.” For decades after his death, he was forgotten -- or, if remembered, not taken seriously. He suffered in comparison with the pedigreed Europeans that Americans have at all times adored.

There are other omissions here. I awaited in vain George William Bagby’s once-famous satire “Jud Brownin’s Account of Rubenstein’s [sic] Playing,” so tellingly incorporated in Arthur Loesser’s 1954 classic American social history “Men, Women, and Pianos.” And Lott is not a storyteller in the same class with Loesser or countless earlier pungent chroniclers of the American piano (significantly including Gottschalk in his own “Notes of a Pianist”).

But these are changing times. We have instead a Web site (www.rallenlott.info), which includes Bagby’s hilarious monologue on a Rubinstein performance in full and other delectable period pieces, along with sound recordings of the book’s musical examples. I wish that “From Paris to Peoria” were more the sort of book to capitalize on such colorful details rather than marginalizing them. This is a story that could completely have captivated the interested layman.

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Mainly, grateful scholars of the New World appropriation of Old World music will profit -- immeasurably -- from Lott’s industry and discernment.


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