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Moral Fire: An interview with Joseph Horowitz.

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpted transcript from an interview that aired on Houston Public Radio in September 2012, following the release of Joseph's book Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America's Fin de Siecle (University of California Press). The entire interview can be heard here: In featuring Joe's reflections on his writing, the editorial board hopes to demonstrate the flexibility of publication options in the Bulletin for all members of the Society for American Music.

Your latest book, Moral Fire, takes a look at a unique period of American cultural history. People call this era the Gilded Age--not a period that most of us think of as a cultural highlight.

The term Gilded Age very quickly sets you off on the wrong track. What it evokes is a period of robber barons and social inequality, of meretricious glamour. The most well-known image of opera--maybe the most well-known image of high culture--in this period is Edith Wharton's description of experiencing Gounod's Faust at the New York Academy of Music as an entertainment for the rich box holders. So I've long been upset that the period is so stigmatized and mislabeled. I some time ago discovered that this is actually the most exciting and dynamic period in the history of our musical high culture. And that the 1880s and 1890s in particular were a period of almost unbelievable ferment. These were the peak decades for Wagnerism in America, and my favorite vignette to make vivid the full magnitude of this phenomenon is that we know that when Tristan und Isolde was performed at the Metropolitan Opera the curtain would fall and the house would freeze for a period of minutes. And then the women in the audience--and most in the audience were women--would stand on their chairs and scream. When I first read this description I was incredulous. But it's no longer unimaginable to me. Although such a thing would be completely unimaginable today.

You call the book "Moral Fire." Why is that?

The book is about a phenomenon that seems kind of musty at first. But it isn't. It's the phenomenon of individuals who believe that high culture is morally empowering. This notion was prevalent in the late Victorian period. But it was discredited by the music lovers Stalin and Hitler. That tainted forever the notion that Beethoven or Wagner could be agents of uplift. And yet of course they were. I focus on four individuals from the late 19th century for whom music was a moral force. One is Henry Krehbiel, who was the main champion of Wagner in the press as New York's leading music critic. The second is Henry Higginson: a colossus, the man who invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony. The third is Laura Langford, by far the least known person in my book, who created a Seidl Society in Brooklyn--Seidl being the conductor who was Wagner's main apostle in the New World--and presented Wagner at Coney Island fourteen times a week. And then the wild card in my deck is Charles Ives, who people don't think of as a figure belonging to the late Gilded Age.

How do we place this phenomenon in the wake of the brotherly destruction of the Civil War?

The Civil War itself was itself a period of enormous moral fervor. It was a crusade on both sides. And of course it connects to the crusade known as Abolitionism. Henry Higginson was wounded and left for dead in the Civil War. The war was certainly a formative experience for him as was for so many Americans of his generation. It was a crucible through which they passed. And as tragic as it was, it was itself empowering. There is that famous speech by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a veteran of the Civil War, about how his generation had been "set apart," that "in our youth our hearts were touched by fire, it was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing." For Higginson, too, the Civil War was crucial to his self-understanding, and to his notion of what it was to be a "useful citizen."

He's someone who believed that the importance of earning money was that you could give it away. And you give it away so that it benefits the community and the nation. He was not born to wealth, even though he came from a distinguished Boston family. He went to Vienna to study music and couldn't afford to eat three times a day. He discovered he did not have a great musical gift--and so he made it his life's ambition to create a world class orchestra for the city of Boston. In order to do that he had to amass sufficient capital. So he went back to Boston and joined the family business, which was banking, with the sole objective of accumulating money enough to create a permanent orchestra. In 1881 he placed an announcement in all the Boston newspapers that he had formed the Boston Symphony Orchestra--that it would give two concerts a week for a period of months from October to March, that the membership would be permanent, and that he himself was going to own and operate it. He also said in that announcement that there would be 25-cent tickets available for all performances. So Higginson was a cultural democrat, which is something that's not generally known about him insofar as he's remembered. He's misrecalled as an autocrat, a Brahmin snob. He wasn't like that at all.

I would say if I have a single favorite letter by Henry Higginson it's when he writes to Mrs. George D. Howe about Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. This is what he says:

   As to the Eroica I had meant to tell you what how I felt about it,
   but it opens the flood-gates, and I can't. 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 the climax ... 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.

So we learn two things about Higginson from this passage. One is his passion for music, which is what drives him to create the Boston Symphony. The other is his emotional nature. This is a man who embodies aspects of puritan severity--just look at Symphony Hall and you're looking at Henry Higginson's severity. But he's also an extraordinarily emotional man. An amazing statement about him, by one of his closest friends, was that to his close acquaintances he was "like a lover." And this is what pervades his letters, such as this one--the note of exceptional personal warmth.

The next portrait in your book is of Henry Krehbiel, the great music writer and critic in New York. And it gives up us an opportunity to look at the contrast between the culture of Boston and the culture of Manhattan: distinct worlds.

Manhattan was opera mad, it was Wagner mad. And there was no hegemony of culture as there was in Boston. In Boston, Higginson ruled music. New York was such an eclectic, crowded, diverse metropolis that you had different power bases. You had rival conductors--Theodore Thomas, Seidl, Walter Damrosch; you had rival orchestras--the New York Symphony and the Philharmonic; and you had rival opera companies--the Manhattan and Metropolitan Operas.

Krehbiel took a great interest in the topic of music and race, a topic that would become disreputable in the course of the 20th century. But Krehbiel is a disinterested observer. He likes all racial music. He likes black music, Native-American music, Jewish music, Russian music. And he feels that in each case a national music tradition should be founded on the music of the soil, of the folk, of the peasant. This plays out remarkably when Dvorak comes to town in 1892. Antonin Dvorak, the famous Bohemian composer, a cultural nationalist, is handed a mandate by Jeannette Thurber, the educational visionary who founds the National Conservatory of Music and appoints Dvorak her director. She hands him a mandate to help American composers find a style that Americans will recognize as their own. So Dvorak looks around and asks, "Where's your folk music?" And he chiefly finds it in two places--African-Americans and Native Americans. He becomes a devotee of plantation songs, the music we now know as spirituals. Famously and controversially, he says that the future music of America will be founded upon what he called the "Negro melodies." This was a true prophecy. He couldn't have prophesized jazz. But he understood that plantation song was limitlessly fertile for the future of American music. And Krehbiel was of the same opinion.

This was not a popular opinion in the city of Boston, which we were just talking about, where Dvorak was denounced as a "negrophile," a lover of black people. But Krehbiel embraced the idea that plantation song was the American folk music that spoke to the greatest number of Americans. He and Dvorak were allies in this cause, which resulted in the composition of the New World Symphony. You see, Boston, unlike New York, already possessed a consolidated notion of American national identity, and it had to do with the Mayflower. There was no notion in New York of American identity based on the Mayflower. In New York American identity was the Lower East Side. In New York American identity was the melting pot. So the story of Dvorak in America holds up a mirror to the American experience, and to the very different notions of American identity in these two particular cities.

Krehbiel was, significantly, the son of immigrant parents. He was a self-made man, he never went to college, he began as a newspaper reporter covering baseball games and crimes. So his personal lineage predisposed him to a notion of America very different from that of Philip Hale, his opposite number in Boston. Hale's the guy who called Dvorak a "negrophile." Hale went to Exeter and to Yale. He came from a distinguished New England family.

Also in New York you find Laura Holloway Langford, whom I'd never heard of before.

Yes, of course, nobody's ever heard of Laura Langford and nobody knows that she presented Wagner at Coney Island fourteen times a week. She actually created a Brooklyn women's club called the Seidl Society, after Anton Seidl. And she presented concerts conducted by Anton Seidl year round. In the fall and spring they were at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and in the summer they were at Brighton Beach, which was a resort on Coney Island. And by far the composer most performed at these concerts was Richard Wagner.

So you have in the case of Mrs. Langford a study in why Wagner was personally and morally empowering for women in a period when they very often had no professions, were housewives and mothers who were looking for some further purpose and meaning in life. For many of them, Wagner--the strong women of his operas, the catharsis of the Liebestod--provided that.

The Seidl Society concerts. This is something that today seems completely incongruous.

Yes, completely. You have a 3000-seat music pavilion, and you do an all Wagner concert and it sells out. Now Coney Island wasn't just amusements--that was the western part of the island. There were two luxury hotels, one at Manhattan Beach and one at Brighton Beach. Manhattan Beach had a famous band, Patrick Gilmore's band, and that was succeeded by another famous band, Sousa's band. Sousa's Manhattan Beach March was composed for Manhattan Beach. His favorite composer, by the way, was Wagner--and he very often played Wagner in band transcriptions.

Anyway, the fellows who were running the Brighton Beach hotel needed an attraction to compete with the band at Manhattan Beach and they couldn't get a famous band. They tried to get a band from France; they tried to get one from England. They wound up hiring Anton Seidl and his orchestra. Which was a bust--nobody at Brighton Beach wanted to hear symphonies by Beethoven and opera excerpts by Wagner. And that is the reason the Seidl Society was formed by Laura Langford in 1889--so she could rescue the Seidl concerts at Brighton Beach. She began sending trainloads of women to Brighton Beach and not only rescued the concerts, but ultimately became the presenter of those concerts.

The Brighton Beach music pavilion was right on the ocean. In fact it was ultimately destroyed by a tidal wave. And it was open to the elements. So you have to imagine that when Seidl conducted, say, the Flying Dutchman Overture, which describes a storm at sea, that the affect was very particular to concerts on the ocean under the stars.

You called Charles Ives your "wild card."

Nobody at first blush would put Ives in the same company as Henry Higginson and Henry Krehbiel. I'm sure that if either of those gentlemen ever had occasion to hear any music by Ives, it would mean nothing to him. And yet Ives is a composer in the Beethoven tradition. He's not a modernist. He doesn't go to study with Nadia Boulanger in France. He believes in the Germanic symphony as a template for uplift. So in treating him as an anomaly within the genteel tradition, an anomaly within the late Victorian era, I'm reinforcing the main point I want to make, which is that this is a period that's not static. It's a period of transition and it's dynamic.

I never thought of Ives in the tradition of Beethoven.

Ives identifies very strongly with Beethoven. I would say that outside of his father, whom he worshipped, Emerson and Beethoven, whom he conflates, may be the two people with whom he most identifies. For him Emerson and Beethoven are one and the same, they're like wildmen seeking God, or seeking transcendence. And they do it by being idiosyncratic and passionate. So if you want a picture of Emerson in Ives, you go to the Concord Sonata; the first movement is titled "Emerson." And you discover Beethoven. Because the entire Concord Sonata is permeated with the theme of Beethoven's Fifth. For him, it's not "Fate knocking at the door." It's a theme of spiritual striving.

Ives was known mainly as an insurance salesman in his life. What influence did he exert as a composer?

It's a complex phenomenon. Of course he knew that his music would not be popular. He didn't compose it with the expectation that it would be performed any time soon. But he lived long enough to experience his fame. Ironically, he was no longer composing in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when he became famous. But he was still around. He even listened to Leonard Bernstein's live broadcast of Ives' Second Symphony, which was the world premiere, in 1951. But because he was no longer composing and because his music wasn't known when it was being composed, it didn't exert an influence. It really didn't have that much in common with the American music that most mattered at that moment, which was being composed by people like Aaron Copland. So among the many anomalies of Ives there's a skewed chronology which results in his having more impact as an insurance salesman than as a composer in the years that he was composing music.

There are many things we can take away from this book. It's so chockfull of lessons, I think. But that might not be the word you would use.

Oh it is. I'm a didactic writer. And actually my favorite sentences in the book, which are on the jacket, are the ones that have to do with Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. I write:

   If screaming Wagnerites standing on chairs are in fact unthinkable
   today, it is partly because we mistrust high feeling. Our children
   avidly specialize in vicarious forms of electronic interpersonal
   diversion. Our laptops and televisions ensnare us in a surrogate
   world that shuns all but facile passions; only Jon Stewart and Bill
   Maher share moments of moral outrage disguised as comedy.

So yes, I write this book partly out of my disgruntlement with the 21st century. And out of the notion that our emotional life, both individually and communally, is being sapped by the media culture inflicted upon us on a daily basis. And that media culture for you is what?

I'm mainly thinking about television and what passes for news. There's no real moral content there, except for Stewart and Maher. There are many expressions of moral outrage, but I would say that they're chiefly cynical and opportunistic and shallow. So it's as if the moral dimension has been co-opted for personal political gain. And it's painful.

Is there anything else?

One way to put a period on our conversation would be to talk about the riddle that in the late Gilded Age a single individual could do so much. It doesn't seem possible today. I'm not just talking about music. And I'm not just talking about America. Somehow, in the late Victorian period, there were individuals of vision who achieved in a lifetime more than what seems possible for a single individual to achieve. Now that's certainly true of Higginson. And if you look around today--say, at our cultural environment--are there individuals of vision who have made achievements of this magnitude? I'm blanking. If we're thinking about impresarios--and Higginson was an impresario, and Langford was an impresario--where are the impresarios of revolutionary vision in American culture today?

It seems like the opportunity to create such individuals may be lost.

And it's in politics too. If you look at a Teddy Roosevelt or an FDR--it's a conundrum. There's something about our 21st century which discourages the possibility of individuals of such titanic personal achievement. Don't you think?


Ours is a different culture. It's more dispersed. Krehbiel knew when he wrote in the New York Tribune that he was addressing a consolidated constituency of cultivated people. I write books. It's increasingly hard for me to imagine my readership. When I first began writing books, in the 1980s, I had a pretty good idea who my readers were. They were educated people who were interested in the arts. And they had acquired a certain cultural vocabulary. If you write a book today, editors will be very quick to question the cultural vocabulary of the readership. And for good reason. You can't assume the knowledge that even 20 years ago a writer on culture would assume. And of course the readership is smaller and books are much less noticed. They're much less noticed by newspapers, they're much less noticed in the media generally. They're increasingly marginal to the way we learn and think. I believe in books, so I myself am increasingly marginal. And I think the world of books is the same world that I'm writing about in this book--it's a bygone world. But it's a world that can still inspire and instruct.
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Publication:Society for American Music Bulletin
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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