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When music went highbrow

From Paris to Peoria: How European Piano Virtuosos Brought Classical Music to the American Heartland, R. Allen Lott, Oxford University Press: 366 pp., $39.95

August 31, 2003|Joseph Horowitz | 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.

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.

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