The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 1/Music

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What will the Muses do in these hard times? Must they cease to hold court in opera-house and concert-room, because stocks fall, factories and banks stop, credit is paralyzed, and princely fortunes vanish away like bubbles on the swollen tide of speculation? Must Art, too, bear the merchant's penalties? or shall not rather this ideal, feminine element of life, shall not Art, like woman, warm and inspire a sweeter, richer, more ideal, though it be a humbler home for us, with all the tenderer love and finer genius, now that man's enterprise is wrecked abroad? Shall we have no Music? Has the universal "panic" griped the singers' throats, that they can no longer vibrate with the passionate and perfect freedom indispensable to melody? It must not be. The soul is too rich in resources to let all its interests fail because one fails. If business and material speculation have been overdone, if we are checked and flung down in these mad endeavors to accumulate vast means of living, we shall have time to pick ourselves up, compose ourselves to some tranquillity and some humility, and actually, with what small means we have, begin to live. Panic strangles life, and the money-making fever always tends to panic. Panic is the great evil now, and panic needs a panacea. What better one can we invent than music? It were the very madness of economy to cut off that. Some margin every life must have, around this everlasting sameness of the dull page of necessity,—some opening into the free infinite of joy and careless ideality, or the very life-springs dry up.

Music is a cheap luxury; the more so as one seeks real music for its own sake, and not the music which is imported like the Paris fashions. This winter it will be a question between whether we can afford to pay for it, and whether we can afford to do without it. We think the absolute necessity of some diversion, something to lift the leaden cloud, and keep us in a state of natural buoyancy and courage, already settles the question. Music we shall have, simply because we need it. Or view it from the opposite side, from the point of mere political economy. Music, in many ways, has built itself up into a great industry among us,—music-publishers, musical instrument-makers, music teachers, musical performers,—all mutually dependent, and together swelling the national industry to the amount of many millions. It is the opportunities of hearing music, it is the concerts and the operas, that give the impulse to this whole many-branched machine. Taken together, it feeds many mouths, and helps turn many other very different sort of mills, and plays its part in Wall Street and in State Street, and its notes in that sense enter as much into the general currency as they do into the general ear in another. Now which is cheaper, which is wiser, to employ these artists, and the crowds of workers whom the public exercise of their talent keeps in motion, or cast them off upon society to be a general burden in a more hopeless form? Surely, we can afford the stoppage of some banks and factories, quite as well as we can that of music. Let us look around, then, upon its prospects for the winter.

While we write (the first week in October) the musical season, in what we take to be the most music-loving of our cities, Boston, has not commenced, or shaped itself into much distinctness of plan. The season is late; hard times may make it later; yet shall "the winter of our discontent be glorious summer" ere long. Boston, for its best music,—best in artistic tendency, though not perhaps the most exciting or most fashionable,—has always relied more than New York on its own quiet, domestic resources. Our musical societies have been the centres of our musical activity, and have more or less successfully provided us with sterling opportunities of making ourselves acquainted with the master compositions in the various forms of Oratorio, Orchestra, Chamber Music, etc., where the end has been more to get at the intrinsic worth and beauty of the music, than to go into fashionable raptures about some new-come singer or solo-playing virtuoso. Yet virtuosodom and the Italian opera come in to reap an annual harvest here too, and have and long will have their zealous party of admirers. Were Opera an organized home industry among us, as much as other forms of music,—were there some meaning in the name "Academy of Music" worn by operatic theatres, it would be more useful to our artistic progress. But Italian Opera, as managed, and "star" concerts generally, are no part of the healthy, permanent development of our own musical resources. They are speculations; they attack us from without, exploiting a factitious enthusiasm, and exhausting the soil in one short season, so they may only carry off the present fatness of the land. Operas and virtuoso concerts are wholly in the hands of speculators, musical Jew-brokers, who do a formidable business in old clothes, the worn-out musical celebrities of Europe;—often with great skill, often much to our pleasure and advantage; for it is much to us to hear great artists, even when the voice has lost some of its freshness, and to admire now what long ago perhaps exhausted admiration in the Old World. But the effect is bad on our domestic industry. We almost need a musical protective system. Our good old society concerts have been much thrown out of joint. Few of them of late, as compared with former years, have paid. The dazzling novelties, that come trumpeted with all the cunning speculators' arts, debauch us somewhat from our wholesome, quiet love of pure, high music for its own sake, and lead the public into little short-lived fanaticisms about certain prima donnas, baritones, or tenors, and about music chiefly made to show off the singer, full of the commonplaces that he loves to make "effect" in,—fanaticisms alternating with blasé indifference. But this would lead us into a long discussion, and it is our wish here to avoid vexed questions. For the present we will avow no sides, of German or Italian, "light" or "classical."

The lovers of opera have something to look forward to in Boston; what, we shall see when we survey the field elsewhere. Our noble Boston theatre must needs be one point in the triangular campaign of the three cities. And here we may allude, en passant, to the prospect of one novelty that ought to interest our opera-lovers who are weary of the usual hackneyed répertoire. Our townsman, Mr. L. H. Southard, the composer of "The Scarlet Letter," has also written an Italian opera, on an Oriental subject, with the title "Omano," the libretto by Signor Manetta, founded on Beckford's "Vathek." A private or subscription concert will soon give an opportunity of hearing some of its scenas, quatuors, etc. To come back, then, to what is more peculiarly Bostonian in the way of music,—what concerts shall we have? Of large societies, the only one remaining now in operative force is the oldest and the largest, the Handel and Haydn Society. This set the right example last May, in that splendid three-days' Festival, of true domestic musical enterprise, organizing the whole thing on the basis of internal and domestic means, with our own permanent nucleus of orchestra and chorus, and drawing from without such other talent, such solo singers, as were needed for the right interpretation of the noble music, and not merely for their own private exhibition and profit. This was genuine; this was wholesome; and the success warrants the best hopes for another season. Carl Zerrahn, the excellent conductor upon that occasion, is on his way home from Germany (his old home) with new stock of zeal and of new music, and the oratorio rehearsals will at once begin. It is event enough for one winter, the single fact that Handel's "Israel in Egypt," that mightiest oratorio, which is one mountain range of sublime choruses, will be the chief subject of study. It is proposed to give at least four Sunday-evening performances, consisting of "The Messiah," of course, at Christmas; Costa's "Eli," or "Elijah"; the "Requiem" of Mozart, and the "Lobgesang" by Mendelssohn; and for the last, and we trust many last, "Israel in Egypt." All this will be but so much rehearsal for the grander Festival to follow. We have no organized orchestral or symphony society, as we should have; but we have with us always the elements of a good orchestra, who always work well together, and never better than last year under the enterprise and drill of Mr. Zerrahn. Then we had glorious symphonies and overtures, both old and new; and we shall have as good, and still more brilliant concerts soon, if hard times do not daunt the leader's very sanguine purpose. As a pendant, too, to the orchestral evenings, will come cheap afternoon concerts in the Music Hall, where good symphonies and overtures, with sparkling varieties for younger tastes, will hold out weekly invitation.

For the select few, who hold communion in the love of classical quartet and trio music by the great masters,—in the piano poems of Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven, there will be abundant opportunities. The Mendelssohn Quintette Club, the German Trio, Mr. Satter, the pianist, and would we might add Otto Dresel, will give series of concerts in the pleasant Chickering Saloon, that holds two hundred. Alas! we may be disappointed there. The Masonic Temple has been sold to the government for a United States Court-house. Think of the musical associations that haunt and consecrate the place, and think of the uses to which it may soon be put! What profanation! Hitherto the only chains that have surrounded that Temple have been chains of harmony, which one may wear and not be a slave! It has been a Temple of Concord;—may we hope that it will be in truth a Temple of Justice!—For virtuoso concerts, we shall have what the managers at New York send us. We shall of course have Vieuxtemps and Thalberg, if no more.

In New York the campaign has been opened for this month past, and we do not yet hear that the troubles down in Wall Street have discouraged the lessees of the Academy of Music. Great is the array of singers and of players that revolve around the little knot of musical speculators in New York. Strange to say, Italian opera has German managers. They catch the birds, having beforehand caught and prepared the public. But it is as well to state, that there are two great operatic enterprises, as there are two rival musical broker managers: to wit, Maretzek and Ullman; the former backed by Marshall of the Philadelphia Academy, and proceeding forth with hope to conquer from that centre; the latter backed by Thalberg, and strengthened by the Strakosch and Vestvali tributaries that roll proudly in from scenes of conquest in the Western States and Mexico. The Ullman party hold the New York Academy; the other party hold the theatres of Philadelphia and Boston; either must make itself felt at the three points, to avoid a losing game. Hence these harmonious and deadly rivals have perforce entered into a league of amity and commerce, whereby they exchange singers, so that all shall in turn be heard at every theatre. At New York the company includes, for leading soprani, Madame Lagrange, the wonder of the last two years, greatest of vocal gymnasts, and fine actress always, with voice well worn, and Madame Frezzolini, as the last imported celebrity from Europe; her voice, too, is past its prime, but her art is pronounced immaculate, and she is quite a charmer, if we may trust the critics. For contralto there is Vestvali, the dashing tall one, who delights in man's clothes, and sings Charles the Fifth, the baritone (!) rôle in "Ernani." There is a delicate new tenor, Labocetta, and another named Maccaferri, and a fresh, universally admired baritone, Gassier; and there is our old buffo friend, Rocco, and many more. Besides whom are two famous announcements, yet to come from Europe: the French tenor, Roger, and the German basso, Formes. The orchestra and chorus are, we suppose, as usual; the conductor better; he is Herr Anschütz, who has had experience in London, and who subdues his orchestra to sympathetic support of the singers. With Max it is the other way; he loves to ride full swing upon the top of his forces, brass and all, fortissimo, conquering and to conquer. Is "Il Trovatore" wanted, everlasting "Trovatore,"—music that whirls and fascinates, possessed and driven by one fixed idea of burning at the stake, with furies of love and jealousy to match,—they borrow from the other company (under the "amicable" treaty) Brignoli, of the golden tenor voice, who sings so sweetly and sulks so proudly lazy, and Amodio, that ton of juvenile humanity, whose weighty baritone and eagerness to please make up for the see-saw alternation of his two only expressions and gesticulations,—those of vulgar love-making and mock-heroical revenge. These, with Gazzaniga, the charming, lively, natural Gazzaniga, whose voice is fresh, and who can sing and act so charmingly in genial music, such as Donizetti's "Elisir d' Amore," with also Assoni, the buffo, and Coletti, the bass, compose the year-old and tried nucleus of the Philadelphia opera, which opened the first Monday in October. To these are added new attractions, in the shape of old celebrities from Europe: namely, Ronconi, the great Don Giovanni of the London opera; Tagliafico, the basso; Stecchi-Bottardi, tenor from Her Majesty's; Signora Ramos, prima donna from Turin; Signora Tagliafico; and greatest of all, to come when he has got through with the Russians, the famous tenor, Tamberlik.

Here is a great array, and great expense. Verily, it rains "stars," as it rains meteors in our cold November nights. Perhaps it will pay,—perhaps not. But for the interests of Art, and the true gratification and advancement of the taste for music, one might ask whether a better economy of means would not have dictated fewer "stars," and more completeness in the orchestra, the chorus, and the general ensemble, so that we might for once hear and enjoy an opera, and not merely a few singers lifted up on the cheapest platform of an opera, loosely nailed together for their sakes. And this question leads to another consideration of still more importance to the real interests of Art. What music, what operas shall we hear? So far, it has been the same old story, the same hackneyed round of "Norma," and "Lucia," and "Lucrezia Borgia," and "Ernani," and "Trovatore," and so on, with once or twice the ever genial and sparkling "Il Barbiere." The whole attraction lies (as always in these great musical speculations) in the solo singers. These ever place themselves between you and good music; they choose to sing the music that best shows their powers, no matter how familiar, hackneyed, sentimental, commonplace, and trashy. If you call for "William Tell," for the "Nozzi di Figaro," to say nothing of "Fidelio," or "Oberon," or "Freischütz," they have not the organization for it, have not the chorus, the secondary singers, the artists who know and love the music; it will not pay, and so forth. Our Academies must justify their name and be domestic institutions, permanent lyric organizations, before we can call in singers to illustrate an opera, instead of worn-out operas to illustrate the singer.

Since penning the above, we hear of a fortnight's suspension of the Opera in New York, to allow time for the preparation of the "Nozzi di Figaro," "Robert le Diable," "Les Huguenots," &c.

In close connection with the opera, the brilliant concerts of Vieuxtemps and Thalberg go on. Probably there is nothing better of the virtuoso kind; and as they bring in the orchestra sometimes, they give occasionally something classical and great, performed in a masterly manner. Indeed, all the music of New York seems to revolve now round the Ullman-Thalberg centre. They sweep all into their orbit. With the Harmonic Society, they give Sunday oratorios, promising "The Messiah," "Creation," "Elijah," David's "Desert," (!) and others.

We have not left ourselves room to more than hint at the truest musical pride of New York, her Philharmonic Society, whose orchestra now numbers eighty excellent performers, and whose list of regular subscribers reaches eighteen hundred. They are rehearsing Spohr's symphony, "Die Weihe der Töne," with Schumann's "Manfred" overture, and Beethoven's sublime "Leonora," for their first concert, and will do much for classical music by their four concerts. In Boston, in spite of our broken and disorganized condition, we have ten or a dozen Symphony concerts in a winter. Chamber Quartets, too, and Trios with Piano, will have their audiences,—let us hope numerous enough to gladden the hearts of the artists.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.