Noted critic and artistic administrator Joseph Horowitz has written extensively about American classical music history. The thrust of several of his books is that although “American concert life” today may be an “isolated niche,” it was not always thus. From the last decades of the nineteenth century until World War I, classical music was beyond mainstream; it was the preeminent cultural art. Wagner and Beethoven were revered.
Moral Fire portrays four individuals whom he sees as “fin-de-siècle fulcrum figures,” inhabiting “a moment in flux:” Henry Higginson, the man behind the Boston Symphony and Symphony Hall; the New York Tribune music critic Henry Krehbiel; Laura Holloway Langford, an impresario who championed Wagner in Brooklyn; and composer Charles Ives.
Horowitz has mined this territory before. Higginson and Ives are featured in Classical Music in America (2005), Krehbiel and Langford in Wagner Nights (1994). Why spotlight them again? Moral Fire argues that they, like Mark Twain, embodied “New American cultural energies.” All shared a belief in great art as uplifting and all belied the notion of the Gilded Age as decadent. The four did not just advance classical music, but felt its “spiritual sustenance” could be “channeled into art, music, learning and social action.”
Higginson, a Bostonian educated in Europe, created the first American orchestra that was on a par with those abroad. He chose the players and conductors, built them a hall to play in and made sure the core repertory was Germanic. He was the first to give an acoustic specialist major input during the construction of the concert hall. He made sure cheap tickets were available for the less affluent; “rush” tickets got their name because eager listeners dashed up stairs for the best seats in the second balcony. By 1900, Boston was the center of concertizing.
But World War I doomed Higginson’s reign as sentiment turned against German nationals–numerous in his orchestra. His conductor, Karl Muck, resigned after being forced to play the “Star Spangled Banner.” Rumored to be a spy, Muck was eventually jailed as an enemy alien.
Krehbiel, a Wagnerite rife with paradoxes, believed critics should edify their readers. He was an important champion both Dvorak and ethnic folk and African-American music. Yet the older he got the more conservative his tastes grew. That he was not receptive toward the newer music of Debussy, Mahler, et al. is clear from a lengthy excerpt of his 4,000 word denunciation of Strauss’s Salome. (He called it “ugly music.”)
Langford, southern-born, reinvented herself in New York first as a newspaper woman, then as a concert producer, a spiritualist and a grand dame. She was an example, suggests Horowitz, of the capable and ambitious women of the period who had no role models.
Inaugurating the Seidl Society, Langford brought Wagner’s protégé, conductor Anton Seidl, and his orchestra to Brooklyn’s seaside resorts for the summer. She persuaded railroads to add cars for women of modest means to travel to their concerts. Horowitz speculates that Brooklyn might have become an American Bayreuth if Seidl’s untimely death had not derailed her plans.
Ives, of course, is the best-known subject in Moral Fire. Horowitz positions him as “less a proto-modernist than an anomaly within the sanguine genteel tradition,” a fin-de-siecle composer at heart even though recognition came decades later. His seminal compositions were from his early years and like the other three, he felt great art was “inherently ennobling.”
Horowitz’s skill lies in weaving many cultural threads into an absorbing book. Revisiting themes and people from earlier works, he is a graceful writer determined to give the vibrant musical world of the Gilded Age its due.
Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin de Siecle by Joseph Horowitz. 2012. 270 pages. ISBN 978-0-520-26744-2. University of California Press.
You can’t glance at some of the more than 250 songs cataloged in this collection without hearing a particular interpretation or hit parade version in your head. “Body and Soul?” Coleman Hawkins. ”Just You, Just Me?” Lester Young. “Take Five?” Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond.
Yet there may be three or six other versions that deserve a listen. This book’s great value lies in Gioia’s lists of other worthy interpretations, along with a colloquial yet erudite discussion of how each song came to be written, its place in jazz history, when and if its popularity waxed and waned, and other details.
The Jazz Standards is neither a narrative history nor a exhaustive record guide but an encyclopedic, guided tour of melodies that never go out of style. Hum a few bars and Gioia, a musician and author, will play them, and more. It’s almost the reverse of a fake book, as the author embroiders your memory of standards with true, sometimes amazing stories about them.
An example: “Nature Boy” immediately brings to mind Nat King Cole’s hit version from 1948. But how many know it was written by an eccentric named eden ahbez, an orphan from Brooklyn who lived a hippie lifestyle decades before the hippies? Or that Capitol Records had to go on a manhunt for the composer before it could release the Cole recording, finding him at last camped out below an L in the Hollywood Sign? Or that there were “accusations and litigation” by someone who charged ahbez with plagiarism? Or that the melody echoes a Dvorak piano quintet? Gioia offers all this plus eight recommended versions.
Another example: “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.” Louis Armstrong owns this one, right? Yes and no. It is credited to his band’s pianist and second wife Lil Hardin–but only after she sued him over the rights: the two fought “a custody battle, but over a tune instead of a child,” writes Gioia.
Page through The Jazz Standards for your favorites, or dive in at random; Gioia’s book is a browsing bonanza.
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire by Ted Gioia. 2012. 544 pages. ISBN 978-0-19-993739-4. Oxford University Press.
– Grace Lichtenstein