Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The ‘Lights’ vs 'the Rival Party’

Last month we ran a post by Nancy Newman in which she explained her fascination with the history of the Germania Musical Society and its travels around North America, bringing a variety of music to audiences far and wide. In this extract from her book, Good Music for a Free People, Newman discusses controversies encountered by the Germanians in Boston over their programming. Some wanted more concentrated, homogenous programs of substantial works, while others favoured more dances and lighter fare.

Although it might be overstatement to say that “all eyes were upon the Germania” as they prepared for the 1853–54 season, it is not unimaginable that the members hoped to reach heights comparable to those of the previous year. The season began splendidly, with numerous “special attractions” and extra musicians supplementing the ensemble. As in the previous season, the subscription series of ten concerts had very reasonable terms: a package of thirty tickets was ten dollars, or fifteen for five dollars, all “to be used at pleasure.” The orchestra held some admissions in reserve for those who could not commit to the series: “In order to prevent the confusion and disappointment experienced upon the unusual demand for tickets last season, Only a Limited Number of subscription tickets will be issued.” Single tickets were available at the usual fifty cents apiece.

The first half-dozen concerts were very much like those of the previous two seasons. With the exception of the “Wagner Night,” each program opened with a complete symphony. No dances or potpourris were offered, and one or more guest soloists appeared at each event. In early December, Dwight’s Journal published a letter to the editor suggesting that the Germania offer weekly, rather than fortnightly, concerts. The author claimed to speak for many like-minded people. “I have also heard the wish expressed that we might have from [the orchestra] concerts more entirely of classical music, which should present, too, not only the best works of the best masters, but should produce them consecutively, and in some kind of system; a series of ‘Mozart nights’ and ‘Beethoven nights,’ for instance, or something of the kind.”

It was surely not a coincidence that the Germanians announced an additional subscription series devoted entirely to “classical” music the very next week. On December 10, Dwight called attention to the “new plan” in a long editorial. Each of the five concerts would include four major works—two symphonies and two overtures—with selections by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart constituting nearly half the repertory (nine of twenty pieces). Schumann and Mendelssohn each appear twice, for another 20 percent of the total. With their concentration on works by the first Viennese School and other German composers, these programs are startlingly close to those of the modern symphony orchestra.

The Germanians kept the new subscription lists open for about a month, with the first concert scheduled for mid-January. Despite Dwight’s efforts and the reduction of ticket prices, the series failed to attract enough subscribers to cover its projected costs. The Germania abandoned the plan just before the first concert would have taken place. Dwight attributed its failure simply to having been “brought forward too late in the season,” and urged the orchestra to try again next year. In the meantime, the members were still faced with the demand that they offer more concerts of some sort. Just two weeks later, they made a swing in the opposite direction. Instead of adding concerts devoted to an exclusively “classical” repertory, they proposed four programs emphasizing “modern,” that is, “lighter” genres.

Manager Bandt gave two reasons for this decision. The first was that the Germania had already sold more tickets than there were seats available for the remaining concerts, and there were even more music lovers who wanted tickets. A season total of fifteen subscription concerts was needed to accommodate everyone. Second, “the undersigned has had application from many of the subscribers to compose the programme of mostly classical compositions; and again from many to have the Germanians perform more music of lighter character. To satisfy all, the Society has adopted the following plan: To perform alternately a programme of classical and one of modern music—which brings the next Concert in the category of the latter style, a Concert in which none but light music, with few exceptions, will be performed.”

The first concert was to take place that evening, January 28. “To-night the ‘lights’ have it,” commented Dwight. “A programme light indeed! (and if we may be pardoned the suggestion) a little too closely modelled upon Jullien’s programmes, not to endanger the Germania prestige. But we are glad to see that good overtures and parts of symphonies are not excluded.” He anticipated that the “lights” would outnumber “the rival party” at upcoming concerts, and that the Germanians’ revised plan would “test effectually the relative strength of parties in this matter.”

For the first time, Dwight described their audience in the language of partisanship. Previously, he had maintained that music lovers existed on a continuum of appreciation, based on education and prior experience, but always with the capacity for growth and further refinement. At this crucial moment, however, he recognized that alliances, whether voluntary or character-based, were being drawn. He hoped the next few months would “show that the ‘appreciating few’ fond of good music for music’s sake are not by any means so very few as it has been tauntingly and often said.” Dwight’s pessimism is epitomized by the fact that he dubbed those who appreciated “music for music’s sake” members of “the rival party.”

The program that night consisted of twelve pieces presented in two equal parts. As Dwight indicated, a symphony movement and three overtures were included. There were three dances, and a potpourri was revived, representing the return of these two genres to the Germania’s subscription concerts in Boston. A song by local composer Thomas Comer was premiered, and the assisting pianist played Mendelssohn’s relatively flamboyant “Rondo Brillante.” In its general format, this program is typical of the “light” concerts added that season: twelve selections, with overtures opening each half, three dances, and opera excerpts for instrumentalists or guest vocalist. Virtuosic showpieces filled out the rest, with the occasional inclusion of a movement from a lengthy, serious work.

The first program for “the rival party” differed greatly. It consisted of only five pieces: a symphony, two concerti, and two overtures. The overture to Medea may have been a Boston premiere; Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 certainly was. “A purer and a richer programme never was presented to an American audience,” commented Dwight. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, performed by Wilhelm Schultze, were particularly well done. The next two “classical” concerts followed a similar format: each one featured an entire symphony, a piano concerto, and one or two overtures. Of the sixteen selections total, only one, an aria from Der Freischütz, required a vocalist. With the exception of Cherubini’s Overture, the programs consisted entirely of German and Austrian composers. Beethoven and Mendelssohn account for five selections each, or nearly two-thirds of the repertory. Two works each by Mozart and Weber, and one by Schumann, made up the remainder.

While the Germanians carried out their innovations, Dwight began to articulate his own ideas on concert programming. It was a topic that had interested others in his circle for several years. Margaret Fuller, for instance, had “called on concert directors to arrange carefully the genres of music to be performed, with attention to the balance to be achieved as well as the effect on the listeners.” In his review of the Germania’s “Extra Concert” on January 14, Dwight made several observations about the relationship of individual works to the event as a whole. Le Désert was featured in the concert’s second half, but the first part seemed haphazardly planned. A chorus from Elijah was well done, but should not have followed Aptommas’s harp solo. Spohr’s song, “The Huntsman, Soldier & Sailor,” on the other hand, “was over before we could begin to make out what was the amount of it.” In conclusion, Dwight proposed that “miscellaneous programme-making should be more a work of art.”

Good Music for a Free People by Nancy Newman is available now from your favourite bookseller.

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