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Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin de Siècle by Joseph Horowitz (review)

From: Notes
Volume 69, Number 4, June 2013
pp. 754-757 | 10.1353/not.2013.0058

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Moral Fire is a book with a mission. Like the four individuals who comprise its “portraits,” Joseph Horowitz makes a powerful case for music as a valuable intellectual and cultural pursuit. His goal is to change our perspective on the period that Mark Twain satirically labeled the Gilded Age. For Horowitz, the decades between the Civil War and 1900 are characterized neither by the self-absorbed wealthy nor the proponents of “genteel tradition” (p. 6). On the contrary, the era burned with the passion of civic idealism and melioristic vision. Individuals such as Henry Lee Higginson, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO); Laura Langford, creator of Brooklyn’s Seidl Society; the critic Henry Krehbiel; and composer Charles Ives epitomize this zeal. Their activities show “the moral passion animating classical music at the turn of the twentieth century” (p. 8).

The origins of this project can be found in Horowitz’s earlier studies, Wagner Nights (1994) and Classical Music in America: A History (2005), in which Higginson, Langford, Krehbiel, and Ives made cameo appearances. As Moral Fire elaborates, their activities overlap in numerous ways, but especially through Anton Seidl and Antonín Dvořák, whose American visit spurred vigorous debate about the formation of a national school of composition. Another recurring theme is the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which was visited by Dvořák, Krehbiel and Ives. Boston’s musical horizon is repeatedly compared to New York’s and found wanting by numerous figures, from the critic J. S. Dwight, who “poisonously personifies snobbish discomfort” (p. 233) to the “inbred composers’ community” (p. 295) around John Knowles Paine.

As an alternative to the term Gilded Age, Horowitz calls the years circa 1900 the United States’ “fin de siècle.” The latter term typically describes “a dynamic moment in European culture . . . freighted with decadence” that lasted from about 1880 to 1914 (p. 11). Just as Wagner Nights described a specifically American response to Wagner’s operas, Moral Fire posits a distinctively American response to modernity at the century’s turn. What was shared across the Atlantic was the pursuit of intense experience. The difference is that Americans cloaked this desire in the garb of moral improvement. Higginson, Krehbiel, Langford, and Ives were all “agents of uplift for whom great art seemed . . . inherently ennobling” (p. 226). It would be a mistake, however, to characterize their actions as the embrace of tradition. On the contrary, their activities are “signposts of an intense high culture in vigorous transition” (p. 12). They were all fulcrum figures living in “a moment in flux,” the American fin de siècle (p. 227).

Horowitz’s portrait of Higginson is an inspiring sketch of a man who balanced profound musical interests with a lucrative career in finance. The young Higginson dropped out of Harvard but spent several years studying music in Vienna. He returned to Boston just as the Civil War began, and he served the Union cause heroically. Having decided against a musical career, he joined his family’s modest firm and helped it become one of Boston’s most prominent investment banks.

In 1881, Higginson announced his intention to establish a symphony orchestra offering twenty concerts each season. Its players would earn full-time salaries, relieving them of the need to work for theaters and dances. Ticket prices were kept low, reviving the Germania Musical Society’s policies of the 1850s. Anticipating that the new organization was unlikely to survive through ticket sales, Higginson personally guaranteed the payroll. He chose George Henschel and then Wilhelm Gericke as conductors and advised them closely on repertory. Although Higginson was sometimes seen as exercising an “artistic dictatorship” (p. 38), he was more often lauded as “Boston’s most useful citizen” (p. 33). In 1900, a new Symphony Hall, with 2600 seats and an innovative acoustical design, was completed under his supervision and financial management.

Horowitz’s admiring but unvarnished portrait concludes with Higginson’s disappointment over Karl Muck’s ambiguous political activities. Hired to conduct the BSO by special agreement with Kaiser Wilhelm in 1906, Muck resigned shortly after the United States entered World War I in a dispute about performing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” When government investigation led to the...


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