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Moral Fire

Musical Portraits from America's Fin de Siècle

Joseph Horowitz

University of California Press


263 pp.

Today they are all but forgotten, yet Henry Higginson, Henry Krehbiel and Laura Langford were three American figures of astounding accomplishment. Charles Ives, the fourth subject of these portraits, has received more attention - relatively recently from the American composer and writer Jan Swafford in his excellent Charles Ives, a Life With Music (1996) and on DVD, from Michael Tilson Thomas’s Keeping Score series, made with the San Francisco Philharmonic.

Less well known is the story of Henry Higginson (1834 - 1919), the Bostonian visionary who invented, owned and ran the Boston Symphony. Educated in Europe, Higginson created the first American orchestra to be on a par with those abroad. He chose the players and conductors, built them a hall to play in, and ensured that the core repertory was Germanic. He made sure cheap tickets were available for the less affluent. Twenty-five cent ‘rush’ tickets were available for Friday afternoon rehearsals.

Southern-born Laura Langford (1843 - 1930) reinvented herself in New York, first as a newspaper woman, then as concert producer, spiritualist and grande dame. She was an example, suggests Horowitz, of the capable and ambitious women, in a period which offered no rôle models. Inaugurating the Seidl Society, Langford brought Wagner’s protégé conductor Anton Seidl and his orchestra to Brooklyn’s seaside resorts for the summer. Langford 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 Mrs Langford’s plans. At Brighton beach there were fourteen concerts weekly during the 1894 season!

The critic for the New York Sun, W J Henderson, considered Henry Krehbiel (1854 - 1923) to be ‘the greatest music critic America had produced’. Krehbiel was an activist. When the Met claimed that Wagner no longer made money, Krehbiel tabulated box office receipts. Though he conversed with Dvořák and Anton Seidl in German, Krehbiel quoted their remarks ‘couched in a fluent English that neither commanded’. Krehbiel had a feud with Mahler. It reflected badly on both men, and lasted until the end of Mahler's life.

The period was one that gave much to American music lovers. Horowitz’s book rightly reminds us of the achievements of these major fin de siècle protagonists.

John Robert Brown

Review first published in Classical Music, August 2012.
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