"A Tidal Wave of Encouragement": American Composers' Concerts in the Gilded Age, by E. Douglas Bomberger. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002. xvii+235 p. ISBN 0-275-97446-4.
A study of American music of the nineteenth century brings an array of topics under the lens. These include such varied subjects as the shape-note tradition and white gospel hymnody, the business of music and the sheet-music industry, band music and parlor songs, the so-called Second New England School, slave songs and spirituals, the growth of orchestras and oratorio choirs, opera and music for the stage, and individuals such as Mason, Gottschalk, Gilmore, and MacDowell. However, a common thread throughout the century, directly or indirectly enveloping these topics, is the growing distinction in America between vernacular and cultivated music, and related to this, the valiant efforts to establish a clear and respected American branch of the latter. In "A Tidal Wave of Encouragement": American Composers' Concerts in the Gilded Age Douglas Bomberger tells the story of the important organizations, people, and events in the front lines of this multi-dimensional battle, with special focus on the American Composers' Concerts (ACC). He reminds us that the strength of the long European cultivated tradition and the explosion of American vernacular music tended to marginalize American art music (xiii). The ACC movement aimed to "make audiences aware of the American art music that had already been composed . . . [and] to create a climate hospitable to the development of a distinctive American school of composition . . ." (xiv).
Bomberger's book reads rather like an historical novel full of colorful characters (who are both lauded and derided), heated debate and intrigue, conflict and resolution, revolution and evolution, and patriotism and internationalism. The story is especially relevant because the issues were not new to the nineteenth century, nor were they resolved during that time (think of Copland's efforts just a few decades later). And we still confront the vestiges of the cultivated/vernacular split and the hesitancy toward programming (and the difficulty even in defining) American cultivated music. The author writes, "this study is designed to provide both a detailed story of the [ACC] movement and a consideration of the critical response to the idea of all-American concerts" (xvi).1 He omits discussion of "one-composer" concerts.
Following an Introduction, A Tidal Wave of Encouragement is organized into 12 chapters (some of which are very short). As clearly indicated in the Table of Contents, each chapter treats one of the organizations or people or events in the rise and fall of the all-American-music concert story. Four Appendices provide lists of concerts (and reviews thereof) and repertory. The lengthy index is helpful because it cites names, titles, and topics although it seems to have few "see" references or cross references. Thankfully the publisher includes notes at the end of each chapter rather than in a separate section at the end of the book, and the entire book is visually and physically well constructed.
Chapter 1 sets the stage by highlighting concerts of strictly American music before 1884, and in doing so, summarizes salient points of American music history of the earlier part of the century. For example, American-music advocates William Henry Fry and George F. Bristow are juxtaposed against John Knowles Paine, Theodore Thomas, and John Sullivan Dwight who, each in his own way, promoted a more cosmopolitan (and strongly German) avenue. Discussion of the seminal 1884 ACC concert of American piano music at the MTNA (Music Teachers' National Association) conference in Cleveland begins chapter 2. Readers familiar with the birth and current focus of MTNA might be surprised to learn that for a short time after the moderate success of this concert, the organization "virtually abandoned the pedagogical emphasis that had been its purpose since its founding . . ." (16). Bomberger ties this shift, in part, to the patriotic fervor that followed the American Centennial and to the concurrent trend toward trade protectionism. When MTNA met in Chicago in 1888 Theodore Thomas surprisingly agreed to conduct an exclusively American-music concert, which many thought would help perpetuate the idea. However, chapter 6 illuminates a dilemma or foreshadows a denouement in the drama as some "began to have doubts about the efficacy of segregating American music . . ." (65). On the other hand, concerts of exclusively American music began to be used to promote all sorts of situations, and some states began to insist on a more narrow view of American music, namely music from composers of their state. All of this is occurring at the same time that music is being added to higher-education curricula and composition competitions with prize money are burgeoning. There was considerable American-music activity, but some of the efforts may have backfired. As Bomberger asserts, "A careful survey of hundreds of these programs reveals that many of the concerts featured forgotten works by local composers or the pretentious effusions of inept writers buoyed by the fad" (71). A reversal of the trend, ironically contemporaneous to a decline in the prestige of MTNA, is the subject of the following chapter.
Prominent among the main characters in the story is music critic Henry E. Krehbiel, who is the subject of chapter 3. He initially supported the enthusiasm for concerts of American music, but as he began to realize that it might take years to achieve a truly American school, his support for exclusively American-music concerts wavered, and so did the trend. Bomberger acknowledges the value of Krehbiel's recognition that American composers needed strong examples, that the public needed to encourage their efforts, and that the music of American composers had to be heard before it could be judged. The MTNA's all-American concert mantle was shared by the "novelty" concerts of Frank Van der Stucken. He is the subject of chapter 4, which also contains several revealing points about the role of "new" music at this time (Grieg, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky), the problems in hunting for influences on the work of one composer by another composer, and the substantive roles of the audience and the performer in promoting both new and American music. Bomberger outlines the rapid evolution toward negativity of Edward MacDowell's attitude towards all-American concerts in the brief pages of chapter 9. MacDowell's preeminence at the time added strength to his comments.
Among the most absorbing portions of the book is chapter 5, which elucidates the performance of and response to American music at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in France. Many readers will associate that occasion with Debussy's introduction to music of Java. It, however, also was a showcase for the art music of American composers. Bomberger writes, ". . . the critical reception ranged from condescending to hostile" based primarily on French attitudes toward American high and low culture at the time (47). (Perhaps we need to remember that this is less than two decades after the founding of the National Society of French Music at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. France, too, was struggling to establish a national music identity.) Equally engaging is the reporting of the French critical response back in America and the fact that at least one of the American concerts was recorded on the new Edison phonograph (48).
"Heroes and Villains" might have been an appropriate name for chapter 8, which in many ways is the German counterpart to chapter 5. It describes the efforts by conductor F.X. Arens to promote and perform American music in his native Germany. This chapter also re-emphasizes the dangers inherent in ascribing so much influence on "American" music to German music, especially when one of the aims was to foster a uniquely American style. Similarly, at a time when German journalism was flourishing, the battle of words between and among German and American critics and journal writers, such as George H. Wilson, reveals much about the climate (trade protectionism is an issue again) and about the music itself. It turns out that Arens's concerts placed American composers and their music in a "damned if you do, and damned if you don't" situation (113).
The downward spiral of the ACC penchant continues in chapter 10 as "poor planning, mismanagement, and artistic differences doomed the concerts of art music from the beginning" of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 (128). While "progress" was the theme of the exposition, performance of cultivated music was so caught up in turmoil and infighting (including over which brands of pianos should be used) that historically we remember this gathering more for its exposure of vernacular styles and "ethnic" music than for art music. The desire for concerts of exclusively American music was past, and the debate over the schism between styles continued.
A vivification is the subject of chapter 11 as composers realized their own responsibility in the promotion of American music. "Societies for the performance of manuscript compositions sprang up in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago" (146). The initial success in New York led to the formation of the Manuscript Club; other groups formed as well. Bomberger concludes that these clubs played a valuable if limited role in supporting American composition at the turn of the century. The surprise ending of the story (featuring Jeannette Thurber and Antonin Dvorak) is outlined in the final chapter. "The shift in the critical debate brought about by Dvorak's views moved the emphasis from conceptual Americanism . . . to compositional Americanism . . ." (170). This debate seems tied to a pendulum over the next several decades, but Bomberger concludes that subsequent leanings towards conceptual Americanism can trace their roots to the ACC.
I noted the author's use of the term "Gilded Age" in the title and at several points in the text. Certainly that historical label is common, but "gilded" can have connotations of "superfluous," "fake," or "excessive." Is this Bomberger's indirect assessment of the efforts of the ACC or of the related music? Because much of the repertory he mentions is unfamiliar, occasional comments about some of the pieces (or even about their accessibility or availability) might be warranted and helpful, especially in chapters 5 and 8. Similarly, one might hope for additional contextual placement of the story within the far-reaching larger topic. Nevertheless, the readability of the book and the content descriptions above indicate there is much to admire about Bomberger's A Tidal Wave of Encouragement. It deserves to be placed high on an American-music reading list. The book and the story confirm yet again the interconnectedness of all aspects of music (cultivated and vernacular styles as well as composer, critic, performer, audience) with the society that creates and consumes it.
1The use of the term "all American" is effective within the confines of Bomberger's book. I found the use of the term more problematic when writing about the concept outside of the book. Because the phrase is applied in a more general, often patriotic, manner in our everyday language (I believe there is even a restaurant that uses the term in describing its hamburger!), I found myself seeking other ways to describe the meaning, i.e., exclusively American-music concerts, or concerts of strictly American music.