AMERICAN ORCHESTRAS IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
Edited by John Spitzer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 480 pp. $55
This is a fascinating collection of essays, exploring in some detail orchestral life in America prior to the formation of what has become the modern orchestra. Some of the essays serve to illuminate the bridge between the earlier versions of orchestras and the modern corporate model, others shine fascinating light on programming and how it has changed.
There are about two dozen essays, and while they are held together by a common overall theme, they can be read separately and in your own order of preference. The name Theodore Thomas runs through the pages more consistently and visibly than just about any other, and we get an interesting picture of his importance in creating an interest in orchestral music across the country. Brenda Nelson-Strauss’s “Theodore Thomas and the Cultivation of American Music” is a fascinating study of his commitment to American composers, something for which he is rarely given credit. Nelson-Strauss was the first archivist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and thus has great familiarity with Thomas and his work. Ronald Walters’s “Afterword” is a thoughtful and insightful summing up of the entire book, observing how the past has influenced the present, for better and for worse. A number of essays are written by John Spitzer, who edited the whole, and I found particularly stimulating his exploration of the history and impact of unionization on American orchestras. Barbara Haws, archivist of the New York Philharmonic, contributes a truly fascinating piece “Ureli Corelli Hill: An American Musician’s European Travels and the Creation of the New York Philharmonic.” Haws’s quotations from Hill’s diaries give us material of immense value because of its insights into the musical life of Europe and America in the 19th century.
There are a few signs of careless editing or proofreading in this book. In the listing of American composers performed by Theodore Thomas is, reasonably enough, his own name (“American” was rightfully defined by Nelson-Strauss as composers either born in America or who had come to reside in America). Unfortunately, his own name is printed as “Thomas Thomas.” In Adrienne Block’s excellent “Thinking About Serious Music in New York,” she writes that Thomas “followed this plan, conducting six symphonies, two concertos, and five overtures of Beethoven and performing entire acts of
.” Of course,
is a one-act opera, and one wonders just what Thomas did perform (one doubts it was the whole thing). But there are not enough of them to meaningfully detract from the value of this book.
For anyone interested in the history of orchestral life in America, in shifting public tastes, and in gaining insight that might, in fact, help us figure out a healthier future for orchestras, this book is essential reading.