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by Barbara Haws
An American Abroad: A long-sought collection illuminates the New York Philharmonic's cultural roots.
"The majesty, vigor, genius, originality and the lyric effects of the Sinfonie of Beethoven on the 2nd day was indescribably fine. It surpassed everything I heard by far. To perform this production it occupied nearly an hour... It will be a 100 years before the like can possibly be hoped to be heard in the United States."
So wrote the American-born Ureli Corelli Hill in May of 1836, after participating in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Düsseldorf under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn. A few years later Hill would lead a group of fellow instrumentalists in founding the New York Philharmonic, and would become its first conductor and president. His account of Mendelssohn's gigantic staging of the Choral Symphony is one of the many fascinations to be found in a 175-page diary in which Hill documented his first visit to Europe in the mid-1830s. The diary has finally "come home" to America's oldest symphony orchestra, the one that Hill helped to found in 1842.
December 7, 2002 marks the Philharmonic's 160th birthday. One hundred sixty is not a milestone that one usually celebrates. But this year, after more than a half century of pursuit, the orchestra acquired a remarkable collection of musical documents--including the Hill diary--that presents a new picture of its earliest years. And that, indeed, is cause for celebration.
This treasure trove, amounting to nearly 20,000 items in 350 boxes, was accumulated by St. Louis resident Harold Lineback over a period of more than 60 years. It includes autographed photos of Brahms and Mahler; daguerreotypes of bassoonist Anthony Reiff, the Philharmonic's first vice president, and of legendary soprano Jenny Lind; letters from Schumann, from the renowned mezzo-soprano Maria García Malibran, and from English violin virtuoso George Polgreen Bridgetower (a contemporary of Beethoven born to an African father and a European mother); autographic scores by Elgar and Stravinsky; rare picture recordings and piano rolls, first-edition books, and Confederate sheet music; and hundreds of 19th-century concert programs. Lineback, a real estate man and onetime violin prodigy, was interested in all things musical; what set him apart from other collectors was his foresight regarding the importance of early American musical history. Most other collectors began amassing material only during Toscanini's American period and had little knowledge of, or respect for, the musical figures of 19th-century America; even today, America's musical world prefers to look toward Europe for its precedents and heroes. Lineback began sharing his discoveries with the Philharmonic in the 1940s. In the early 1970s he received a visit from then-Philharmonic President Carlos Moseley and Professor Howard Shanet of Columbia University. Nearly every closet and cupboard in Lineback's home held treasures, and in 1975 Shanet noted in the preface to his book Philharmonic: A History of New York's Orchestra that when the collection was made available, "the history of the Philharmonic's early years will have to be rewritten."
When I sought to visit Lineback in 1985, soon after becoming the Philharmonic's archivist/historian, he refused my request, claiming he was too busy and had too many people bothering him. I'm not sure what made him call the next day to say he had changed his mind. But from that time until his death in 1994, I would visit him and his wife Evelyn at least once a year to view parts of his collection and listen to his stories.
Lineback was one of the greatest and most tireless detectives I have ever known. He identified the important players (particularly in 19th-century New York), tracked down their descendents or the path that the family archives had taken, and acquired the material. His collection is filled not only with invaluable one-of-a-kind items, but also with his research. On thousands of 2 x 3-inch scraps of paper covered with his scrawl, he described the direction and outcome of his searches--the hopeful leads, the dead ends, the pay dirt. He organized this material in topical envelopes bearing such labels as "Concerts, early--Chicago" and "Maud Powell" and "Heinrich Conried."
The single item that kept those of us in New York traveling west was the Hill diary. In it he recorded such things as his first voyage to Europe in 1835, his studies with composer Ludwig Spohr in Kassel, and his impressions of musical life in England, Germany, and France. Harold and Evelyn Lineback meticulously transcribed the miniscule writing. No copy of the diary was allowed to leave their home, nor could anyone stay long enough to read through the entire 175 pages. But we knew from years of reading excerpts that Hill's encounters and experiences would shed much light on the founding and early years of the New York Philharmonic.
Witness to a Classic Tradition
Born in Boston in 1802, U.C. Hill (as he always referred to himself) was at least a third-generation American, despite his European-sounding name. (His father, Uri K. Hill, apparently also venerated European composers, having named another son George Handel Hill.) Uri K., a music teacher and composer, was probably U.C.'s first violin teacher--a New York newspaper ad in 1810 billed him as the "first performer on violin in America"--and U.C.'s grandfather, Frederick, was a lawyer and a fifer in the Revolutionary army. U.C. Hill first appeared on the New York musical scene as a violinist in one of the Philharmonic's predecessor organizations--an orchestra, also called the Philharmonic, that existed between 1824 and 1827--and as conductor of the Sacred Music Society (1823-1849) which gave the New York premiere of Messiah under Hill's direction in 1831. Hill was also well known as a concert organizer, teacher, and chamber player.
The diary reveals that on June 10, 1835, he and his wife Lucinda embarked on a "long contemplated and greatly wished for voyage across the Atlantic to Europe." The New York Evening Star claimed that Hill was the "first American Musician, who has gone to Europe solely with the view of improvement in his profession. It augurs well for the interests of the musical art, to see its professors braving the dangers of the Atlantic, to obtain instruction from the great masters of Europe... A similar course by the professors of the sister art of painting, has tended to raise that art to its present pre-emmence [sic] among us."
Although far from fully annotated, Hill's diary appears, on a first complete read-through, to be a fascinating eyewitness account of musical Europe in the mid-1830s, the time just preceding the great immigration of European musicians to America. In spidery handwriting that covers every millimeter of every page, it ranges from detailed accounts of concerts and other events to stream-of-consciousness non sequiturs reminiscent of Gertrude Stein. Often comparing music-making in Europe to his own experience, Hill's observations increase our understanding of musical life in New York, and to some degree Boston. For the first time, we "hear" the voice of one of America's most important early musical figures. We know what food he likes and dislikes, and how he responds to rudeness and high prices. We can even surmise his politics from comments on abolition, capital punishment, and the aristocracy. Most importantly, his critical comparisons help us understand just how sophisticated, or not, the American musical scene was at the time.
Hill begins in London, travels through Rotterdam to Kassel and Düsseldorf and back to London, then ends his journey in Paris before returning to New York after two and a half years. In London he hears his first Fidelio at Covent Garden, with Spanish mezzo-soprano Maria García Malibran singing "to my entire satisfaction and delight. The orchestra consisted of upwards of 50 performers... [John] Templeton's voice is against him. I have not heard any of their English singers equal to [John] Jones of the Park Theatre, N.Y." On the technique required of chamber playing and individual musicians' styles, Hill writes: "July 13. Heard a quartett the first time in Europe. This reminded us of our own Bocherini parties. They play'd the Quartett in D of Mozart and the one in C minor Beethoven. Quartetts of this description do not at present appear very regularly established in this metropolis... The tone of the instrument of the 1st violin [Joseph Ghys] was thin and ruff. His playing was more like coarse orchestra playing than the smooth and finish'd quartett style. The pianos were not sufficiently attended to... This quartet made me feel proud of our humble quartet parties. I think our judgments of the matter was better, and that we have at times play'd more effectively together. They were more perfect in the execution of the passages than we were generally."
One of Hill's prime objectives in making his journey was to improve his own musicianship. He notes, "[I] Took 46 lessons of Spohr during 9 months at $1 per lesson, and 52 from [Moritz] Hauptmann... " Hill's description of the former is revealing:
Monday, August 10. Spohr sent his servant to me appointing 3 O'clock for my first lesson. I attended and play'd him a piece. He play'd an accompaniment on his violin. He told me my left hand was excellent and very just in the intonation. My bow hand was good but my bow required more judicious distribution and it required a little more of a good school. I told him I was aware of it and had come all the way from America for this purpose... Spohr look'd upon it as a very novel thing that a person should come from America, such a great distance, to him. He seem'd rather flattered and pleased by the idea. He might indeed consider it novel, as I am the first American artist in musick that ever undertook it. Had we have had a good school for musick at home it would have saved me this great undertaking. I have for years felt the want of it, in the first place to inspire full confidence in myself, and in the next place to enable me to come at once to the object, which I could only arrive at by diverse expedients, and reasonings, which many times consumed more time than it would to have fully accomplished the object under proper guidance... [without which] I could not feel fully certain that my work was correct...
Hill, accepted as a member of Spohr's own orchestra, goes on to enumerate the violin virtuoso's qualities as a conductor and a gentleman.
Spohr took me into his orchestra, a right which only his pupils have... Spohr in every situation but when directing his orchestra and singers at rehearsals is a gentleman, excellent husband, father--has no vicious habits of any description, don't even smoke, is rich and is highly respected. At rehearsals he uses the most abonomible expressions, such as calling the women sows, swine, the men asses and that they are not fit for their situations. Out of the orchestra he is very polite. In Düsseldorf on May 19, 1836, Hill introduces himself to Felix Mendelssohn--whom he finds to be "a very affable man, about 40 years old, speaking perfect English"--and is "invited to assist at the performances... " Hill continues:
I attended 4 rehearsals of Paulus [Mendelssohn's oratorio St. Paul] the 3 first lasting 6 hours each. We rehearsed 12 hours a day. There were to be two grand performances--the 1st day was Paulus--the following day Monday, the performance was composed of the Sinfonie No. 9 in D minor of Beethoven... There were 366 vocal performers and 174 instrumental, 74 violins alone, total 539... When the whole was concluded, the lady singers... had baskets concealed under their seats fill'd with laurel leaves and flowers. These they flung from all directions, completely all over the composer. Each lady tried to out do her neighbor. Mendelssohn was greatly embarrassed at this unexpected ceremony which he was entirely ignorant of, until the ladies began this shower of honour. To finish they had an immense wreath, I should think at least 9 feet long, which two of the sturdy courageous German bumpkins took and ascended the pulpit and wound it about Mr. Mendelssohn. He struggled and made his escape almost breathless... After this the ladies wound the wreath about his scores on his stand and left it there.
In Kassel, Hill chafed at the requirement of showing obeisance to the local royalty: "Have passed only a pace in front of the Prince without saluting him as is the fashion to do here. He look'd very sour and the officers etc. stair'd at us but I could not see anything particular in the Prince to merit this distinction, besides he was never introduced to me." Hill experienced not only the hauteur of royalty in Kassel, but also a style of music-making that amazed him with its informality and decadence: "In the Euterpian Society there are about 40 generally playing in their orchestra. The professors come in the same in N.Y. They smoke rather more to be sure but this is always the case. I have seen at a quartett party all with their pipes in their mouths smoking with one end, resting all on the floor--smoking of pipes which are of every form conceivable... They will smoke when playing incessantly but when they arrive at a difficult passage the fume is tremendous. One would suppose they could not smoke while playing but it seems as natural to them as breathing. The first time I saw this it seem'd very ludicrous. The air seems only fit for their respiration when it is [so] crowded with tobacco smoke that you cannot see across a room of 15 feet."
In Darmstadt, "the musicians treated me with the best marked respect and attention. They, like all the rest of the musicians complained bitterly of the profession in Germany. [Wilhelm] Mangold said if the sea was not between, he should go immediately to America... Thousands of musicians will come to America if they can get there. So our musicians must study to compete with them."
A Traveler Comes Home
Hill returned to New York in the spring of 1837 and took up his regular duties of playing, conducting, and agitating for a better musical life in the city. In 1842, a meeting of local musicians led by Hill voted to establish the Philharmonic Society of New York. Hill's European experience is obvious in the founding constitution and in the orchestra's first year. The orchestra's mandated size was 53 members, fines from 50 cents to $5 were to be assessed for non-attendance at rehearsals and concerts, and a regular rehearsal schedule was posted in advance.
The first work on the opening concert, led by Hill, was Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, which Hill had conducted in its U.S. premiere in 1841. Years later, the New York Tribune described this inaugural event as "a strange scene of enthusiasm. The Symphony chosen was the C Minor of Beethoven... the musicians almost went wild with delight... They threw themselves into each other's arms laughing, weeping, and applauding in a breath. The effect on the public... was similar. The enthusiasm was indescribable. The success of the Society was assured at the start."
Hill maintained a relationship with both Spohr and Mendelssohn, and returned to Europe at least once. Attempting to replicate his 1836 Düsseldorf experience in New York, he arranged for the Philharmonic to present Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in its American premiere. It took place May 20, 1846 under the baton of George Loder Jr., a member of the Philharmonic's bass section and one of its occasional conductors during this period. The choral parts had been translated into English and copyrighted by Hill and the Philharmonic. Tickets cost an astronomical $2 apiece, and the proceeds were to be used to build a first-rate concert hall in the city. (The planned hall never materialized.)
The performance was one of Hill's greatest musical successes. Soon afterward he moved to Cincinnati, and was later involved with the Boston Jubilee concerts--massive choral-orchestral events in 1869 and 1872 that drew thousands of performers. He returned to New York hoping to make his fortune through an instrument of his own invention, a new kind of piano in which tuning forks were used in place of strings. Unfortunately for Hill, the Steinways were then perfecting their own pianos, and his new venture brought him only financial disaster. By 1873, the 71-year-old Hill was no longer capable of playing with the Philharmonic or finding students, and his professional and financial decline led to feelings of despair. In 1875 he committed suicide at his home in Paterson, New Jersey.
Indisputably Hill's greatest legacy, the Philharmonic is unique among American orchestras, having existed for its first 75 years as a cooperative or "communistic" musical society. It had been formed by a committee of musicians, and it was musicians who selected the repertoire, hired the soloists and conductor, placed the advertisements, and managed the books. They were paid a guaranteed salary, and at the end of every season also shared in any proceeds from ticket sales. That the Philharmonic owes its existence to the leadership of Ureli Corelli Hill has never been in doubt. But with Hill's remarkable diary and the entire Lineback Collection now in the orchestra's possession, there is much we will be able to learn about the early years of America's first permanent symphony orchestra--and about the cultural climate in which it was born.
Barbara Haws is archivist/historian of the New York Philharmonic and executive producer of its Special Editions recording label.