Books in Brief-Moral Fire, by Joseph Horowitz

Passion in the Gilded Age

“If screaming Wagnerites standing on chairs are in fact unthinkable today, it is because we mistrust high feeling,” writes cultural historian Joseph Horowitz in Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin de Siècle (University of California Press, 265 pages, $39.95). “Our children avidly specialize in vicarious forms of electronic interpersonal diversion. Our laptops and televisions ensnare us in a surrogate world that shuns all but facile passions.” Moral Fire is Horowitz’s latest scholarly opus, and in it he returns to one of his favorite themes: the zeal and idealism with which European classical music was promoted and debated in America in the final decades of the nineteenth century—and the powerful effects of that art form on the American public during that time. At times his book takes on the tone of a jeremiad, a lament for lost values and cheapened sensibilities in the modern era. As history, however, it’s a thoroughly engrossing read, a journey to an impassioned time rich in ideas, idealism, and hope for the future.

In Moral Fire Horowitz returns to one of his favorite themes: the zeal and idealism with which European classical music was promoted and debated in America in the final decades of the nineteenth century—and the powerful effects of that art form on the American public.

This journey comes in the form of biography—portraits of four individuals whose high ideals and “moral fire” advanced the cause of art music in fin de siècle America. Horowitz’s subjects are Henry Higginson (1834-1919), the Civil War veteran-turned-businessman who “invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony and built Symphony Hall”; Henry Krehbiel (1854-1923), “the onetime ‘dean’ of New York music critics, whose daunting expertise in Wagner linked to important writings on culture and race”; Laura Holloway Langford (1848-1930), whose Brooklyn-based Seidl Society produced “more concerts [at Brighton Beach and the Brooklyn Academy of Music] than the New York Philharmonic” and had the stated mission of reaching “all classes of women and children and by its efforts in their behalf to prove the potent influence of harmony over individual life and character”; and composer Charles Ives (1874-1954), a man “religious by temperament” who “no less than Thoreau … aspired to the condition where art, philosophy, and daily life are one and the same…”

Henry Krehbiel, “the onetime ‘dean’ of New York music critics.” New York Philharmonic Archives

The author’s thoughts on Higginson, Krehbiel, Langford, and Ives will be familiar to readers of two of his previous books, Wagner Nights (1998) and Classical Music in America: A History (2005). In the present volume he considers all four of these figures in much greater depth, devoting to each a self-contained chapter that he calls a “study of moral empowerment.” The context for these “revisionist” portraits is a wide-ranging, intellectually bracing exploration of the interconnections among art, culture, commerce, politics, journalism, entertainment, religion, and social progressivism in America during the late nineteenth century.

Horowitz offers a rationale for his choice of profile subjects in the book’s Prologue. “That Higginson, Krehbiel, and Langford are figures of startling accomplishment, and yet today neglected, forgotten, or misconstrued, of course greatly matters to me. The inclusion of Ives is a surprise; his prestige buttresses and amplifies what I have to say.” It is indeed something of a “surprise” that a composer whose major works came to wide attention only in the mid-twentieth century, and whose “prestige” today rests largely on his legacy of bold modernist experimentation, would be included in a collection of Gilded Age portraits. But Horowitz sets Ives squarely in the nineteenth century, tracing his connections to the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau; to the abolitionist sentiments of Bronson Alcott, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (cousin to Henry), and his own grandparents; and to Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), whom Ives met at the Hartford home of his future father-in-law, Reverend Joseph Twichell. As for the composer’s music, Horowitz has this to say:

“While no portrait of Ives—of any man—is finally ‘true’ or ‘truer,’ the twentieth-century image of the dissident Ives, pushing relentlessly into the future, is a distinct twentieth-century product. The American fin de siècle that produced Charles Ives, and to which he so complexly and eccentrically adhered, was on balance neither dissident nor complacent. That it was imperfectly known to the dissident modernists who first discovered Ives is understandable: they needed to reject their parents—and their parents’ moral compass—to find themselves. With that moment now expired, Ives seems—the central theme of this portrait—less a proto-modernist than an anomaly within the sanguine genteel tradition that discomfited or ensnared him.”

Laura Langford as pictured in the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle,” for which she served as an associate editor prior to founding the Seidl Society in 1889

Moral Fire is in many respects a deep dive into an era that now seems long gone. Horowitz quotes Krehbiel extensively, prefacing one extraordinarily long example of his prose—an impassioned review of the U.S. premiere of Strauss’s Salome, published January 23, 1907, in the New York Tribune—with the observation, “In less leisurely times to come, no newspaper writer would attempt such density of utterance.” And in his Langford chapter Horowitz writes, “As Wagnerism in the United States was fundamentally a woman’s movement, Wagner furnishes a final inescapable context for understanding Laura Langford. American audiences for Beethoven, too, were more female than male. But no Beethoven symphony could have forced women atop their chairs to scream their delight ‘for what seemed hours,’ as when Anton Seidl conducted Tristan at the Met.”


Harmony and Charles Ives, c. 1946. Photo by Halley Erskine from the Charles Ives Papers. Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University

As Horowitz writes in his Prologue, Moral Fire “ponders the phenomenon of the Met’s screaming Wagnerites and endeavors to incorporate it into a larger reading of turn-of-the-century America … When we think of the ‘Gilded Age’—of the decades between the Civil War and 1900—we think of culture as a meretricious sideshow. We think of the ‘genteel tradition’ as framed in 1911 by [philosopher] George Santayana, who lethally summarized Gilded Age arts and learning as ‘slightly becalmed,’ floating ‘gently in the backwater,’ a product of ‘a young country with an old mentality.’ … It is little remembered that classical music in America peaked during the late Gilded Age. Reinforced by zealous Germanic immigrants, German cultural authority dictated that, both philosophically and empirically, music was ‘queen of the arts.’ ” Horowitz goes on to opine that “the keynote of American classical music during this epoch of singular cultural authority was meliorism.”

And it is “meliorism”— belief in the improvability of the world through human action—that provides a common thread for the fascinating portraits collected in Moral Fire.

Symphony Hall, shown in a 1900 rendering by architect Wallace Sabine, “managed both to retain and to celebrate feelings of cultural community, of bonded experience, that Boston and Henry Higginson held dear.” Photos: Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives


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