Our Musical Atmosphere
By George Lehmann.
All the world over the musician is a more or less happy-go-lucky fellow who concerns himself but little with what the morrow may bring forth. His temperament—using the term in its commonly accepted sense— is an enviable one ; for, in the season of his contentment, he glows with a happiness not within easy reach of men engaged in other pursuits. He is a curious conglomeration of conflicting qualities—a composite of much that is good and noble, and much that is calculated to excite the contempt of his fellow-beings. He lives in a world all his own, seemingly unconscious of its limits and of that outer world in which he is so little understood and, often, so harshly judged.
The American musician strongly resembles his continental brethren ; but, breathing a different atmosphere and powerfully influenced by disheartening conditions, his struggle to emulate the life and achievements of his brethren across the sea is accompanied by innumerable difficulties and untold anxieties. To-day his real life is but an impotent struggle against overwhelming conditions. With some bitterness, if not despair, he faces a wilderness of complications and can find no avenue, however narrow, that promises emancipation.
But it must be confessed that, in his despair, the American musician has lost sight of some of the true causes that obstruct the road to high advancement. Unfortunately, his gaze is too often outward, seldom inward. He does not seem to appreciate the great need of first revolutionizing his moral and mental being before attempting to battle with such an herculean and stubborn force as the non-musical world. He imagines, I fear, that musical gifts and musical abilities hold natural sway over everything less beautiful and more material in this life, and that such supremacy alone should exempt him from the struggles of other men, requiting him with the roses and garlands conjured by his fancy.
Social Status of the American Musician.
The musician's social status in the United States is deplorable. He is little more than the foot-ball of the social world ; and, though he has contributed largely to his own social degradation, he bitterly resents conditions which are surely the outcome of his own unconscious encouragement.
Why view the question from a less heroic but more comforting standpoint? The American musician is, and will continue to be—so long as he contributes to social disparagement of himself—a being vastly inferior to those men and women for whom soap or beef has procured social distinction and the right to place him on a lower human plane.
Will the fuller realization of his social status have a salutary effect upon the musician's sensitive organization ? Will it arouse in him the determination to deserve and command that which the social world denies him ? Or will he continue to be stunned by the blow to his pride and sullenly submit to conditions which, illogically, he deems inevitable ?
The public at large, having the true interests of music so little at heart, is depressingly ignorant of music's worth as an educational factor. Those parents who, with a sigh of resignation, conclude to give their children a "musical education," are, themselves, too little interested in this form of culture to have any knowledge of what constitutes true musical learning. As a natural consequence they are incapable of discriminating between honest, conscientious effort and the varnished and plausible utterances of the charlatan. The result is that music-teaching has become a vast field for successful imposition, in which, alas ! the man of knowledge has an unequal struggle with the impostor who has only to hang out his shingle, demand a high fee for his services, and cunningly discover the highroad to social popularity.
It must be acknowledged that the American teacher is greatly in need of certain measures of reform which shall enable him to practice his profession with a reasonable degree of security and protection. Here, more than in European countries, has the need arisen for a colossal, general effort to legitimize the practice of music and to make it extremely difficult for charlatanism to flourish. Just as it is almost impossible for an unqualified physician to administer to the needs of a community, so should a law exist prohibiting untrained men and women from perpetrating musical crimes.
The American Musician's Surroundings.
Often the thought arises, What is the average musician's life in these broad United States ? Does he breathe a musical atmosphere ? Are his aspirations encouraged from day to day ? Are his honest efforts rewarded with reasonable appreciation ?
The teacher toils the livelong day during seven months in the year for an income which must suffice for twelve months' needs. Weary with his day's work, what has he to look forward to ? Where is the atmosphere which should provide for him musical pleasures and assist in his musical culture ? What are the ingredients of our musical life—those vital ingredients which, in the musical life of Germany, for instance, are summed up in the term "musical atmosphere" ?
The American musician has many needs, some of which he recognizes vaguely, others he makes but little effort to discover. Chief among these needs, perhaps, is the need of a truly musical atmosphere. Without belittling our past achievements or underestimating our future possibilities, it may unhesitatingly be affirmed that, despite all that has been said and written on the subject—despite much apparent evidence of its existence in our larger cities, we still stand in great need of that "something" called a musical atmosphere.
Opera and Concerts.
We have our orchestras, opera, concerts without number, composers, instrumentalists, and vocalists, whose abilities promise much for our ultimate development, myriads of teachers, and countless students ; yet we are far from possessing what may rightfully be termed a musical atmosphere.
Opera comes and goes each season, causing a ripple of excitement among the class for whom it is ostensibly intended, but benefiting only an insignificant number of the many for whom it is one of numerous musical needs. The average student and music-lover, as well as the average teacher, can ill afford to attend performances the prices of admission to which are nothing less than prohibitive.
Opera in the United States is clearly not a musical institution. It is a diversion for the wealthy—a compensation, in the height of the season, for many social obligations. It has therefore failed, as yet, to make its impress upon our people. Nor has it begun to play a part in the musical development of any community which, presumably, it has aimed to elevate.
Concerts, generally speaking, are sad and empty affairs—empty, too often, in the literal sense of numerical attendance. It was difficult enough, in former years, to arouse public interest in the work of local musicians, but nowadays a musician's efforts to publicly contribute to the musical good of a community meet with derision on one side and cold indifference on the other ; so that the greater number of concerts given to-day are purely a business necessity with the concert- giver—a form of advertisement which, like all advertisements, is paid for in very dear coin. They are expected to attract attention, not for their own sake, but for the purpose of enabling the concert-giver to emerge from his or her obscurity.
To live the musical life of the metropolis is as much the yearning of our musical neighbor in Buffalo as that of the more distant San Franciscan. Both imagine themselves cruelly exiled from all that, musically, makes for civilization. We hear them constantly repining. They imagine themselves debarred from true musical happiness because their musical life seems tame in comparison with the ceaseless activity of a New York musical season. Will they believe that their lamentations are not wholly justified by fact? To them, distance lends something more than enchantment. To their bewildered vision our musical life is so transformed that already we seem to possess what in reality may yet be denied us.
The musical life of any city generally hinges on its symphony orchestra and its symphony concerts. Neither of these has been denied New York during its comparatively brief musical history. In the days of their inception were sown the surest seeds of musical culture; yet how can we account for our exceedingly feeble and uncertain growth ?
The truth of the matter is, that our musical organizations are accomplishing less to-day than they achieved in the days of their earliest discouragements. Beyond giving a certain degree of satisfaction to their devoted and old-time subscribers, it is very doubtful indeed whether they make any appreciable impression on the general community. In all justice it must be added that this is not necessarily or entirely the fault of the organizations themselves. But that they are working in the wrong direction to achieve what we are led to believe is their high and original aim (the elevation of musical art in New York), can be clearly demonstrated to the least thoughtful and experienced person.
Year after year these organizations have offered us only meager evidence that they are endeavoring to achieve something of uncommon excellence. Year after year they pursue their unprofitable course with the self- satisfaction of the most confirmed egotist.
Our important musical societies are so organized that healthy progress is almost an impossibility. Wholly controlled and guided in all their undertakings by the small body of men who called them into life many years ago, these societies take no note of the progress of Time, and are heedless of a newer generation's cry for newer methods and a more generous scope. They disdain to utilize the visible good, but eagerly reach out for the invisible and untested. The artists that are engaged to vary the character of their programs are, almost invariably, Europeans. American, and particularly local, artists are rarely given an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. They are discouraged into obscurity, and deprived of the possibility of personal advancement. All desirable opportunities are denied them to contribute to the development of local or national art; and, in order to live, our artists must content themselves with a teacher's existence.
Whatever argument might be brought to bear on the advisability of selecting European artists for such entertainments, we are confronted with the question : Are the underlying interests and principles of such organizations best served by the rejection of the good that surrounds them and is so easily procurable ? And again : Presuming that the advancement of musical art is really the lofty aim of these organizations, how are their hopes to be realized, their purposes consummated, if, in yielding to pecuniary considerations, they disregard the very process by which, and by which only, it is possible for them to reach their goal ?
This question of discouraging our artists in the concert field is paralleled in almost every branch and direction of the musical profession. The facts are so well known that it is quite useless and unnecessary to repeat them. Let any musician view the subject logically, step by step, and he will have no difficulty in comprehending why we do not live in a truly musical atmosphere. It is not necessary to go back to our pre-musical days, when symphony orchestras were the wild dream of the musical enthusiast. The history of our musical evolution during the past twenty-five years furnishes us with abundant evidence of our splendid possibilities, and, at the same time, makes perfectly clear the question of our feeble growth.
The American musician himself may be, and doubtless is, responsible to some degree for the unsatisfactory conditions of his life. But he is hemmed in on all sides by difficulties that seem insurmountable ; and often he lacks the courage to make a supreme effort in his own behalf and that of his art—courage which, at the very least, would ultimately result in some unforeseen good. It matters little whether his musical horizon is the broader one of our Eastern cities or the narrower one of the Western town. The time has come when he must make a supreme effort to enrich himself and his art.