Music books don’t often make it onto summer reading lists, perhaps because they don’t quite fit the vision of that mythically languorous afternoon on the beach — you know, the sand between your toes, the fruity cocktail in hand, and on your lap that probing new study of the piano playing of Friedrich Nietzsche?
But it’s August, it’s vacation time (at least in Europe), and chances are it’s a good moment to catch up on a music book or two you might have missed over the past year. So, herewith, the inaugural Third Ear Summer Reading Edition.
A good place to start might well be at the beginning, at least when it comes to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which is to say, with Henry Lee Higginson.
For almost all of its first four decades, Higginson of course ran the show. He was the orchestra’s “inventor, owner, and operator” — as the cultural historian Joseph Horowitz describes him in the elegant and warmly sympathetic essay that forms one-quarter of his new book, “Moral Fire: Musical Portraits From America’s Fin de Siècle.”
Horowitz has more broadly set out to upend our received notions of America’s Gilded Age and its supposedly genteel high culture, by summoning the stories of four cultural figures who believed passionately in music as a force of moral empowerment. (Besides Higginson, he spotlights Laura Langford, Henry Krehbiel, and Charles Ives.) That larger linkage between classical music and moral uplift, as the book readily concedes, has not aged well since Higginson’s day, with the coolly detached ironies of Stravinskian modernism on the one hand, and the musical politics of murderous totalitarian regimes on the other. But Horowitz still believes deeply, at times elegiacally, that there is much worth recovering here from the long-forgotten cultural passions of an earlier America, a late-19th-century moment when Wagnerites in New York might stand screaming on chairs, and an entire pioneering symphony orchestra could be built from the toils, fortunes, and idealism of a single man.
Higginson was of course no ordinary Boston philanthropist. He was a dual citizen of the business and artistic worlds, a State Street financier with a network in Vienna, a man who knew Brahms and J.P. Morgan, Hans Richter and Theodore Roosevelt. He traveled widely, spoke German and French, and kept a portrait of Emerson on his desk. Just as saliently his cultural vision for the Boston Symphony Orchestra — “a full and permanent orchestra, offering the best music at low prices,” as he put it in a now famous newspaper announcement in 1881 — was free of condescension or noblesse oblige.
It was not only his business fortune but these multiple fluencies, Horowitz suggests, coupled with a warm yet direct personal manner — “as spartan and crisp as he was affectionate” — that drove Higginson’s success. Wilhelm Gericke, one of the BSO’s earliest music directors, thought if anyone else besides Higginson had tried to found an orchestra in Boston, “it would not have reached the age of ten years.”
Horowitz opens his portrait with the drama of Higginson’s Civil War service, including a Virginia battle during which Higginson was thrown from his horse, shot in his back, cut on his face by a saber, and almost taken prisoner until he convinced a Confederate soldier to leave him to die. (He was found and brought back to Boston, where he recovered and even briefly re-enlisted. He retained his prominent saber scar for the rest of his life.)
Before joining the Army, Higginson had left an abbreviated college career at Harvard to spend long stretches of the 1850s living in Europe, primarily in Vienna, where he studied music intensely — piano, voice, and harmony — and drank in so many opera and concert performances that he often went without dinner to save on expenses.
Horowitz quotes from Higginson’s European correspondence with his Boston father, whose investment firm he would later join. In one remarkable letter defending his years of musical immersion abroad from any potential charge of frivolousness, the younger Higginson describes his study as building a permanent inner resource “to which I can always turn with delight, however the world may go with me. . . . I can then go with satisfaction to my business, knowing my resource at the end of the day.” He even inverted a financial metaphor, describing his newly acquired education as “imperishable capital.” He added: “My money may fly away; my knowledge cannot. One belongs to the world, the other to me.”
In the early decades of the BSO, Higginson chose the conductors (including George Henschel and Gericke, and later Arthur Nikisch and Karl Muck), hired and fired the musicians, many of them European, and covered all deficits. If he was a dictator he was a benevolent one, Horowitz argues, looking out for his orchestra while leading firmly when necessary. The results were self-evident. By 1902 Richard Strauss was calling the BSO “the most marvelous in the world.”
Higginson held onto the reins of the orchestra, without any board of directors, all the way until the final year of World War I. Horowitz suggests it was the war itself that ultimately proved Higginson’s undoing, and not only because Muck, a German, was arrested and interned as an enemy alien in Georgia. Higginson’s cosmopolitan idealism was simply of an earlier vintage, reflecting an inherited faith in an idea of humanity’s forward progress. “The Great War,” Horowitz writes, “extinguished the moral fires of the late nineteenth century.”
Telling Higginson’s story also here entails, by necessity, a vivid sketch of the orchestra’s early decades (including the Muck affair), and the building of Symphony Hall, which had even more of Higginson’s spirit in it than you may realize. The portrait is richer for these inclusions, and should be essential reading for anyone who wants to grasp the distinctive early history of the BSO or the cultural roots of modern-day Boston.
While we’re on the topic of the city’s prominent musical citizens, Gunther Schuller, now 86, has written a remarkable first volume of his memoirs, published this fall as “Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty.” The book covers only his first 35 years, but it nonetheless seems like the events of many lifetimes are packed into these 600 pages.
As a composer, conductor, classical and jazz horn player, administrator, author, jazz historian, and record producer, Schuller seemingly has done it all in music. And because many of his interests developed in parallel, they collide joyfully in the pages of his memoir, too. Schuller writes about playing Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” under Fritz Busch at the Metropolitan Opera, and in the very next paragraph, remembers a warm reunion with Duke Ellington, who calls him “my horn-playing professor.”
The range of experiences and personalities encountered is astonishing, and turns this autobiography simultaneously into a street-level view of key decades in American music history. Schuller takes a personable, comprehensive approach, reconstructing it all in exhaustive detail, often with candor, humor, and a disarming openness. The book is dedicated to his late wife Marjorie, and her presence in one way or another is also ubiquitous. I can’t wait for volume two.
Meanwhile, across the river, the distinguished Harvard scholar Christoph Wolff has written a soberly persuasive new book about Mozart’s last days. In “Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune,” Wolff argues that the composer’s late music should not in fact be heard as “late music,” that is, as autumnal art tinged with an awareness of closure, decline, and impending death. In fact the opposite in true. The title of the book paraphrases a letter Mozart wrote as late as 1790, a year before his death, when he saw himself as standing on the precipice of new artistic and professional breakthroughs, a self-assessment Wolff affirms in part by examining the forward-looking musical fragments Mozart left unfinished. Of the composer’s final illness, Wolff writes, splashing cold water on decades of old hoary myths, “it all might just as well have turned out differently.”
Perhaps the most unexpected music book I’ve come across this year is “The Philosopher’s Touch” by Francois Noudelmann, an artful meditation on Sartre, Nietzsche, and the literary critic Roland Barthes as passionate amateur pianists. At one point, we get a moving snapshot of the deranged Nietzsche toward the end of his life. Barely able to speak or write comprehensibly, this vanquished Zarathustra retreated to the keyboard, performing brilliantly for two hours every day on the upright piano in the cafeteria of his mental asylum. The playing was so powerfully articulate, one friend thought Nietzsche might be faking his madness.
Noudelmann more broadly savors the distance between the modernity and rigor of these thinkers’ public work and their unabashedly Romantic or sentimental tastes when they sat down alone at the keyboard. Sartre and Nietzsche loved Chopin, Barthes’s lodestar was Schumann. The book probes the meanings of these elective affinities, and speculates on both the yawning gaps and hidden passageways between intellectual and corporeal pleasures, the travails of the mind and the secret life of the fingers. So maybe, in a way, it’s beach reading after all, depending on your beach.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@