Skip to Main Content

The Music of the Gilded Age (March 2021): Home

by John Druesedow


This essay appeared in the March issue of Choice (volume 58 | issue 7).


It was called the Gilded Age, that period in United States history between the Civil War and the First World War. Business was booming, at least in the North. Immigrants were flooding in by the tens of thousands and changing the balance of urban and agrarian populations. By 1869, railroads had connected the North American continent through the states and territories, coast to coast. The first known oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. Gigantic steel refineries in Pittsburgh and other mill cities worked around the clock to supply rails for the railroads, girders for skyscrapers in cities such as Chicago and New York, and components for large bridges across wide rivers. Electric lights had largely supplanted gas lights to help keep households, businesses, and theaters active after dark. The photographic capturing of movement on film was not far off.

Individual musicians were in many ways the beneficiaries of the technological boom of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Great opera houses in large cities became more professionally oriented as well-known singers were lured away from Europe to bedazzle US audiences. Symphony orchestras, chamber music groups, and choral ensembles were founded for the enjoyment and edification of the more sophisticated and experienced concertgoers. Travel by rail became commonplace, and world-renowned performers went on tours to both large urban centers and small towns. Bands, those much-beloved wind ensembles that were the backbone of a parade, sprang up across the country and could be found in towns and cities of all sizes. A network of booking agencies kept track of a plethora of performance events, and telegraphic communications carried the many messages about when and where performances were to be held and who the performers would be.

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s 1873 coauthored novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, furnished the name for this four-decade-long period between two major wars. Twain (in his sole example of coauthorship) and Warner focused on the social meaning of “gilded,” creating a metaphor for the shallowness of some business ventures. In 1920, just before the phrase “gilded age” became widespread, Edith Wharton published her somewhat enigmatically titled novel The Age of Innocence, in which she described the activities—the manners and morals—of elite members of New York society around 1875. Wharton’s society is much more sophisticated than the society described by Twain and Warner. These two novels portray people in different parts of the country at approximately the same time. One character—Philip Sterling in The Gilded Age—is seeking his fortune wearing high-top boots, suitable for riding or walking in rough country. The other—Larry Lefferts in Age of Innocence—is well heeled and attends the opera, where the audience must be impeccably dressed.

So it was with the music of the time.  Some of it was pounded out on the barroom piano in places such as the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, Missouri, and some shook the chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, well over a thousand miles away. And toward the end of Gilded Age some of it could be heard delicately wafting from the concert hall of the newly built Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

It was a coming of age for the many who aspired to put their musical thoughts into print. That significant American composers—John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote, Amy Beach, George Chadwick, Horatio Parker, and Edward MacDowell, collectively known as the Second New England School—are not better known is due in part to a deep-seated, almost unshakable European bias on the part of performers and audiences and in part to an unfortunate division of taste known as highbrow/lowbrow. Victor Fell Yellin covers this subject well in his Chadwick: Yankee Composer.

The US listening public has long understood that there has always been a stylistic and cultural difference between “classical” and “popular” music. In a 1992 article in the journal American Music, Paul Charosh is convincing in arguing that the terminology goes back to well before the Civil War.1 “Classical” music was serious (the phrase “serious music” or “art music” gained some currency); a few called it “scientific” music. “Popular” music was more casual and fun, perhaps less demanding in terms of time and attention. Most listeners enjoyed one or the other but not, generally speaking, both. One dressed up to go to the opera, as did Larry Lefferts in Age of Innocence. Casual dress was acceptable for popular music: for attending programs, listening, dancing, or just background ambiance. Lawrence Levine’s influential Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America spells this out.

Critics underscored the highbrow/lowbrow divide. John Sullivan Dwight, the founder of the influential Dwight’s Journal of Music (1852–81), was one of a group of critics who advised Bostonians about matters of high culture. Henry Krehbiel (considered the dean of New York City’s music critics) and the much-admired James Gibbons Huneker (in Philadelphia), who was versed in several arts, did the same for those in their geographical areas.2 Arnold Schwab’s James Gibbons Huneker: Critic of the Seven Arts is a valuable resource on Huneker. These critics attended symphony, choral, and chamber music programs, went to the opera, wrote reviews, and helped to shape the taste of their generation.

John E. Druesedow, Jr. retired from Duke University as director of the Music Library and adjunct associate professor of music. His main research and teaching interests have included the music of the Civil War, the Gilded Age, and World War I.