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

by John Druesedow


Music, be it highbrow or lowbrow, was the beneficiary of the boom of the nineteenth century. Thomas Alva Edison’s phonograph was invented in 1877 and was patented a year later. Although intended originally for office dictation, it opened up a whole new world for music. The memorable voices of opera stars such as Enrico Caruso, Nellie Melba, Mary Garden, Louise Homer, and others were recorded; this activity stimulated the growth of an industry worthy of the Gilded Age. The early recording devices, without the benefit of electrical amplifiers (not yet invented), depended on the transmission of sound energy alone to engrave microscopic grooves in small wax cylinders or on wax-covered zinc discs of the kind developed by Emile Berliner. A new name was born: the gramophone disc. All this is discussed in detail in Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of Early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio, edited by Timothy Taylor, and in A. J. Millard’s America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound. Many libraries have large collections of older recordings, but the University of California at Santa Barbara has a collection like no other: UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive comprises 10,000-plus cylinders, organized by individual collections and digitized, all available for download. When piano manufacturing was at its height around 1910, the player piano (also known as the reproducing piano or pianola) came to the rescue of those without keyboard skills. Piano sounds were generated by means of rolls of machine-generated perforated paper attached to a device linked to a foot pump that activated the keys and hammers. Stanford University Piano Roll Archive (SUPRA) has a vast collection of rolls recorded by world-renowned composers and equally famous piano virtuosos. These recordings allow the authentic sounds of the Gilded Age to come alive.

In America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Sean Dennis Cashman provides comprehensive coverage of the history and culture of the United States during these years. Cashman traces the rise of industry, politics, and Western expansion up to the turn of the 20th century, and he also provides brief coverage of the arts. The great expositions of 1876 (Philadelphia), 1893 (Chicago), 1901 (Buffalo, where President McKinley was shot), and 1904 (St. Louis, celebrated in the1944 movie Meet Me in Saint Louis) deserve mention for their artistic presentations and musical performances.

John Ogasapian and N. Lee Orr’s Music of the Gilded Age (released in the “American History through Music” series) is the only work focused solely on the music in the Gilded Age. A timeline provided in an appendix begins with 1864 and continues to the end of World War I. Ogasapian and Orr cover both the classical side of the culture (“Concert Music”) and the popular side, but lean toward the former. European musical culture, primarily from Germany, partly from France and Italy, and carried across the Atlantic by numerous immigrants beginning in mid-century, had a great deal to do with the division between classical and popular music. Most of the American classical composers in the last half of the nineteenth century studied in Europe, primarily with well-known German teachers. Performers, too, were eager to learn European techniques. In her well-known memoir Music-Study in Germany, Amy Fay sheds light on this phenomenon, recounting her study with Liszt and other great teachers.

Many Gilded Age operagoers were transfixed by the works of Richard Wagner, who was world-famous for composing The Ring Cycle, Parsifal, and other operas. These were presented primarily at the Metropolitan Opera, beginning in the 1880s. Joseph Horowitz discusses this in his Wagner Nights, which includes a useful postlude, “The Gilded Age Re-observed,” and provides details about the operas and their premieres. In contrast to Ogasapian and Orr, Charles Hamm, in “The USA: Classical, Industrial and Invisible Music”—his contribution to The Late Romantic Era: From the Mid-19th Century to World War I, edited by Jim Samson—maintains that “in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the most important measure of American life at this crucial moment in the nation’s history must lie in the growing departure from European patterns, not in retention of older ways” (p. 295). Hamm defines “invisible music” as the “music of those peoples … not sharing equally in the economic, social, political and educational benefits of American democracy” (p. 323). Richard Crawford provides relevant information in several chapters of his excellent history America’s Musical Life. Part 2, “The Nineteenth Century,” is particularly valuable. Individual works are closely examined as outstanding examples of specific genres. The discussion of the history of the cakewalk and ragtime and the fact that most ragtime was originally identified with song (rather than piano music) is worth noting. Another highly regarded history is Gilbert Chase’s America’s Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present, in particular the third edition (which includes a foreword by Crawford). The seven chapters in part 3, “Toward a Composite Culture,” address the time frame of the Gilded Age. Chase’s discussion of New England composers, particularly George Whitefield Chadwick, is especially noteworthy. Another excellent and extensive overview of the American musical scene is Charles Hamm’s Music in the New World. Pertinent to the present essay are chapters 11–13: “Marching and Dancing through Nineteenth-Century America,” “The Rise of Classical Composition in America: The Years after the Civil War,” and “The Music of Tin Pan Alley.” In the introduction to the book, Hamm calls attention to the inclusion of footnote links from musical works cited in the text to recordings in the continuing New World Records series (titles available online). Hamm also includes a discography listing all the New World recordings cited in the text.

For more than three decades, starting with its original publication in 1931, John Tasker Howard’s Our American Music: Three Hundred Years of It served as the standard history of American music. The fourth and final edition, subtitled A Comprehensive History from 1620 to the Present, appeared in 1965. The years of the Gilded Age are covered in chapters titled “The Spread of Musical Culture” and “The Parents of Our Contemporaries.” Howard singles out William Mason, Theodore Thomas, and Edward MacDowell for extensive treatment. The journal American Music, which began publication in 1983, deserves mention for publishing numerous articles relevant to the Gilded Age. In her introduction to the 2003 “Nineteenth-Century Special Issue” of that journal, Katherine Preston provides an overview of the subject in general and of the four articles in the issue (which were written by Christopher Bruhn, R. Allen Lott, E. Douglas Bomberger, and Preston herself). 3, 4 Another useful overview is Raymond Knapp’s extensive monograph The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity. Knapp devotes a chapter to early genres—minstrelsy, extravaganza, pantomime, burlesque, and vaudeville—and in another chapter he looks at American song that fueled these productions, including Tin Pan Alley.

Even though most prominent American composers and performers during the Gilded Age were making the obligatory sojourn to European cities for an extended period of study, some American conservatories had already opened their doors by the middle 1860s and admitted talented young musicians. It was a coming of age for the many who aspired to put their musical thoughts into print. In chapter 12 of Music in the New World (discussed above), Hamm describes some of those now considered great or near-great with sensitivity and insight. For example, he writes that John Knowles Paine was “the first American composer to write major works in the Germanic style fully comparable in quality to the products of European writers” (p. 319). That is clearly high praise. Arthur Foote “was able to find excellent instruction without leaving the country; such had been the progress of American musical life as the nineteenth century moved into its last decades” (p. 330). The violin sonata in A minor by Amy Beach is “an altogether successful piece, fully as effective in performance as the best compositions of Paine and Foote” (p. 334).