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

by John Druesedow


The Gilded Age was gilded for some but not for others. Thanks to immigration, the population of the United States increased dramatically, beginning in the 1840s: in 1870 it was 38.6 million and by 1910 it had grown to 92.2 million, representing an increase of roughly 53.6 million, or about 140 percent. A few lived in fine estates such as Biltmore, near Asheville, North Carolina; many others lived in tenements on the Lower East Side of New York City. As for transportation, another 170,000 miles of track were laid by 1900, adding to the 45,000 of three decades earlier. A few rode the rails in luxurious private cars; others did the hard work of keeping the train moving and on the track, loading and unloading boxcars, or keeping tabs on passengers.

The expansion of industry and modes of transportation allowed musicians to travel more conveniently throughout the country and gave publishers of music a greater range of distribution and more flexibility to put before the public the music they so eagerly responded to and collected. But the character of the age seemed to change as sound recordings began to be marketed and distributed in the years before the war. Stage music itself was changing dramatically: new composers, new talents, new audiences, new modes of advertising.

It seems fitting, then, to wind down this bibliographical exploration of Gilded Age music by circling back to opera—with its drama, its enormous cost and extravagance, its improbable scenarios featuring international performers with unforgettable voices, and its conductors with magisterial presence and interpretive insight at the helm of truly professional orchestras. Opera’s impact on American post–Civil War society was considerable to say the least. But with a piano in nearly every parlor, a band in practically every town, an “opera house” in communities coast to coast, and choirs everywhere, there was a lot of music in the air. It was genuinely a Golden Age for learning, writing, and performing music—even if more superficially gilded in other respects.