Roll Over, Beethoven

by Tim Brookes
June 2004

We all know that Segovia dragged the classical guitar in America to a position of respectability. What is less well known is why he had to perform this Herculean feat at all. Why had the guitar fallen out of fashion with the middle-class concert-going audience?

We know that in the eighteenth century, even in America, there were guitar concerts, both vocal and instrumental, and guitar professionals who toured all over the civilized world. We also know that in southern Europe, especially in Spain, the mid-nineteenth century was a heyday of the guitar, with wonderful instruments, composers and players emerging. We know that in Latin America the guitar never went out of fashion, that guitar-family instruments made up small guitar orchestras of their own, and that what seems to us like a fairly rigid distinction between classical, jazz and folk guitar never developed to split the guitar consciousness and musical ambitions. So what went wrong for the guitar in the United States?

It began with Beethoven. Even though Beethoven liked the guitar and was aware of its possibilities, calling it a miniature orchestra in itself, Beethoven composed music of such power, such apocalyptic vision and such vast scope that he embodied and drove a new, irresistible wave of Romantic music that conquered everywhere it went. Like many Romantics, Beethoven was as impassioned by the massive as well as the miniature, in the same way that Wordsworth, say, could feel the presence of divine energy in something as all-encompassing as a storm or a sunset, or as small as a primrose. But it was the vast, the sublime, that was new, just as it was Beethoven’s power at the keyboard (he frequently broke not only strings but hammers) that thrilled audiences. To match this swelling vision and volume, individual instruments grew louder and stronger (the piano’s wooden frame, which was always prone to warping anyway, was replaced by an iron frame that could take far greater string pressure and thus allowed greater range as well as volume), and orchestras grew bigger. Much, much bigger.

The numbers beggar the imagination. In 1853 and 1854 the French conductor Louis Antoine Jullien toured with an ensemble of a hundred musicians, probably the largest orchestra most Americans had ever seen, playing two months of concerts in New York City and then 200 concerts on tour in ten months, setting new standards of musicianship as well as spectacle. The spectacle, though, had barely begun. In 1869 Boston bandmaster Patrick S. Gilmore staged a five-day National Peace Jubilee featuring 10,000 singers and a 1,000-piece orchestra. A performance of the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore included 100 firemen beating anvils and closed with the firing of 100 cannons. Even this would be outdone. In 1881 Leopold Damrosch, a friend of Wagner (who was taking the orchestral and operatic enterprise and expanding it to new horizons) led a chorus of 1,200 voices and an orchestra of 250 in New York to an audience of 10,000 for every performance. The following year, Theodore Thomas conducted an orchestra of nearly 300 musicians and a chorus of 3,200 singers, and ten years later in Chicago presided over a chorus of 5,500 voices, an orchestra of 200, two large military bands and two drums corps of fifty drummers each. Hard to hear a guitar under those circumstances, frankly.

Sheer size was only one dimension of the change. Equally important was the development of the permanent orchestra of full-time professional musicians, and the artistic, economic and political agendas of those orchestras.

America’s conception of the symphony orchestra was largely molded by the German-born Theodore Thomas, the first person to create an orchestra of full-time professional musicians. In order to stay afloat financially, they had to play constantly: Thomas traveled with his orchestra from New England to San Francisco and back so often, playing countless small towns along the way, that his routes were known colloquially as the Thomas Highway. Between 1868 and 1875 the Theodore Thomas Orchestra presented 1,126 concerts in Central Park Garden. Thomas was extraordinarily influential, then — but he was a snob: for him, symphonic music was the highest flower of art and could be appreciated only by the most cultivated persons. In 1890 he moved his orchestra to Chicago to create the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

A swift but important aside: As Lawrence Levine catalogues in his fine book Highbrow, Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, most American artistic performances before Thomas’s time were anything but snobbish or exclusive. In New Orleans in the 1830s, the leading soprano, Madam Feron, injected songs like “The Arab Steed” and “An Old Man Would Be a Wooing” into Rossini’s Barber of Seville and “The Light Guitar” and “Bright Eyes” into Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. It was standard practice by even the most highly-trained musicians to put variety above cohesiveness of program, to sing one song to the royal box and the next to the stalls. Anyone who didn’t do so would be heckled and booed with enough energy to drive them from the stage or even start a riot. Musical saws, trick cyclists, fancy whistling — the nineteenth-century American stage hosted them all, often on the same evening. In 1848, a poster for the highly-admired Germani Musical Society included “An African Monkey/and several/Chinese Dogs/Come One Come All.” This universal love of novelty, this willingness to stage Mendelssohn with monkeys would be utterly condemned by the end of the century, and would flourish only in the seedier venues of vaudeville.

The symphony orchestas were acutely aware of what they saw as their artistic, intellectual, historical and moral purpose. The country’s first permanent symphonic orchestra was established in Boston in 1881, in no small measure through the efforts of John Sullivan Dwight (critic, journalist, editor, a student of German literature and a translator of Goethe) for whom the purpose of a concert was conservation: To keep the standard master works from falling into disregard, to make Bach and Handel, Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, and others worthy of such high companionship, continually felt as living presences and blessed influences among us.

This emphasis on dead Europeans, especially Romantics, can be found everywhere. When Joseph Pulitzer died in 1911 he left the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra he had been supporting for years, $900,000 on the condition that its program should emphasize Pulitzer’s favorite composers: Beethoven, Wagner and Liszt.

Levine also points out in example after example that the vast and statuary orchestras were founded by and for wealthy sponsors, most of whom seem to have been well aware that they would lose money, but in doing so help preserve Culture. The programs were defiantly anti-popular, and audiences walked out in droves. Anything popular was seen by the orchestra’s backers and patrons as not only trivial but offensive, an attack on the divine nature of great art; and great art, in terms of instrumental music, was now defined as being majestic in scope, impressive in volume, and the work of composers dead and in need of preserving, most of them from the Middle European axis of Germany/Austria/Hungary. On almost every count, the classical guitar (and other once-popular classical instruments such as the lute) failed this test.

It wasn’t only the new, vast concert-halls that were closed to the classical guitar. Another stronghold of the guitar was scorched by these changes and the vitriolic criticism that accompanied them and shored them up. The drawing-room, salon or parlor and the talented amateur, which together had provided much of America’s musical life for two centuries, were now despised. An observer wrote in 1894 that “the title ‘amateur’ once carried respect, dignity and worth, but not any more: Amateur has collided with professional, and the former term has gradually but steadily declined in favor; in fact, it has become almost a term of opprobrium. The work of an amateur, the touch of the amateur, a mere amateur, amateurish, amateurishness–these are different current expressions which all mean the same thing, bad work.”

In 1862 the members of the New York Philharmonic had had to play side-gigs constantly to remain solvent; thirty years later, America had a visible, audible class of professional musicians on full-time salaries who were seen as the keepers of the flame, the hope for the nation’s future, playing in marbled halls that held thousands. No wonder the drawing-room and parlor seemed small, amateurish and provincial; no wonder that the guitar in those drawing-rooms and parlors seemed almost microscopic.