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T seems a long time ago that New York city attained its undoubted position as the metropolis of the Western Continent, and yet for many years it lagged far behind most of the second and third rate cities of Europe in all that related to music. America had not then produced that brilliant galaxy of singers which is to-day receiving the well-earned plaudits of the Old and New worlds. She had not attracted to her shores those who stood foremost as singers, virtuosi, or conductors. With the exception of psalmodists and tune and ballad writers, American composers were unhonored and unknown. There was neither the material from which to form orchestras or choruses on a grand scale, nor an appreciative public, neces
sary to their continuance when once organized. The great artists of the Old World feared the ocean voyage; it was seldom that European favorites such as Jenny Lind or Jullien could be tempted to adventure so doubtful a field, and when they did come, it was for a brief stay only. In a few weeks or months they would traverse the country, and then return home, loaded with honors—and cash. As a rule, we were obliged to content ourselves with artists whose powers were on the wane, and whose popularity at home was declining. The mighty upheaval of society caused by our civil war has resulted in a wonderful re-adjustment of our thoughts, habits, and tastes. Year after year finds our audiences growing in size, and becoming more exacting, critical, and appreciative. In constantly increasing numbers the musicians of Europe visit us, and in many instances their stay is indefinitely prolonged. The piano no longer monopolizes the energies of our young music students. The violin and the various orchestral instruments receive more attention each year from American youth. But above all we have developed composers, conductors, organists, and critics from among our own people, whose influence for good can not be overestimated; who have taught thousands what good music is, and have elevated the taste of the entire public who care for music at all. The fine arts and the drama have made marked progress throughout the United States during the last generation, but in neither of these has the advance been so great as in music. The change, noticeable all over the country, is of necessity more perceptible in New York than elsewhere. Including the adjoining cities, which practically are a part of New York, the population within an equal radius exceeds that of Paris, and is more than half that of London. Having numerous avenues of enjoyment, a pleasure-loving population, the city is a Mecca for the pleasure-pilgrims of America. In New York the wealth of the country is centred; trade, industry, and commerce are to a great extent regulated by its markets, and by the capitalists and merchant princes who make it their home. The cosmopolitan character of the city is plainly apparent in its population. Britons, Irish, Germans, French, Italians, are all present in such large numbers that the different nationalities impress their characteristics upon the city. Nearly as many classes of music are to be heard as there are nations represented. French, German, Italian opera; English glees, German Lieder; Thomas's Symphony concerts and the Pirates of Penzance, the Messiah and Jubilee Singers, Lohengrin and the Royal Middy, all find an appreciative audience. In considering the musicians of New York, one colossal figure stands, like Saul, head and shoulders above his brethren. England received Handel from Hanover, and to the same little kingdom America is indebted for Theodore Thomas. He holds an exceptional position in the history of music in America. He came to
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1881, by Harper and Brothers, in the Office of the Librarian
of Congress, at Washington.
this country when he was ten years of age. Successively a child-violinist, member of an orchestra, one of a string quartette, leader of Italian and German opera companies, violin soloist, and conductor of his own orchestra, he has run through the whole gamut of musical practice. By many he is regarded as the “apostle” of Wagner and the new school, whose music through his instrumentality has become to us “familiar as household words.” If this implies a neglect of the old masters, it does him a great injustice. A comparison of names on the programmes shows that Beethoven has been oftener presented than Wagner, and Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn oftener than Liszt, Brahms, and Berlioz. Mr. Thomas is not wedded to any particular school; but with a strong leaning to that of Wagner, he has always kept in view the sterling and beautiful compositions of all the great masters, and has played the best orchestral music, old and new, against opposition and misrepresentation, often the result of indifference or prejudice. In 1861 he began the formation of an orchestra that for seventeen years was the pride and boast of New York; and as soon as he felt that he could safely rely on the support of the public in an enterprise that should appeal to the cultivated taste, the famous Symphony concerts were begun, and these were artistically his greatest success. That the orchestra might remain together during the whole year, the famous Summer-night Festivals were instituted in 1866. There, with an orchestra capable of interpreting any work, Mr. Thomas did not seek to enforce a severe class of music, but gave the public dance music, marches, and selections from the popular operas, as well as compositions of a higher order. By this means the frequenters of the Terrace and Central Park gardens by degrees grew to like and ask for the better music, and trivialities were gradually dismissed. It seemed a hazardous experiment to give daily concerts in Fifty-ninth Street and Sixtythird Street at a time when the centre of population was two miles down town, and when slow horse-cars were the only means of access; but distance could not keep away the great public, to whom these concerts were the Symphony and Philharmonic concerts of the select few. When the plan was adopted of giving an entire evening to the works of one composer, the musical camp divided into numerous armies, each under the banner of its favorite composer. Every one who called himself an admirer or follower of Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or Wagner felt himself under obligation to be present when his favorite's works were presented, and great were the crowds, and animated the discussions that ensued as to the relative attendance on the various evenings. The Wagnerites, being the younger and the more enthusiastic, thronged the garden when a Wagner night was announced; but the admirers of Beethoven and Mendelssohn would at times run them a hard race as to numbers, and would applaud quite as vigorously as the most devoted advocates of the music of the future. In 1869, Mr.Thomas conceived the idea of travelling during the time unoccupied in New York, and for nine years he made an annual round of the chief cities, and enabled other places to enjoy the services of his unrivalled orchestra. Suddenly an offer came from Cincinnati to make him the director of the College of Music in that city, at a liberal salary. The terms were generous, the work congenial, and, above all, it would enable him to enjoy a comparative rest from his intense labors. Mr. Thomas felt it his duty to accept the offer, and for a short period New York lost him—not altogether, for he came periodically to the city, and, as the conductor of the Brooklyn and New York Philharmonic societies, retained his hold on the public. Disagreements arose in the Cincinnati College, and in the spring of 1880 he resigned his position, and returned to New York. Mr. Thomas is undoubtedly a born conductor, and no better proof of this could be given than the eagerness with which the members of his old orchestra return to his leadership at the first opportunity. Should Mr. Thomas reorganize his orchestra, he will have as great advantages as ever; and we may reasonably expect that he will not only give us new and good music, but that he will continue by perfec
tion of execution to give new beauty and charm to music already familiar, and thereby spur other associations throughout the country to greater exertion and more careful performance. Very few citizens can remember the feeble beginnings of the New York Philharmonic Society, the oldest and best association of musicians in the city, and fewer still are the early members who remain to take part in its thirty-ninth season. The society has had many ups and downs, and at one period (1853), after a year of arduous labor, its members found themselves in debt, and obliged to declare an “Irish dividend,” to make the accounts balance. Originally the society met for rehearsal in the Apollo Rooms, on Broadway, just below Canal Street. At that time ladies were not present at rehearsals, and the musicians chatted and smoked in the intervals between practice. Gradually the place of meeting moved up town, ladies were admitted to the rehearsals, and smoking ceased. In time it became fashionable to attend the Philharmonics, and for some years the Academy of Music was filled with the best people of New York. Box applicants were so numerous that the choice of boxes