The New York Chamber Music Society and Concert Life in the Early 20th Century

By Lisa A. Kozenko

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This is the first in a series of posts about the New York Chamber Music Society. Future posts will look at the musicians in the group, its repertoire, and venues and composers of the time. There will be a salon-style concert, commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the NYCMS’s first major performance, on December 20, co-sponsored by The Gotham Center and featuring the chamber music of Mozart, Bach, and Bax, plus a special piece written for the occasion.

December 17, 1915, was not a particularly unusual day in New York. The headlines were mostly about the Great War in Europe, which had started the previous year. The New York Times reported that President Wilson had been granted a license to wed Edith Bolling Galt. There were reports of the usual corruption and crime. In sports, the news was of warring baseball clubs and “peace meetings” to be held at the Waldorf-Astoria. There were stock updates, society news, obituaries… the normal things covered. And with regards to the important social and cultural events: “Yesterday’s most noteworthy dramatic announcement was that Gladys Hanson of ‘The Ware Case’ sold a James Montgomery Flagg drawing for $500 dollars at St. Marks Bazaar.”

For the history of chamber music, however, December 17 was a day to remember. At 8:30 that evening, pianist Carolyn Beebe, clarinetist Gustave Langenus, and a group of the finest string and wind players in the city played Aeolian Hall, billed as the New York Chamber Music Society. It was the first of a twenty-two year concert run, and the debut of an institution that would play a vital role in making New York one of the artistic capitals of the world.

Chamber Music in New York before 1915

The program included only three works: Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat major for winds and piano, K. 452; Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op. 115, and a relatively new work composed fourteen years earlier, Wolf-Ferrari’s Kammersinfonie in B-flat major, op. 8 (1901) for wind quintet, piano, string quartet and bass.

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Of the many newspapers and journals published in the city during the turn of the century, only the New York Times, the Tribune, Musical Courier, and Musical America reviewed or mentioned the concert. The Courier was optimistic, “In each number the society performed exceptionally well. Miss Beebe and Mr. Langenus, especially, covered themselves with glory. The clarinetist played superbly in the Brahms work. Organizations of this type, and especially of this caliber, are heartily welcome. The New York Chamber Music Society will undoubtedly flourish. Its hearers, at this concert, showed that they wished it well in most unmistakable fashion.”

But if you were in New York that night, there were many high-quality classical music events to choose from. A survey of advertisements in the Times and the Tribune reveals an 11 a.m. concert at the Biltmore Hotel (featuring the soprano Dame Nellie Melba, Rosa Olitzka, contralto, Leopold Godowsky, piano, and Louis Siegel, violin); a matinee at Aeolian Hall, featuring Pablo Casals as soloist with the New York Symphony; a Carnegie Hall performance at 2:30 of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, featuring Fritz Kriesler, and an evening concert with the tenor Gugliano Romani, accompanied by a symphony conducted by Walter L. Rosemont; New York Philharmonic works by Smetana and Wagner, conducted by Josef Stransky. Wagner’s Die Walküre had its first performance of the season at the Metropolitan Opera House, along with Friedrich von Flotow’s Marta.

For live cultural or “popular” entertainment, there was even more choice available. Broadway was in the middle of its season, with Peter Pan at the Empire, Arthur Hammerstein’s Lyric Theatre doing a production of Katrinka, Grace George starring in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara at the Playhouse, Emily Stevens headlining The Unchastened Woman at the 39th Street; Victor Herbert’s hit musical The Princess Pat playing at the Cort, and the Théâtre-Française giving performances of Mon Ami Teddy and Son Homme.

There was cabaret with the French chanteuse Yvette Guilbert at the Lyceum. Many silent movies. The Cheat, a sexually–charged 1915 silent film directed by Cecil B. DeMille, at The Strand. A “spectacular” at the Hippodrome, with daily matinees featuring an extravagant production called Hip Hip Hooray!, with Sousa and his Sensational Band. And -- perhaps the most curious -- a much-hyped wrestling match at the Manhattan Opera House, between The Mysterious Masked Marvel vs. Zbysko.

Classical music -- specifically orchestral, wind ensemble, and string chamber music -- had only taken hold on the city that year. Up until that point, Boston, not New York, was the center of classical music and high culture, going back to the late 1800s. And Boston was the point of origin, the place where local models of orchestral, wind ensemble, and string chamber music in the United States first developed. As the cultural historian Joseph Horowitz explains, that was because "even though [Boston] and [New York] were physically and demographically distinct, Boston was the American seat of learning, social reform, and public-spirited philanthropy."

From 1876 through 1907 a slew of fine cultural institutions had established themselves and flourished in the city, creating an enviable “Cultural Mile.” New York, by contrast, was the nation’s capital of finance, commerce, and show business. It was not completely without a cultural center. Union Square was home to the Academy of Music, the National Conservatory, and Steinway Hall. But for instrumental music, and quality wind players, Boston paved the way.

There was no local tradition of classical woodwind playing in Boston at the time. When the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) began in 1881, banker Henry Lee Higginson, with the help of conductors like Gericke and other BSO members, looked to Paris for its musicians. Research into the establishment of instrumental music in New York finds that New York Symphony conductor Walter Damrosch and others followed the same tradition of looking to France -- and Belgium -- for the finest players.

The principal oboist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was the French-born George Longy, who arrived in the United States in l898. Shortly afterward, he founded The Longy Club, an ensemble for double wind quintet and piano, and continued the traditions of Paris. He modeled his group on the Société de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments à Vent, of which he had been a member, and recruited other French musicians for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A first-class ensemble, Longy went out of his way to program new music by French composers, most of which were U.S. premieres. The first concert debuted in 1900 and the Club continued until 1917.

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In 1913, Longy tried to initiate a regular concert series in New York, calling his group the Longy New York Modern Chamber Music Society. But he gave just two of three advertised performances, with little explanation as to why.

Still, without the blueprint of the Longy Club and the ensembles in France, the New York Chamber Music Society (NYCMS), or something like it, might never have come into existance. By the beginning of World War I, classical music in New York had taken on a greater role and became intertwined with the expanding cultural life of the city. As early as 1905, it was gaining a larger audience. But audiences could not be counted on to sit through long and arduous programs, as one article from the New York Times illustrated perfectly in 1905:

In his first concert at Carnegie Hall Alfred Reisenauer displayed courage by playing Schubert’s Sonata, opus 53, on a programme that already provided a filling Beethoven number, and was applauded for so doing by music lovers.

It was remarked by those responsible for his tour, however, then that the fare had seemed a little heavy for the audience, and Herr Reisenauer was asked to provide lighter programmes. He insisted that the culture of America ought to rise to such an offering. He had frequently provided such programmes in German concerts, and did not see why they should not be taken here. He once took his manager out onto Broadway and showed him a big building, and said that a people who could conceive such structures could not be so limited in their appreciation of art.

Finally, after a long argument, he gave in, and the Schubert sonata has not been on his programmes since.

The New Grove Dictionary of American Music entry gives a brief overview of chamber music in the city prior to the establishment of the NYCMS:

Few concerts devoted to chamber music were given publicly in New York before 1850. In 1851 Theodor Eisfeld initiated a series of quartet concerts including works by Haydn, Beethoven and Mendelssohn; the renowned Mason and Thomas Chamber Music Soirées, which continued until 1868, succeeded these in 1855. Their fine programmes included music by Schubert, Schumann and Bach. On 27 November 1855 William Mason, Theodore Thomas and Carl Bergmann gave the first performance of Brahms’s Trio, op. 8. The New York Trio, founded about 1867 by Bernardus Boekelman, was active until 1888. The Kneisel Quartet (1885–1917) and the Flonzaley Quartet (1903–29), founded by the New Yorker Edward J. de Coppet, played frequently in private homes and at public concerts. The People’s Symphony Concerts, a series of public chamber music concerts, were inaugurated in 1902. In 1914 the pianist Carolyn Beebe founded the New York Chamber Music Society, a group of about 12 musicians who gave regular concerts at the Plaza Hotel and elsewhere for about 25 years.

Speaking about the last part of the nineteenth century, Edwin T. Rice, a contemporary, noted "musical New York was slowly but steadily extending its activities in every field, except that of chamber music . . . Distinguished virtuosi appeared in ever increasing numbers in the recital field, but of important public chamber-music, there was a singular dearth."

Chamber music's intimate and transparent nature provides for a unique listening experience. But it is one of the more demanding forms of classical music for an audience. And before the War, opera and symphony orchestra held greater appeal for New Yorkers. Attendance was not nearly as high as that of more popular forms of serious musical entertainment. After 1915, however, local interest increased noticeably, in conjunction with greater American sensitivity to music in general, and the efforts of organizations like the NYCMS specifically.

Despite the usual cornucopia of entertainment in the city, Carolyn Beebe and the musicians who collaborated in the NYCMS found an important niche that year, establishing themselves alongside more traditional chamber music ensembles, like string quartets. The group’s trajectory mirrored that of many others, navigating the tricky waters of art versus commerce. It programmed an extraordinary amount of new music. But on the whole, it stuck to a conservative script, rarely stepping outside the box, so as not to alienate its patrons. As I will describe in future posts, the group’s mix of international repertoire along with American music became its trademark feature. With a home base in New York City, they exploited that asset at every opportunity.


Lisa A. Kozenko is a professional oboist, with a DMA from The Graduate Center. She teaches at The New School.