Friday, February 20, 2015

Taste in Music

Virgil Thomson (1896–1989)
From Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles 1940–1954

Virgil Thomson in bed in his Chelsea Hotel apartment, by American photographer Mottke Weissman (b. 1923). Courtesy of the Virgil Thomson Foundation.
In 1939 Virgil Thomson published his first book, The State of Music, a polemic arguing that composers and other professionals must take control of the creation, performance, and distribution of music or it will become “a mere consumer commodity.” Previously, Thomson had been most famous for his collaboration with Gertrude Stein on the innovative opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, and his book proved to be nearly as provocative and original as the opera. Its stated goal was “to expose the philanthropic persons in control of our institutions for the amateurs they mostly are, to reveal the manipulators of our musical distribution for the culturally retarded profit-makers that indeed they are, and to support with all the power of my praise every artist, composer, group, or impresario whose relation to music is straightforward, by which I mean based only on music and the sound it makes.” Although sales were initially poor, the volume created a sensation among critics, infuriated patrons of the arts, and established Thomson as a wit, a critic, and American music’s strongest advocate.

The following year Thomson met Geoffrey Parsons, the journalist in charge of cultural coverage at the New York Herald Tribune. Impressed by The State of Music, Parsons invited Thomson to become the paper’s chief music critic. A quarter century later Thomson speculated that his hiring “was determined less, I think, by my musical accomplishments, though these were known, than by my particular way of writing about music (at once sassy and classy).” Controversy appeared to be exactly what the Tribune expected, as Thomson later surmised:
For only such an assumption can explain why a musician so little schooled in daily journalism, a composer so committed to the modern, and a polemicist so contemptuous as myself of music’s power structure should have been offered a post of that prestige. Still more, why the paper kept me on for fourteen years. No other would have done so, I am sure. My editors, during the first two stormy seasons, I know were not wholly happy about their choice. But after that they relaxed and began to purr. My column carried professional prestige; it even, they believed, sold papers.
He joined the staff on October 10; his first review, a withering appraisal of that evening’s concert by the New York Philharmonic, ran the following morning and set the tone for his tenure. During the next few years, Thomson solicited pieces from such well-known composers as Arthur Berger, Paul Bowles, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and Lou Harrison. “I used no one not trained in music,” he wrote, “for my aim was to explain the artist, not to encourage misunderstanding of his work.” In a 1985 interview with Bruce Duffie, he further explained why only composers and performers published reviews under his editorship: “It’s a writing job, but the subject is music and you've got to know a good deal about the subject in order to be believable. In order to be a reviewer, you have to forget whether you liked it or not and tell your reader what it was like.”

The Musical Scene, a book collecting five years’ worth of Thomson’s articles and reviews, was published in March 1945. “As a literary craftsman, the author is probably unsurpassed in his field,” extolled The New York Times Book Review. “His unfavorable opinions are disarmingly sincere—and utterly venomous. His praises are sung with the joy of a child about to receive a second helping of ice cream.” For the collection, Thomson wrote the following prefatory essay, which also appeared in Town and Country magazine as “About Taste in Music There Should Be Dispute,” a riff off the essay’s last sentence (“De gustibus disputandum est”), itself a reversal of the Latin maxim: De gustibus non est disputandum (commonly rendered in English as “In matters of taste there can be no dispute.”)

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A taste for music, a taste for anything, is an ability to consume it with pleasure. Taste in music is preferential consumption, a greater liking for certain kinds of it than for others. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, February 13, 2015

A Matter of Principle

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932)
From Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays

Charles W. Chesnutt writing at the desk in the library of his home at 9719 Lamont Avenue, circa 1905. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery.
In his essay “What Is a White Man?” (1889), Charles W. Chesnutt observed “that where the intermingling of the races has made such progress as it has in this country, the line which separates the races must in many instances have been practically obliterated.” Several of his stories and novels deal with the comic—and occasionally tragic—effects of the social confusion and legal complications that result from attempts to determine or avoid this “color line.” As a light-skinned African American, Chesnutt particularly reserved what he called “a very kindly irony” for those of his fellow Cleveland residents who were regarded as black by white society yet who presented themselves as superior to their darker neighbors. Or, as biographer William L. Andrews writes, Chesnutt satirized “an assimilationist philosophy among upwardly mobile, light-skinned Afro-Americans which implied ‘absorption’ into the white race as its goal.”

Two of Chesnutt’s targets, often enough, were snobbishness and hypocrisy, whether found in white society (see “Baxter’s Procrustes”) or black (as in one of his best-known stories, “The Wife of His Youth”). In the satirical “A Matter of Principle,” he introduces Cicero Clayton, a stalwart member of the Blue Vein Society, a fictional social organization that made its original appearance in “The Wife of His Youth.” The Blue Veins were almost certainly modeled on the Cleveland Social Circle, an elite social club for “better-educated people of color” that Chesnutt himself had joined a decade before he wrote the stories.

In other words, both stories portrayed—and mercilessly mocked—Chesnutt’s own social circles in the city of Cleveland (barely disguised as “Groveland”) during the late 1890s. The effect of this immediacy, Andrews asserts, is “a balance of objectivity . . . that had not been equaled in American race fiction up to his day.” The irony of “A Matter of Principle,” in particular, “lies in the contradiction between Clayton’s espousal of the theory of ‘the brotherhood of man’ and his practice of exclusivism and color consciousness in his own social relationships.” The story’s deft use of exaggerated farce led literary scholar Charles Duncan to call it “one of Chesnutt’s funniest,” noting that the humor “functions to soften the satirical thrusts at those who would practice discrimination.”

Notes: The presidential inauguration mentioned on page 153 is that of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877. On page 156, Chesnutt refers to Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, whose great-grandfather (Abram Hannibal) was an Abyssinian nobleman sold as a slave to Peter the Great, and French novelist Alexandre Dumas, whose grandmother was Marie Cessette Dumas, a woman of African descent. On page 158, the full quote that the story leaves incomplete is: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jeremiah 13:23)

Readers might notice an anachronism in the story. The decade is identified as the 1870s, yet the characters have convenient access to telephones. The first telephone line was not installed in Cleveland until the summer of 1877, and according to The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History “telephone service in Cleveland properly begins with the first telephone exchange, opened 15 Sept. 1879 by the Western Union Telegraph Co.” The Cleveland Telephone Company was not established until January 1880; even a decade later, barely 1% of Cleveland’s residents had phone service.

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“What our country needs most in its treatment of the race problem,” observed Mr. Cicero Clayton at one of the monthly meetings of the Blue Vein Society, of which he was a prominent member, “is a clearer conception of the brotherhood of man.” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, February 6, 2015

“The Giant Sufferer”

Gideon Welles (1802–1878)
From President Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the
Murder, Manhunt, Trial, and Mourning

On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Associated Press correspondent Lawrence A. Gobright was reading a newspaper in his office when a “hurried and excited” visitor told him that the President had been shot. Gobright rushed to the scene at Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln and his wife had been watching a performance of The American Cousin. The journalist interviewed witnesses and quickly filed a dispatch that included the following passage:
During the third act, and while there was a temporary pause for one of the actors to enter, a sharp report of a pistol was heard, which merely attracted attention, but suggesting nothing serious, until a man rushed to the front of the President’s box, waving a long dagger in his right hand, and exclaiming, “Sic semper tyrannis,” and immediately leaped from the box, which was in the second tier, to the stage beneath, and ran across to the opposite side, making his escape, amid the bewilderment of the audience, from the rear of the theatre, and mounting a horse, fled.

The screams of Mrs. Lincoln first disclosed the fact to the audience that the President had been shot . . .
At about the same time, six blocks away, another would-be assassin forced his way into the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward. When the assailant’s gun misfired, he used it to bludgeon Frederick Seward, who served as an assistant secretary of state under his father, and then entered the bedroom where William was recuperating from a serious injury caused by a carriage accident the previous week. After slashing the senior Seward’s face repeatedly with a knife, the man escaped on horseback—but not before he had attacked three other men: another of Seward’s sons, a convalescing soldier working as a nurse, and a State Department messenger. Although Frederick was gravely wounded, none of the victims in the Sewards’ home died from their injuries.

Before the night was over, a nationwide hunt had begun for members of the conspiracy, including the two assailants, soon identified as John Wilkes Booth and Lewis Powell (alias Payne).

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles learned of these events moments after going to bed for the night. He rushed first to the Sewards’ home, then to the theater, and finally to the bedside of the dying President. On Tuesday, exhausted and still overwhelmed, Welles jotted down in his diary the details of the tragedy “for future use, for they are fresh in my mind and may pass away with me but cannot ever be forgotten by me.” He also described the preparations for the funeral and the jockeying for power by various officials, particularly Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, as soon as Andrew Johnson had been sworn in as the 17th President.

Welles extensively emended his diary before his death in 1878, and his son published a revised version in 1911. In 1960 a new edition, which adheres closely to the original, unpolished text of Welles’s diary, appeared at last, and it is this text we present to
Story of the Week readers. The selection is included in the newly published collection, President Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial, and Mourning, which gathers over eighty documents relating to one of the most tragic events in our nation’s history.

Note: Montgomery C. Meigs, who met Welles and Stanton at the Sewards’ home the night of the assassination and accompanied them to Lincoln’s bedside, was Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army during the Civil War.
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I had retired to bed about half-past ten on the evening of the 14th of April, and was just getting asleep when my wife said some one was at our door. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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