Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America's Fin de Siècle

Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America's Fin de Siècle

by Joseph Horowitz

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Joseph Horowitz writes in Moral Fire: “If the Met’s screaming Wagnerites standing on chairs (in the 1890s) are unthinkable today, it is partly because we mistrust high feeling. Our children avidly specialize in vicarious forms of electronic interpersonal diversion. Our laptops and televisions ensnare us in a surrogate world that shuns all but facile passions; only Jon Stewart and Bill Maher share moments of moral outrage disguised as comedy.”

Arguing that the past can prove instructive and inspirational, Horowitz revisits four astonishing personalities—Henry Higginson, Laura Langford, Henry Krehbiel and Charles Ives—whose missionary work in the realm of culture signaled a belief in the fundamental decency of civilized human nature, in the universality of moral values, and in progress toward a kingdom of peace and love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520267442
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/22/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Joseph Horowitz is the author of Classical Music in America, Artists in Exile, (UC Press), Understanding Toscanini, and Wagner Nights. Previously a New York Times music critic, then Executive Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, he is currently Artistic Director of DC's Post-Classical Ensemble.

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Moral Fire

Musical Portraits from America's Fin de Siècle

By Joseph Horowitz


Copyright © 2012 Joseph Horowitz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-26744-2


Henry Higginson

High Culture, High Finance, and Useful Citizenship

Civil War service—A second home in Vienna—Announcing the Boston Symphony Orchestra—John Sullivan Dwight and musical uplift—Building Symphony Hall—Choosing a conductor—"Masculine" business versus "feminine" art—Karl Muck and the Great War

Dearest Jim,—

We are in for the fight at last and will carry it thro' like men.... Never in my whole life have I seen anything approaching in the slightest degree to the excitement and the enthusiasm of the past week. Everything excepting the war is forgotten, business is suspended, the streets are filled with people, drilling is seen on all sides and at all times. Our Massachusetts troops were poured into Boston within 12 to 24 hours after the command was issued from here, and were the first to go on and the first to shed blood....

But you should have seen the troops, Jimmy: real, clean-cut, intelligent Yankees, the same men who fought in '76, a thousand times better than any soldiers living. They left their wives and children in some cases without a farewell, and marched thro' to Washington. We've been told of our degeneracy for years and years: I tell you, Jim, no more heartfelt enthusiasm or devotion was to be found in '76 than now. Everyone is longing to go. One man walked 10 miles to join a volunteer company raised and gone between Wednesday and Sunday.... Father gets dreadfully excited; indeed so does everyone. My best love to you, Jimmy. Yrs.


Henry Lee Higginson, twenty-six years old, wrote to his brother James on April 22, 1861—ten days after Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter. James was in Germany. Higginson was living with his father on Chauncy Street and seeking employment. The outbreak of civil war was a timely occurrence for a young man in limbo; though hobbled by a badly sprained foot, he was soon a lieutenant and vigorously collecting men in Leominster, Shirley, Hopedale, and other towns in the Boston vicinity. By year's end, he had become captain of a regiment, drilling and instructing a variety of men from all walks of life (his ineffectual predecessor having been a barkeeper). He learned to ride and to parade. He wrote to his sister, Molly: "You can't imagine how big I feel now that I've a camp under me. A year ago this time I was learning guard-duty and squad-drill on foot; now I ride around on a big horse, have two rows of brass buttons on my coat ... and am generally just as big as I can swell."

In March 1862 Higginson became a major, stationed on Beaufort Island, South Carolina, but the companies under his command did not take part in a failed invasion of the mainland. He visited a teenage rebel prisoner. "I was surprised to see the little fellow this morning—young and small, with beautiful fair hair thrown back from his forehead which was high and fine, a delicately cut nose and a sweet expression about his mouth. The poor boy has a severe wound, but will recover, so the doctor thinks. I took a great fancy to him, and should much like to send his mother tidings of him. He gives his name as Hughes." Such experiences, his enforced passivity notwithstanding, quickened the heart and mind of Henry Higginson. He wrote to Jim:

Now, Jimmy, you will feel very sorry if you have no hand in the struggle—whether we sink or swim. We are fighting against slavery, present or future, and we are struggling for the right of mankind to be educated and to think; come and do your part. Of your father's children I am the only one bearing arms; I know that I was placed exactly right for the emergency and that no one of the rest of you was so; that I went because I couldn't stay at home, and have enjoyed myself highly since; that for a hundred reasons it was no sacrifice, but an enormous gratification and pleasure, and to me, as education, as experience, as occupation, as good pay for my otherwise idle time. I do not take an atom of credit to myself, but I do think that the family quota should be stronger.

By December, Higginson was feeling frustrated and pessimistic, unhappy with the president, with the cabinet, with Congress, with "nothing new except the changes of generals." He had witnessed inept military leadership and endured friends slain. He was rejuvenated by a visit home in March. On the way back to Virginia, he stopped in Washington and barely missed seeing the future Beethoven biographer Alexander Wheelock Thayer, whom he had known in Vienna, and to whom he subsequently wrote while commanding an eighty-mile picket line:

Dear Thayer:—

... I tried twice in my short stay of a few hours to see you—in vain. If you could have come here, you should have seen something of our army.... But you must hurry back to Vienna.... Well, old fellow, go your own way and work out your own salvation. I am trying to work out mine, so is Jim, and so is many a good, brave man. The many little salvations will go to make that of our country and of the human race. Tell me there is no American people, is no nationality, is no distinct and strong love of country! It is a lie, and those who have said it to me in Europe simply were ignorant! We've been to school for two years all the time, and have been learning a lesson—wait and see if we don't know it and use it pretty soon.... My whole religion (that is my whole belief and hope in everything, in life, in man, in woman, in music, in good, in the beautiful, in the real truth) rests on the questions now really before us. It is enough to keep up one's pluck, is n't it, old fellow?

Three months later, on June 17, 1863, Major Higginson was inspecting a Virginia farmhouse when a Confederate regiment suddenly bore down on his men. He ordered a charge. The enemy fled. Another Union company, under Captain Lucius Sargent, followed in pursuit. Higginson yelled at Sargent to pull back, to no avail. When he rode forward to deliver his cautionary order in person, an entire regiment of Confederate cavalry came galloping from behind. Sargent was knocked from his horse and shot. Higginson, too, was thrown to the ground. In hand-to-hand combat, he took a saber cut to his face and a bullet to the base of his spine. An enemy soldier attempted to take him prisoner; Higginson persuaded the man that he would shortly die. He crawled to a brook and drank some water, then lay down to write a death note to his father. He came within sight of a field of dead and wounded men. He was taken by train to Alexandria. His back wound, which threatened to paralyze his lower limbs, was dressed. His father was notified and came. He was sent home in a railway car crammed with slung beds; some of the men were in their death throes. In Boston the bullet lodged in his spine was found and removed. When his former comrades marched to Gettysburg, he was still being nursed by his father on Chauncy Street. Though he returned to duty in July, his recovery was slow. He felt compelled to resign from the army in August.

Writing to Thayer in March 1863, Higginson had asked to be remembered to myriad friends, both European and American, in Vienna. He continued in the same vein: "My love again to you, old fellow, and to all in Vienna or in other places, and tell them that I often and often think of them and former times with very great pleasure. My friends are still and always will be my greatest delight in life." So it was and would be. In the war, Higginson served alongside family friends and Harvard friends, including some as incipiently prominent as Charles Francis Adams Jr., the grandson and great-grandson of two presidents, who would rise to the rank of general; and Robert Gould Shaw, who would die gloriously at the head of a regiment of black soldiers. His adventures brought him into constant contact with great names and tragic waste. In the fall of 1861, barely missing action in the Battle of Ball's Bluff, he encountered the mortally wounded William Lowell Putnam—whom his uncle James Russell Lowell would commemorate in The Biglow Papers. Another, less dire casualty was the future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In Boston not long after, Higginson visited Wendell Homes's house to tell the family that Lieutenant Holmes was "doing pretty well." In August 1862 Higginson lost two intimate friends—Jim Savage and Stephen Perkins—at Cedar Mountain: a useless encounter. Bob Shaw wrote: "It was splendid to see those sick fellows walk straight up into the shower of bullets as if it were so much rain; men, who, until this year, had lived lives with perfect ease and luxury."Shaw himself fell less than a year later while urging his African-Americans into battle from atop an exposed parapet.

Communications of another sort came from Jim Higginson, by now a prisoner of war reading Virgil in confinement. "Pick me out two or three of your French books (no valuable copies) and your little black-covered fat-bellied French-English dictionary," he wrote to Henry. And again: "Allow me to call your attention to a most beautiful passage in Schiller's 'Das Lied von der Glocke' ... 'Die schöne Zeit der jungen Liebe'—most admirable lines. Don't they meet your approval? Write to me, my boy—pity the sorrow of a jailbird." (Henry's own reading that summer included Shakespeare's Henry VI.) It was during the Civil War years, as well, that Higginson married while recuperating from his bullet wound. His German-born bride, whom he had known since boyhood, was Ida Agassiz, daughter of Harvard's irrepressibly eminent Louis Agassiz. Henry Adams wrote from London: "If I knew your fiancée, I should congratulate her upon getting for a husband one of the curiously small number of men whom I ever have seen, for whom I have morally a certain degree of respect. This perhaps wouldn't be quite so enthusiastic praise as one might give, but it's more than I ever said of anyone else. The truth is, a good many of my acquaintances have been getting engaged lately, and I believe yours is the only case that has made me really, sincerely glad to hear about."

Completing this wartime portrait of impulsive patriotism and frustrated expectations, of democratic or elite camaraderie, of exceptional personal loss and gain, was a singularly determinant moment in Higginson's career-to-come. To his peers, Charles Russell Lowell, scion of one of Boston's great families, was a dashing exemplar of character and intellect. Five years Higginson's senior, he had already distinguished himself professionally: six years after graduating Harvard as valedictorian, he was running the Mount Savage Iron Works in Maryland. In wartime, he served as a lieutenant under Robert Gould Shaw and married Shaw's sister Josephine. He was named a brigadier general at the age of twenty-nine—and died a day later leading a charge at Cedar Creek; thirteen horses had previously been shot from under him. Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer wept at Charles Lowell's death; Major General Philip Sheridan said: "I do not think there was a quality which I could have added to Lowell. He was the perfection of a man and a soldier."

Higginson would in later life daily remember Charlie Lowell. One reason was a letter—Lowell's last to Higginson, dated September 10, 1864; it embodied Higginson's lifelong credo. "I felt very sorry, old fellow, at your being finally obliged to give up, for I know you would have liked to see it out," Lowell wrote of Higginson's early retirement from the army.

However, there is work enough for a public-spirited cove everywhere.... I hope, Mr. Higginson, that you are going to live like a plain Republican, mindful of the beauty and the duty of simplicity. Nothing fancy now, Sir, if you please. It's disreputable to spend money, when the Government is so hard up, and when there are so many poor officers. I hope you have outgrown all foolish ambitions and are now content to become a "useful citizen." ... Don't grow rich; if you once begin, you will find it much more difficult to be a useful citizen. The useful citizen is a mighty unpretending hero. But we are not going to have any country very long unless such heroism is developed....

I believe I have lost all my ambitions old fellow.... All I now care about is to be a useful citizen, with money enough to buy my bread and firewood and to teach my children how to ride on horseback and look strangers in the face, especially Southern strangers.... I wonder whether I shall ever see you again.

A quarter century later, by which time he was far the dominant figure in the institutional cultural life of Boston, Higginson gave Harvard a new athletic field, dedicated as "Soldiers Field" to Charles Lowell, Robert Gould Shaw, Stephen Perkins, James Savage, and two other of his fallen Civil War comrades: Lowell's brother James Jackson and the physician Edward Dalton. Speaking at a commemorative ceremony on June 5, 1890, Higginson also commemorated the now famous Memorial Day address delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. six years previous. Holmes had said: "The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched by fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing." Speaking at Harvard, Higginson aligned his purpose and content with Holmes's high example, fashioning a solemn roll call of fallen comrades in arms. The characteristic differences distinguishing Higginson's address were two: the note of intimate personal regard, and a sense of duty combining pragmatism and idealism in equal measure. Higginson recalled of Shaw: "I fell in love with this boy, and I have not fallen out yet. He was of a very simple and manly nature—steadfast and affectionate, human to the last degree,—without much ambition except to do his plain duty." Higginson remembered Charlie Lowell—"thoughtful, kind, affectionate, gentle"—for his exhortations to useful citizenry. To the young scholars at hand, he added:

Everywhere we see the signs of ferment—questions social, moral, mental, physical, economical. The pot is boiling hard and you must tend it, or it will run over and scald the world. For us came the great questions of slavery and of national integrity, and they were not hard to answer. Your task is more difficult, and yet you must fulfill it. Do not hope that things will take care of themselves, or that the old state of affairs will come back. The world on all sides is moving fast, and you have only to accept this fact, making the best of everything—helping, sympathizing, and so guiding and restraining others, who have less education, perhaps, than you. Do not hold off from them; but go straight on with them, side by side, learning from them and teaching them.... Do not too readily think that you have done enough, simply because you have accomplished something. There is no enough, so long as you can better the lives of your fellow beings. Your success in life depends not on talents, but on will. Surely, genius is the power of working hard, and long, and well.

* * *

Henry Higginson was of medium height and robustly built. His goatee, ample mustache, and saber scar were defining physical traits. The best-known portrait of the mature Higginson, by John Singer Sargent in 1903, evinces an aloof or even arrogant man; a cavalry cloak thrown across his knees connotes the warrior. Though in his years of service as a useful citizen Higginson could render his idealism decisively and bluntly, though his bearing was straight-shouldered and brisk, he disliked Sargent's painting for a reason. The keynote of his personality was its combination of authority and—a quality etched in his open face, and at all times vivid in his reminiscences and letters—personal affection: he liked people; he liked them to know it. As much as his banker's fortune, as much as his notions of integrity and public good, his admired simplicity of manner, a conduit for frankness and warmth, equipped him to get things done.

Doubtless pertinent is that Higginson was not born to wealth. Nor was he born in Boston—but in New York, in 1834. His father, George—who as one of thirteen children had been at work since the age of twelve—was a small commission merchant. When his business failed in the panic of 1837, he moved the family to Boston, where he found similar employment. He opened a stockbrokerage house with his cousin John C. Lee in 1848. The Higginsons lived in a series of rented homes in Boston, West Cambridge, and Brookline. At mealtimes, there was meat and potatoes five times a week, but never butter or eggs. And yet on both sides Higginson's family was connected to distinguished Brahmin clans, including Lees, Cabots, Lowells, Channings, Putnams, and Storrows. As the great Irish and German immigrations had not yet intruded, Boston was still homogenously English; it was not unusual for the Higginson abode to be surrounded by the larger homes of wealthier relatives—and the families commingled. Higginson's inseparable playmates included Charlie Lowell ("as bright as I was stupid"), with whom he skated and played pranks. He might go to church to hear cousin Thomas Wentworth Higginson—"Colonel" versus "Major" Henry Higginson, even though Henry had also in wartime advanced to the rank of colonel—preach an antislavery sermon. He might visit Dr. Holmes's Pittsfield farm on the banks of the Housatonic.


Excerpted from Moral Fire by Joseph Horowitz. Copyright © 2012 Joseph Horowitz. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Prologue: Screaming Wagnerites and America’s Fin de Siècle
Music and moral passion—Revisionist portraiture—Framing “fin de siècle”

1. Henry Higginson: High Culture, High Finance, and Useful Citizenship
Civil War service—A second home in Vienna—Announcing the Boston Symphony Orchestra—John Sullivan Dwight and musical uplift—Building Symphony Hall—Choosing a conductor—“Masculine” business versus “feminine” art—Karl Muck and the Great War

2. Henry Krehbiel: The German-American Transaction
Race and the World’s Columbian Exposition—The making of a music critic—Anton Seidl and Wagnerism made wholesome—Antonín Dvorák and “Negro melodies”—An activist “American school of criticism”—“Salome” and Mahler debacles—German-Americans and the Great War—Art as uplift

3. Laura Holloway Langford: Servitude, Disquiet, and “The History of Womankind”
“The Ladies of the White House”—A tangled past—From theosophy to Wagnerism—Musical missionary work—“Earnest, manly women”—Reforming the Shakers—A life in limbo

4. Charles Ives: Gentility and Rebellion
Charles and Harmony—A life saga—The business of life insurance—Transcendentalism in music—The symphonic ideal—Stream of consciousness—Ives’s “nervous complex”—The residual Progressive Summation: Defining an American Fin de Siècle
Boston decadents—A fin-de-siècle template—Mark Twain and hybridity—“Social control” and “sacralization”—World War I poisons Romantic uplift


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A thoroughly engrossing read, a journey to an impassioned time rich in ideas, idealism, and hope for the future."—Symphony Now

"Horowitz's prose in "Moral Fire" is graceful and lucid, and his splendid musical analysis of such works as the "Concord" sonata and Ives's evocation of Henry David Thoreau's "silence of the night" are sure to send readers scurrying back to scores and recordings to revisit the works he discusses."—Wall Street Journal

"Rich in historical detail, Moral Fire is highly rewarding to musicians and historians, bringing a new understanding to the mis-understood Gilded Age."—American Record Guide

"Essential reading for anyone who wants to grasp the distinctive early history of the BSO or the cultural roots of modern-day Boston."—Boston Globe

"Today they are all but forgotten, yet Henry Higginson, Henry Krehbiel and Laura Langford were three American figures of astounding accomplishment. . . . Horowtiz's book rightly reminds us of the achievements of these major fin-de-siecle protagonists."—Classical Music Magazine

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