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Musical Intelligence in Antebellum Boston:


John Sullivan Dwight

After having participated recently in a scholarly gathering on 19th-century journalism, your publisher takes great pleasure in sharing with readers three papers and a response that summon the era of the Intelligencer’s unwitting antecedents. The presence of thoughtful essays on these pages echoes the intentions of John Sullivan Dwight, whose Journal of Music inspired this journal.

Reviewers, Audiences and Performing Styles

By Robert J. Scholnick

“Musical Intelligence in Antebellum Boston” was the title of a lively session held on Thursday, May 25, 2017 at the annual meeting of the American Literature Association in Boston. Sponsored by the Research Society for American Periodicals, the session considered two questions: just how did the press—both popular and elite—help to create audiences for classical music and to what extent did press criticism shape performance styles? Three papers were presented, and they complemented each other in compelling ways. Teresa M. Neff of MIT, and Christopher Hogwood HIP Fellow Handel and Haydn Society, demonstrated just how in the 1840s the fabled Handel and Haydn Society, facing poor reviews and declining audiences, came to revamp its repertory, its leadership, and performance style, beginning in 1845 with its highly successful performances of Handel’s Samson, an American premier. The press took immediate notice, as Robert J. Scholnick of William and Mary, writing about music criticism in the Boston Post, makes clear. The paper’s music critic, George Washington Peck, published several highly appreciative articles on Samson, contributing to a successful run for H+H’s production.  In “Not for Whigs or Transcendentalists Alone: Music Criticism in Charles Gordon Greene’s Boston Post,” Scholnick considers the way that Peck used the resources of this “penny paper” to introduce new readers classical music, helping to build audiences. In “The ‘yearnings of the heart to the Infinite’: The Dial and Transcendentalist Music Criticism,” Wesley Mott of WPI explores the “composite picture of the Transcendentalist moral aesthetic” as reflected in the searching music criticism of Margaret Fuller, the pioneering feminist critic, and John Sullivan Dwight, the great Boston music critic. Although the circulation of the Dial was modest, these writers helped to lay the foundation for a growing appreciation for instrumental music in Boston and beyond. In her commentary, the session’s chair and commentator, Katherine K. Preston of William and Mary’s Department of Music, welcomed the perspective of the non-musicologists on the panel (Scholnick and Mott), and spoke of the opportunities for continuing research in this area. It is an especially important subject today, when important newspapers, including the New York Times, are reducing their coverage of classical music. Responding to all four speakers, Lee Eiseman of the Intelligencer focused in particular on the activities of the Harvard Music Association and Dwight’s Journal of Music, not only in promoting and sponsoring musical organizations in Boston over the course of the 19th century, but also in supporting music education in the public schools. He also noted how , Dwight the critic could have tremendous influence on taste, through Dwight the presenter. All four panelists—and a large and enthusiastic audience—offered a hearty round of applause to Eiseman and his associates on the Boston Musical Intelligencer for their invaluable work in bringing intelligent discussion about music to contemporary Boston, thereby helping to create audiences and shape performance styles.                               

Clicking at the end of the lead paragraphs from the four following articles will link to the complete papers.

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Not for Brahmins or Transcendentalists Alone: George Washington Peck and Classical Music Criticism in the Boston Post, 1844-1847

by Robert J. Scholnick

 “Among a community so musical as our own, it is not to be wondered at that concerts should occupy a prominent place in our winter amusements,” wrote the Boston Post in an article on “Winter Life in Boston,” published on December 5, 1845, 1). One of the new breed of “penny papers” that had been established in urban America in the 1830s, the Post cited wide support for the city’s leading musical organizations, including the Academy of Music and the Handel and Haydn Society, which were doing much to elevate “the ‘divine art’ among us.” [continued]

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In the Public Eye: the Handel and Haydn Society and Music Reviews, 1840-1860

by Teresa M. Neff

From its first concert in 1815, the Handel and Haydn Society was a favorite topic of discussion in Boston newspapers and periodicals. Commentators were effusive in both their praise and criticism of the organization, its repertoire, and the quality of the performances. And at certain moments in the history of the Society, the board of trustees made decisions in line with published suggestions and commentaries. The purpose of this paper is to present the circumstances surrounding one particular juncture, between 1840 and 1860, and discuss how the decisions made by the board of trustees addressed public criticism of both the repertoire and its execution in the concert hall.  [continued]

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Margaret Fuller

The “yearnings of the heart to the Infinite”: The Dial and Transcendentalist Music Criticism

by Wesley T. Mott

“When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky . . . . and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios.” So wrote contrary Henry Thoreau in Walden (1854; [Princeton UP, 1971], p. 159). His literary acquaintances, in fact, had made important contributions to the emergence of music criticism in Boston a decade earlier in the Transcendentalist periodical the Dial. Published from 1840 to 1844 and edited by Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Dial promised readers in the first issue to give voice to a “new spirit” and to “new views and the dreams of youth,” to aid “the progress of a revolution . . . . united only in a common love of truth, and love of its work” [continued]

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Commentary and Reactions: From the Musicological Perspective

by Katherine K. Preston

I was delighted to be invited to comment on papers presented in a session devoted to music criticism in antebellum Boston at the national conference of the American Literature Association, especially because the session was not part of a conference devoted to music history. I brought to my task a strong personal and professional belief that in order to understand American history and culture, it is absolutely essential that scholars in the humanities at least acknowledge the importance of the performing arts (of all kinds) in American life of whatever time period they are dealing with. [continued]

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