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BSO Survived Earlier Strokes of Fate


BSO had enemies visible and invisible

Must one look at the current situation in classical music, indeed in all the arts, as a catastrophe never before seen in our longest lifetimes? A century ago, the Boston Symphony was reeling from a series of disasters that called into question its very survival.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War One, the Boston Symphony was generally accepted as the finest orchestra in the world. Its 110 performances (including 48 in Boston, 15 in New York and Brooklyn, and another 15 in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC) of the 1916-17 season made it, without question, the busiest orchestra in the world. That’s 30 more concerts than both the New York Philharmonic and the New York Symphony combined that same period. Should we even need to account for the 60 concerts by the Boston Pops in 1917?

The orchestra’s first major disaster occurred the following season. The players of the Boston Symphony had come from all over the world (a key difference at this point, since the BSO was not unionized at this juncture, thus management had no obligation to hire players from within the Boston local). A large majority, in fact, had come from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Even before the United States declared war against Germany, in April 1917, Americans had come to fear and hate all things German. Hamburgers became “liberty burgers.” Sauerkraut took on the moniker of “liberty cabbage.” The Metropolitan Opera dropped all works from the German repertoire. Schools banned German as a foreign language study. So it was no surprise that the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with its many members and conductor German-born, was not above suspicion.

The Boston Symphony Music Director Karl Muck felt painfully aware of this, and when his five-year contract concluded in the spring of 1917, he asked Major Henry Lee Higginson, the founder of the orchestra, to allow him to return to Germany. However, Higginson was convinced that no conductor could be found to replace him, and talked Muck into signing another five-year contract. If events required it, Higginson would release him. These circumstances would soon materialize.

We all know the story of how a Providence Journal editorial concerning Muck and the Star Spangled Banner led to his arrest after a rehearsal of the Bach Saint Matthew Passion in March of 1918. For a refresher course, click HERE.         

Karl Muck in Vanity Fair caricature.

Within a month of the arrest, the 84-year-old Major Higginson, drained by the controversy, gave up the orchestra he had founded nearly four decades earlier. The Civil War veteran had stated that “the passions of men have been inflamed to a degree not seen in our lifetime.” He died the following year.

As if that had not been enough, manager Charles Ellis, who had been overseeing the daily affairs of the BSO since the orchestra’s second season, 1882-83, resigned at the same time.

Thus with Higginson’s departure came the need to establish a board of trustees, find a conductor to replace the arrested Karl Muck, and enlist a new manager to take the place of the indispensable Ellis. Perhaps even more significantly, more than a third of the players, including the concertmaster, and principal viola, cello, flute and bassoon, left the orchestra.

All the conductors to date had spoken German, and rehearsals took place mostly in that language. The political situation then made finding someone from outside of Germany a given. The press had bandied about several names, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Sir Henry Wood of the London Proms, Arturo Toscanini from La Scala, and Pierre Monteux, who was conducting the French repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera.

Only Monteux expressed interest (being frustrated that the Met would not let him do anything that wasn’t sung in French), but he could not escape his contract with that company.

It wasn’t until September that the new board and new manager William Brennan announced the next conductor of the Boston Symphony Henri Rabaud. But that same month, another disaster struck.

The second and even more deadly wave of the so-called Spanish flu then reared up. Thousands of sailors at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier and many soldiers at Fort Devens became ill, forcing the military to take drastic measures, erecting a tent hospital in a single day.

On September 26th, 1918, Boston authorities commanded a halt to all public gatherings, eventually forcing the cancellation of the first two weeks of concerts by the Boston Symphony.

The flu would claim over 3500 lives in Boston alone by mid-October, a toll surely made worse by a shortage of nurses and doctors, who were serving the military in Europe.

All this and more stranded Henri Rabaud in France. So someone else had to rebuild the orchestra and hold the scores of auditions necessary to replace all the German-born musicians who had departed before the first concerts of the season. Pierre Monteux, whose first appearance at the Met wasn’t to come until November, took on that task.

Thus, when the city finally permitted concerts to resume, Pierre Monteux stood on the podium, although two weeks later than planned. He continued leading concerts until Rabaud managed to arrive some three weeks later. With some rescheduling, they managed to offer all 24 originally announced pairs of Friday afternoon/Saturday night subscription concerts.

Before the 1918-1919 season ended, Rabaud accepted the leadership of the National Conservatory in Paris, so the BSO again tasked Monteux to become Music Director. This time, he accepted, after receiving a release from the Metropolitan. But within a year, another disaster befell the orchestra, this one calling into question its very existence.

Henri Rabaud

Major Higginson had always refused to allow the players to join the Boston Musicians’ Protective Association, citing demands that interfered with the artistic integrity of the orchestra. The union not only stipulated that no foreign soloists (such as Casals, Kreisler, and Rachmaninoff) could be engaged, but it also blocked the hiring of members from outside the local jurisdiction (which would’ve prevented the engagement of such legendary players as Georges Longy). As long as Higginson paid the orchestra members far more than they would have received for any other engagement, the players returned their support and loyalty, especially since many of them had recently emigrated.

Without Higginson’s largess, pressure to organize immediately arose. Board President Judge Frederick P. Cabot wrote at a later date:

The Trustees made no objection to the affiliation of members of the Orchestra with the Federation of Musicians provided it could modify its work rules to meet the exceptional situation of this Orchestra. They subsequently reported their inability to secure the Federation’s consent to the necessary exceptions. Thus the matter ended in 1918.

But by 1920, the salary Boston Symphony members earned no longer exceeded that from other institutions, since orchestras in Detroit, New York, and elsewhere were offering significantly higher wages. A group of 80 players demanded an immediate raise of $1,000 per year, amounting to a 50% increase of the average Boston Symphony salary. Now without Major Higginson to cover the annual deficit of the Orchestra, the Trustees faced a dilemma.           

The board’s response hardly surprised anyone. Increasing ticket prices could not be sustained, and to increase the pay would result in the orchestra going under. An endowment drive began, but the trustees felt reluctant to commit funds they did not have in hand. The February 28th issue of the Boston Evening Globe opined:

If Boston is to hold its present position in music, Boston must make up its mind to pay the violinist. In this competitive world a hard-earned reputation for excellence in art is hard to earn, and when earned difficult to keep. There are reasons for the belief that Boston is dangerously dependent on her past.

In summing up, the trustees cited the infamous Red Sox trade of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees: The sad truth is that we cannot even keep ball players unless we are willing to keep pace with the bidding.

Within the month, 74 members of the orchestra, including concertmaster Frederick Fradkin, joined the Boston Musicians Protective Association. This action, while bold, was not unexpected.

On Thursday morning, March 4, 1920, Judge Cabot met with Arthur Berenson, counsel for the Boston Symphony musicians who had joined the Boston Musicians Protective Association. Berenson characterized the meeting as positive, but events prior to the concert that night dispelled any resultant goodwill.           

Most Thursday-night concerts at that time took place in Sanders Theatre on the Harvard University campus, a hall that has never been renowned for its backstage facilities. The conductor, Pierre Monteux, and concertmaster, Frederick Fradkin, shared the one small dressing room, while the rest of the players prepared themselves in the large room opposite the hall.           

When Fradkin arrived at Sanders that night, Monteux informed him that the single dressing room was for management, and that the newly unionized concertmaster should leave his overcoat in the hall with the rest of the musicians. Fradkin went to the main room, and told the players of the row; they then threatened to walk out if an apology wasn’t forthcoming. Cooler heads managed to prevail, and the concert took place, though delayed by a few minutes. The audience was unaware that anything unusual had occurred until they read the Friday newspapers.           

The spectacle that followed during Friday afternoon’s Symphony Hall concert can be safely described as one of the most bizarre events in the history of the organization. Unlike the Thursday night concert at Sanders, the public could clearly witness the tensions at Symphony Hall on Friday afternoon. The dressing room squabbles now spilled out onto the stage.           

Pierre Monteux

The concert began with a very successful performance of the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz. After two curtain calls, Monteux asked the orchestra to rise, and all did—except for the concertmaster. The Christian Science Monitor reported the reaction:         

There were sharp hisses, there were renewed clappings for Mr. Monteux and the rest of the band. Then the intermission and the usual departure of conductor and men.  When the players returned, Fradkin, lingering until most of them had resumed their places, obviously courted the attention of the audience. A few hands in the second balcony clapped, more hands in the orchestra itself….With elaborate vanity, Fradkin bowed to his partisans on the stage and to his partisans in the auditorium. He was scarcely in his seat before Mr. Monteux returned, lifted almost by a flood of applause that swept from one end of Symphony Hall to the other.           

The society women that constituted most of the Friday-afternoon audience remained firmly in management’s camp. Judge Cabot and the Trustees responded to the concert demeanor by dismissing Fradkin. The members of the orchestra, in turn, meeting before the Saturday night concert, elected to strike in protest. Before the concert, Judge Cabot met backstage with the musicians, and then with Monteux.           

With the appointed concert time fast approaching, Monteux demanded, “All those who are going to play on this side of the room, and those who are not on that side.” Thirty-six players refused to go on stage, but the concert went on anyway, a Mendelssohn Overture and a Haydn Symphony replacing the scheduled Berlioz Symphonie fantastique.           

In the following weeks, retirees and students supplemented the fractured ensemble. Having rebuilt the BSO forces twice over two seasons, Monteux, one of the great conductors of the 20th century, unwillingly left the orchestra in 1924. As he put it, “Oh, there were many things occurring during the five seasons I conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra that hurt me, and I cannot say that I was happy in this post. Proud, yes; contented artistically, no. Music simply cannot breathe in an atmosphere of contention.”

It took a decade for the orchestra to rebuild its finances into something sustainable—just in time for the 50th anniversary in 1931. Then the Depression once again shook the financial health of the orchestra to its core, saved perhaps by one of the most dynamic and energetic music directors of all time, Serge Koussevitzky. By the end of Koussevitzky’s tenure, in 1949, with Europe in ruins and American orchestras in various states of transition, one senses from contemporary writings that the institution had regained the undoubted leadership role that it had occupied a half century earlier.

Seven decades later, it remains to be seen how successful the orchestra will be surmounting the challenges that currently confront it.

Brian Bell has produced audio features, written articles and given lectures on the Boston Symphony’s history for nearly 30 years.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. “Music simply cannot breathe in an atmosphere of contention.” This is a nice piece of work Brian.

    Comment by Bill Blake — April 25, 2020 at 11:22 am

  2. Fascinating piece that sheds light on some truly rough history. Certainly the BSO has been through tougher times than these, though the impending economic turmoil for the arts and classical music will be stark in the US especially.

    If the Berlin Phil and other orchestras in continental Europe managed to survive the bloodiest of world wars, I have no doubt we can survive this. No halls have been bombed to oblivion and fortunately I suspect many musicians, personnel, and staff are healthy and safe. We still have our shining landmarks and a public who will (hopefully) become hungrier for the arts.

    Comment by Nicolas Sterner — April 30, 2020 at 2:42 pm

  3. First-rate article, Brian!

    Comment by Steven Ledbetter — May 7, 2020 at 3:36 pm

  4. Excellent article Brian!

    Comment by Jeffrey Rink — May 7, 2020 at 4:27 pm

  5. I just read this. Excellent piece with many details thoroughly covering the situation–and explaining why BSO programming is now so heavily into the French camp as my then girlfriend explained to me in the 1990’s. (I came from a city whose musical culture is thoroughly in the Teuton-Slav camp.) See what dangers going from Deplorables to Fake News to Dog-Faced Pony Soldiers can lead to? As for surviving dangers–even French music survived Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. Yes, many Frenchmen were opportunists just as later many people in the entire world would have to become to survive.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — May 17, 2020 at 9:05 am

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