Culture of a community: Good music and the conductors, critics, and patrons of Gilded Age New York

Date of Completion

January 2009


American Studies|Anthropology, Cultural|Music




The Gilded Age was a time of great cultural prosperity. The New-York Philharmonic and other renowned orchestras performed regularly under household names such as Carl Bergmann, Theodore Thomas, and Anton Seidl. This research examines the musical culture of New York during this period, focusing on the missionary work of important conductors' works and their ensembles, writings by critics based in New York, and the relationship between attendance of musical performances and the social status of patrons. It provides a portrait of American musical high culture, examines the emphasis on so-called "good music" in the works of conductors and critics, and presents the interests of patrons, who viewed symphony halls and opera houses as places for social intercourse. ^ Three sections address the practical, philosophical, and sociological aspects of New York's musical life in this period and correspond respectively to the viewpoints of the conductors, critics, and patrons. Part One presents a history of New York's orchestras and conductors, focusing on their concern with educating audiences, exposing them to good music, and on German influences in relation to a burgeoning immigrant population. ^ Part Two defines good music from a contemporary perspective, using the writings of critics and educators such as Henry Finck, William Henderson, Henry Krehbiel, and Edward MacDowell. It investigates the "intellectual principles" of rhythm, melody, harmony, and form as related to good music, and the aesthetic qualities of the Sensuous, Beautiful and Emotional. It uses their ideas about good music to show how symphonic music, specifically that of Beethoven, and Wagner's music dramas were the best music, according to the aesthetics these writers honored. ^ Part Three discusses the patrons from New York's wealthy society. The special influence of women on the musical community is presented, along with the suitability of women as professional musicians. While they learned to appreciate good music, wealthy patrons still viewed the opera house, and to a lesser extent the symphony hall, as a social setting and not a musical one. The dissertation concludes with an attempt to reconcile the two ideas, taste for good music and a desire for music in a prestigious social setting. ^