Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Periodicals: A Case Study

By Davidson, Mary Wallace | Notes, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Periodicals: A Case Study


Davidson, Mary Wallace, Notes


The two decades prior to the American Civil War were years of staggering social and cultural transition, whose details nevertheless tend to be glossed over in the broader historical surveys of American music. A chronology of significant events during those years might include the following:

1838 Boston admits music into the curriculum of its public schools, under the direction of Lowell Mason.

1839 First appearance in the United States (at the Apollo Theater) by the Rainer Family Singers from the Tyrol, inspiring the formation of several such American groups, notably the Hutchinsons.

1842 Founding of the New York Philharmonic Society, not the first, but America's oldest extant orchestra.

1843 The great Norwegian violinist Ole Bull makes the first of five American tours.

1840s Mason's followers begin spreading musical academies west as far as Ohio, eager to improve the cultured tradition.(1)

Early in the decade, blackface minstrelsy becomes popular as public entertainment.

Crop failures in Europe and wars of 1848 result in massive immigration - particularly of Germans, including German musicians. American musicians in turn begin studying in Germany and bringing back the influence of German romanticism.

1840s and 1850s The numerous ballads of Rochester's Henry Russell and Pittsburgh's Stephen Foster achieve their peak in popularity, while William Henry Fry and George Bristow write operas and symphonies based on continental European models.

1850s The Swedish soprano Jenny Lind makes many tours, beginning in 1850; the German soprano Henriette Sontag tours from 1852 to 1854; pianists Henri Herz and Sigismond Thalberg tour from 1845 to 1851 and from 1856 to 1857, respectively, resulting in much greater emphasis on the virtuoso performer and a consequent fissure between professional and amateur music-making and between concert and popular music.

1850s The number of pianos manufactured in America rises from 9,000 in 1851 to 21,000 in 1860. This decade sees the establishment of the Steinway and Mason & Hamlin piano companies, the phenomenal growth of parlor piano music, and the height of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's fame (last tour in 1862).

Recent cultural history of this period, particularly by Lawrence Levine and Michael Broyles,(2) suggests a division of musical activities at this time into the cultured and popular traditions, or to use Levine's terms, "highbrow" and "lowbrow." There was a simultaneous transition from the transcendentalists' concept of music as the composer's expression of the feelings (equivalent to the essayist's expression of thought) to Mason and his followers' writings about music as a science.

The trends cited by these and other historians might all be derived from the contemporary periodical literature, but are they? Broyles, for example, cites only one music periodical from these two decades; his other sources are all mainstream literary journals - the same ones cited by Lowens in his index of music subjects in general periodicals devoted to transcendental thought of the time.(3) Why then are music periodicals so infrequently cited in current research in American music?

It is not as though we lack bibliographic access to them - quite the contrary. There are excellent lists by Imogen Fellinger, chronologically arranged - most recently the one appended to the article "Periodicals" in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.(4) John Shepard revised the portion of her article devoted to the United States, providing examples and illustrations from American periodicals and updating the bibliography for The New Grove Dictionary of American Music.(5)

There are also a number of comprehensive dissertations and theses that profile nineteenth-century American music periodicals, provide statistical overviews, and track every aspect - financial as well as literary - of their publication history. These dissertations are excellent guides to contents and editorial views and should be on the shelves of every research music library.

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