Academic journal article Women & Music

Controversy and Conflict in the Henry Street Settlement Music School, 1927-1935

Academic journal article Women & Music

Controversy and Conflict in the Henry Street Settlement Music School, 1927-1935

Article excerpt

IN 1971 HELEN HALL (1892-1982), THE president of the National Federation of Settlements, published Unfinished Business in Neighborhood and Nation, memoirs of her tenure as Henry Street Settlement's second director. (1) The book relates many of the activities that rook place at the settlement house, including those of its music school. Hall also describes with fondness many of Henry Street's staff members, including Grace Spofford, the second director of the settlement's music school. Curiously, Hall's book fails to make any mention of Hedi Katz, the music school's founder and first director, even though their terms at Henry Street overlapped by at least six months and Katz had led the school for its first eight years. Katz's peculiar absence is symptomatic of divisive opinions regarding the purpose of musical training within the social settlements during the years of the Great Depression.

Beginning in the late 1880s and continuing well into the first half of the twentieth century, middle-class Progressivists founded settlement houses to alleviate the difficult living and working conditions of tenement neighborhoods. (2) As urban community centers, social settlement houses in the large industrial cities of the United States were emblematic of the Progressive era in which they originated; many settlements, especially Hull-House in Chicago, were centers of the era's reform activities. Settlement leaders were essential in the passage and implementation of laws involving child labor, the eight-hour workday, and improved safety in factories. (3)

Settlement workers, many of whom were "residents" living within the settlement houses, were for the most part middle-class white Protestant men and women. Many subscribed to Progressive philosophy, devoting their professional and personal lives to helping those deemed less fortunate in immediate and concrete ways. They brought educational opportunities to the tenements, offering an affordable means for the inhabitants to better their circumstances. In addition, settlements offered arts programs such as private music lessons, participation in choirs and other ensembles, and regular low-cost concerts to help tenement workers forget, if only temporarily, their deplorable living and working situations.

After many years of offering various musical activities to the surrounding neighborhood, the directors at Henry Street Settlement, located on Henry Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan Island in New York City, organized a formal music school in 1928. (4) The school quickly gained the committed support of such renowned musicians as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and Jascha Heifetz, all of whom were members of the school's advisory committee. The school also received aid from members of well-known business families such as the Marshall Field family.

Director Lillian Wald chose Hedi Katz as the first director of the music school. A European, born violinist with impressive credentials, Katz had studied at the Royal Academy in Vienna and had been a pupil of Arnold Rosee, Emile Sauret, and Carl Flesch. For four years she served as a first violinist in the symphony orchestra in The Hague, Holland. (5) Wald first made Katz's acquaintance, shortly after immigrating to the United States, through a mutual friend who had asked Wald to assist Katz with an "unfortunate" financial situation. (6)

Before making her final decision regarding who would lead the music school, Wald contacted Katz and asked her to write a plan for the school. Wald then asked three friends and experts to review Katz's plan: Janet Schenck, director of the Neighborhood Music School (later the Manhattan School of Music) in New York and a leader of the Music Division of the National Federation of Settlements, the conductor and composer Walter Damrosch, and Melzar Chaffee, associated with the Third Street Music School Settlement.' After receiving their fall approval of Katz and her plan, Wald hired her for the position. …

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