Development of Music in America

Address of Carl Schurz from a clipping in Scrap Book No. 2 from his papers in the Library of Congress. The clipping is not well documented. The title of the article is “The Trade Dinner” and also has Ex-New York City Mayor W. R. Grace responding to the toast “The City of New York.” Its position in the scrapbook, which is organized chronologically would give it a date of 1891, but this is very speculative. Perhaps it is based on the reference to Theodore Thomas, who went to Chicago in 1891 to start a symphony there. William Steinway seems to be a guest.

by Carl Schurz

Mr. Chairman and gentlemen: The introduction with which I have been honored is complimentary in the extreme. Our worthy Chairman has told you that I am a good musician. I hope you will believe it (laughter), for my musical reputation is very dear to my heart (laughter), and in the confidence of this festive occasion, I will reveal to you the secret of the method with which I keep up my reputation (laughter). I take very good care to permit my friends to believe that I am a good musician by never playing on any musical instrument when I have the least reason to suspect that there is a musician present to hear me (laughter), and I fear that there are a great many professional musicians whose reputation would stand upon a safer basis if they followed my example (laughter).

The Chairman has also been good enough to call me an orator. I must admit that in that respect I have not been quite so careful (laughter). I have sometimes spoken when other people were present. From this you may draw the conclusion that my oratorical reputation is by no means as important to me as my musical faith. Even a timid man, as I am, will in some things sometimes be reckless. Besides, I am an American citizen who must consider it his duty as well as privilege, to express his opinions without fear of consequences, unless he be a candidate for the Presidency, which I am not (cheers and laughter). Sometimes, however, we see candidates for the Presidency, who have courage enough, whenever called upon, to say what they think (cries of hear, hear and cheers), and the American people honor them the more they do so.

When I was informed that I would have to speak this evening upon the “Development of Music in America,” my first thought, as a conscientious man, was to read up on the subject. (Laughter). So I have done just what Mr. Cleveland has done (laughter). I have gone through a pile of volumes (laughter), the history of the American piano included; and I have gathered within myself a vast mass of information. (Laughter). Considering that after a good dinner, like this, you are all seriously disposed (laughter) and that you would like to hear something profound and elaborate, it would give me great pleasure to give you the benefit of that knowledge, had not my doctor told me that I must confine myself to a speech of two or three minutes, and I hope that there may be gentlemen among the orators who are to speak after me who will tell you all that I know and all that they know, and a great deal more besides. What the development of music in America has been, I can express in a single sentence. When on anniversary occasions your festive orators address you, they will say to you that, even in one century, we have become from a people of three millions a people of sixty-five millions, (applause) and that the country at that time was only a straggling string of settlements along the Atlantic coast, expanded into a great empire extending from ocean to ocean. That from a people of poor farmers and traders we have become the riches nation on the earth. That while then we had scarcely men enough to defend ourselves against the Indians (I mean the Americans of a hundred years ago) (laughter), we can now call out at a moment's notice millions of volunteers (applause), who, as I once heard a militia general in the army say, “can defy the world in arms and even themselves.” (Laughter.) That, while in our infancy we needed public virtue to make ourselves respected, we can now stand politics ever so absurd and ever so corrupt; we can stand Pennsylvania Senators and New York Aldermen without flinching. (Laughter and applause.) All this is true; all this is grand and wonderful, but it is no more true, and it is no grander and more wonderful than the development of music in America, which in the meantime has taken place, for it was the progress from Yankee Doodle to the Niebelungen Ring.

Now, do not understand me as intending to cast a slur upon Yankee Doodle. Once upon a time Yankee Doodle drew tears from my eyes. It was in the summer of 1861, when I had the honor to represent our Government at the Court of Spain, and when near the house in which I lived an American circus pitched its tent, and they regaled the public with some of our American airs, and when I heard Yankee Doodle, I came to the conclusion at once that the quiet and easy diplomatic life was nothing to me; that I had to go home to join the boys and do my part of the fight. (Cheers). But whatever the virtues of Yankee Doodle may be in a patriotic sense, you will all admit that the Nibelung with regard to musical merit is away, away ahead. (Applause and laughter.) That is not the only great development that has taken place. A hundred years ago we had mainly the sickly little spinnet that was imported from England, and now we have the American Grand Piano, the grandest grand that ever existed, and I think that the world will ever see, for if there is an improvement made upon it, it certainly will be made here in the United States. It must be admitted, at the same time, that the American piano manufacturer, being obliged to make both ends meet (laughter) has always made the American Grand Piano grandly expensive. (Laughter.) But its cost by no means goes beyond its virtue, and we may say of the American Grand, as those of you who are married men say of their wives, I hope, and those who are bachelors say of their sweethearts, that the American Grand is the dearest and best. (Laughter.)

It has been said that, after all, the development of music in America is not altogether an American development; that, to a great extent, it has ben an imported article; that the so called foreign element is to be credited with a great, if not the greatest part of this development. Now, in a narrow and limited sense that has some truth in it; but in the higher, larger, more elevated, truer sense, it is not true. To be sure, we have to admit that the great masters of musical creation, most of them bear names that have not exactly an American or English sound. (Laughter.) There is Bach, Mozart, Gluck, Beethoven, Rossini, Verdi, Mendelssohn, Weber, Gounod, Wagner, Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, and all those names are not exactly racy of the American soil. (Laughter.) But after all, gentlemen, the great creators of music are no longer foreigners in any civilized country. (Applause.) They belong to the universe, and I say this with characteristic American modesty. (Laughter.) As America is the most important part of the universe, they belong to us. (Laughter and applause.) It must be admitted, also, that those whom we have to honor as the leaders of the development of music in America, who bore the baton, in a great measure, a great many of them bear foreign names. There is Bristow, as Mr. Steinway this evening told me, one of the oldest leaders still living and still in the city. But there was Bergmann and other pioneers whose bones rest now in American soil. There is Damrosch, the elder, whose loss we most recently deplore, and I hope the younger will always prove himself a worthy “chip of the old block.” (Applause.) There is our own Theodore Thomas (cries of “hear, hear,” and applause), to whom the American people owe a debt of gratitude, which within his lifetime it will be very difficult to pay (cries of “Good, good”), and, by the way, I understand the reason why Mr. Thomas is not here, is that he has gone to the centre of creation — I mean, of course, Chicago (cries of “Oh, oh,”) — to get married. (Laughter and applause.) I ask you all to lift up your glasses and to drink the health of Theodore Thomas and his bride. Long may they prosper. (Applause.)

[The entire body rose and drained their glasses.]

I have always known that the makers of pianos and organs are among the great producers of noise in the world. (Laughter.) And it seems to me you have proven it to-night. Well, there is Anton Seidl, who disclosed to us the profoundest beauty of Wagner, having drawn his inspiration from the fountain-head, who is almost an American, and I hope he will become altogether so. I had almost gone so far as to claim Hans Von Bülow, too, whose magic spell we all have felt, and whom I have seen do a thing more than once, which fifty or sixty years ago would have been accounted entirely incredible in this country of ours. I have seen him hold large American audiences with two or three solid hours of Beethoven's sonatas with constantly rising enthusiasm. (Applause.) They say when he goes home this time he will never return; but I refuse to believe it. He ought at least to consider America his country as well as Germany.

Leaving the leaders of American music, let me refer to the numberless Singing Societies scattered all over this land, to our Liederkranz, our Arions, our Männerchors, our Orpheus societies, great and small, who cultivate the high art of music and song, but also cultivate the higher art of being innocently happy and cheerful (applause); the high art of making the sun shine a little brighter, of making the burdens of the day seem a little lighter to our shoulders, and of making the human soul more contented and joyful in the contemplation and the enjoyment of the beauties of human existence. (Applause.)

Let me say to you, that of all the services that have been rendered to this serious and hard-working American people, this has been one of the greatest and best. (Applause.)

There are manufacturers who, as I have already said, have produced the American Grand, although a great many of them bear foreign names, have given to this country an industry which excels all the world besides in the same line, and who have made it possible for us to enjoy the great compositions of the masters in their highest glory. Of course, here I do not mention any names, for far be it from me to try the modesty of any one present here by praising him to his face. (Laughter.)

It is true, gentlemen, that there are a great many foreign names among those, but what is a foreigner in America, anyhow? What is a foreigner in America to-day but the sire of a native-American family to last for generations and generations (applause) provided always he does his duty (laughter), which most of our people do most loyally. (Laughter and applause.)

How do you think our great-grand-grand-grandchildren, five or six generations hence, will look back upon us? They will call us the Fathers, just as the foreigners who came over in the “Mayflower” were called the Pilgrim Fathers, and others were called the Fathers of the Revolution; and so the future Damrosches and Thomases and Steinways, two centuries hence, will call their ancestors the Fathers of American Music. (Applause.) Oh, let me say to you, that when that comes to pass, our Liederkranz and our Arion a hundred or two hundred years hence will appear in the history of this country as the ancient Meister Singers of New York. (Laughter.) They came to this country a little while after Henry Hudson sailed up the North River, and built a great song-house as far down as 58th and 59th streets, when New York was only a little village of a million and a half (laughter); and then will come to pass the realization of that great ideal of American nationalities, which is that the American nation if but the amalgamation of the good qualities of all civilized peoples (applause), that race to be pre-eminent which has the most and the strongest good points in it. (Applause.) And, then, it is not merely the development of music in America that I am speaking about, but it is of a truly American development.

Now let me not be suspected of any desire to insinuate that the natives of this country, when you foreign-born fellow-citizens came here, had no part, no effective meritorious part in this great development. They surely made a beginning. It is true, about fifty or sixty years ago, it would not have been said that the Americans were a very musical people, but they began to be. I heard a story once of a Yankee who listened to a virtuoso on the violin, and when the performance was over he had himself introduced to the artist, as a Yankee is apt to do (laughter), and he asked to see his instrument. “What!” said the artist, “can you play on the violin, too?” “Well,” said the Yankee, “I don't know; I have never tried.” (Laughter.) Well, gentlemen, the Yankee has begun to try in the meantime, and I tell you when the Yankee tries seriously, then something good will come of it. (Applause.)

And thus the development of music in a truer and narrower American sense will be such that those of our foreign friends who will come here to teach us, may look to their honors. (Applause.) Well, it may be said that the American mind, which is now, simply, still in a sort of formative condition, is fast appreciating the great fact that the development of art in general, and of music in particular, is one of the essential requisites of the development of American civilization. (Applause.)

Now, gentlemen, I have already spoken more than the two or three minutes my doctor allotted me, and while you have very kindly received what I have said, I am afraid I will have to face a very severe scolding from him to-morrow.