The premieres of new works by Olga Neuwirth and Sarah Kirkland Snider were among the most crushing losses of the canceled final months of the New York Philharmonic’s season this year.
“Cancellations are devastating, and musicians everywhere are feeling it,” Ms. Snider said in an interview. “Pressing pause on something this meaningful is hard.”
She and Ms. Neuwirth are part of Project 19, the Philharmonic’s initiative to commission pieces from female composers to mark the centennial of the 19th amendment, which brought women the right to vote. The project is an important step toward diversifying the orchestral repertoire, a steep challenge for a classical field largely glued to the music of European men.
Just ask Santa Claus.
The writers of the Philharmonic’s governing documents, drafted in 1842, wanted to look beyond the emerging Austro-German canon by cultivating local composers. “One especial object, which we had in view,” Harvey B. Dodworth, a conductor and one of the writers, recalled in 1879, “was the founding, if possible, of an American school of composition, and it was required that at least one American work should be performed during each season.”
By its fifth season, though, the orchestra had performed only one such work: an overture by George F. Bristow, its concertmaster. Public patience wore thin. A critic remarked in 1850 that “our patriotism is becoming a little pricked” in anticipation of “a certain symphony” that had been written and was awaiting its premiere: Bristow’s first.
At the same time, the composer William Henry Fry was working as a correspondent in Paris for Horace Greeley’s Tribune newspaper. When he returned to New York in 1852, Fry staged an elaborate series of public lectures on the history of music, featuring soloists, choirs, bands and a full orchestra. (Bristow conducted.) The final lecture, delivered before thousands of people, concluded with a fiery speech arguing that the vitality of music in the United States required deliberate cooperation between composers, performing organizations and patrons.
Fry would soon be able to test this notion. A virtuosic London orchestra led by the French conductor Louis-Antoine Jullien arrived in the United States in August 1853 and immediately began commissioning and performing new American works.
On Christmas Eve that year, the group premiered Fry’s “Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony.” With toy instruments, sleigh bells, cracking whips and a stirring instrumental setting of the hymn “Adeste Fideles,” “Santa Claus” was an innovative, seamless single-movement narrative, in the vein of Franz Liszt’s symphonic poems. Enraptured New York audiences demanded the entire piece be played again as an encore at four performances.
According to the musicologist Katherine Preston, Jullien performed Fry’s symphonies, including “Santa Claus,” on nearly 40 separate occasions in five cities. Just as Jullien was ramping up his efforts, Fry criticized the Philharmonic for programming weaker pieces by Europeans.
“If it be an almighty fiat,” he sniped in the Tribune, “that nobody here, native or naturalized, can write a piece of music as poor as Mendelssohn’s ‘Happy Voyage,’ then the cause of music is hopeless in this country, and the sooner the Philharmonic Society shuts up the better.”
The critic Richard Storrs Willis threw barbs of his own. “Mr. Fry’s ‘Santa Claus’ we consider a good Christmas piece,” he wrote in The Musical World magazine after the premiere, “but hardly a composition to be gravely criticized like an earnest work of Art.”
Fry responded in an angry public letter that went on for four pages in Willis’s magazine and condemned standard symphonic writing, including pieces by Mozart and Beethoven. “‘Santa Claus’ is the longest instrumental composition ever written on a single subject with unbroken continuity,” he wrote, “and such a work merits extended criticism in a musical journal.”
The Boston critic John Sullivan Dwight joined the fray in the anti-Fry camp, noting that American composers would be deemed worthy “just so soon as their audiences shall feel that there is genius, inspiration, beauty and poetry of music in their symphonies, at all proportioned to the audacity of their designs.”
An exasperated Fry snapped back, saying that the Philharmonic had surrendered its obligation to perform American works, leaving audiences unable to decide for themselves. This accusation prompted members of the Philharmonic’s board to reply that they had performed Bristow’s music on two occasions (hardly a stellar record).
Bristow, who was also a board member, came to Fry’s defense, pointing out in a public letter to Willis that Jullien had no problem finding American pieces to perform and bring back to Europe, “although members of the Philharmonic Society have never been able to discover any such works during 11 years, and under such fostering care as theirs, none would ever attain to existence in eleven hundred years.”
In the same letter, Bristow also accused the board of deliberately ignoring American compositions: “If all their artistic affections are unalterably German, let them pack back to Germany and enjoy the police and bayonets and aristocratic cuffs of that land.” He resigned from the orchestra at the next board meeting.
Bristow returned to the violin section two seasons later, but only after the board agreed to perform his Second Symphony — a piece Jullien had commissioned. Fry’s “Santa Claus” wasn’t heard for a century, until the Philharmonic programmed it on a Young People’s Concert in 1959.
The monthslong conflict over “Santa Claus” established patterns of canonization that privileged even the least worthy music of European men over work by Americans. And while white American men eventually appeared more frequently on orchestral programs, particularly by the first half of the 20th century, it would take decades for New York audiences to get even glimpses of music by women like Amy Beach of Boston and Cécile Chaminade of France.
And composers of color are underrepresented to this day. The orchestral music of Florence Price, an African-American woman, is only now receiving widespread attention, nearly 70 years after her death. The coronavirus pandemic caused the cancellation of her Philharmonic debut, which was being presented — at a Young Person’s Concert, not a main subscription program — under the auspices of Project 19.
“The payoff of initiatives like Project 19,” Ms. Snider said, “is better music — a wider representation of what it means to be human, of what’s possible in the universe. Can you imagine any other art form flourishing without diverse voices? Why not classical music?”
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