High Culture, High Finance, and Useful Citizenship
Civil War service-A second home in Vienna-Announcing the Boston Symphony Orchestra-John Sullivan Dwight and musical uplift-Building Symphony Hall-Choosing a conductor-"Masculine" business versus "feminine" art-Karl Muck and the Great War
We are in for the fight at last and will carry it thro' like men.... Never in my whole life have I seen anything approaching in the slightest degree to the excitement and the enthusiasm of the past week. Everything excepting the war is forgotten, business is suspended, the streets are filled with people, drilling is seen on all sides and at all times. Our Massachusetts troops were poured into Boston within 12 to 24 hours after the command was issued from here, and were the first to go on and the first to shed blood....
But you should have seen the troops, Jimmy: real, clean-cut, intelligent Yankees, the same men who fought in ‘76, a thousand times better than any soldiers living. They left their wives and children in some cases without a farewell, and marched thro' to Washington. We've been told of our degeneracy for years and years: I tell you, Jim, no more heartfelt enthusiasm or devotion was to be found in ‘76 than now. Everyone is longing to go. One man walked 10 miles to join a volunteer company raised and gone between Wednesday and Sunday.... Father gets dreadfully excited; indeed so does everyone. My best love to you, Jimmy. Yrs.
Henry Lee Higginson, twenty-six years old, wrote to his brother James on April 22, 1861-ten days after Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter. James was in Germany. Higginson was living with his father on Chauncy Street and seeking employment. The outbreak of civil war was a timely occurrence for a young man in limbo; though hobbled by a badly sprained foot, he was soon a lieutenant and vigorously collecting men in Leominster, Shirley, Hopedale, and other towns in the Boston vicinity. By year's end, he had become captain of a regiment, drilling and instructing a variety of men from all walks of life (his ineffectual predecessor having been a barkeeper). He learned to ride and to parade. He wrote to his sister, Molly: "You can't imagine how big I feel now that I've a camp under me. A year ago this time I was learning guard-duty and squad-drill on foot; now I ride around on a big horse, have two rows of brass buttons on my coat ... and am generally just as big as I can swell."
In March 1862 Higginson became a major, stationed on Beaufort Island, South Carolina, but the companies under his command did not take part in a failed invasion of the mainland. He visited a teenage rebel prisoner. "I was surprised to see the little fellow this morning-young and small, with beautiful fair hair thrown back from his forehead which was high and fine, a delicately cut nose and a sweet expression about his mouth. The poor boy has a severe wound, but will recover, so the doctor thinks. I took a great fancy to him, and should much like to send his mother tidings of him. He gives his name as Hughes." Such experiences, his enforced passivity notwithstanding, quickened the heart and mind of Henry Higginson. He wrote to Jim:
Now, Jimmy, you will feel very sorry if you have no hand in the struggle-whether we sink or swim. We are fighting against slavery, present or future, and we are struggling for the right of mankind to be educated and to think; come and do your part. Of your father's children I am the only one bearing arms; I know that I was placed exactly right for the emergency and that no one of the rest of you was so; that I went because I could n't stay at home, and have enjoyed myself highly since; that for a hundred reasons it was no sacrifice, but an enormous gratification and pleasure, and to me, as education, as experience, as occupation, as good pay for my otherwise idle time. I do not take an atom of credit to myself, but I do think that the family quota should be stronger.
By December, Higginson was feeling frustrated and pessimistic, unhappy with the president, with the cabinet, with Congress, with "nothing new except the changes of generals." He had witnessed inept military leadership and endured friends slain. He was rejuvenated by a visit home in March. On the way back to Virginia, he stopped in Washington and barely missed seeing the future Beethoven biographer Alexander Wheelock Thayer, whom he had known in Vienna, and to whom he subsequently wrote while commanding an eighty-mile picket line:
... I tried twice in my short stay of a few hours to see you-in vain. If you could have come here, you should have seen something of our army. ... But you must hurry back to Vienna. ... Well, old fellow, go your own way and work out your own salvation. I am trying to work out mine, so is Jim, and so is many a good, brave man. The many little salvations will go to make that of our country and of the human race. Tell me there is no American people, is no nationality, is no distinct and strong love of country! It is a lie, and those who have said it to me in Europe simply were ignorant! We've been to school for two years all the time, and have been learning a lesson-wait and see if we don't know it and use it pretty soon.... My whole religion (that is my whole belief and hope in everything, in life , in man, in woman, in music, in good, in the beautiful, in the real truth) rests on the questions now really before us. It is enough to keep up one's pluck, is n't it, old fellow?
Three months later, on June 17, 1863, Major Higginson was inspecting a Virginia farmhouse when a Confederate regiment suddenly bore down on his men. He ordered a charge. The enemy fled. Another Union company, under Captain Lucius Sargent, followed in pursuit. Higginson yelled at Sargent to pull back, to no avail. When he rode forward to deliver his cautionary order in person, an entire regiment of Confederate cavalry came galloping from behind. Sargent was knocked from his horse and shot. Higginson, too, was thrown to the ground. In hand-to-hand combat, he took a saber cut to his face and a bullet to the base of his spine. An enemy soldier attempted to take him prisoner; Higginson persuaded the man that he would shortly die. He crawled to a brook and drank some water, then lay down to write a death note to his father. He came within sight of a field of dead and wounded men. He was taken by train to Alexandria. His back wound, which threatened to paralyze his lower limbs, was dressed. His father was notified and came. He was sent home in a railway car crammed with slung beds; some of the men were in their death throes. In Boston the bullet lodged in his spine was found and removed. When his former comrades marched to Gettysburg, he was still being nursed by his father on Chauncy Street. Though he returned to duty in July, his recovery was slow. He felt compelled to resign from the army in August.
Writing to Thayer in March 1863, Higginson had asked to be remembered to myriad friends, both European and American, in Vienna. He continued in the same vein: "My love again to you, old fellow, and to all in Vienna or in other places, and tell them that I often and often think of them and former times with very great pleasure. My friends are still and always will be my greatest delight in life." So it was and would be. In the war, Higginson served alongside family friends and Harvard friends, including some as incipiently prominent as Charles Francis Adams Jr., the grandson and great-grandson of two presidents, who would rise to the rank of general; and Robert Gould Shaw, who would die gloriously at the head of a regiment of black soldiers. His adventures brought him into constant contact with great names and tragic waste. In the fall of 1861, barely missing action in the Battle of Ball's Bluff, he encountered the mortally wounded William Lowell Putnam-whom his uncle James Russell Lowell would commemorate in The Biglow Papers. Another, less dire casualty was the future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In Boston not long after, Higginson visited Wendell Homes's house to tell the family that Lieutenant Holmes was "doing pretty well." In August 1862 Higginson lost two intimate friends-Jim Savage and Stephen Perkins-at Cedar Mountain: a useless encounter. Bob Shaw wrote: "It was splendid to see those sick fellows walk straight up into the shower of bullets as if it were so much rain; men, who, until this year, had lived lives with perfect ease and luxury." Shaw himself fell less than a year later while urging his African-Americans into battle from atop an exposed parapet.
Communications of another sort came from Jim Higginson, by now a prisoner of war reading Virgil in confinement. "Pick me out two or three of your French books (no valuable copies) and your little black-covered fat-bellied French-English dictionary," he wrote to Henry. And again: "Allow me to call your attention to a most beautiful passage in Schiller's 'Das Lied von der Glocke' ... 'Die sch÷ne Zeit der jungen Liebe'-most admirable lines. Don't they meet your approval? Write to me, my boy-pity the sorrow of a jailbird." (Henry's own reading that summer included Shakespeare's Henry VI.) It was during the Civil War years, as well, that Higginson married while recuperating from his bullet wound. His German-born bride, whom he had known since boyhood, was Ida Agassiz, daughter of Harvard's irrepressibly eminent Louis Agassiz. Henry Adams wrote from London: "If I knew your fiancΘe, I should congratulate her upon getting for a husband one of the curiously small number of men whom I ever have seen, for whom I have morally a certain degree of respect. This perhaps wouldn't be quite so enthusiastic praise as one might give, but it's more than I ever said of anyone else. The truth is, a good many of my acquaintances have been getting engaged lately, and I believe yours is the only case that has made me really, sincerely glad to hear about."
Completing this wartime portrait of impulsive patriotism and frustrated expectations, of democratic or elite camaraderie, of exceptional personal loss and gain, was a singularly determinant moment in Higginson's career-to-come. To his peers, Charles Russell Lowell, scion of one of Boston's great families, was a dashing exemplar of character and intellect. Five years Higginson's senior, he had already distinguished himself professionally: six years after graduating Harvard as valedictorian, he was running the Mount Savage Iron Works in Maryland. In wartime, he served as a lieutenant under Robert Gould Shaw and married Shaw's sister Josephine. He was named a brigadier general at the age of twenty-nine-and died a day later leading a charge at Cedar Creek; thirteen horses had previously been shot from under him. Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer wept at Charles Lowell's death; Major General Philip Sheridan said: "I do not think there was a quality which I could have added to Lowell. He was the perfection of a man and a soldier."
Higginson would in later life daily remember Charlie Lowell. One reason was a letter-Lowell's last to Higginson, dated September 10, 1864; it embodied Higginson's lifelong credo. "I felt very sorry, old fellow, at your being finally obliged to give up, for I know you would have liked to see it out," Lowell wrote of Higginson's early retirement from the army.
However, there is work enough for a public-spirited cove everywhere.... I hope, Mr. Higginson, that you are going to live like a plain Republican, mindful of the beauty and the duty of simplicity. Nothing fancy now, Sir, if you please. It's disreputable to spend money, when the Government is so hard up, and when there are so many poor officers. I hope you have outgrown all foolish ambitions and are now content to become a "useful citizen." ... Don't grow rich; if you once begin, you will find it much more difficult to be a useful citizen. The useful citizen is a mighty unpretending hero. But we are not going to have any country very long unless such heroism is developed....
I believe I have lost all my ambitions old fellow.... All I now care about is to be a useful citizen, with money enough to buy my bread and firewood and to teach my children how to ride on horseback and look strangers in the face, especially Southern strangers.... I wonder whether I shall ever see you again.
A quarter century later, by which time he was far the dominant figure in the institutional cultural life of Boston, Higginson gave Harvard a new athletic field, dedicated as "Soldiers Field" to Charles Lowell, Robert Gould Shaw, Stephen Perkins, James Savage, and two other of his fallen Civil War comrades: Lowell's brother James Jackson and the physician Edward Dalton. Speaking at a commemorative ceremony on June 5, 1890, Higginson also commemorated the now famous Memorial Day address delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. six years previous. Holmes had said: "The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched by fire. It was given to use to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing." Speaking at Harvard, Higginson aligned his purpose and content with Holmes's high example, fashioning a solemn roll call of fallen comrades in arms. The characteristic differences distinguishing Higginson's address were two: the note of intimate personal regard, and a sense of duty combining pragmatism and idealism in equal measure. Higginson recalled of Shaw: "I fell in love with this boy, and I have not fallen out yet. He was of a very simple and manly nature-steadfast and affectionate, human to the last degree,-without much ambition except to do his plain duty." Higginson remembered Charlie Lowell-"thoughtful, kind, affectionate, gentle"-for his exhortations to useful citizenry. To the young scholars at hand, he added:
Everywhere we see the signs of ferment-questions social, moral, mental, physical economical. The pot is boiling hard and you must tend it, or it will run over and scald the world. For us came the great questions of slavery and of national integrity, and they were not hard to answer. Your task is more difficult, and yet you must fulfill it. Do not hope that things will take care of themselves, or that the old state of affairs will come back. The world on all sides is moving fast, and you have only to accept this fact, making the best of everything-helping, sympathizing, and so guiding and restraining others, who have less education, perhaps, than you. Do not hold off from them; but go straight on with them, side by side, learning from them and teaching them.... Do not too readily think that you have done enough, simply because you have accomplished something. There is no enough, so long as you can better the lives of your fellow beings. Your success in life depends not on talents, but on will. Surely, genius is the power of working hard, and long, and well.
Henry Higginson was of medium height and robustly built. His goatee, ample mustache, and saber scar were defining physical traits. The best-known portrait of the mature Higginson, by John Singer Sargent in 1903, evinces an aloof or even arrogant man; a cavalry cloak thrown across his knees connotes the warrior. Though in his years of service as a useful citizen Higginson could render his idealism decisively and bluntly, though his bearing was straight-shouldered and brisk, he disliked Sargent's painting for a reason. The keynote of his personality was its combination of authority and-a quality etched in his open face, and at all times vivid in his reminiscences and letters-personal affection: he liked people; he liked them to know it. As much as his banker's fortune, as much as his notions of integrity and public good, his admired simplicity of manner, a conduit for frankness and warmth, equipped him to get things done.
Doubtless pertinent is that Higginson was not born to wealth. Nor was he born in Boston-but in New York, in 1834. His father, George-who as one of thirteen children had been at work since the age of twelve-was a small commission merchant. When his business failed in the panic of 1837, he moved the family to Boston, where he found similar employment. He opened a stockbrokerage house with his cousin John C. Lee in 1848. The Higginsons lived in a series of rented homes in Boston, West Cambridge, and Brookline. At mealtimes, there was meat and potatoes five times a week, but never butter or eggs. And yet on both sides Higginson's family was connected to distinguished Brahmin clans, including Lees, Cabots, Lowells, Channings, Putnams, and Storrows. As the great Irish and German immigrations had not yet intruded, Boston was still homogenously English; it was not unusual for the Higginson abode to be surrounded by the larger homes of wealthier relatives-and the families commingled. Higginson's inseparable playmates included Charlie Lowell ("as bright as I was stupid"), with whom he skated and played pranks. He might go to church to hear cousin Thomas Wentworth Higginson-"Colonel" versus "Major" Henry Higginson, even though Henry had also in wartime advanced to the rank of colonel-preach an antislavery sermon. He might visit Dr. Holmes's Pittsfield farm on the banks of the Housatonic.
Higginson's mother was herself a Lee. She died of tuberculosis in 1849 when Henry-the second of five siblings-was fifteen. But George Higginson, who did not retire until 1874, was at all times a close companion and correspondent. The letters father and son exchanged are remarkably evenhanded: George seems more a friend and exemplar than a parent. No less than would Henry, but with far lesser means, he charitably gave away what he earned. He wept at the memory of his wife. He laughed readily and heartily. He was quick to resent and condemn conduct he thought dishonorable. Henry remembered him as "a kindly, industrious, sensible man, with a remarkable 'nose' for character, scrupulously honest, and disinterested to a high degree." George's brother-in-law Colonel Henry Lee said of him:
Mr. Higginson was preeminent in those qualities which entitle a man to love and respect.... he was liberal-nay, prodigal-of his time and his money in the service of all who were "distressed in mind, body, or estate." ... To enumerate his beneficiaries would be impossible, as no human being stood near enough to him to ascertain their names or number; and some surprising revelations have been made by those assisted. His habit of living, like his habit of giving, was liberal and unostentatious. An old-fashioned simplicity, in which he had been bred, he maintained through life, combined with an unbounded hospitality.
At the Boston Latin School-then as now the city's elite public school-Henry Higginson remained surrounded by friends and relations. As "Bully Hig," he earned a reputation for toughness and fortitude in Boston Commons battles against roughnecks who packed snowballs with rocks. Though no Higginson in the direct parental line had ever held a college degree, Henry next entered Harvard, where his fellow freshmen (in an undergraduate population of only 304) included Alexander Agassiz and S. Parkman Blake, both future brothers-in-law. Also at Harvard with Higginson were three of the six soldiers-to-be he would memorialize at Soldier's Field: Charlie Lowell, James Savage, and Stephen Perkins. But with its dour regime of Latin, Greek, and mathematics, Harvard was otherwise not a fit; by December, it was evident that Higginson's weak eyes would force his departure.
That summer Henry Higginson, age eighteen, set out for Europe. In the Swiss Alps he engaged a guide and climbed courageously, his hands stiff from cold because he took no gloves. He explored the Aar glacier, where Louis Agassiz had done research; he vaulted deep crevices; he ascended vertical rock faces. In correspondence with his father, he pondered learning German, the "finest" language after English, and living in Paris-"the most vicious, yet the most tempting and dangerous place on earth"-to learn French. His equation of Germany with culture and learning-which would shortly grow less extreme-was, at the time, typically American. In Higginson's case, however, it was soon magnified by an avocation not practiced by his male peers at home. In London, in Milan, in Munich, in Dresden he became a devotee of the opera. He adored Fidelio. He was pleasingly challenged by TannhΣuser. He devoured Gluck, Weber, Meyerbeer, and Bellini ("but the Italian music is very meager after the German"). In the concert hall, he heard Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann. He began music lessons. He learned to play the piano.
Though he returned home in 1853 and spent the better part of two years pursuing the sort of merchant business his father first knew, Henry was back in Europe three years later: in London, where he "didn't like many of the pictures" in a Turner exhibit; in Paris, where he wrote of the Madeleine: "too much gilded, too much bosh, for beauty"; in Florence, where Charlie Lowell was seriously ill; in Dresden, where he was relieved to find Lowell relocated and on the mend. Henry wound up settling in Vienna, where for two years he pursued a spartan educational regime. His weekly musical intake was nine lessons and two lectures. His dietary intake, usually omitting supper, was limited by his financial resources; he told his father: "A large portion of my yearly expenses are not for myself.... I sometimes curse myself for trying to help others when I've not enough money for my own real wants, but again think that money well used is not wasted." Higginson's studies included harmony, voice, and piano. He reported home that his voice was not strong enough for a hall. His keyboard studies floundered when he hurt his left arm from overuse, and likely aggravated what became a permanent injury by having it bled.
In no other period is the mutual affection of father and son as vivid as during this sustained absence abroad. "Many thanks for your portrait; it is a very excellent likeness," writes Henry in May 1858. "A touch of gray in the hair and whiskers and a few wrinkles to show that you are no longer young, a half-smile and a half-joke in your eyes to signify the fun of your nature, the pleasantest mouth in the world with its very best expression ...-it is all capital, the real old daddy." Another specimen: "You are a capital correspondent in quantity and quality; do not mind reproving me now and then (a rarity new to me so far from home), answer my questions, give me news and advice, and best of all a smile and a kiss at the end." A sampling of George's advice, on letter-writing: "Aim at simplicity and conciseness." And Henry did. "A letter should be merely a little talk on paper, and that is quite all." George at one point chided: "My dear Henry, you know I attach little importance to forms, to set rules of society, which are for the most part unmeaning, but as a matter of correct taste on your part, would it not be in better keeping to omit the terms 'old fellow,' 'old boy,' etc., when addressing me? I think so."
Singular evidence of the worldly impact of the Hapsburg capital on a young Bostonian was Henry's swift acquisition of Jewish friends. "I never saw a Jew before coming here," he tells George. "But those whom I have known in Vienna are very talented, true, liberal in views of life and religion, and free-handed to a marvelous extent." George: "You are favored, for I have rarely met individuals of that race who seemed fitted in solid essentials for an intimacy of such a character. I am thankful that really worthy ones have fallen in your way."
A recurrent motif of this transatlantic dialogue, in which Yankee pragmatism jostled with venerable Old World customs, was the unlikely profession in music being tested. Henry felt the need to justify his impracticality. Some years before, when first in Europe, he had ventured: "Tho' there may seem to be no positive gain in all the fine arts, they certainly can do no harm, and they may be of great use; and of music, tho' a person understanding and knowing something of it is not perhaps any more educated for practical purposes than one without it, yet it is certainly best to cultivate yourself in what you have a talent for, and it is not vanity in me to say that I have some, tho' it may be in a slight degree, for music."
The crucial letter from Henry, aged twenty-three, came in September 1857; it is a full report, reading in part:
As every one has some particular object of supreme interest to himself, so I have music. It is almost my inner world; without it, I miss much, and with it I am happier and better....
You will ask, "What is to come of it all if successful?" I do not know. But this is clear. I have then improved my own powers, which is every man's duty. I have a resource to which I can always turn with delight, however the world may go with me. I am so much the stronger, the wider, the wiser, the better for my duties in life. I can then go with satisfaction to my business, knowing my resource at the end of the day. It is already made, and has only to be used and it will grow. Finally it is my province in education, and having cultivated myself in it, I am fully prepared to teach others in it. Education is the object of man, and it seems to me the duty of us all to help in it, each according to his means and in his sphere. I have often wondered how people could teach this and that, but I understand it now. I could teach people to sing, as far as I know, with delight to myself. Thus I have a means of living if other things should fail. But the pleasure, pure and free from all disagreeable consequences or after-thoughts, of playing and still more of singing myself, is indescribable.... and this I wish to be most clearly expressed and understood, should any one ask about me. I am studying for my own good and pleasure. And now, old daddy, I hope you will be able to make something out of this long letter. You should not have been troubled with it, but I thought you would prefer to know all about it. It is only carrying out your own darling idea of making an imperishable capital in education. My money may fly away; my knowledge cannot. One belongs to the world, the other to me.
"Make no change in your plans at present," was the father's reply. "Your steady and deep-seated affection and willingness to sacrifice I needed no assurance of." But Henry was missed. The prospect of a fourth European winter seemed to George "a misjudgment, a serious error." He subsequently wrote: "I am in the dark as to the precise character of your studies. What ties have you to Vienna?" As it happens, Henry was now ready to leave. His maimed arm undermined further study. He did not judge his musical talent in any way exceptional. And there was the looming national crisis at home, foreshadowing a new vocation for American young men. Henry's lifelong antipathy to slavery was an inheritance from both his parents. He followed closely the epochal events at hand. In 1854-during the period between his two European sojourns-Henry and Charlie Lowell, shame-stricken, joined the mob of fifty thousand following the last fugitive slave captured in Massachusetts; cousin Thomas Wentworth Higginson, ever the fiery activist, led the effort to free Anthony Burns. Henry and Charley, too, were self-described (if incipient) "radicals." "It will come to us to set this right," wrote Henry to Charlie of the Burns case.
From Vienna, Henry wrote of the 1857 Dred Scott verdict denying citizenship to black Americans: "Judge Taney's decision is infamous in the last degree.... I do wish the North would take higher and firmer ground. It is the only course consistent with truth, and will alone save our country." He called John Brown "a real hero ... the Southerners may curse and swear as they like; he is worth all of them out together, and his work will be accomplished in time."
In November 1860-four years to the month after his arrival in Vienna-Henry Higginson returned to Boston: to a father eager to receive him; to a national conflict in which he intended to do his part.
The double rite of passage thus experienced-student years in Hapsburg Vienna, so different from the inbreedings of Brahmin Boston; eventful (if abbreviated) Civil War service, in so many respects equally remote from the Latin School and Harvard-conferred a rare breadth of experience. But as of April 1865, when Lee surrendered to Grant, Higginson at thirty was not yet ready to become a useful citizen. He lacked means, and a profession.
Adrift, he moved toward the world of business to which his father belonged. Oil speculation was rife. Some distinguished Bostonians had organized a Buckeye Oil Company to explore the Duck Creek district of Ohio. They engaged Henry Higginson as their salaried agent on site. Higginson had to transport pumping machinery, tanks, and barrels. He hired horses, he procured coal and lumber, he built a sawmill. He queried his father about bookkeeping and sought geological advice from his father-in-law. Once there were some humble living quarters, Mrs. Higginson arrived. She kept house, including a cow and chickens, and rode a horse. But no sooner had Isabel appeared than the Buckeye Company wearied of its failing Ohio venture; the Higginsons left in July-seven months after Henry began.
A second business venture left Higginson poorer than before, but is full of interest. With two friends-like himself, war veterans who had seen the South-he amassed thirty thousand dollars to purchase "Cottonham," a dormant Georgia plantation of five thousand acres, including a house, stables, and slave quarters. As Higginson put it: "We had done our best to upset the social conditions at the South, and helped free the negroes, and it seemed fair that we should try to help in their education." Sherman's army had ensured that all was in disrepair. The nearest railroad was unusable. A bridge leading to the property was so rickety that two horses in Higginson's initial inspection party wound up hanging by their bellies, legs flailing in the air.
But a workforce was at hand. Many blacks had never left; others were brought in from Savannah. Higginson and his partners paid $370 per married couple, plus a house, two acres of land for corn and potatoes, and fuel for a year. The three owners worked alongside their employees, repairing, plowing, and hoeing. An optimistic surge proved short-lived. The blacks struck for higher wages. They expected to be fed and cared for. Whatever she may have made of her father's "scientific" deprecation of the African-American, Ida showed the women how to wash and iron. She started a school where she taught reading and writing. Henry preached at the black church on Sundays. But Ida's initial enthusiasm-"they are good, active, honest people all of them"-sagged. "We none of us think that if left to themselves they would have energy enough to be really thrifty and prosperous, no matter how much help they should get in the way of lands." "Curious creatures these darkies are. I don't believe they could work, entirely left to themselves." "They are very strange people ... Their wits and intellect seem to me far ahead of their morals." "The more I see of them, the more inscrutable do they become, and the less do I like them." "It is discouraging to see how utterly wanting in character and conscience these people seem to be, and how much more hopeful they appear at a distance than near to." Henry wrote to his father: "As for the blacks, their future is a mystery as dark as their own skins. They have understanding and quickness enough.... They learn quickly, comprehend easily, both as regards work and in school. But their moral perceptions are deficient, either from nature or from habit or from ignorance. They know that it is wrong to steal and lie, but they do it continually."
Battered by rains, the cotton crop failed. "DO NOT FRET ABOUT ACCOUNTS!!!" Henry wrote to Ida, who had returned north for a spell. "Please remember that one great reason for our coming here was the work of great importance to be done for these blacks. Money is less valuable than time and thought and labor, which you have given and will give freely.... Money is to be spent wisely, not hoarded forever." Upon returning south, Ida wanted to stay another year-at least until "we have ... been of some trifling use in some way or another." But there was no way. By the time Cottonham was sold for five thousand dollars, the net loss to the partners totaled sixty-five thousand dollars. Had he been a wealthy man, Higginson mused, he and Ida could have produced "some satisfactory results" over a longer period of time.
In fact, their fortunes were about to change. In February 1867, George Higginson had received an unexpected bequest, in trust to his children, fortifying the family's finances. The following January-shortly after divesting himself of his plantation-Henry became a partner in Lee, Higginson, and Company. Though he would joke that he was "taken in as a matter of charity," that he never walked to work "without wanting to sit down on the doorstep and cry," his State Street employment endured more than half a century. What kind of banker and broker was Henry Higginson? He was in his spartan office-a desk, some chairs, an iron bed with Jaeger blankets-from early morning six days of the week. He was adventurous, keenly supportive of investment in the construction of the western railroads. Compared to a Morgan or Rockefeller, he was not notably self-possessed. His high temperament made him a fallible judge of men. He suffered evident anxiety in behalf of his clients. Amid the panic of 1893, which enslaved him to his desk without surcease, his uncle and partner Henry Lee whimsically chided him to retire, "knowing that for some reason you cannot be cool, systematic, prudent, cannot be aided by partners, however faithful or competent, but partly from temperament, partly from want of early business training, must always be heated and hurried." Alluding to the Boston visit of Eleonora Duse, Lee continued:
Why, when overtaxed, do you constitute yourself a guardian to an excitable Italian actress whom you know nothing about, who has not the most remote claim on you; why allow yourself to be made President of a superfluous Club got up by people too vacant or too ignorant to know how to live in the country?
No, you are generous, you are full of benevolence inherited from father and mother, and in addition, you are weakly good-natured, and last but not least, you are addicted to excitement, which you foster by your overburdened feverish life, which ends in your being unstrung and depressed.
Higginson's correspondents belabored similar observations and admonitions. "Will you let me exhort you most urgently to take greater care of yourself, partly by avoiding all work and all pleasure which may involve exposure to cold, or to hot emotions," Charles Eliot wrote to him in 1906. "Warmth and serenity are desirable for men of our age.... . I submit that good sense requires a more careful way of living than comes natural to you." William James marveled at Higginson's "steam-pressure to the square inch," his "high level of mental tension," which made him "talk incessantly and passionately about one subject after another, never running dry." Higginson wrote of himself: "Lack of self-control has marked my life. When the University or a cause or a person needs help, I wish to bear a hand. In consequence, I bite off more than I can chew (my epitaph) and ... load myself to a fretting point, often." He also wrote pertinently of Theodore Roosevelt: "Is judgment to be found coupled with such enormous energy? ... I believe the two things to be almost always incompatible." Higginson and Roosevelt were well acquainted-not least because Roosevelt's first wife was the daughter of Higginson's banking partner George Cabot Lee (and Higginson's mother had been a Lee). They shared attitudes of restlessness, of relentlessness of intensity; Higginson's intrepid Alpine adventures and Civil War service are not irrelevant. "We had great pleasure in seeing the President," Higginson wrote of Roosevelt in 1907. "He was pleasant, jolly-indeed full of fun; talked to the students in excellent fashion ... I agree to a dot with what he says about play and study, and also about the duty of these young men to their country. As he went along, I could not help thinking how he was saying just what was in my mind, and saying it very much better than I could. It was very wholesome talk."
Like Roosevelt, Higginson could do nothing halfway. For such a man, business was necessarily more than a means to an end. Still, the end remained paramount: it was after two or three years of particular business success, coming more than a decade after he had joined his father's firm, that Henry Higginson became Boston's most useful citizen. He had left Vienna in 1860 fired with the aspiration to create an American concert orchestra comparable to Europe's finest. Having calculated that such a venture would cost him an annual personal subsidy of up to twenty thousand dollars, he placed the following announcement in the Boston press on March 30, 1881:
THE BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
IN THE INTEREST OF GOOD MUSIC
Notwithstanding the development of musical taste in Boston, we have never yet possessed a full and permanent orchestra, offering the best music at low prices, such as may be found in all the large European cities, or even in the smaller musical centres of Germany. The essential condition of such orchestras is their stability, whereas ours are necessarily shifting and uncertain, because we are dependent upon musicians whose work and time are largely pledged elsewhere.
To obviate this difficulty the following plan is offered. It is an effort made simply in the interest of good music, and though individual inasmuch as it is independent of societies or clubs, it is in no way antagonistic to any previously existing musical organization. Indeed, the first step as well as the natural impulse in announcing a new musical project, is to thank those who had have brought us where we now stand. Whatever may be done in the future, to the Handel and Haydn Society and to the Harvard Musical Association, we all owe the greater part of our home education in music of a high character. Can we forget either how admirably their work has been supplemented by the taste and critical judgment of Mr. John S. Dwight, or by the artists who have identified themselves with the same cause in Boston? These have been our teachers. We build on foundations they have laid. Such details of this scheme as concern the public are stated below.
The orchestra is to number sixty selected musicians; their time, so far as required for careful training and for a given number of concerts, to be engaged in advance.
Mr. Georg Henschel will be the conductor for the coming season.
The concerts will be twenty in number, given in the Music Hall on Saturday evenings, from the middle of October to the middle of March.
The price of season tickets, with reserved seats, for the whole series of evening concerts will be either $10 or $5, according to position.
Single tickets, with reserved seats, will be seventy-five cents or twenty-five cents, according to position.
Besides the concerts, there will be a public rehearsal on one afternoon of every week, with single tickets at twenty-five cents, and no reserved seats.
The intention is that this orchestra shall be made permanent here, and shall be called "The Boston Symphony Orchestra."
Both as the condition and result of success the sympathy of the public is asked.
The simplicity of this utterance was belied by its boldness. In fact, the "full and permanent" orchestra here envisioned was not the norm "in all the large European cities." Far more typical were opera and theater orchestras whose members occasionally offered symphonic programs. And nowhere, at any time, was an orchestra of comparable stature and longevity as single-handedly shaped and supported as Higginson's would be.
The musician mainly responsible for making the concert orchestra an American specialty was the conductor Theodore Thomas, whose itinerant Thomas Orchestra toured zealously, visiting cities and hamlets of every description beginning in 1869. With a missionary's practical idealism, Thomas enforced his credo: "A symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community, not opera." That is, opera was foreign and mainly sung in foreign tongues. Also, opera was theater-like popular music, as dismissed by Thomas, it had "more or less the devil in it."
Both prongs of the Thomas credo resonated mightily in puritan New England. Symphonic speech was elevated and refined; Verdi's Rigoletto, whose licentious Duke goes unpunished, was banned. During decades when New York was opera-mad, feasting on Italian and French delicacies, and later fin-de-siΦcle decades when New Yorkers, engulfed by Wagner, swooned with high-minded erotic languors, Boston worshipped Beethoven.
The city's first signature musical institution, courteously acknowledged in Henry Higginson's 1881 proclamation, was the Handel and Haydn Society, founded in 1815; its specialties were Handel's Messiah and Haydn's The Creation. A series of local orchestras, including those of the Boston Academy and of the Musical Fund Society, ensued, to be suddenly supplanted in 1848 with the appearance of a virtuoso immigrant band: the Germania Musical Society. The Germania's Boston premiere of Beethoven's Ninth five years later drew over three thousand enthralled listeners. When the Germania disbanded in 1854, one of its prominent members, Carl Zerrahn, became Boston's leading conductor. The new orchestra of the Harvard Musical Association-also mentioned by Higginson-was entrusted to Zerrahn in 1866. With the exception of the Germania Society, all of this activity was notably self-invented. The original Handel and Haydn Society members included merchants and tailors who would "tune" their thirsty throats with wines and spirits. The early Boston orchestras similarly resembled clubs or cooperatives. The resulting music-making was distinctly democratic. It was also insular and undisciplined-a reality made palpable when in 1869 and 1870 the Theodore Thomas Orchestra rendered thirteen Boston programs, ranging from Beethoven to Wagner, with fabled power, polish, and precision.
The bellwether of musical Boston for three decades beginning at midcentury was-another name acknowledged by Higginson-the critic John Sullivan Dwight, whose Dwight's Journal, created in 1852, was America's premiere music magazine. Dwight was also a prime mover behind the Harvard Musical Association. He came to music as a onetime Unitarian minister who subsequently joined the Transcendentalist Brook Farm experiment; he also wrote for the Fourierist Harbinger. Fired by mistrust of conventional church rites, Dwight in effect reconceived "sacred" music as textless and "absolute," relocating it from the church to the concert hall; "elevating, purifying, love and faith-inspiring" symphonies, not choral masses and requiems, were appointed a paramount embodiment of ethical striving.
For Dwight, music intended for entertainment was invalid and corrupt (he called Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home," the best-known American tune of the later nineteenth century, a "melodic itch"). "Classical music," as he influentially defined it, excluded styles "simple, popular, or modern." He mistrusted opera, and loathed Liszt and Wagner. In years when the Thomas Orchestra eagerly championed Berlioz, Raff, Rubinstein, Wagner, Dvo?ßk, Elgar, and Richard Strauss, Dwight embraced a tidy Germanic canon beginning with Bach and ending with Mendelssohn and Schumann. Ever espousing uplift, he denounced as "false" art "which seeks new field for originality" through "gloomy moods" having "no right to public expression," but belonging "by every modest instinct of propriety, to strict privacy, at least until the discord is resolved." His god was Beethoven, whose Adagios nearly constituted "the very essence of prayer."
Though a necessary refining influence on musical Boston in its adolescence, Dwight was undeniably a snob. In terms of cultural politics, he was a democrat, preaching the universal benefits of musical uplift, whose sermons equally disclosed anxious estrangement from an immigrant rabble. Dwight concomitantly disparaged African-Americans as "simple children" who were "inferior to the white race in reason and intellect." His attitudes prefigure Boston's 1890s resistance to Dvo?ßk (who affectionately orchestrated "Old Folks at Home") and to Henry Krehbiel, whose advocacy of plantation song and other folk strains would make him a marked man in the Boston musical press.
Dwight's earnest understanding of music as a meliorist nostrum typified the genteel tradition. For Thomas, too, concerts were "sermons in tones," a moral bulwark rooted in Beethoven. For Higginson, comparably, there was no "greater or stronger preservative against evil" than music. As a young man abroad, he had resisted his father's exhortations to attend church every Sunday, preferring private Bible study. He kept a picture of Emerson on his desk. In Georgia in the 1860s, he called the Unitarian church "more tolerant than the others." In a letter of 1899, he wrote: "I believe in many tenets of socialism, else Christianity would be false and the religion of humanity would die." In 1911, to a clergy friend, he said: "I rarely go to church, but am not an entire heathen." He remained at all times religious by nature (he could not abide the "indifference" toward religion he observed in his twenties in Germany); and music was at all times for him a core article of faith.
But this moral thread binding Dwight, Thomas, and Higginson, and linking Dwight and Higginson to local Transcendentalist traditions, extends no further. Unlike Dwight, Thomas did not hector; he stood tall and quiet on his conductor's pulpit. Alongside Thomas-who arrived from Germany at the age of ten and packed a pistol as a touring violin prodigy; whose body was hardened by a regime of icy baths and morning gymnastics; whose fist-pounding pugnacity was chronic-Higginson was no cultural frontiersman. Alongside Dwight, Higginson was not a hothouse New England product; refined by Viennese pleasures and Civil War rigors, he did not fear an onslaught of Irishmen and other barbarians. The democratic impulse in him was-like his antislavery scruples; like his musical affinities-a pure passion.
If Dwight and other Boston insiders spurned the mob, Higginson spurned the insiders. It was merely predictable that he would choose Europeans, not locals, to conduct his orchestra, and that he would not budge in rejecting the lassitude of venerable local musical habits. He was of course denounced as an interloping tyrant. His low ticket prices-substantially less than what the New York Philharmonic charged, or what the Chicago Orchestra would charge, beginning in 1891-were regretted as a radical innovation forcing other presenters to lower prices or seek subsidies. The players of the Harvard Musical Association vowed to undertake a longer season with more rehearsal time. Dwight called the Higginson plan "a coup d'etat, with no pretense of any plebiscite." Tightening the screws, Higginson in 1882 offered his musicians a second-year contract stipulating that during rehearsal and performance days "you will neither play in any other orchestra nor under any other conductor than Mr. Henschel, except if wanted in your leisure hours by the Handel and Haydn Society, nor will you play for dancing." The newspapers got wind of it and portrayed Higginson as a predatory monopolist. The Boston Symphony members also repudiated the new conditions of employment and appointed a delegate to air their feelings. Higginson's later account of what happened next is utterly characteristic in tone and substance:
The delegate was pleasant and clever and laughed at my statements that the concerts would go on and that it was only a question of who would play. Therefore, on the next public rehearsal day I went to the green-room of the Music Hall and asked the men to come in after the rehearsal, which they did. I then said to them: "I made a proposition to you which you have rejected. I withdraw my proposition. The concerts will go on as they have this year, and in this hall. If any of you have anything to say to me in the way of a proposition you will make it"-and that meeting was over. During the next few days almost every man came to me and asked to be engaged. The delegate from the Orchestra was not one of them.
A sympathetic report in the Advertiser was as plainspoken and assured as Higginson himself:
His plan is not for next year or a few years only.... To assert that this is because of a desire to autocratic control, and that Mr. Higginson is disposed to improve the occasion to gratify a fondness for arbitrary dictation, is a reckless charge so particularly wide of the truth that all who know Mr. Higginson must have read such intimations with almost as much amusement as indignation....
No musician can do his best in the midst of a highly trained orchestra, who has played all the night before at a ball, or who plays every alternate night under a different leader and with different associates.
In fact, the artistic dictatorship Higginson would establish plainly transcended the selfish or self-righteous-accordingly, this early period of public controversy was short-lived. Events would also show that Higginson was a man quick to observe and correct his own mistakes. His orchestra's inaugural season was buoyed by startling ticket sales; for a public rehearsal of Beethoven's Ninth, the listeners overflowed onto the stage. But Georg (later "George") Henschel, the young German conductor/composer/singer whom Higginson had engaged after hearing him lead a single work for the Harvard Musical Association, proved the wrong choice. Henschel's enthusiasm, if infectious, was excessive: he lacked repose; the playing lacked refinement. Conductor-shopping in Vienna, Higginson attended a performance of Aida and discovered the man he now wanted: Wilhelm Gericke, who had been on the staff of the Court Opera (today's State Opera) since 1874. Though Julius Epstein, a key member of Higginson's Viennese brain trust, predicted Gericke would never sail to America, a meeting was arranged. As it happened, Gericke was feuding with Wilhelm Jahn, the director of the opera. He agreed to become the Boston Symphony's music director for five years beginning in fall 1884 at an annual salary of seventy-five hundred dollars. Interviewed by American reporters in Vienna and again in Boston, he opined that the Boston Symphony gave too many concerts (more, by far, than any Viennese orchestra) and expressed himself "dumbfounded" upon being shown the cumulative repertoire of the Harvard Musical Association-"You seem to have heard everything already; more, much more, than we ever heard in Vienna!"