Sunday, December 18, 2005

A Most Futile Celebration (Edward MacDowell, 1958):

In 1958, the Columbia University music department planned a large-scale celebration for the 50th anniversary of Edward Macdowell’s death. MacDowell may mean nothing to you, even if you love classical music, but he means a lot to American music departments at liberal arts schools everywhere. In the early 20th century, a liberal arts school would of course have no composers on their faculty, for their connection with art was to discuss it, not create it. Composition smelt of too much sweat, a reminder of the pragmatic considerations that translated art into cash.

And yet it was obvious in some schools that the wall separating ivy from ivory was too high. Intelligent composers had much to teach, and Columbia broke ranks when they invited MacDowell to join the music faculty. His too, too romantic music had a serious reputation in the 1930’s, although now I believe I can hear most of you saying “Edward who?”

So here it was, the fall of 1958, and Columbia invited EVERYBODY in the music world to their celebration. They chose an evening in conflict with a new music concert downtown; they also commissioned many performances of Macdowell, which may have driven a number of the invitees to develop a sudden great interest in the “new music” concert. Columbia laid on big spreads of food, accompanied by several hundred bottles of champagne.

I was among the thirty or forty faculty, grad and undergrad music students who had little choice but to attend the event. There were perhaps another forty people there whom I did not recognize. The event bombed. Nothing underlined its futility more than the dozens and dozens of champagne bottles sitting, untouched, on tables all around the hall. Had we all decided to get stinking drunk – a good idea for the faculty at least – we could not have made a dent in those bottles. It might be fair to say that Macdowell’s rep never recovered from that fall evening in 1958. And the Columbia music department had a hard time living it down as well.

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