The establishment of a Professorship of Music, “on a full and equal footing, as to dignity at least…” with the existing chairs of the humanities at Harvard University in 1875 was a major event in the evolution of fostering a cultured class and foundation for an American classical music. John Knowles Paine, who had for fourteen years “labored so assiduously, in spite of very moderate encouragement,” to establish a credited degree program was given the position.
A significant driver of this development was Charles William Eliot (1834-1926), the 21st President of Harvard University.
During a forty-year presidency Eliot was able to institute a large number of reforms, among them the “elective” system, where students could “elect” to study subjects outside their degree areas. With these electives, John Knowles Paine began his first classes in Harmony and Counterpoint at Harvard. Each subsequent year another class would form, and the previous class would move on to more advanced subjects, such as musical form and then history.
Charles William Eliot (a cousin of poet T.S. Eliot) wrote several essays outlining his vision for what an American University should be (and do). His major contribution in this vein was titled, “The New Education: Its Organization,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869. He argued for the inclusion of the liberal arts in the curriculum, and paved the way for Paine’s “electives” to become organized into a degree program, headed by a real University Professor.
John Sullivan Dwight wrote for the hopes and expectations of what this new development in America’s burgeoning musical life might bring in the August 21, 1875 edition of Dwight’s Journal of Music. Referring to the large number of “‘Conservatories,’ so called, which have sprung up in this country of late years, some of which count their pupils by the thousands,” he laments that “‘business,’ far more than Art or Culture, seems to be the genius and the mainspring of their organization.”
And then Emersonian Idealism is given full reign:
“Let these do all the good they can in their own way, but there is still wanting an authority; something established, and respected, far above mercenary motives, which may set a higher tone and an example for them also, so that there may be something to refer to, something standard, in the midst of all their differences, and superficialities and caterings to the fashions and the idols of a day. Where can this be found so well as in an ancient University…. where culture is pursued purely, and for its own sake; a University so placed as to be as far above and independent of all speculative, mere business arts and influences, as any Church can be?…. Here the standard of pure taste would not have to be dragged down into the market place continually, to compete with the new fashions, the passing excitements and cheap popularities of those which whom enterprise is regarded as the one thing needful, and constitutes their entire talent. Moreover, in the University, Music will dwell in sweet companionship with sister arts, and stand in living, daily, true relationship with all the branches of a many-sided universal culture. The study of the Art could hardly fail, in such a liberal and genial sphere….”
Down the road I’ll write about the future implications of having music training lie in such an Idealistic and “Ivory Tower/Temple of Art” kind of place, but it’s difficult to not feel at least a little proud of this incredibly optimistic and progressive time in America’s march to the 20th Century.