Echoes of the Armory Show: Modern Music in New York

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert New York Avant-Garde, performed on Oct 3, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

The Armory Show of 1913 may have been a watershed moment in the history of American visual arts—the moment when European modernism burst onto the scene, even if its influence was not immediately apparent. However, as far as the musical culture of New York and America was concerned, its Armory Show moment, when the public and the newspapers in New York confronted an “ultramodern” radical assault on accepted canons, occurred only after World War I, in the early 1920s. That 1913 did not witness a transformative event in New York’s or America’s musical life is ironic. In the history of music in Europe, 1913 was a momentous year. In the spring of that year, two unrelated events revealed to the public what appeared to be an audible assault on nineteenth-century inherited aesthetics. In March, a legendary concert took place in Vienna that resulted in a near riot and intervention by the police. Held in the city’s main concert hall, the Musikverein, the concert featured, alongside a work by Gustav Mahler, music by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern, the triumvirate of the so-called Second Viennese School, whose music would exert a significant influence in America first in the 1930s, and even more so after 1945. In May, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had its premiere in Paris with the Ballets Russes. The performance caused astonishment and open conflict (largely on account of the choreography, not the music). The media circus surrounding it assured Stravinsky lifelong notoriety and fame. However, a decade would pass before the more adventuresome music of the Rite, with its stylized evocations of the primitive, was heard in New York.

Perhaps the 1913 Armory Show and the furor it generated concerning new developments in the visual arts set the stage for comparable breakthroughs in music during the 1920s. Alluring as this might sound, what the absence of synchrony in the careers of art and music in New York reveals are independent and distinct historical trajectories of development, obvious points of comparison notwithstanding. The art world of New York in which the Armory Show came to occupy a legendary status was smaller than the city’s world of high-art musical culture. Art connoisseurship was more restricted to an elite of wealth than was the parallel involvement with and attachment to music. Since the 1880s, New York boasted a thriving music scene, framed by a busy concert life, many venues for music instruction, music publishers, instrument manufacturers, an opera season, and resident orchestras that reached an astonishingly wide segment of the population of the city, including but extending beyond an elite of patrons, a few of whom were also leading art collectors.

The public, critics, and patrons in New York who flocked to the Armory Show in February 1913 (including those who bought work from the show) were, if not concert goers, at least opera enthusiasts. There was a substantial overlap between art and music in terms of the public, far greater than that which we encounter today. However, as the design of Carnegie Hall, New York’s primary concert venue, suggests, the distribution of the audience for music was tilted in favor of a middle class. They constituted the backbone of an extensive civic musical life. Carnegie Hall had 2,800 seats, a minority of which were expensive parquet and box seats. A similar distribution was visible in the cavernous horseshoe auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera. And yet these venues were filled night after night, for nine months of the year, year after year.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, New York had established itself as a vital center of amateur music making and a prized destination in the international concert circuit. The leading virtuosi, conductors, and composers of Europe either came to New York or had their music performed there. What we now amalgamate into the misleading rubric “classical” music helped define the public realm of nineteenth-century New York. This mirrored the extensive amateur activity, patronage, connoisseurship, and criticism that emanated from the massive immigration from Europe to New York, primarily from German-speaking and eastern Europe. William Steinway, of Steinway & Sons, whose forebears from the 1850s typified the German immigration to New York, was prominent in civic affairs and part of an elite that laid the foundations for much of the city’s economic and cultural life.

Participation in the most elite aspects of musical culture did not require great wealth, only enthusiastic amateurism. Musical literacy followed on the heels of the expansion of general literacy. The interest in playing music, in reading about music, and the resulting importance of music extended well beyond those who had access to the thousands of public concert seats available each week during the concert season. New York’s two concert seasons before and after the Armory Show (in five major venues), 1912–13 and 1913–14, reveal the vast scale of New York musical life, as well as its dominant German and Central European character. In 1913, the Metropolitan Opera had a full season with world-class artists from Europe, guest conductor Arturo Toscanini first and foremost among them. The seven-month concert seasons in the years 1910 through 1914 included events by a Russian symphony orchestra as well as dozens by German-language choral and concert societies. New York was home as well to a lively array of German-language light opera and musical theater venues.

The Armory Show’s roster of artists reveals the striking contrast between the French-centered art world and the Central European sources from which the concert life of New York and America took inspiration. The Armory Show had no examples of the work of German artist Max Klinger or Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, and no representatives of the Secession movements in Munich, Berlin, or Vienna. But their equivalents in music—Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Felix Weingartner, even Edward Elgar, an English composer highly influenced by German traditions—had a considerable presence in New York by 1913. Although the leading composers of the fin de siècle in France, represented by Jules Massenet, Vincent d’Indy, Ernest Chausson, and Claude Debussy, had made their way to New York by 1913, they remained in the shadow of their German contemporaries.

When the Armory Show opened in 1913, New Yorkers already believed that they had confronted the “modern” in music. The modernism they had heard was Russian and, above all, German, and only peripherally French. The hallmarks of this fin de siècle modernism were advances in harmonic usages (for example in the music of Alexander Scriabin), the distortion of surface structure (in Mahler), and the extensions of orchestral sonorities in the service of an extreme realism in musical illustration (in Richard Strauss). The only French modernism that had made headway in New York was a perceived attenuation of formal expectations in favor of color and atmosphere (in Debussy), highlighted by the New York premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Manhattan Opera House in February 1908.

What differentiated musical culture from the visual arts in the years leading up to 1913 was that the “new” music from Europe had already earned the epithet “modern.” It was defined by the music of Mahler, Max Reger, Strauss, Ferruccio Busoni, and, to a lesser extent, Scriabin and Debussy. The high point of the first generation of musical modernism was the 1907 New York premiere of Strauss’s opera Salome. No doubt, as in the case of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), the subject matter and content of the opera produced the most astonishment. But the harmony, the sonorities, and the formal innovations in the composition did not go unnoticed. The second most memorable facet of this early form of the “modern” in music was the almost three-year tenure of Mahler at the New York Philharmonic, from 1908 to 1911, during which his programming of his own music as well as that of his contemporaries sparked dissent.

Despite the controversy Strauss and Mahler garnered, their modernism was understood as a manipulation rather than a rejection of the rhetorical conventions of late Romanticism. Indeed, the music of the entire first wave of modernism was received as ultimately compatible with an allegiance to the power of the late-Romantic idiom audible in the works of Saint-Saëns, Elgar, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. These latter composers’ works could be heard with regularity in New York in the decade in which the Armory Show was held. Their popularity helped consolidate a widespread attachment to the grammar and syntax of a nineteenth-century musical prose that was assumed by an enthusiastic educated public to be normative, and certainly the musical equivalents of late Romantic realism in painting and sculpture. American composers before World War I were overwhelmed with new European achievements. They struggled to overcome a lingering sense of backwardness and fought to be heard in concerts.

A comparable revisionism in music—a movement away from the German to the French—started with the musical modernists of the 1920s. These composers were organized into the League of Composers, which came into being in 1923, and the International Composers’ Guild, organized by Edgard Varèse in 1921. Though pitted against one another, the two organizations represented the key advocates of a new brand of avant-garde music. Their concerts and publications inspired contempt, enthusiasm, outrage, and a discourse of partisanship regarding tradition, modernity, and the nature of beauty in music comparable to the controversy surrounding the Armory Show.

Overt rejection of the fundamental premises of Romantic musical procedures and classical forms in the 1920s arrived not exclusively in the music of Europeans, but equally in the work of Americans such as Ives and Carl Ruggles (who was also a painter), whose idiosyncratic and quirky landscapes of sound seemed to have no European precedent. The 1920s also brought into public view America’s first international success in music: jazz. Jazz, whose evolution had been audible in the popular culture before World War I, became wildly popular and found its way into the concert music of younger Americans and Europeans. This second wave of musical modernism in New York of the 1920s may have been radical, and most closely analogous to the aesthetics of the Armory Show. But its most striking aspect was that it was assertively American, and if indebted to European influences, to French not Central European traditions. Modernism in the 1920s connected music, for the first time in New York, to the visual arts.

By 1930 the defense of the new and modern in music assumed a posture of superiority and progressiveness (as it had in 1913 in art). Attacking contemporary music was condemned as a philistine allegiance to German Romantic and classical traditions. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the compositions of a new generation of homegrown American “moderns” such as Ruggles, Cowell, Virgil Thomson, George Antheil, Copland (the last three with close ties to Paris), and Ives (although he was a much older figure) were heard as signs of progress. But the counterintuitive surfaces of the new music—the absence of easily comprehensible continuity, the distortion or rejection of tonality, and the angular sonorities—never became popular within the audience for music. The high modernism of the 1920s began as, and remained, the passion merely of an elite. This would spark an aesthetic crisis of conscience for many young modernists, including Copland and Cowell, who in the 1930s retreated from the radical stylistic break with tradition with which they had started their careers. Motivated after the Crash of 1929 (as were contemporaries in Europe and the Soviet Union) by socialism and progressive politics, they came to view the idea of a principled formalist and radical musical aesthetic that had no resonance within the broad public as repugnant.

What makes the Armory Show an important historical moment in the history of musical culture in America, however, is the fact that the exhibition and its modernity marked the beginning of a century-long rise to dominance of the visual arts in American culture. Music was displaced gradually from the center of New York’s cultural life as visual modernism in painting, sculpture, architecture, and photography created a truly mass audience for art. Despite its heralded and momentous appearance in the 1920s, modernist music failed to create among Americans a new or expanding audience. To the contrary, the modernism of the 1920s accelerated a process of disengagement and alienation that had begun before 1913 and by the end of the twentieth century pushed “classical” music to the margins of American culture. In art, the modernism first widely visible in 1913 at the Armory Show soon came to be accepted by the general public. In music, the equivalent second wave of modernism of the 1920s played a decisive role in reversing the expansion of the audience for concert music; it fundamentally challenged the audience’s conceits and its amateur habits. Musical modernism helped create a widening division within American musical culture. The audience for music slowly split in two, with one large sector in which anything new, even of a conservative character, assumed a marginal place, and a far smaller segment committed to contemporary and modernist developments. In the vacuum created by the marginalization of musical modernism in classical music came the burgeoning world of American popular music, from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, forms that exploited the habits of entertainment shaped by late nineteenth-century musical traditions.

Modernist music from the first quarter of the twentieth century failed to win the hearts and minds of the public for music. No equivalent in musical life and culture of the Whitney Museum of American Art or the Museum of Modern Art came into being. A century after the Armory Show, the paintings and sculpture that created the greatest furor are considered priceless; and when they are on display, they draw millions of viewers. Their most exact musical counterparts, whether in terms of chronology (in America), or aesthetic agenda remain at the margins of what people listen to today. They are, with singular exceptions (such as Stravinsky), at best accorded respect and sustained by scholarly attention. Cowell and Antheil, for example, are largely forgotten.

Musical modernism from the early twentieth century, except for jazz, has still not become beloved by the mainstream of enthusiasts of art and music. After World War II, in the wake of the movies, television, and color photography, visual culture replaced the dominance of musical culture once maintained by music as an arena of passive cultural spectatorship and amateurism and assumed a prestige as high art in the world of the economic and social elite, particularly in New York.

Classical musical culture around 1913 therefore may be regarded as a precursor to the centrality achieved by visual culture and high art during the twentieth century. That rise to popularity of the visual was led, from the Armory Show on, by modernism.

The full version of this essay may be found in the New York Historical Society’s catalogue The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution (ed. Marilyn Satin Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt) for its exhibit The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution.