Henry Lee Higginson - Boston Symphony Orchestra

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Higginson described his plans for a symphony orchestra two years after he launched the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881:

In February '81 I began to put in shape a scheme conceived twenty-five years before that date, namely to give orchestral concerts of the best attainable character and quality at a price which should admit any one and everyone likely to care for such things - my hope was to draw in by degrees a larger and less-educated class of society - I had meant to engage an orchestra and a conductor to be at my beck and call because this only could I ask and get practice sufficient in amount and quality to reach the playing of the great German orchestras.

On March 30, 1881, Higginson published in Boston newspapers his plan for a "Boston Symphony Orchestra" that would perform as a "full and permanent orchestra, offering the best music at low prices, such as may be found in all the large European cities." He advised his first music director, George Henschel, to hire only local musicians for the first year so as to avoid creating bad blood in local musical circles. For the first season's series of 20 concerts, prices were set at $10 or $5 for the whole series. Single ticket prices were set at 75 and 25 cents. For the weekly afternoon public rehearsal, seats were unreserved and all priced at 25 cents. The concert venue was the Boston Music Hall, and the orchestra would travel locally, offering concerts in such cities as Providence, Portland, and Worcester, as well as several in Cambridge at Harvard University's Sanders Theater. Soon, to address concerns about the availability of tickets, 505 tickets for the afternoon rehearsal concerts were sold for 25 cents to those who joined the queue outside the hall in advance of the performance. Tours to more distant cities followed, starting with Philadelphia and then New York. Casual summer concerts began in 1885.

"The scheme, half-baked, no doubt, was simply this: to give concerts of good music, very well performed, in such style as we had all heard for years in Europe; to make fair prices for the tickets and then open wide the doors."

-Henry Lee Higginson
May 23, 1889

For many years, the organization accepted support from no one other than Higginson, who made up the annual deficit himself. The annual deficit he had to make up never exceeded $52,000. From the very beginning through at least the first 30 years of the BSO, through Julius Epstein, a Jewish friend in Vienna, Higginson had access to a continuous stream of the best conductors in the world, all European and German-speaking. In 1906, he sent instructions to those hiring on his behalf that the person they choose should understand that Higginson cared neither for modern music nor "the extreme modern style of conducting." He elaborated his tastes in another letter:

If you see Walter or Mengelberg, you will have to say to them . . . that I do know something about music, and that I have very distinct ideas as to how music should be played; that I shall not meddle with modern music, but that I shall certainly ask them to play the classics as they were played. I was brought up in the Vienna school (as you know) and there were plenty of men living then who had heard Beethoven conduct, as well as Mendelssohn, and knew how he wished his music given. I have known Brahms myself and heard his music. You know well enough what I wish, and I shall not interfere unduly with any of these men, but I don't want crazy work (such as sometimes even Nikisch gave us, and Paur gave us too often), and perhaps you had better tell them that I hate noise.

As sole administrator of the BSO during its early years, Higginson ensured the success of his new organization by tightly controlling the professional musicians. In 1882, he forged a new contract requiring his musicians to make themselves available from Wednesday to Saturday during the season and on those days to "neither play in any other orchestra nor under any other conductor...except if wanted in your leisure hours by the Handel and Haydn Society," a collegial gesture to a much older organization. After the fourth season, he authorized the BSO's conductor Wilhelm Gericke to recruit twenty musicians while summering in Europe to replace some who were "old and overworked."

For example, Higginson aggregated control by "threatening to break any strike with the importation of European players." Furthermore, over time he dropped musicians with ties to Boston and imported men from Europe of "high technical accomplishment, upon whose loyalty he could count."

During World War I, Higginson and the BSO's music director Karl Muck were the focus of public controversy when the orchestra failed to add the Star-Spangled Banner to its concerts as other orchestras did. Muck's ties to the German Kaiser made for exaggerated press coverage, but Higginson was the particular focus of criticism. The New York Times called him "obstinate" for his refusal to allow public sentiment to affect programming. The orchestra's publicity agent, writing years later, blamed Muck's eventual internment as an enemy alien on the "short-sighted stubbornness" of Higginson and the orchestra's manager Charles A. Ellis on the anthem issue.

In February 1918, with his finances so depleted by the war that he could no longer finance the orchestra's deficits alone, and anticipating the departure of Dr. Muck, which came with his arrest in March, Higginson determined to hand the management of the orchestra over to a new institutional structure. The announcement of a board of trustees to manage an incorporated Boston Symphony Orchestra came on April 27, 1918.

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