Progress and Parlor Music
Both Thomas’ program of concerts and the Fair as a whole were designed to display progress. But progress is by its nature a comparative concept. The idea of progress as it arose in the Enlightenment implies that a society has journeyed from a worse state to a better one. So demonstrating progress requires showing its opposite— knowledge to compare with ignorance, reason with superstition, civilization with barbarism. This ideology of progress was mapped onto the geography of the Fair. Although Bertha Honoré Palmer, President of the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers, had negotiated a Women’s Building to celebrate female accomplishment, and engaged a woman architect, Sophia Hayden, to design it, the Women’s Building was not deemed worthy of a prime location on the Court of Honor.1 Rather, it was pushed, literally, to the margin of the Fair, on the extreme edge of the main Fair grounds adjacent to the Midway. In the Fair’s hierarchy, white women occupied a borderline space, on the threshold between the civilization of the White City and the barbarism of the Midway.
Women’s music was marginalized as well. Like Chadwick and Paine, composer Amy Beach is also considered a member of the Second New England School. Like Chadwick and Paine, she was commissioned to write a work for Dedication Day in October 1892. Unlike Chadwick and Paine, however, Beach was not to hear her piece performed at that ceremony. After much back-and-forth between male Fair officials and Bertha Palmer, Beach’s composition, the “Festival Jubilate” for chorus and orchestra, a setting of Psalm 100, “O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands” (Opus 17), was instead performed at the dedication of the Women’s Building on May 1, 1893. The lack of music by women composers at Paderewski’s concert was typical of the programming of the rest of the Music Hall concerts (and, of course, typical of much classical music programming even today).2
Although Beach had already written one large-scale work, a Mass in E-flat (Opus 5, 1890), which could have been performed at one of the Choral Hall concerts, she was not given a place in any of the concerts planned by Thomas. She did return to the Fair on July 5-7 for the Women’s Musical Congress. The Fair’s organizers sponsored numerous International Congresses that ran concurrently with the Fair, meeting in downtown Chicago’s newly-constructed Art Institute. The Congresses assessed the state of the topic, discussed controversial issues, and debated what progress had been made and what remained to be done.3
Beach performed her own compositions on each of the Congress’ three days. The pieces she chose for these performances were not the large-scale works like symphonies and concertos that were featured in the Music Hall series. Rather, Beach highlighted smaller-scale genres whose very names— parlor songs, salon pieces, chamber works—emphasize the domestic setting that women musicians were associated with. On July 5, she played two piano pieces, “In Autumn” and “Fireflies,” from her Opus 15, Sketches, published the previous year. The following day she premiered her Romance for violin and piano, Opus 23, with Maud Powell, the first American violin virtuoso, as the soloist. The final day of the Congress, she accompanied vocalist Jeannette Dutton on Beach’s song “Sweetheart, Sigh no More,” whose melody she had adapted for the Romance. Although much of Beach’s oeuvre falls into these domestic genres, she did not confine her creative output to the parlor. In the years following the Fair, she composed her Gaelic Symphony in E minor, opus 32 (1897) and her Piano Concerto in C# minor, opus 45 (1900), both premiered by the Boston Symphony (the Concerto with Beach as the soloist).
Next: Progress and Piano Professors
For Further Reading:
Block, Adrienne Fried. Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.
Feldman, Ann E. “Being Heard: Women Composers and Patrons at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.” Notes, 2nd series, 47, no. 1 (Sept. 1990), 7-20.