Monday, July 5, 2010

Mr. Neninnger's Concert

In her arts criticism for the magazine she edited in Baltimore in 1807--the Observer--Eliza Anderson frequently sounded two themes: the superior taste and appreciation for the arts exhibited in Europe, and the inferiority of homegrown, often amateur, artists. Neither of these themes enhanced her popularity with her fellow Baltimoreans.

In a review of a concert published in the Observer in early May 1807, Anderson praises a violinist from Germany--a Mr. Neninnger--but laments that his skill “will be buried like that of so many other Europeans, who vegetate here already, to our shame and our detriment, whilst every where else, in ordinary times, it would have been not only welcomed but purchased at the highest price, by governments, and nations, who would have been jealous of doing honour to their age, by these elegant and agreeable ameliorations."

Baltimore, Anderson complained, had "neither large theatres; nor church choirs; nor subscription concerts; nor military music; nor national academies, where exiled talent, might be kept alive by emulation, might receive those honors which are the vital principles of genius, and find resource against indigence and want!” Poor Neninnger would no doubt be reduced to "the hateful, the killing task, which is death to all genius, of teaching brats without ear or attention: E, F, G, A, B, C, D!” The attitude of Baltimoreans on this subject was nothing more than "Vandalism," rendering the city "the very Siberia of the arts."

But there was a glimmer of hope on the bleak horizon: Mr. Neninnger was to give a concert on May 26, assisted by "the distinguished musicians of our city." On June 6 we learn, from Anderson, that the concert has been postponed--owing, she says, to "opposition and delay" and some "little intrigues which retarded it." But these setbacks have had the happy effect of stirring up interest in the concert: there have been "some articles in the papers, which have piqued the curiosity of some, and the self love of others." A "great number of tickets" had been sold.

This very fact was then used by another journalist to refute Anderson's "Siberia" claim: if that many tickets had been sold, could Baltimore really be a cultural wasteland? Yes indeed, Anderson answered--with, if anything, increased vehemence. She seems to be arguing that one concert does not a cultural connoisseur make. But then she embarks on a flight of antidemocratic rhetoric that seems to have only a vague connection to the matter at hand, denouncing those who would accord equal merit to "artists" and "mechanics" (the latter presumably being more prevalent in Baltimore than the former). In a passage quoted in part in Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty, Anderson writes, “We regret ... to announce to these levellers, who would place in the same rank, the engineer with the labourer who carries the mortar, and the poet with the manufacturer of the paper on which he writes the productions of his genius, that in Parnassus, this equality, which can only reign in taverns on electioneering days, but at no other time, does not exist–the Muses are rather saucy, and do not admit workmen to their levees.”

At last the date of the much anticipated concert arrives--and needless to say, Anderson reviews it in the pages of the Observer. Mr. Neninnger, the German violinist, did not disappoint, and Anderson praised both the professional musicians who performed and the "ablest amateurs of our city." But, not surprisingly, she found much to criticize as well. The orchestra's attempt at military marches only demonstrated "how truly we are pacific. A kettle on one side, a pair of tongs on another; these were the substitutes they were obliged to use, to serve as kettle drums, cymbals, and the triangle!"

But Anderson's most biting criticism was reserved for the unfortunate "Mr. Webster," an amateur singer. While Anderson praised his voice, she was less taken with his demeanor: "...[I]t is really to be desired that he would not distort his features with the horrible grimaces he makes whilst singing ... and that in his trills he would not assume the appearance of gargling his throat with his notes ... in viewing the contortions of his body, and the contraction of his muscles ... our imagination has always presented us the agreeable idea, of a man labouring under the operation of a strong emetic."

Anderson then turns to the subject of painting--discussing the relative merits of the artists Guy and Groombridge, which I mentioned in a previous post. Again she bemoans the lack of appreciation for the arts in Baltimore.

Shortly after this article appeared, another writer took up the same theme in the Baltimore Federal Gazette. While essentially echoing Anderson's point about Baltimore's cultural failings--and even extending that point to the entire country--the author also took pains to distance himself (or possibly herself) from some of Anderson's more vehement statements: “Do not misunderstand me, sir," the author writes to the newspaper's editor. "I am not about to join in the ungracious attempt to stigmatise my dear Columbia, as hostile to the arts. I will not call her sons Vandals, nor denounce this terrtory [sic] as a cold Sibera [sic], where the best plants sicken and die. No, I value the intelligence of [her] citizens at a higher rate, and I esteem her climate and her soil, as of a kinder nature.”

Despite the fact that the letter-writer essentially agreed with her, Anderson devoted four pages of the next issue of the Observer to ridiculing and attacking him (and let's assume, since it was probably true, that the author was a "him"). She particularly objected to the letter-writer signing himself "An American," which she took as a dig at her own patriotism. Does he mean, she asked rhetorically, “that all those, who do not take Philadelphia for London, New-York for Paris, Washington for Rome, and Baltimore for Athens, are unpatriotic citizens, and stigmatisers of Columbia?" (At the end of this diatribe Anderson says, perhaps a bit disingenuously, that she didn't mean to "say any thing unpleasant to the author" of the letter.)

The following week--July 4, no less--Anderson gleefully takes up the gauntlet once again. This time one "C," whom she describes as a "Grub-street critic," has launched against her what she describes as a "virulent attack." Alas, the attack itself has not survived, but apparently "C" took issue with Anderson's criticism of the orchestra at Mr. Neninnger's concert. Taking her sarcasm literally, "C" has pointed out that in fact the kettle drums were not kettles, but actual drums, and so on. An exasperated Anderson explains that she had been speaking metaphorically: the kettle drum was cracked, and the cymbals and triangle didn't emit the desired silvery sound. She defends her right to employ ridicule, which, she says, "alone ... corrects mankind, because self-love speaks much more forcibly to the mind that either right or reason."

Ah but, she then says with her usual dramatic flourish, if she must recant she will--and then launches into a mock celebration of American culture quite similar to the one she had embarked on a week before, adding, "Shall I praise the yellow fever too; for this is also a production of the Country..."

As always, it's hard to tell where the mockery--and the desire to sell copies of the Observer--leaves off and where the genuine outrage begins. But what is clear is that Anderson's critiques touched a nerve. The United States was still an infant country and very much aware that it was looked down upon by Europeans.

Now, in this era of American cultural supremacy, it can be difficult to understand what a sensitive issue this was in the early 19th century. Yes, even nowadays every once in a while some highbrow in France or England may make a disparaging remark about American culture, but given the dominance of American pop music, movies, and even "high culture," nobody really takes it too seriously. (And the French, with their love of Mickey Mouse and Jerry Lewis, don't really have a leg to stand on in critiquing American culture.) But in the late 18th and early 19th century, there was enough truth to the criticism that these would have been fighting words. America, and perhaps especially Baltimore, was a rough, raw, new society that was more concerned with getting and spending than with cultivating or appreciating the arts.

From what I've seen in contemporary (and some secondary) sources, this led to something of a schizoid reaction. There were those, like Eliza Anderson, who responded with scorn for all things (or many things) American and veneration for all (or most) things European. Baltimore's wealthy families yearned to marry their daughters off to European aristocrats--and some of them succeeded. Baltimoreans traveling in Europe were besieged with requests from people back home for fine fabrics and china (complete with European-style family crests) that were considered superior to what could be obtained on this side of the Atlantic. Anderson's letters, and those of many of her friends and contemporaries (particularly Betsy Bonaparte) are scathing in their ridicule of what passed for sophistication and entertainment in early Baltimore. Despite the fact that we'd only recently fought a revolution that rejected aristocracy, anyone with a "title"--no matter how idiotic or impoverished--commanded instant respect from this crowd.

But there were others who responded with a fierce pride in what they saw as American genuineness and lack of affectation. For these observers, Europe was corrupt and decadent, and America's very rawness was a virtue. And while Anderson may have had her supporters in the first crowd, it was this second group that was riled by her criticism--although, it seems, not always quite as riled as Anderson portrayed them.

But Anderson's criticism of poor Mr. Webster--the grimacing singer at Mr. Neninnger's concert--was soon to lead to an even more vitriolic, and personal, dispute.

1 comment:

  1. How interesting that the standard to which Eliza Anderson compared Baltimore was Athens, considering Athens was at the time nothing more than a few huts at the foot of the Acropolis and probably had even less appreciation for German violinists than Baltimore. I guess it shows the hold that the Classical Era had on American minds at the time.