Carnegie Hall Voices: Jeremy Geffen on the Uncertain Nature of Posterity
Our series in which key Carnegie Hall voices share their thoughts on a range of topics continues with Jeremy Geffen, our director of artistic planning, writing about the uncertain nature of composers' legacies.
On a chilly afternoon last winter, I was walking across Central Park when I noticed for the first time a trio of statues looking like a frozen audience for whatever performance might take place in the Bandshell. But what strange audience-mates these were! The statues of Beethoven and Schiller seemed to belong together—after all, it was Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” that was famously set (in part) in the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9—but what was a statue of Victor Herbert doing in this elite company? His presence among these titans seemed peculiar, perhaps even a deliberate effort on someone’s part to elevate him or at least provoke passersby into some recreational Googling.
In fact, the Irish-born Herbert was a major figure in New York’s musical life at the turn of the 20th century. When he arrived in New York City in 1886, it was to serve as the principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera, but he soon became in demand as a conductor, both in New York and in other parts of the country. But it was as a composer of concert music, operas, and specifically English-language operetta that he reached his greatest level of notoriety. Still today, many people are aware of the existence of Babes in Toyland, the greatest success of his lifetime, and a few can even hum a bar or two of (the wonderfully entitled) Naughty Marietta, considered by many to be his most notable work in the genre. Perhaps his largest contribution to American musical life, though, was his work in defense of composers. With the emergence of the sound recording, Herbert was instrumental in instigating legislation that secured royalties for composers in the sale of recordings. In 1914, he co-founded ASCAP, a performance-rights organization that to this day allows composers to acquire income from public performances of their works.
This short biography aside, posterity has rendered Herbert more a footnote than a chapter in history books. The more I think about him and of his importance on a historical level, the more I wonder how we come to recognize that which is of musical importance.
Carnegie Hall has spent much of this 120th anniversary focusing the spotlight on works created around the same time as this Hall was built and opened, many of which are now part of the standard repertoire. Each of these works took its own path to acceptance, and each has had to rely on relationships with changing audiences. However, all were created alongside many other works by composers whose names most of us might never know—a reservoir of the past dammed by posterity to produce the stream of history. What exactly is it about the works we celebrate this season that have allowed them longevity, while undoubtedly other works of similar artistic distinction remain unknown to us?
And while these 120th-anniversary works have achieved a sort of immortality, it is important to remember that they are documents of the time in which they were written, and that similarly today music is being written for audiences in compositional languages composers feel best express their environments as they experience them. What unites Handel, Mozart, Debussy, and Victor Herbert with composers of today is that, with rare exception, most were writing for a living audience. In general, it is impractical and risky to write music for an audience not yet born, or to write solely to be mentioned in history books. As Stravinsky wrote, “I am in the present. I cannot know what tomorrow will bring forth. I can know only what the truth is for me today.”
For the time being, Victor Herbert’s works will probably remain a rarity on concert programs perhaps because audiences find his works a little too frivolous, a little too reminiscent of a time they don’t understand. But does that make him a less important composer or influential musical figure? Audiences during his time appreciated his works and musicians enjoyed his accomplishments greatly, but who is to say whether Herbert’s contemporaries thought he was a serious composer, had a different notion of seriousness, or didn’t care either way? Probably surrounding us right now are composers who are Herberts who we think are Beethovens—or vice versa. Perhaps the next figure to join that frozen audience will raise similar questions with future generations.