by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Among the many transformations that took place in a booming Los Angeles during the early 20th century was the growth of professional music in the City of Angels. Improved transportation, a larger market and audience for performance, the advent of radio, the growth in recording, the building of better venues for concerts, and the professionalization of the Philharmonic Orchestra, Los Angeles Grand Opera Association were among the key factors in this dramatic change.
While midwestern and eastern cities still laid claim to a greater degree and depth of culture, Los Angeles was on the rise. One reflection of this can be discerned in the pages of tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection: the 12 September 1929 edition of Pacific Coast Musician, launched in 1913 and which claimed to be the only weekly music periodical west of Chicago.
A critical component of any publication, be it a newspaper or a magazine, is revenue from advertising and Pacific Coast Musician was heavily tilted to having musicians and teachers promote their work in its pages. While the Philharmonic and opera association advertised, almost all of the others were for individuals who were available for instruction and performance including singers and instrumentalists. Some even specialized to help those working in the film industry, specifically the relatively new “talkies” that were replacing silent movies.
What is notable in the ads, as well, was the representation of women with music being a rare field of vocational endeavor that had a significant proportion of female professionals. The majority of them were either pianists or singers, while a few, like Olga Steeb and Minnetta Buchner Porter operated their own studios with staff teaching a variety of instruments and voice.
An unusual advertisement as that of Felipe Delgado, a baritone singer, who offered his specialties of “authentic programs of Latin Countries, Spain, Old Mexico, Cuba and The Argentine in colorful costumes. Delgado was the only person of color represented in the publication.
With respect to contents, there were many short articles of interest, though it is good to start with the editorial feature “West for the West,” in which the magazine pointed out that “the one public mission of the PACIFIC COAST MUSICIAN is to further the interests of the western musician—the teacher and the artist.”
It went on to claim that “in no place in the country is the ‘pull-together’ spirit more manifest than in the commercial life of Los Angeles.” It added that “scouts from many other cities come to Los Angeles to learn the methods and the spirit that animates our business.”
While this might read as if it came straight from the publicity department of the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the attention paid specifically to musicians and music teachers was represented in the statement that “our teachers admit the ability of other teachers; our artists are proud of the abilities of other worthy artists. Our people are glad to hear Western artists demonstrate their ability.”
Interestingly, the editorial went on to observe that “not all Western artists can storm the portals of the Metropolitan Opera, as some have done, and emerge laded with garlands and dollars.” It noted that “just as the ancients had gods and lesser gods, so we have artists and lesser artists” and “we of the West recognize those whose abilities are great but not of world-greatness.”
So, while Los Angeles was not anywhere near the first rank of musical plenitude like New York, it was important to recognize the artistry, lesser or no, that was to be found in the city and the editors added “we herald a hundred Western artists and teachers whose ability, merit and experience warrant their consideration.” They may “present themselves modestly” and “dignifiedly, not flamboyantly,” but it was incumbent on locals to recognize and support local musical talent.
The focus of the magazine was on classical musicians and music, though pieces varied widely in content, including those on Soviet music; the merits of modern with traditional composers; economic elements; musical education and training for the young; “vocal evils;” “impressionistic piano pedaling” through use of the damper pedal; criticism; the growth of American serious music; the interpretation of songs; and much more.
Two articles of particular interest are the focus of this post. One is “Los Angeles and its Music,” which begins by noting, as this post did, that “while Los Angeles is one of the fastest growing cities in the Union, its musical activities and its musical reputation grows apace with its population.”
Representative of this “easily and naturally at the head of Los Angeles musical activities is the Philharmonic Orchestra,” which was founded in 1919 (there was an earlier orchestra, however) by mining heir William Andrews Clark, Jr. As this year marks the centennial of the formation of the Philharmonic, it is interesting to read the remarks found in this article.
For example, the regular season of the Phil included “home” performances at the Philharmonic Auditorium, then located across from Pershing Square at the northeast corner of 5th and Hill streets. There were, however, some ninety concerts given in the city and elsewhere in the region.
In the summer, however, with slight modifications of personnel, the orchestra morphed into the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, performing with guest conductors. In fact, it was the “summer time alias” that was better known with its “thirty-two concerts in an open-air bowl, beautifully arranged and comfortably seated,” even if “few of these concerts but measure up to accepted symphony standards.” Also of note was the attendance of between 8 and 18,000 persons at each performance.
There were other notable ensembles highlighted in the article, including the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra, which has been featured in this blog and which formed in 1893 and had sixty members. Several fine chamber ensembles, all quartets, were also mentioned and it was noted that occasional visits from outside quartets were to be found.
The Los Angeles Oratorio Society, with 150 singers, was also given notice, including an “a capella” chorus of thirty that “fills an equally high place in unaccompanied music of the utmost difficulty.” The society was going to tour the east during the upcoming season and it was claimed that “its work is the equal, if not the superior of that which comes to Los Angeles from the East or Europe.”
The Los Angeles Opera Association was beginning its season of nine performances on the 1st of October. Notably, it shared half of the singers with the San Francisco Opera, while utilizing local musicians in the orchestra, so there were carefully arranged seasons for the combined company from the two main California cities.
Also highlighted was the unique contributions of Lyndon E. Behymer, the first impresario of Los Angeles music and who’d been producing concerts for thirty-five years, dating back just before the Boom of the 1880s which launched Los Angeles on its path to metropolitan status.
The article concluded by noting the array of very talented performers and teachers found in the city and region, including, of course, those who advertised in Pacific Coast Musician “in dignified and modest terms.” A list of music schools was also provided, including private conservatories and college music schools. Several venues were highlighted as even superior to those of New York, including the Philharmonic Auditorium, the Shrine Auditorium, the Ebell Club and several others.
The second article to focus upon is one that reminds us of the elitism embodied in the promoters and supporters of “serious music,” but also the thoroughly ingrained and systemic racial and ethnic prejudice of the day. This is a piece titled “Negro Music” and the entirety of it is incredibly racist and condescending to our sensibilities, but also emblematic of just how dominant white supremacy was ninety years ago.
The opening sentence is crystal clear in its assertions of black music’s perceived inherent inferiority: “there may be such a thing as Negro music, in Africa, but certainly there is little of it in America, though many tunes that, for lack of knowledge on the subject, are called ‘Negro folk songs.'” Moreover, the piece continued, “what the Negro brought with him from Africa, none of us would recognize as music, though it had one basic element of music, namely rhythm.” It claimed there were only “intermittent glissando howls” and some “tonal declamation” but no “fixity or form.”
The unnamed writer even claimed that “the man who wrote the most Negro music was not a Negro,” namely popular mid-nineteenth century songwriter Stephen C. Foster (not to be confused, the writer observed, with the early Los Angeles mayor and school superintendent of the same name.)
So, the question asked was: if black American music did not derive from Africa, from where did it come? The answer is remarkable:
When the Negro was driven off the slave ship and given a hovel on a Southern plantation, he was dependent on his white owner for all things—for his hog and hominy, for his rags of clothes, and for any music that was more than his African crooning to a tom-tom. For him, heaven on earth was located in the “big house”—that plantation home of the master and his family. From there came snatches of the saccharine melodies popular in the first half of the last century and the hymn tunes of the day.
If that wasn’t enough, it was further claimed that those sugary and insubstantial melodies “were filtered through it and given Negroid twists and colorings. To these perverted phrases were added improvisations . . . which finally crystallized into tunes which came North as ‘darkey melodies.'”
Beyond this, the writer averred that “the Negro [enjoyed] the religious ecstacies [sic] of camp meeting” and which led to music that “he turned to his own account.” Because of this, “much that carelessly is classified as ‘Negro’ music comes from the ‘big house” and the ‘big meetin’,’ and is not of strictly African origin.
Clearly, this writer had no real conception of what did take place with African musical legacies among black Americans, especially with forms of music not even mentioned in the article—namely, the blues and jazz. Of course, Pacific Coast Musician was openly biased in favor of classical music, so it was no surprise that there would be no mention of those forms of music created by black musicians of remarkable creativity, expertise and innovation.
Reading the pages of this publication is an enlightening exercise in attitude, about the primacy of serious music, the desire to promote Los Angeles musicians from that corner of the musical universe, and the entrenched systemic racism that pervaded the region.