Henry Lee Higginson and the Gifts of the Amateur
As to the ‘Eroica,’ I had meant to tell you how I felt about it, but it opens the flood-gates, and I can’t. The wail of grief, and then the sympathy which should comfort the sufferer. The wonderful funeral dirge, so solemn, so full, so deep, so splendid, and always with courage and comfort. The delightful march home from the grave in the scherzo, the wild Hungarian, almost gypsy in tone,and then the climax of the melody, where the gates of Heaven open, and we see the angels singing and reaching their hands to us with perfect welcome. No words are of any avail, and never does that passage of entire relief and joy come to me without tears. I wait for it through life, and hear it, and wonder.
–Henry Lee Higginson, from a letter to a friend
Henry Lee Higginson is one of my great heroes. He is most remembered for his founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but he contributed a great many other things to the civic life of Boston, including a large playing field (Soldier’s Field, for all you HBS grads) and a community center (Harvard Union) for college students, and several Civil War memorials.
Early in his life, he would have seemed an unlikely philanthropist–he broke rather severely with his high-society Boston lineage, and went to Europe to study music. The depth of his lifelong feeling for music is evident in the passage above about Beethoven’s Third Symphony. When he decided to pursue music as a course of study, he wrote, in a letter to his parents:
I know not how one finds that he has a talent for any one thing without trying: but everyone has a particular faculty for something, everyone has a decided turn and talent for a particular branch, and it is his duty to try to find this out, and to turn to it. If one may trust what he hears within himself, in his own heart, and be sure that it is right, I should say that my talent was for music, and that, if I studied it properly and persevered, I could bring out something worth having, worthy of a life thus spent, worthy of a man, worthy of my mother and of you….
His study of music, though, was cut short by neuralgia in his arm, and by the treatment for it, which consisted chiefly of bloodletting. He returned to Boston in 1860, and his attempts at finding a job were interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. He had a successful career as an officer, but was wounded and felt very deeply the loss of many friends. After the war, he failed at several business ventures before finally resigning himself to joining his father’s company and discovering, somewhat to his horror, that he was very, very good at making money.
In describing the path his love for music had taken, he wrote (late in life):
Sixty years ago I wished to be a musician, and therefore went to Vienna, where I studied two years and a half diligently, learned of music, something about musicians, and one other thing–that I had no talent for music. I heard there and in other European cities the best orchestras, and much wished that our own country should have such fine orchestras.
For many years I had hard work to earn my living and support my wife…. All these years I watched the musical conditions in Boston, hoping to make them better. I believed that an orchestra of excellent musicians under one head and devoted to a single purpose could produce fine results, and wished for the ability to support such an undertaking; for I saw that it was impossible to give music at fair prices and make the Orchestra pay expenses.
He therefore founded the orchestra himself, giving an enormous sum of money himself, and committing to supporting the orchestra on an ongoing basis until it could be established as a cultural institution that commanded support from other benefactors. It is no exaggeration to say that the BSO (and all the other symphony orchestras that followed in the US) exist because of his contribution. His determination to recreate the great orchestral music of Europe in an American setting has blessed the lives of generations of musicians and listeners, and the model for private patronage that he established has allowed American cultural institutions to thrive despite the lack of government patronage on the scale that European institutions enjoy.
At the end of the BSO’s first (wildly successful) season, Higginson was invited to the podium. He said that the concerts had been “a great joy, not only because of the music, but chiefly because of the refreshment and enjoyment of the multitude of people unknown to me, who, leading gray lives, have needed this sunshine.”
(You can read a pretty good brief biography of Higginson here, and I would highly recommend it–he is eloquent on many subjects).
For me, there are a couple of important lessons for would-be artists or lovers of art in Higginson’s story. First, that it’s important to be honest about where one’s talents lie. I feel particularly drawn to Higginson because, like him, I have a great love, but relatively little talent, for music. There’s a strong egalitarian strain in American culture that tries to tell all kids that they can be anything they want to be. The truth is, of course, that we come with varied gifts, and sometimes our desires and our abilities will be mismatched–this is one of the great pains of mortality, but like many of those pains, it is potentially redemptive. It seems to me that Higginson’s honesty about his musical talent and his determination to continue enjoying music are a wonderful counterexample to the image of Salieri from _Amadeus_, the frustrated artist consumed by bitterness at his inadequacy. Higginson shows us a better way.
It seems to me that Higginson’s life also teaches us the power of the amateur, the lover, of the arts. We live in an era when the practice of the humanities tends towards specialization and professionalization–one needs an MFA or a Ph.D. in violin performance, or a post-graduate certificate in sculpture to feel that she is entitled to make art. The long tradition of amateur cultural production in the church–dramas, oratorical contests, dance festivals–has almost completely disappeared. We should not, however, lose sight of the theological imperative (and I really mean that!) to be engaged in whatever creative pursuits we are able to be, at whatever level we can. If our potential is truly as limitless as our doctrine teaches us it is, then we have no time to be discouraged by the imperfection of our mortal abilities–we must get on with the eternal project of creation.
Finally, I love Higginson’s devotion to “the multitude of people unknown to [him],” and his determination to bring sunshine into gray lives. It’s a generous, altruistic motive for making art that we should be careful to keep in mind and heart as we work.