The Best: The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Red Stockings

By Nick Myers

Written for Liberal Arts Freshman Seminar: Boston: Life of an American City (LARTS 221, Fall 2012)

           Professional symphony orchestras today play music at levels far higher than ever before; the greatest musicians in the world rehearse each weekly concert to come as close to the composer’s ideal as possible. These musicians must go through grueling auditions, in which the minutest details of musicianship decide who gets the job, in order to prove they’re proficient enough to play at a level that befits prestigious orchestras such as the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The musicians onstage play with a musical delicacy and accuracy that others are simply not attuned to. The same level of play can be found at any Major League Baseball park; players are in peak shape, performing feats normal human beings lack the strength or coordination to achieve. The process of becoming a Major League Baseball player, as in music, begins early, with dedicated training in order to become scouted and drafted by a team that envisions that player helping to win games. In both fields, perfection is rigorously pursued and, as much as humanly possible, achieved. This type of professionalism reflects upon the society that upholds it, pays for it, and demands it. Looking back at the development of two very different, yet intrinsically similar, nineteenth-century Boston organizations, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and the Boston Red Stockings, gives evidence that helps us to define the culture that forged two storied and respected organizations in American society.

Before Henry Lee Higginson founded the BSO in 1881, the only two musical ensembles in Boston to be considered professional were the Handel and Haydn Society and the Harvard Musical Association. In “Cultural Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century Boston,” Paul DiMaggio explains: “before 1850 we see a culture defined by the pulpit, the lectern and a collection of artistic efforts, amateurish by modern standards, in which effort rarely was made to distinguish between art and entertainment, or between culture and commerce” (375); the elite Brahmin society of Boston in the early nineteenth century did not have any form of art they could adopt as their own, to separate themselves from the lower classes. Though Higginson created the BSO out of love for music, he nevertheless had a vested interest in the success of his institution within the Brahmin community. That explains why he spent $20,000 ever year until the BSO became self-supporting. The BSO wouldn’t have survived solely on the support of Henry Higginson: “On closer inspection, we see that it was precisely Higginson’s centrality to the Brahmin social structure that enabled him to succeed” (DiMaggio 390). With innumerable connections among the higher-ups in many of Boston’s leading social circles and local government, Higginson pulled strings and gained the support of many powerful men, tying the Brahmin culture to his organization.

The established BSO was run authoritatively by Higginson, who placed a number of unprecedented demands upon his musicians. After gaining their favor by first using local musicians ingrained in the Boston community, in the next season he “required [them] to make themselves available for rehearsals and performances from October through April, four days a week, and to play for no other conductor or musical association” (DiMaggio 387). This level of commitment effectively killed the amateurish orchestras that couldn’t pay as well as Higginson did, making it easier for Higginson to discipline his players, who at the time weren’t accustomed to the level of professionalism he expected. Higginson supported the ideas of John S. Dwight, who, in making his case for a professional, permanent orchestra in Boston, said “Let them engage to perform quartettes, etc., occasionally a symphony, by the best masters and no others. Let them repeat the best and most characteristic pieces to make them a study to the audiences” (DiMaggio 386). Higginson was determined to lock up the best musicians; even after obtaining the forced loyalty expected from them, he brought in Europeans “of greater technical accomplishment, upon whose loyalty he could count” (DiMaggio 389). By controlling most facets of the orchestra, Higginson was able to promote the Brahmin culture through the BSO more efficiently and effectively.

It is also important to note that the success of the BSO was also in part due to its organizational form: the nonprofit corporation. The BSO (and the Brahmin elite, by extension) would not have had the same power to define its music as high art if it hadn’t been at least partially insulated from the marketplace; one of the main goals of the BSO was to “make [symphonies] a study to the audiences” (DiMaggio 387). If the audiences didn’t know what high art was, they would only support popular art, a much lower grade of entertainment in the eyes of Higginson. Likewise, if the musicians had more control of the Symphony in the form of a workers’ co-op, the level of professionalism Higginson desired wouldn’t have been reached and the desired repertoire could have been compromised. The nonprofit corporation was perfect because it was a well-known and respected model that would “provide the stability needed for a necessarily lengthy process of defining art and developing ancillary institutions to insulate high-cultural from popular cultural work, performance and careers” (DiMaggio 381). The Brahmin elite knew how to run corporations, making this an organic avenue of governance. Most importantly, the goal was simply to create the best music possible, so patrons were willing to make personal contributions to help the BSO succeed.

In contrast to what the BSO stood for, the Boston Red Stockings organization was a successful part of an unsuccessful league that strove for recognition. According to David Quentin Voigt, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBBP) “was a jerry-built structure that wheezed through five campaigns before succumbing to the National League coup of 1876” (531). The game of baseball was only just gaining widespread popularity in America, so there was no league in which professional players could find employment. The creation of the first all-pro team, the Cincinnati Reds in 1869, therefore, fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between teams, replacing amateur recreational play with a professional emphasis on winning. It was because of this event that late one night, after much deliberation, the NAPBBP was formed, instituting an informal league of nine professional teams. Other teams could join, for a fee of $10; many did, but those who didn’t succeed immediately folded. The NAPBBP’s loose management couldn’t have been more different from Higginson’s insistence upon total control.

The Boston Red Stockings, led by the great Harry Wright, became a wildly successful team as soon as the new league was formed, drawing in great players both by the enticement of playing baseball at its highest level and by its large payroll. This strategy of attracting talent still seems to hold true, with today’s megastars of the NBA and the MLB signing with the teams that offer the choicest cocktail of the two. In their inaugural year, the Red Stockings went on to play competitively with the Philadelphia Athletics, losing the pennant only due to the A’s higher winning percentage—despite the fact that they played fewer games than the Red Stockings. The rivalry created from that perceived injustice drove the team, and especially Wright, to train harder than ever in order to win, and win they did. Boston demolished the opposition, up until the end of the NAPBBP and the transition to the National League. Why? “Wright worked tirelessly on fundamentals. . . . disciplined practice was the leitmotiv of Wright’s style” (Voigt 564). In true Higginsonian style, Wright held his players to a higher standard than was expected elsewhere, instituting fielding drills and batting practice that improved players’ skills, and creating tactics and plays that gave the Red Stockings the edge on the field. The motive for this discipline and self-discipline was not profit, but prestige, just as with the BSO’s discipline. Wright’s “teams were models of efficiency which reflected their manager’s conviction that fans would pay to see well-coached teams. . . . they could expect high salaries only if they went beyond the line of duty” (Voigt 547).

Perhaps it was because of this “Prestige over Profit” mindset that the league suffered each year; the teams that didn’t play well folded simply because they didn’t have the game attendance and ticket sales to stay in business. Stability therefore became a major issue for the NAPBBP.  High class social institutions such as the BSO, nonprofit and backed by their wealthy Brahmin fathers who automatically provided legitimacy, already had established customer bases that would support them, a luxury the NAPBBP did not have. Baseball was a game still striving for relevance, and by extension legitimacy, among everyday citizens. Because of this, the NAPBBP’s organizational form, though groundbreaking and fresh, was not conducive to financial gain, and profit was essential. Many new fans were drawn in by the high level of play from the NAPBBP, but these fans were also alienated by the lopsided competition resulting from the lack of a centralized governing authority in the league: “Because the Association favored the players’ interests, even Wright thought that salaries were unrealistically high, discipline overly lax, and player mobility appallingly disrupting” (Voigt 548).

The National League, which came into existence in 1879, succeeded where the NAPBBP failed; it began by requiring money and talent for teams to enter the league. As a result, the National League could offer fans what the NAPBBP could not: great players and competitive teams, bound together tightly enough to prevent dropouts. This breathed life into what seemed to be dying markets, and gave baseball the semblance of stability it desperately needed to grow into the profitable commercial enterprise it is today.

As Tony Woodcock, president of New England Conservatory, said at his recent lecture on the future of orchestras, legitimacy and relevancy are all an orchestra needs to succeed, as they are utterly dependent upon the value the community places upon them. If orchestras prove they are legitimate, and so create relevance, the arts community will thrive. Quite simply, this is what nineteenth-century audiences and fans were looking for in their entertainment, especially in the upper classes: legitimacy and relevancy. The BSO, created specifically to play music at the highest level and define the musical culture of the Boston elite, unquestionably had legitimacy. Relevancy, defined by President Woodcock in its simplest and most quantifiable terms, is the number of attendees at performances or games, though within this objective is the goal of addressing through explanation the curiosity of a largely middle-class audience with only a limited experience of music. The NAPBBP found relevancy fairly easily, except with fans that happened to be in towns with uncompetitive teams, where ticket sales slumped and teams folded. The lesson pointed to the need for quality players and balanced teams.

The Boston Red Stockings succeeded due to the drive for baseball professionalism exhibited by its manager and players. However, the NAPBBP had a harder time finding legitimacy because of its unstable structure—teams joined and flopped every season; the lack of authority over other teams prevented the league from succeeding, despite individual successes in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Professionalism, being the best at whatever you do, was the key to surviving and succeeding in nineteenth-century Boston. The goings-on in Boston set a precedent for the rest of the country in orchestral and in baseball affairs, as evidenced by the evolution of the triumph of the model: highly elite, highly paid organizations presenting “the best masters, and no others” (DiMaggio 386).

 

Works Cited

 

DiMaggio, Paul. “Cultural Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century Boston.” Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies. Ed. Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991. 374-397. Print.

Voigt, David Quentin. “The Boston Red Stockings: The Birth of Major League Baseball,” The New England Quarterly 3.4 (1970): 531-549. Print.

 

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