University of Rochester Library Bulletin: "Music was a Spiritual Necessity"

Volume XXVI · Spring 1971 · Number 3
"Music was a Spiritual Necessity"
--HOWARD HANSON, Former Director of the Eastman School of Music

 I often wonder if any young man in the entire world has ever had the privilege of working, at the same time, and in the early days of his career, with two men like George Eastman and President Rush Rhees of the University of Rochester. In vision, perspective and dedication they were very much alike. In other ways they were poles apart. And yet, without the merging of their interests and the focusing of their points of view on one great idea, it is difficult to believe that the University of Rochester could ever have become the distinguished institution it is today. The Eastman School of Music, certainly, would never have been born.

My first meeting with Mr. Eastman and President Rhees took place late in the year 1923. Having won the first competition for the American Prix de Rome in 1921 I had been in Rome for the previous year as a fellow of the American Academy. There I met the English conductor, Albert Coates, who was serving as guest conductor of the Rome Augusteo Orchestra.

I also met another famous conductor who came to Rome especially to visit the Academy. Walter Damrosch, at that time conductor of the New York Symphony orchestra, had been largely responsible for the opening of the Prix de Rome to composers. (Up to that time the Academy had been limited to painters, sculptors, architects and classical scholars). Mr. Damrosch had also served as the chairman of the first jury to award the Rome Prize in music and was interested in seeing how I was getting along.

I showed him the new scores on which I was working. He seemed particularly impressed with a work called "North and West," written for symphony orchestra and a chorus of word-less voices-a device which is fairly common in contemporary music but which fifty years ago was something of a novelty.

In any case Mr. Damrosch liked it. He offered to have his orchestra give the world premiere of the work in New York the following season and invited me to conduct the first performance. Albert Coates was, in those years, sharing the conductorship of the newly formed Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra with Eugene Goossens. When he heard of Mr. Damrosch's invitation he immediately suggested that I come to Rochester following the New York concert and conduct with the Rochester Philharmonic the first American performance of my "Nordic" symphony.

Albert Coates, apparently, had not been reticent about singing my praises to Mr. Eastman. I had been a student instructor at Northwestern University at the age of eighteen, a professor of theory and composition at the College of the Pacific at nineteen and the dean of the Conservatory of Fine Arts at the age of twenty-one.

Mr. Eastman and President Rhees were undoubtedly searching about for a permanent director for the Eastman School. The School, for two years, had been under the guidance of a very able acting director, Raymond Wilson, who wished to return to his former post as concert pianist and artist teacher. I, however, was quite unaware of these developments and when I was invited to the Eastman home to meet Mr. Eastman and President Rhees I accepted the invitation with complete innocence. I had little knowledge of the Eastman School and its problems. My one ambition was to visit my parents in Nebraska and then return to Rome and my composition.

On meeting my two future mentors it became quickly apparent that this was not a social, courtesy call. President Rhees did most of the talking, generally in the form of questions. Did I think that it was possible to build a first-rate professional music school under the "umbrella" of a university? Could the worlds of the artist, the performer and the scholar co-exist in administrative as well as tonal harmony? What part should "general education" play in the training of professional musicians? As a graduate of both schools, did I prefer the administrative organization of New York's Institute of Musical Art-- now the Juilliard School of Music--or the School of Music of Northwestern University? What was my impression of the famous foreign conservatories that I had visited? What was my reaction to the music departments of America's "ivy league" universities, for example, Harvard?

Although, as I have said, President Rhees did most of the questioning, Mr. Eastman entered the discussion briefly from time to time. He disclaimed. any knowledge of either education or music but his questions were models of clarity and incisiveness. His ability to search out the heart of a problem with a minimum of words was both impressive and a little frightening.

I answered the questions to the best of my ability, but with that supreme self-confidence which, I suppose, is a part of the armor of youth! At the end of the interview President Rhees asked me if I would be willing to put in writing something in the nature of guidelines for the development of a professional school of music within the province of an American university.

In the quiet of my parents' home in Wahoo, Nebraska, I tried to put on paper, with the cooperation of my broken-down typewriter--a relic of my student days--some of my basic convictions on the problems of professional music education and their relation to the general education of the student. I mailed it to President Rhees and returned to my beloved Rome and the American Academy. Some time later I received a cablegram asking me if I would accept the directorship of the Eastman School of Music.

I am afraid that I dwelt over-long on my early meeting with Mr. Eastman and President Rhees and the circumstances of my coming to the Eastman School. It has not, however, been without a purpose. I assumed the directorship when I had not yet attained the age of twenty-eight. President Rhees was thirty-six years my senior, Mr. Eastman six years older than Rush Rhees.

President Rhees was much more like a father to me than an employer. For Mr. Eastman I had also great affection and admiration certainly not un-mixed with awe and hero-worship. We were all probably a little afraid of him. It was not merely a matter of power and money, the fact that he could with the initialing of two magic letters, G. E., wipe out the entire deficit of a school or a university; or, perhaps, in another context, change the direction of an entire community. It was more than this. It was the keenness of his mind, the quickness of his decisions. I have read frequently of men with "minds like steel traps," but I have not observed many like that of George Eastman. Perhaps he could also be ruthless in his decisions although I never saw or experienced such a trait personally.

I do recall the story of an incident which is said to have taken place before my time. According to this legend an employee of the Eastman Theatre, upset by some decision, stormed into Mr. Eastman's office. At the end of his diatribe he is supposed to have said, "Mr. Eastman, I resign!" To which Mr. Eastman is reported to have replied: "I accept!"

Along with this impression, held, as I have observed, by those who knew him the least, I have heard the judgment that he was a man of steel with a minimum of humor and understanding. I recall vividly one incident which involved me personally which refutes this.

As his friends of those by-gone days remember, Mr. Eastman--or G. E. as we all called him, at least behind his back--gave two musicales and suppers each week. I received a standing invitation to attend regularly. On one of these occasions I had been hearing music examinations all day. The last thing that I needed was more music. Knowing that I was an inveterate cigar smoker, early in our acquaintance G. E. showed me where he kept his Corona Coronas and invited me to "help myself" whenever I wished. On this particular evening, therefore, I slipped out of the music room, took a cigar from the box in the library and seated myself in delightful isolation in front of the great fire in the living-room.

I was reading a magazine and smoking my cigar, only half listening to the music which was coming from the respectful distance of the music room. As I was sitting there in this blissful state I suddenly felt a presence in the room. Looking up I saw the figure of George Eastman descending on me.

He looked down at me and said, "Howard, what are you doing in here?"

I answered, "Mr. Eastman, you know that I hate music."

Immediately came the response, "I know that you hate music. I brought you here to educate you!"

I had heard that he could be dictatorial in his judgments but I never experienced any such reaction. Indeed, again and again when a problem arose in the Music School, I would ask him his opinion of which action I should take. His reply, almost inevitably, was, "You make the decision. You're the expert."

This occurred in major as well as minor decisions. Carl Emil Seashore, the noted psychologist from Iowa University, and inventor of the famous Seashore "Talent Tests" had visited us on several occasions. We had established in the Eastman School a rather extensive testing laboratory in charge of one of Professor Seashore's most able graduates. I was impressed with the general accuracy of the prognostications and kept Mr. Eastman informed of their progress and the apparent extent of their validity. He was much interested and followed the results carefully.

The day came, however, when the head of the laboratory, supported by several important members of the faculty, insisted that the Seashore Tests be the final criterion for admission to the School. The final argument came when a student from the Pacific coast came to Rochester to apply for entrance. He had excellent recommendations from his teachers but failed the Seashore tests. The head of the testing laboratory demanded that the student be sent home without further delay. This seemed to me to be both educationally unwise and personally inhumane. Certainly there could be no objection to allowing him to complete the other entrance tests and auditions. The talent tests could possibly be wrong just once!

The battle was now joined with no likelihood of compromise on either side. At stake also was one of my major philosophies, that the right of the student for at least a fighting chance must be preserved at all costs. It was evident that something had to give.

I presented the case both to President Rhees and Mr. Eastman as fairly as I could. President Rhees' reply was characteristic: "When the psychology tests can accurately measure industry, determination and dedication, as well as talent, I will have more faith in them."

I was somewhat concerned about what Mr. Eastman's reaction to the impasse might be. He had developed a genuine interest in our use of the test results and was, I think, quite proud of our modern psychological laboratory. I need not have worried. Mr. Eastman listened carefully to my analysis of the problem. When I asked him what he thought the final decision should be his answer was the one that I had heard many times before: "You make the decision. You're the expert!"

One of the things about G. E. which fascinated me most was his attitude toward music. It was unique and, for this reason, not easily understood even by those who knew him well. The simplest explanation is to say that George Eastman needed music. I know many people who like music, who enjoy music, who even like it very much. I have met very few people for whom music was a genuine need.

Mr. Eastman needed music. He needed it like other men need water to drink and food to eat. It seemed to give him spiritual nourishment, to feed a deep hunger within him.

I am sure that it is no secret that there exists among the patrons of the arts a certain amount of affectation. No one will lose social prestige by professing a deep love for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I must confess here to a degree of cynicism. I doubt that there are as many true Bach-lovers as the opinion polls would register! Patronage of the arts has always been rewarding socially and it is not too surprising that, among lay patrons of the arts, there should exist some amount of appreciative dissembling.

In George Eastman any pretense of this sort was completely absent. Few men in modern times have so surrounded themselves with music, including the music of the ubiquitous organ. But the music that was played was the music that G. E. wanted to hear.

Again, he made no pretense to know anything about music. I am not sure that he even bothered learning--or remembering--the names of his favorite compositions. I am sure that he knew exactly what he liked and what he did not like.

His taste in music--or perhaps I should say his independence in failing to conform to the accepted norm of musical taste--caused the lifting of a number of sophisticated eyebrows. He loved the music of Wagner which he heard endlessly both in solo arrangements for the organ and in transcriptions of Wagnerian excerpts for string quartet and organ.

These transcriptions, made by Harold Gleason, for many years Mr. Eastman's official organist, were beautifully fashioned and succeeded in presenting the music effectively in a medium certainly far removed from the original score. Such was G. E.'s affection for Wagner that I doubt if there ever was an evening musicale in the great hall which did not contain at least one Wagnerian transcription.

Even worse, in the eyes of the intelligentsia, was the fact that George Eastman disliked Bach--perhaps hated is not too strong a word. For anyone who preferred Wagnerian transcriptions to the great works of the immortal Johann Sebastian to assume a place of such importance in the musical development of the city was too much for Rochester's lesser Medicis. The word went out--from whence I do not know--that Rochester's great patron of music was musically illiterate, totally unsophisticated and tone deaf.

As I have said before Mr. Eastman never pretended to an extensive musical knowledge. Nor was he a musical sophisticate, if by this term we mean someone who is intimately informed on the latest word from Paris. Tone-deaf he was not; and this designation must have come either from those who did not know him well, or from those who did not know what the word tone-deafness means!

To be tone deaf means to be insensitive to sound, to the difference of one tone from another. Such a person would be comparable to the color-blind person looking at the delicate color variations of a Botticelli. Mr. Eastman's reaction to music was quite the opposite. He was extremely sensitive to different types of music, to different kinds of sound.

Allen McHose, many years ago, told me an amusing story which illustrates this point. He was, at that time, a young instructor at the Eastman School and an organ student of Mr. Gleason. When the latter went on his summer vacation he asked McHose to substitute for him at the Eastman home.

Mr. Eastman interviewed the young man and told him something of his preferences in music. Above all he said that he did not like Bach and that he did not want any Bach on his breakfast programs. Young McHose complied, but later on, the thought occurred to him that probably Mr. Eastman wouldn't recognize Bach anyway!

One morning, therefore, in a spirit of deviltry, McHose "sandwiched in" a Bach fugue in the middle of the breakfast serenade. Mr. Eastman, as usual, had guests for breakfast, and the recital proceeded without interruption. After the guests had departed Mr. Eastman called to the young organist: "McHose, wasn't that Bach that you played for us this morning?" The young man admitted that it was. "Young man," said Mr. Eastman, "I thought I told you never to play Bach at the breakfast table. Don't do it again!" No, Mr. Eastman was not "tone-deaf."

The explanation of George Eastman's interest in music is much simpler. He needed it personally. He believed in its importance in the lives of people. He was willing to give millions of dollars to found the Eastman School in support of his belief. He was willing to invest millions more in the building of the Eastman Theatre "for the enrichment of community life."

But here is the key. How was the life of the community to be enriched? The answer is clear. It is to be enriched through music! Here indeed is the epic of the man who needed music, a man for whom music was a spiritual necessity, a man who believed that the entire community might be enriched by the art which had brought so much to him. Here, then, is his monument, the beautiful Eastman School of Music and Theatre, for the enrichment of community life. Long may they endure.


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