The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Making Music, Making History

Over the last four hundred years Boston has nurtured the creation and performance of numerous musical genres. Distinguished by the breadth and intensity of its musical life, Boston has been home to talented and influential composers, conductors and performers; world-class orchestras and conservatories; and community music societies representing a broad range of musical genres. Located in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, the MHS is literally surrounded by several premier musical institutions. In addition to sharing walls with two of these institutions, (Berklee College of Music and the Boston Conservatory) the MHS also counts the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New England Conservatory, the Handel and Haydn Society, and Boston University School of Music as its near neighbors. Over the next several months the MHS will offer several public programs that bring Boston’s history makers and music makers together, using music as a lens to investigate Boston’s history.

Our goal is to introduce fans of music to the history behind some of their favorite songs, venues, and performers, and to the local, national, and even global historical context of specific musical moments. We also want to expose our devoted corps of intellectually curious adults to a new way of investigating Boston’s past. We will begin with two programs in spring 2013. On 13 March, prize-winning author Megan Marshall will offer insights from her newest book Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, her biography of the 19th-century heroine who spent her last years in Rome and Florence as a war correspondent covering the early stages of Italy’s Risorgimento. Folk ensemble Newpoli will be on hand to conjure the vibrant music that Fuller came to love as emblematic of Italy. Together with the audience, Ms. Marshall and Newpoli will discuss what music can tell us about Fuller’s life in Italy and how Italian history was presented and commemorated in nineteenth-century America.

On 29 May, we will collaborate with Berklee professor Peter Cokkinias and the Boston Saxophone Quartet to explore the music of the Civil War era. This two-hour program will feature familiar tunes from the 1860s that were sung around the parlor piano, as well as songs written specifically for the newest instrument of the era: the saxophone. The Quartet will also perform several pieces composed by Patrick Gilmore, the band leader who established the concert band as an American institution and removed music from the home and concert hall to the parade ground and bandstand. In the early years of the Civil War, Gilmore’s band became attached to the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, accompanying the troops to North Carolina in 1861–1862. Audience members will sing along to familiar camps songs and discuss the role of musicians in the Civil War.

Planning is also underway for a third program, which will take audiences out in the field to experience musical venues in the fall of 2013. Our “Tempos of Turbulence” walking tour will immerse participants in the music of the Society’s Back Bay neighborhood. We will focus our tour narrative on stories that demonstrate how the creation and enjoyments of music in early twentieth-century Boston were intertwined with larger, political, cultural, and social issues. For example, at Berklee College of Music, participants will learn about the founding of the institution in 1945, and why its creator, composer Lee Berk, chose to focus on training musicians in jazz, blues, and other forms of American popular music in the years after World War II. At Symphony Hall, we will hear examples of works by German, Austrian, and Hungarian composers, which dominated the repertoires of symphonies in cities like Boston in the years prior to WWI, and explore (visually and aurally) American responses to this music in the years during and after the war.  Just across the street from Symphony Hall, a block of jazz clubs dominated Massachusetts Avenue in the 1940s.  We will use these “lost” venues to discuss the influence of black culture on the music scene in mid-century Boston, as well as the moment when jazz music began to spread from the African American community to clubs attended by an ethnic and economic cross-section of the population.

You too can experience theses musical moments at the MHS! Visit our web calendar to learn more about upcoming events and how to reserve your spot on the guest list. 

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 1:00 AM