The division of American musical culture into a cultivated and vernacular tradition may be traced in large measure to developments in antebellum Boston. It was there that American writers first argued fervently for the association of Platonic idealism with secular instrumental music, and some of these same individuals established the symphony orchestra as the musical medium most capable of realizing their ideals. Musical developments in antebellum Boston were affected by the class structure, which was closely related to religious preference. The upper class, mostly Unitarian, did not participate significantly in music until the late 1830s. The middle class, mostly congregational, favored religious, amateur performing ensembles. The socioeconomic elite began to support music in the 1830s. Led by Samuel A. Eliot, three-time Mayor of Boston, they wrested control of the Boston Academy of Music from the Congregational evangelicals and made it the premier secular musical institution of the city. The Academy featured the first successful symphony orchestra in Boston and one of the first in the country. Ironically, however, Eliot's motivations, which were articulated in several important articles, harked back to early federal Republican concepts of creating a homogeneous society through a commonly shared culture. They contrasted sharply with the more insular goals of the nineteenth-century socioeconomic elite, who wished to use music as a means of distancing themselves from other segments of society. Eliot's vision ultimately was not realized, but his efforts did much to establish the symphony orchestra in American society as well as the notion of high musical culture itself. As such Eliot is an major, although hitherto ignored, figure in American musical history.
- Copyright 1991 The American Musicological Society, Inc.