“…subordinate to a central spirit”: An 1854 Concert Review Rooted in Christian Communism

An article published in the June 17, 1854 edition of The Circular reviews a recent choral and orchestral performance at New York City’s Crystal Palace 1, an exhibition venue built to rival London’s own Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace opened in 1853, but was soon closed in 1854 due to financial constraints. Just four years later in 1854, the building and all its contents burned down.2

John Bachman, Birds Eye View of the New York Crystal Palace and Environs, 1853. Hand-colored lithograph. The Museum of the City of New York, 29. 100.2387. Image and caption from the Bard Graduate Center’s Exhibition: “New York Crystal Palace 1853.”

The Circular, a community-written and edited newspaper, makes sure to emphasize its values to its readers. The front page of this edition features the newspaper’s “fundamental principles,” “leading topics,” and “general platform,” all emphasizing a devotion to the Christian faith and the institution of Communism and Socialism.

An excerpt from this edition of The Circular‘s front page, detailing their mission and values. “Music in the Crystal Palace.” Circular (1851-1870), Jun 17, 1854. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/music-crystal-palace/docview/137665576/se-2.

Later on, the publication features a positive review of a concert performed by the “Musical Congress,” under the direction of Louis-Antoine Jullien. The review details the pieces performed, such as Handel’s Messiah, and, in an interesting bit of foreshadowing, an original composition by M. Jullien entitled, The Fireman’s Quadrille. According to the review, Jullien’s piece tells a story of a fire and the firefighters’ heroism, “expressing in music the silence of the night, the alarm, the rush of engines, the crackling of the fire, crash and falling of buildings, the final victory of the firemen.” The author seems entranced by M. Jullien, even calling his baton a “wand,” implying a sense of magic to his conducting. Read the sheet music for The Fireman’s Quadrille here.3

A colored lithograph of Monsieur Louis-Antoine Jullien by Edward Morton, after Alfred Edward Chalon. Edward Morton, “Louis Antoine Jullien,” digital image, National Portrait Gallery, 1840s, accessed October 3, 2022, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/use-this-image/?mkey=mw195155.

But perhaps the most interesting part is the author’s thoughts on Christian Communism as it relates to the performance. They speak of the performance as a “splendid exhibition of unity, and of difference in unity.” Their remarks center around one specific idea, that each musician is bound to a sense of togetherness, in that each part of the music is essential to creating the whole sound. The author remarks on hearing the orchestra producing one whole sound, as if it was coming only from one instrument, which they relate to Christian Communisim by saying, “In all this was represented the harmonizing of different gifts in the church.” The author remarks that thousands of people attended this concert, each presumably leaving the venue with different thoughts on the concert they just heard. Who knows how many of them would have left making connections to Christian Communism, and how many would have heard the same unity and, well, communism in the harmonies of the music that this author did?

1“Music in the Crystal Palace.” Circular (1851-1870), Jun 17, 1854. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/music-crystal-palace/docview/137665576/se-2.

2 Henry Raine, “What was the New York Crystal Palace, and where was it located?,” New York Historical Society Museum and Library, January 12, 2012, video, 1:00, https://www.nyhistory.org/community/new-yorks-crystal-palace

3 Music Division, The New York Public Library. “The fireman’s quadrille” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 4, 2022. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-cf65-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Rich, Famous, and Loved by Her Fans: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe seems to be the unsung hero of Rock and Roll. While sadly forgotten today, she served as a great musical influence to many great names we now know and love, such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. In a few days, she will finally claim her rightful place among the greats in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Born in rural Arkansas in 1915, Rosetta was exposed to music from the outset of life. Little is known about her father other than that he was an amazing singer, which may be where Rosetta’s phenomenal pipes came from. Her mother was a devout Christian who would sit out and play on the guitar or tambourine, singing and playing for people and encouraging them to convert and see the wonder of Jesus. This is where Rosetta learned to play and to love religion.

At the age of six, Rosetta’s mother left her husband, taking her child North to Chicago where they joined Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ. Not only did the move expose the young girl to the urban music scene of jazz and blues, but the congregation gave her a stage to perform on. She played and sang for the congregation, quickly becoming a sensational musician and show-woman. Over time, she became a famous church performer, her mother taking around to different cities and congregations, building her name and reputation. In the 1930s, the pair moved to New York City and Rosetta entered the world of commercial music.

At first, she lost the devotion of churches because of her definitely-not-about-God singing in nightclubs and her questionable song productions after signing with Decca Records in 1938. Her first major hit was the single, “Rock Me,” which pushed the boundaries of spiritual music, her deep growl asking to be “rocked” insinuating something a little different than the religious meaning.

Under a contractual obligation to sing whatever the label wanted her to sing, Rosetta released the song, “Tall Skinny Papa”–an undeniably raunchy lyric–and shortly after returned to singing gospel songs, the music she truly loved. Soon, the church liked her again, as did everyone else. By the age of 25, she was rated as among the finest musicians of the day.

Rosetta was loved for a variety of reasons. She was an amazing performer, putting her heart and soul into her performances, singing not simply to the people, but to the Lord himself. A clergyman from one of the churches she performed at said that her gospel songs often spoke of suffering, but her singing expressed a freedom which awoke the congregations and revived the people.

Her gorgeous voice and unique, lively plucking style on the electric guitar, paired with her religious zeal made Sister Rosetta Tharpe gospel’s first superstar. As mentioned before, she was incredibly influential to many of the great rock and roll artists, so why is she only being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now? She was nominated for the first time in 2018 and will be inducted posthumously on May 5th. Why is it that she has been more or less forgotten up until now? What issues are at play here?

Let’s listen to some more of good ol’ Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Bibliography:

  1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe-Documentary 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_n0vkzc8PU.
  2. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, https://www.rockhall.com/nominee/sister-rosetta-tharpe.
  3. NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/world-cafe/2018/04/12/601808069/sister-rosetta-tharpe-gets-her-day-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame.

An American Modernist Response: The Ashcan School

"Head of Boxer", painted by George Wesley Bellows

“Head of Boxer”, painted by George Wesley Bellows

This week we toured the St. Olaf Flaten Art Museum and studied several objects, including this painting, “Head of Boxer” by George Wesley Bellows.

George Wesley Bellows

George Wesley Bellows

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) was an American realist painter, known for his depictions of urban life in New York City. He was an artist from the Ashcan school of art, that were a group of realist painters that wanted to challenge and be set a part from American impressionists.

Although Ashcan artists advocated for modern actualities, they were not so radical that they used their artwork for social criticism or reform. They identified with the vitality of the lower classes and illustrated the dismal aspects of urban existence. However, they themselves led middle-class lives and were influenced by New York’s restaurants, bars, theater and vaudeville.1

Relating to other themes in our class, George Bellows was immersed in New York’s vaudeville scene around the same time of Charles Harris’ “After the Ball”, Howard and Emerson’s “Hello My Baby”, and Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

“The Ashcan artists selectively documented an unsettling, transitional time in American culture that was marked by confidence and doubt, excitement and trepidation. Ignoring or registering only gently harsh new realities such as the problems of immigration and urban poverty, they shone a positive light on their era.”

— The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In this painting, perhaps the rough brush strokes represent the difficulties the lower classes faced in society? Perhaps the mix of light and shadow on the boxer’s forehead show the transitional time in American culture? And perhaps the sad expression of the boxer represents the doubt and trepidation of the lower classes who struggle with problems of immigration and urban poverty. George Bellows painted the realities of the lower classes he saw around him in New York City.

1 Weinberg, H. Barbara. “The Ashcan School.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ashc/hd_ashc.htm