A Franco-American Musical Revolution, 1915

Georges Longy, Charles Martin Leoffler, and a Franco-American Musical Revolution, 1915

by Roy Rudolph, Library Director, and Libor Dudas, Chair of Theoretical and Historical Studies, Longy School of Music of Bard College

 “Mr. Longy probably influenced the musical life of Boston
more than any other one man.”
—Olin Downes, Music Critic, New York Times, Nov 4, 1930

Georges Longy, along with his close friend Charles Martin Loeffler, an accomplished performer and composer, was at the forefront of an early 20th-century vanguard that altered Boston’s musical landscape. Between his arrival in 1898 up through his return to France in 1926, Longy would invigorate musical society in the area through his virtuosic playing, charismatic leadership, innovative programming, and the introduction of new methods of instruction to aspiring musicians.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, music in Boston was dominated by German influence, featuring German-trained musicians playing the music of German composers. Nearly all Boston-based composers born in the mid-19th century, members of what the musicologist Gilbert Chase referred to as “The Second New England School” (John Knowles Paine, George Whitefield Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, Arthur Foote, Horatio Parker, and Amy Beach, among others), received their musical training in Germany. Of these, two exerted a considerable influence on both music education and concert repertoire: John Knowles Paine, who became Harvard’s first professor of Music in 1861, and George Chadwick, faculty member at the New England Conservatory and its director beginning in 1897. As described by one scholar, Boston at the end of the 19th century was virtually a colony of German culture.

The centerpiece of Boston concert and social life, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was founded in 1881 by Henry Lee Higginson. Influenced by his studies in Vienna and the views of John Knowles Paine, who served as his musical advisor, Higginson organized the BSO in the model of Austrian and German orchestras. Unsurprisingly, BSO programs up to the time of America’s entry into World War I overwhelmingly emphasized works by Austro-German composers.

Concurrently, proponents of music from France began making inroads, and Boston musical tastes began to shift. Two musicians in particular played a major role in these changes: violinist and composer Charles Martin Loeffler and oboist Georges Longy. Loeffler, who was in fact German by birth, received most of his musical training at that Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. But in 1877 he left Germany for Paris to continue his studies, becoming devoted to French musical and literary culture (thoroughly Francophile, he later distanced himself from his Prussian origins by claiming to be from Alsace). In 1882, he came to the United States, and that same year joined the Boston Symphony as Second Concertmaster.

Loeffler was also an admired composer and a sought after soloist within Boston society. Isabella Stewart Gardner, a noted arts patron in Boston, was a friend and supporter of Loeffler, inviting him frequently to perform at her Fenway Court. Mrs. Gardner supported the publication of Loeffler’s compositions and also made available to him on loan her Stradivarius violin. Loeffler retired from the BSO at the end of the 1902-1903 season, and after a year in Paris, he purchased a working farm in Medfield, Massachusetts. There he continued to compose and to teach violin and viola while still maintaining his involvement in the Boston music scene.

As a composer, Loeffler employed modern French harmonic style. He also drew heavily on French literature in his tone poems and song settings. He is frequently linked to the French symbolist movement and associated with fin-de-siècle decadence. His Quatre poèmes, op. 5,programmed for this SeptemberFest, sets text to music by the symbolist poets Baudelaire and Verlaine. Another work featured on the program, his Deux rapsodies for oboe, viola and piano, is based on the poems by Maurice Rollinat, replete with bizarre imagery of death and decay. In the original edition published by G. Schirmer in 1905, the two poems are printed in the piano score with a prose translation in English by the Boston music critic Philip Hale. [The second of the two rhapsodies, “Le Cornemuse,” is dedicated to Georges Longy.]

Unlike Loeffler, Georges Longy was born in France, in Abbeville in 1868. He received his training at the Paris Conservatoire, where he was awarded the Premier Prix in 1886. Longy was recruited by Higginson in 1898 as principal oboe, a position he held until his retirement in 1925.

Soon after his arrival in Boston, Longy embarked upon a series of projects that had a profound effect on the musical life of his adopted city. In 1899, he became conductor of the Boston Orchestral Club, a mostly amateur orchestra with some professional players. Mrs. Gardner, known for her support of rising stars of arts and culture, served as vice-president of the organization, and among its members was the intrepid saxophonist, Mrs. Elise Boyer Hall, close friend and patron of Longy (his Rapsodie for saxophone, clarinets, bassoon, harp, double bass, and percussion featured in SeptemberFest was written for and dedicated to her).

In 1900, Longy founded the Georges Longy Club, introducing Boston audiences to an all-wind ensemble (with piano when needed), a novel concept in that day and age. In addition to unfamiliar instrumentation, the Georges Longy Club provided an opportunity to debut contemporary repertoire to Boston audiences, especially that of his French compatriots, which was largely unknown in the United States at the time. The Club’s first season included works by Emile Bernard, Théodore Gouvy, and Vincent d’Indy. Later, he also took on the direction of other influential music organizations, including the MacDowell Club (1915-1919) and the Cecilia Society (1916), known today as The Boston Cecilia, which were also renowned for innovative programming and performance excellence.

In 1919, he embarked on yet another major musical project with the founding of the Boston Musical Society. By this point a friend and colleague of his for 20 years, Mrs. Gardner served as a guarantor of the organization. Longy’s stated mission for the Boston Musical Society was to present and promote works by American composers, with the goal of including at least one American work in each program. In a published proposal, he wrote that the Society took as its model the venerable Societé de Musique de Paris, which had been formed immediately after the Franco-Prussian War in order to promote music by French composers. Georges Longy had tapped into a thirst for new repertoire among Boston audiences, heralding new works from both his native France and the country he lived in for nearly 30 years.

The most enduring legacy of Longy’s musical activity was the school he opened on October 1, 1915, with classes first held inside his Hemenway Street apartment in Boston’s Back Bay. An account of the inception of the school written by William C. Mason was included in The Purple Book, a pamphlet published in 1925 to commemorate the first decade of the School and to honor Georges Longy upon his retirement as director:

The founder of the Longy School of Music, Georges Longy, had considered long and deeply on the teaching of his art, and these considerations at last were to take a definite form.

During the summer of 1915, which he spent in Medfield, Mr. Longy talked over the matter with Mr. Loeffler and then resolved to establish a school for Solfege in Boston, which had nothing of its like in its musical life. This idea was much favored by Mr. Loeffler and so, in October of 1915, The Longy School of Music came into being.

It was founded for the purpose of teaching music in a correct, thorough and scientific manner, the intention of the instruction based on those of the Paris Conservatory. It was felt necessary to include other subjects besides Solfege, such as the study of oboe, piano, eurhythmics, coaching in songs, etc.  

The objective of the School was to offer a musical training alternative to that offered by the established conservatories in Boston, one based on the methods and curriculum of the Paris Conservatoire. For Loeffler, the School provided a vehicle for providing his own students with French-style musical training (five of the six students from the School’s first graduating class of 1917, all female, were his violin students).

Over the next decade, as the influence of French musical culture grew across the United States, in part due to anti-German sentiment that accompanied the war in Europe, several members of the French Military Band were recruited to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Among them was the cellist George Miquelle, who would marry Longy’s daughter, Renée, in 1919 and subsequently join the family business as a member of the faculty. Many of Miquelle’s French colleagues in the BSO, including three others from the Military Band, joined a greatly expanded Longy School faculty.

One hundred years later, the school founded by Georges Longy has blossomed into a vibrant community of adventurous, dedicated faculty and student musicians at Longy School of Music of Bard College. Through high-level performance and an innovative curriculum that encourages students to connect with both new and familiar audiences in the Greater Boston area and beyond, Longy today continues its founder’s legacy of shaping new generations of musicians in Boston and beyond.