In July 1854, after what seemed to be a successful performance of Félicien David’s ode-symphony, Le Désert, in San Francisco, an anonymous musical review appeared in the Californian magazine The Pioneer. The excessively flowery language of the review caught the attention of one of its contributors, who was none other than American humorist George H. Derby (better known by his noms de plume “John Phoenix” and “John P. Squibob”), and inspired him to write a satire which he entitled “The Plains: Ode Symphonie, par Jabez Tarbox.” Although this would be his only attempt at “music criticism”, it would achieve great popularity, as shortly after it was published, journals began citing and referring to it. For example, three years later, it was cited in The Musical World.
[The Musical World, Vol. 35 No. 47 (November 21, 1857): 743]
In this month’s Curious, News, and Chronicles, we will briefly explore how this interesting satirical text circulated throughout the musical press, especially among articles concerning the nature and purpose of program notes. But first, for those who have not had the distinct pleasure of reading it, here it is in its entirety.
[New York Musical Review and Choral Advocate, Vol. 5 no. 19 (14 September 1854): 325-26]
Frequent debates in the late nineteenth-century musical press concerned the purpose and style of program notes. How informative and descriptive should they be? Should these texts be educational, providing historical information and scientific (musicological) analysis? Or should they be interpretative, offering the listener a corresponding narrative, a mental journey to aid the listener’s appreciation of a work? Should the notes have any relation at all to the work they describe? It was in such debates that Derby’s text often reappeared. In the example below, the editor of Music: A Monthly Magazine (Chicago, 1891-1902), William Smythe Babcock Matthews, cites Phillip Hale’s complaints against the overly descriptive programs of the Boston Symphony, written at the time by the music critic and editor, William F. Apthorp.
[Music: A Monthly Magazine, Vol. XV no. 1 (November 1898): 75]
Further in the same article, he refers again to Hale’s argument in which Derby’s original text appears.
[Music: A Monthly Magazine, Vol. XV no. 1 (November 1898): 75, 77]
Fifty-two years later, an article in Musical America returned Derby’s ever increasingly cited text.
[Musical America, Vol. IV No. 11 (28 July 1906): 10]
After more than a hundred years, the sentiment expressed by Derby remains pertinent. A rare photograph taken of him appears below.
George Horatio Derby (1823-1861)
RIPM Search Tip: For more on lampoons, burlesques and/or humorous articles, including those by Derby, search his nom de plum “John Phoenix” or the word “satire” in the Retrospective Index and the RIPM e-Library.