Old Borax and the Cello

In one of those stultifying moments of “Why did I subject myself to that?,” I finished reading an article about “overrated writers,” which I guess was meant to be entertaining but somehow ended up turning vicious, like a chihuahua turned loose on your ankles with a set of doberman dentures. Neither here or there about the merit of the author’s selections, I was reacting to the prevailing sentiment that many writers are a bunch of…(fill-in-blank here), so I went searching for examples of where writers helped other writers, were kind to another of the same tribe. I found more examples in the field of music than in literature.

“For after-hours amusements [Mrs. Jeannette Thurber] turned Dvořák over to Huneker, who invited Dvořák to experience the American drink called the whiskey cocktail. Huneker observed that in reply Dvořák “nodded his head, that of an angry-looking bulldog with a beard. He scared me with his fierce Slavonic eyes.”…Not being a heavy drinker, Huneker ordered a beer every time Dvořák had a cocktail. They spoke in German, Huneker taking comfort in finding a man whose accent and grammar were worse than his own.”

Norman Gilliland’s Grace Notes for a Year, pg. 258.

Anton Dvořák, whom James Huneker called Old Borax, would drink nineteen cocktails that night. Huneker would write later: “Such a man is as dangerous to a moderate drinker as a false beacon is to a shipwrecked sailor.” Dvořák would later hear Victor Herbert‘s cello concerto and it inspired him to write his own Cello Concerto in B Minor, which I think is the greatest cello concerto in the repertoire. If the soulful interaction between the soprano of the nightingale and the male voice of the cello in the second movement, which starts around 16:20 in the link, is not the most moving music that you have ever heard then something is wrong with you. Really.

My point is not Old Borax, although he and his music are worth exploring, as is that of his mentor and champion, Johannes Brahms, who was an extraordinary contradiction of a human being. Brahms was born working-class and spent his life and considerable fortunes helping underdogs. Brahms, recognized at a young age as musically gifted, received music lessons four times a week from a notable teacher. Free. He would repay that kindness in helping Dvořák, championing what we might today consider ‘ethnic music.’ Brahms was fond of Hungarian gypsy music, incorporating it into his compositions.

Two quick examples of Brahms in action. Once, when leaving a party and about to slam the door behind himself, he yelled out (and I paraphrase), “If I have not insulted you, I apologize.” When, in the summer of 1885, a carpenter’s workshop down the street caught fire, demolishing the shop and threatening the livelihood of many workers, Brahms went and joined the bucket brigade and then, quietly without drawing attention to himself, had the entire factory rebuilt and restored at his own personal expense. A friend ran to Brahms’s apartment and rescued the composer’s papers, among them his Symphony No. 4.

But it is Mrs. Jeannette Myers Thurber, founder of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, whom I wish to cite as an example of kindness. She is without doubt (or without exaggeration) the greatest single American patron of music the country has ever seen. Yes, as kind and generous as Andrew Carnegie, George Eastman, Avery Fisher and Julliard; but why, after a long life (she lived to be 96), did her passing warrant a scant obituary? This was the woman who had convinced in 1891 convinced Dvořák to become acting Director of the National Conservatory, offering him a two-year appointment, four months of paid vacation time, freedom to compose his own works while in residence, and $15,000 per year. Go research the works the man wrote during his tenure in America. The Ninth Symphony, his New World Symphony, is but one but example. When he returned to Europe, Dvořák added sixty-plus measures to the Cello Concerto in response to his sister-in-law’s death, for whom he secretly composed the orchestral piece. The $15,000 in 1891 would be several hundred thousands of dollars today. At her request for music for the 1892 Columbus Day celebration, Dvořák wrote his Columbian Te Deum.

Mrs. Thurber is not as well known today as she should be, because she did not have buildings built to be named after her. She failed the “self-promotion thing.” Her National Conservatory opened in 1884 and it admitted women, all races, and the handicapped. She financed the Conservatory and scholarships for students. She had hoped that the Federal government would sponsor and subsidize music programs.

Other examples in music: the affection and esteem shared between Joseph Haydn and Mozart; Franz Liszt, despite his own outsized ego, defended Bedřich Smetana when a critic at recital had ridiculed Czech music and the Czech composer. Smetana, who had gone to play for Liszt, was moved to tears. Want another example? Robert Schumann helped start Brahms’s career. When Schumann tried to commit suicide and declined mentally, his wife Clara was five months pregnant. Brahms stayed and helped Clara Schumann and her seven children.

And what examples do we have of writers with writers doing other writers a kindness? In other postings I have discussed mentors, but I mean something beyond that. I did find one, although it really qualifies as a publisher helping a writer, believing strongly in a writer: E. Haldeman-Julius, the Little Blue Book Series, and a man named Will Durant. Please read the link, learn about Will Durant and his wife, Ariel. Better yet, open another tab and listen to Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor.

It is a true love story, publisher and writer, husband and wife. Those who think too highly of their own talents should learn humility and those who feel overwhelmed should find solace in Mrs. Thurber and in the Durants.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
This entry was posted in Music, This Day in History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Old Borax and the Cello

  1. Jessie Brodbeck says:

    Intense writer- highly intellectual but intriguing. Informative, and well researched. Sitting on edge of my seat, but insightful.

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