The 1918 pandemic’s impact on music? Surprisingly little

  • >>William Robin, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-05-07 11:29:25 BdST

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In an undated image provided by the Arizona State University Music Library Sheet Music Collection, during the 1918 pandemic, several different songs called “The Influenza Blues” were published as sheet music. Unlike the existential threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak, cultural life returned swiftly to normal after the flu. (Arizona State University Music Library Sheet Music Collection via The New York Times)

“Music Nets Millions for Liberty Loan Drive,” proclaimed a front-page headline in October 1918. A major gala at the Metropolitan Opera had just raised more than $20 million for that World War I bond campaign. The New York Philharmonic had raised another $1 million in its own patriotic concert, with George M Cohan leading his hit “Over There.”

But further down the page in Musical Courier magazine were bleaker notices: National tours of the Chicago Opera Association and the Paris Conservatory’s orchestra had been put on hold because of quarantines in East Coast and Midwestern cities, a response to the influenza outbreak then sweeping the world.

“One thing can be said for the influenza,” Musical America magazine noted a few months later. “It has taken away the certainty from symphony concerts, with the result that one never knows on starting forth these days whether it will be the soloist, the conductor or the entire personnel of the orchestra that will be unable to appear. The only sure thing is that someone will be ill.”

Millions of Americans were sickened and 675,000 died in the 1918 pandemic, among at least 50 million deaths worldwide. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, the effects on musical culture in the United States ended up being relatively mild: merely a few weeks of delayed and cancelled concerts.

The flu did not transform the American cultural scene, as the new coronavirus threatens to; when the outbreak eased, in 1919, musical life returned swiftly to normal. A columnist in Musical America back then estimated that the financial damage to music from the influenza outbreak amounted to around $5 million nationwide, the equivalent of approximately $85.5 million today. In 2020, the Met alone stands to lose that much, or more, if the coronavirus outbreak keeps it closed into the fall.

The pandemic was seen “more as a temporary inconvenience than anything else,” E Douglas Bomberger, the musicologist and author of “Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture,” said in an interview. “The war was the major thing.”

“Influenza Closes Many Concert Halls” was a typical headline in October 1918. It was the beginning of the cultural season, and major ensembles such as the Philadelphia Orchestra suspended their opening weekends. For the most part, though, the classical industry remained sunny about its prospects; an impresario told Musical America that it was “always a good season for a good attraction, so we are not worried.” The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra held rehearsals in a nearby village to circumvent the ban on gatherings in its home city.

In New York, which did not close theatres or halls, concert life mostly continued apace. “The huge reaches of Carnegie Hall,” read one description of a piano recital, “held an audience which seemed to know neither the lure of the Liberty Loan doings outside or the fear of Spanish influenza among the throng inside.”

But some patrons expressed caution; a symphony concert for children was called off at the request of subscribers. The Met delayed several productions because of the illnesses of some principal singers. The eminent violinist Jascha Heifetz and pianist Leo Ornstein backed out of performances because they were both stricken with the flu.

The pandemic’s effects on pop music are less well documented, though Bomberger found records of early jazz bands having tours cancelled. When New Orleans shut down, Louis Armstrong, then 17, apparently took gigs playing country dances outside town. Several different songs called “The Influenza Blues” were published as sheet music.

Capitalising on a potential trend toward listening at home, the nascent record industry marketed Edison phonographs with advertisements that declared, “You can attend concerts of grand opera, light opera, sacred music or the fine old songs without running any risk of contracting influenza.” And magazines included pictures of pianist Leopold Godowsky in a protective mask at his home near San Francisco.

Such photo-ops were typical of an era in which music was mobilized for wartime propaganda, and artists moulded into symbols of heroic self-sacrifice. Earlier in 1918, Musical America had called soprano Geraldine Farrar the “high priestess of patriotism,” with photos of her sewing bandages and hawking war bonds.

It seems likely that wartime fundraising concerts, including that Met gala, helped spread the disease. Philadelphia infamously refused to call off a huge Liberty Loan parade, and many cities continued to hold open-air pageants.

“They seem to have had a mistaken impression that doing concerts outdoors was not a problem, because the germs wouldn’t be communicated as easily,” Bomberger said. “But when you see these crowds of tens of thousands of people, packed in like sardines, you know that they were passing the germs around.”

Even if they survived, musicians lost significant income; in San Francisco, the musicians’ union fought to rescind a monthlong theatre ban. But by November, the East Coast and Midwest had begun to reopen as new cases declined, and concert halls were more packed than ever. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra resumed its season, albeit with “threat of pains and penalties for the patron who should cough or sneeze without smothering the explosion in a handkerchief,” according to Musical America. Touring opera companies that resumed their seasons apparently saw extraordinary ticket sales.

What made the 1918 flu so lethal also made its impact on the arts less dire: It moved with stunning swiftness. The pandemic was ultimately a horrific blip in musical history. It is not clear if any institutions faced the kind of long-term financial consequences that are being predicted today.

And live performance was already being challenged in the 21st century, even before the coronavirus. With the multitude of streaming options available, many people may remain at home even when it is safe to return to theatres and concert halls.

“In that time, they hadn’t even instituted commercial radio yet, let alone television or the internet, and the phonograph industry was still in its infancy,” Bomberger said of 1918. “Truly, there wasn’t an alternative to live concerts. People knew that after this was over, they would get back to live concerts full blast.”

In November 1919, Musical America predicted that the new concert season would be “of record-breaking proportions,” with increased audiences both because the war was over and “to compensate for schedules blasted to nothingness a year ago by the influenza ravages.”

“The thing that was really heartening to me to read in these 1918 sources,” Bomberger said, “is how much people appreciated music, and needed music, and loved music. It was something that they couldn’t live without.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company