MUSIC OF THE GILDED AGE: "The Age of Innocence"

1920 first edition dust jacket

Normally we must wait for a book to be turned into a film before music is added to heighten the emotional power of the experience. In The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1862-1937), we have a novel describing music during The Gilded Age in luxurious detail. For readers who are familiar with this music, the power of her prose is even more powerful. Take, for example, the opening sentence:

On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

As a musician, educator, and avid researcher of Music of the Gilded Age, I am excited by how much there is to unpack in that opening sentence alone.

If I examine that sentence closely:

“On a January evening”

January was the height of the social season in New York City.

“of the early seventies.”

We discover in Chapter 19 that the exact year is 1872, which means a period at the beginning of The Gilded Age when “new money” was starting to butt heads with “old money.” Many people consider the official dates of the period 1870-1900, but I think those are somewhat arbitrary; I argue The Gilded Age spans the time between two culturally defining wars, the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the First World War (1865-1914).

“Christine Nilsson was singing”

Born to peasants in Sweden and discovered at age 14 singing in a market, Christine Nilsson (1843-1921) became the leading operatic soprano of her time. This is a real-life, Gilded Age rags-to-riches story. Edith Wharton’s wit and musical insight are evident when she writes:

an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

Mdlle. Nilsson, (c) 1870. Carte de Visite Collection, Boston Public Library

“in Faust”

This opera, written by French composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893) in 1859, was immediately popular and has withstood the test of time for over 160 years. The novel begins with the characters watching the Act 3 Garden scene. Listen to that first song here: No.10 “Faites-lui mes aveux.”

You might be confused if you are trying to follow the story; the character is the lovesick boy Siébel and is usually performed as a “pants role,” a male character played by a female singer.

Wharton also describes other vignettes from Faust via the audience’s reaction. For example, she identifies some scenes as “those the audience talked through” like that with Martha and Mephistopheles, or those where “the boxes always stopped talking,” such as “The Daisy Song” and “Ah! je ris de me voir si belle (Jewel Song).”

“At the Academy of Music in New York”

Opening in 1854, this 4,000-seat theater was the preeminent opera house in New York City and the center of social life for New York’s elite. The oldest and most prominent families owned seats in the theater’s boxes. The inability of new monied families like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Morgan, and Mills to obtain boxes prompted them to build The Metropolitan Opera House, promptly putting the old Academy out of business with a derisive, “You want to look down your nose at and exclude us? I don’t think so!”

Wharton stressed the importance of music during The Gilded Age throughout her novel as she described the musical education of principal characters, as well as the presence of Steinway pianos, opera hats, and velvet opera cloaks. The author continued to flesh out her story referencing other musical gems of the period, including:

Chapter 3, “The Blue Danube” (“An der schönen blauen Donau”)

…after taking his share of the felicitations, he drew his betrothed into the middle of the ball-room floor and put his arm about her waist.

“Now we shan’t have to talk,” he said, smiling into her candid eyes, as they floated away on the soft waves of the Blue Danube.

Although this music composed by Johan Strauss II (1825-1899) feels rather commonplace nowadays due to its ubiquity throughout pop culture, in 1872 this future classic was only five years old! It is now performed every New Year’s by the Vienna Philharmonic. In the above link, dancers waltz through the Vienna opera house with the same elegance as the guests at Julius Beaufort’s ball in The Age of Innocence.

Johann Strauss II

Chapter 7, “La sonnambula”

Some of the younger men in the club box exchanged a smile at this announcement, and glanced sideways at Lawrence Lefferts, who sat carelessly in the front of the box, pulling his long fair moustache, and who remarked with authority, as the soprano paused: “No one but Patti ought to attempt the Sonnambula.”

This Italian opera written by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) in 1831 was widely performed during The Gilded Age. Above, I have linked the opera’s most famous aria, “Ah, non credea mirati,” recorded in 1906 by Adelina Patti.

The sleepwalker in act 2, sc. 2

A long time had apparently passed since his heart had stopped beating, for the white and rosy procession was in fact half way up the nave, the Bishop, the Rector and two white-winged assistants were hovering about the flower-banked altar, and the first chords of the Spohr symphony were strewing their flower-like notes before the bride.

Although opera is featured throughout The Age of Innocence, the music of Louis Spohr (1784-1859) is the first example of instrumental music. Wharton doesn’t specify which symphony, so in honor of the current warm August weather (which I am too soft to enjoy without central air), I chose Symphony No. 9 in B Minor, Op. 143 “Die Jahreszeiten”: Part II: Der Sommer: Largo.

Spohr self-portrait

The ring was on her hand, the Bishop’s benediction had been given, the bridesmaids were a-poise to resume their place in the procession, and the organ was showing preliminary symptoms of breaking out into the Mendelssohn March, without which no newly-wedded couple had ever emerged upon New York.

In Chapter 19, we learn just how quickly Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) Wedding March became the go-to recessional for society nuptials. Written in 1843, less than 30 years before our story takes place, the piece was composed as incidental music to accompany William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Portrait of Mendelssohn, 1846

Chapter 34, Last Debussy songs

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Dallas pursued. “Fanny made me swear to do three things while I was in Paris: get her the score of the last Debussy songs, go to the Grand-Guignol and see Madame Olenska. 

Figuring out which Claude Debussy (1862-1918) songs Wharton referenced took a bit of sleuthing. The above scene took place nearly thirty years after the opening of the story, which was in 1872, so it must be roughly 1901. This eliminates the possibility of Debussy’s later songs completed between 1903-1915, narrowing the possibilities to either Debussy’s Chansons de Billitis (1897-98), based on a collection of erotic lesbian poetry, or Nuits blanches (1898), based on original text written by the composer.

Claude Debussy in 1908

What happens when a novel that describes music in luxurious detail is turned into a film? Martin Scorsese co-wrote and directed the critically acclaimed cinematic adaptation of Wharton’s novel, which was partially filmed on location in Troy, New York using the city’s largely unaltered Gilded Age architecture.

The film featured an original score, interpolated with the following historic selections:

Faust (Opera), written by Charles F. Gounod

Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”), written by Ludwig van Beethoven

Radetzky March, written by Johann Strauss I

Emperor Waltz Op. 437, written by Johann Strauss II

Artist’s Life, written by Johann Strauss II

Tales From the Vienna Woods, written by Johann Strauss II

Quintet in B Flat Op. 87, 3rd Movement, written by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

As a historian, I wonder at the decision to include some musical works instead of others. For example, why painstakingly recreate the Academy of Music’s staging of Faust (the only selection appearing in both novel and film) yet exclude the immensely popular “Blue Danube?” I can only assume these decisions were made based upon deemed dramatic value to the screenplay, although I feel these choices deprive the viewer full appreciation of Wharton’s authentic New York cultural depictions.

Many readers of this blog join me in eagerly awaiting a new series also filmed in Troy, New York – HBO’s The Gilded Age, written by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey acclaim, set to be released in 2022. Time will tell if the musical consultants, scriptwriters, and showrunners have performed due research. Will the music be historically appropriate and reflect the true depth of the period? Between HBO’s production values and Fellowes’ reputation for painstaking attention to detail, all signs point to a gloriously produced and captivating story.

In the words of Tom Allen, from The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice, “I, for one, can’t wait to see it!”

Dr. Christopher Brellochs

Nineteenth Century Music Consultant

SUNY Schenectady, Dean of the School of Music

Vassar College, Adjunct Artist in Music

Portrait by Heather Meany, SUNY Schenectady

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Newport, RI 02840

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