July 09, 2008

Brighten the corner where you are

Soho the Dog is embarking on its annual summer hiatus—posts will be spotty at best for the next couple weeks. Try to keep the drama to a minimum while we're gone, OK? Upon our return, we'll have interviews, dispatches from exotic locales, and a new quiz.

In the meantime, since part of that hiatus will consist of consultations with Wilson, our Midwest Critic-at-Large, here's a bit of Chicago history, by one of the all-time great human beings, Jane Addams. Hull House, the first settlement house in America, was founded by Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889, offering education and social assistance to the largely-immigrant working classes of Chicago's West Side. Part of that education included a music school; in her memoir Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams offered this report:
From the beginning we had classes in music, and the Hull-House Music School, which is housed in quarters of its own in our quieter court, was opened in 1893. The school is designed to give a thorough musical instruction to a limited number of children. From the first lessons they are taught to compose and to reduce to order the musical suggestions which may come to them, and in this wise the school has sometimes been able to recover the songs of the immigrants through their children. Some of these folk songs have never been committed to paper, but have survived through the centuries because of a touch of undying poetry which the world has always cherished; as in the song of a Russian who is digging a post hole and finds his task dull and difficult until he strikes a stratum of red sand, which in addition to making digging easy, reminds him of the red hair of his sweetheart, and all goes merrily as the song lifts into a joyous melody. I recall again the almost hilarious enjoyment of the adult audience to whom it was sung by the children who had revived it, as well as the more sober appreciation of the hymns taken from the lips of the cantor, whose father before him had officiated in the synagogue.
Some of the pupils in the music school have developed during the years into trained musicians and are supporting themselves in their chosen profession. On the other hand, we constantly see the most promising musical ability extinguished when the young people enter industries which so sap their vitality that they cannot carry on serious study in the scanty hours outside of factory work.... [A] young man whose music-loving family gave him every possible opportunity, and who produced some charming and even joyous songs during the long struggle with tuberculosis which preceded his death, had made a brave beginning, not only as a teacher of music but as a composer. In the little service held at Hull-House in his memory, when the children sang his composition, "How Sweet is the Shepherd's Sweet Lot," it was hard to realize that such an interpretive pastoral could have been produced by one whose childhood had been passed in a crowded city quarter.

Even that bitter experience did not prepare us for the sorrowful year when six promising pupils out of a class of fifteen, developed tuberculosis. It required but little penetration to see that during the eight years the class of fifteen school children had come together to the music school, they had approximately an even chance, but as soon as they reached the legal working age only a scanty moiety of those who became self-supporting could endure the strain of long hours and bad air. Thus the average human youth, "With all the sweetness of the common dawn," is flung into the vortex of industrial life wherein the everyday tragedy escapes us save when one of them becomes conspicuously unfortunate. Twice in one year we were compelled

"To find the inheritance of this poor child
His little kingdom of a forced grave."

It has been pointed out many times that Art lives by devouring her own offspring and the world has come to justify even that sacrifice, but we are unfortified and unsolaced when we see the children of Art devoured, not by her, but by the uncouth stranger, Modern Industry, who, needlessly ruthless and brutal to her own children, is quickly fatal to the offspring of the gentler mother. And so schools in art for those who go to work at the age when more fortunate young people are still sheltered and educated, constantly epitomize one of the haunting problems of life; why do we permit the waste of this most precious human faculty, this consummate possession of civilization? When we fail to provide the vessel in which it may be treasured, it runs out upon the ground and is irretrievably lost.


Daniel Wolf said...

"...offering education and social assistance to the largely-immigrant working classes of Chicago's West Side."

So the AACM was not working in an historical vacuum?

Matthew said...

I guess not, huh? Chicago actually has a fair history on that subject; one of the best of the WPA community orchestras was in Chicago as well.