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Friday, May 6, 2016

May 6, 2016: Classical Music Icons: Florence Foster Jenkins

[On May 5th, 1891, Carnegie Hall—first known as Music Hall—opened in New York City. In the 125 years since, the hall has become synonymous with classical music in America. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five iconic figures from that tradition, leading to a special weekend tribute to some 21st century classical musicians and composers!]
On what’s funny, and what’s much more serious, about a famous failure.
Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), late 19th century Gilded Age socialite turned early 20th century wannabe opera singer (with the only problem being her complete and total lack of talent for that very demanding role), is already one of American history’s most famous failures. She became well known enough in her own lifetime to perform at Carnegie Hall in October 1944, just a month before her death; the concert unfortunately received scathing reviews, as it marked the first and only time Jenkins performed before professional critics and they took full advantage of the opportunity. She has been the subject of at least four plays and many other pop culture responses in the decades since. And as of April 2016, she’s the subject of a newly released feature film (Florence Foster Jenkins) starring none other than Meryl Streep as Florence, a project that promises to make this tragicomic story into an even more famous example of failing upward in American history and society.
There’s no doubt that Jenkins’ story reveals, humorously but also frustratingly, the ways in which privilege can create opportunity and even a form of success where they seem largely (if not entirely) undeserved. Yet as with any American story and life, hers also connect to other and more complex contexts, and illuminate other aspects of our history and culture in the process. For one thing, I would link her to the two Gilded Age women on whom I focused in this post, Alva and Alice Vanderbilt. It’s undoubtedly hard for most of us to feel a great deal of empathy for extremely wealthy women working to find a purpose to their lives beyond (or at least alongside) the kinds of social gatherings that the Vanderbilts and the Fosters hosted and frequented. But at the same time, one of my favorite and most inspirational American figures, Isabella Stewart Gardner, was precisely such a woman, and like Alva and Alice Vanderbilt she leveraged her fortune and privilege to achieve a great deal of communal good. If Jenkins did not quite manage the same, that doesn’t mean that her own attempts to find an individual place and purpose, separate from and perhaps more genuine than the sphere of her wealthy family, aren’t likewise worth our thoughtful attention and analysis.
Jenkins and Gardner were also both prominent parts of another significant turn of the 20th century community: artists and their patrons. Jenkins founded New York City’s Verdi Club, which helped support and nurture American classical musicians and music in this foundational era. And she served for a time as the president of the American League of Pen Women (still going strong as the National League of American Pen Women, as that website illustrates), a recently created organization devoted to providing community and assistance for female authors and artists. The fact that Jenkins herself possessed so little artistic talent has, again, made her musical career a famous laughingstock. But in truth, her support—financial, organizational, personal, and otherwise—of music and musicians was far more influential and lasting than her individual career could have been in any case, even if she were a prodigious talent. The story of classical music in America isn’t just about the talents who created it, after all; it’s just as much about the figures and institutions that supported and strengthened and shared it. Jenkins played a prominent role in that process, and deserves to be remembered for that role and those efforts as well as for the famous failure that was her opera career.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other classical music greats you’d highlight?

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