Thursday, June 17, 2010

Nothing is more practical than idealism

I have a piece of paper in my viola case that has a quote from Ira Hirschmann that says, "Nothing is more practical than idealism." It comes from his memoir Obligato: Untold Tales from a Life with Music that I read years ago, and passed on to a either a friend or a family member (I can't for the life of me remember who). Perhaps it is about time to get myself a new/old copy because, once again, the practicality of idealism is being challenged in a big way.

Hirschmann tells the story of how classical music concert broadcasts first hit the radio waves. The story also appeared in The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Winter, 1949-1950) on pages 683-684, which I will paraphrase:

During the 1920s, when Hirschmann was working in the advertising department at L. Bamberger & Company, the department store that hosted the newly-minted WOR radio station on its sixth floor (so that they could sell more radios), he got a idea to broadcast New York Philharmonic concerts directly from Carnegie Hall over the radio. The Philharmonic’s manger, Arthur Judson, agreed to a price of $15,000 to broadcast the Thursday evening concerts for the whole season, but when Hirschmann approached Felix Fuld, the co-owner of Bamberger's and WOR (and, along with Mr. Bamberger, was also a subscriber to the Philharmonic concerts) with the idea, he insisted that most American people did not want to hear symphony music. He went on to say that they didn’t know what it was.

When Hirschmann invited ten girls from the bookkeeping department of the store to come in to his office and asked them (right in front of Fuld) if they would listen to symphony music if it were played on the radio, every one said that she would. Mr. Fuld still thought that $15,000 was too much money to take out of the advertising budget, and that was that, until the next morning, when Hirschmann got a call from Mrs. Felix Fuld who said that she would contribute the money as long as nobody knew where it came from. She said, “Men have no imagination” before hanging up the phone.

Hirschman added at the end of the article, “If I am violating a confidence of Mrs. Fuld's, who ten years ago passed away, I may be forgiven on the grounds of adding a historical footnote to a pivotal point in the musical culture of our time.”

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