The Etude: A music magazine of yesteryear

OK, guys. I found something recently that I think will provide enough material for many posts to come.

Someone at the office showed me three issues of a magazine called The Etude, which was published by the Theodore Presser Company from 1883–1957. The issues in question date from May 1910, March 1928, and March 1929. I spent some time reading through them, and wow there’s a lot to unpack.

In general, this publication is a fascinating look at classical musical culture in the first half of the twentieth century. The ad space is full of promotions for great visiting pianists from Europe, “summer master school,” and…questionable consumer hygiene products. A “World of Music” section features short tidbits about activities of famous composers and musicians. In March 1929, for instance, we hear about Maurice Ravel receiving a Doctorate of Music from Oxford and Sergei Prokofiev announcing a new American tour as soloist with leading orchestras. There’s quite a bit of pedagogical discussion, and each issue also includes sheet music for several short salon pieces or educational music.

One aspect that I found particularly interesting, and even poignant, is the question-and-answer section. Readers would write in with questions about notation, definitions of musical terms, or topics as specific as the “tone and formation of an English Post Horn” (organ stop). The passion and quest for musical understanding just bursts off the page. It’s hard to imagine music research in, say, 1910, with no internet and maybe inadequate resources at the local library. Maybe readers saw the editors of the magazine as gateholders of this knowledge.

The Wikipedia article about the magazine refers to editor James Francis Cooke’s “somewhat polemical and militantly optimistic editorials,” which are definitely a thing. Cooke emerges as quite a character at times. In the 1929 issue, in a section called Outstanding Vocal and Instrumental Novelties, he includes his own art song titled “If I Could Live a Thousand Years.”

There’s also, unfortunately, some cringe-worthy sexism and emphasis on dated gender roles. I don’t know how much of this is simply the result of the time (these publications are between 90 and 109 years old) or if the magazine’s somewhat old-fashioned point of view tolerated it. Either way, I’ll be writing about it soon.

Here’s an interesting fact to start us off: composer Johannes Brahms was hit by a cab when he was ten years old. According to a an anecdote in the 1929 issue, in a section called The Musical Home Reading Table, “He was run over by a cab on his way to school, the wheels passing over his chest. It was six weeks before he recovered from the accident, but his well-built frame saved him from any deleterious consequences.” Thank goodness for that!

The Etude has really opened up the past for me. If you can somehow find an issue in a library, on eBay, or wherever, I think you’ll find a lot to digest. In the meantime, I’ll cover some broad topics in the weeks to come, trying to keep it under the umbrella of piano literature and teaching.

3 thoughts on “The Etude: A music magazine of yesteryear

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  1. This is fascinating and I look forward to hearing more little tidbits of history about these composers. I would also like to know more about the hygiene ad ha ha

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  2. Brendan, Wow. Doing a deep dive into old fashioned research a la an actual printed publication. I look forward to more fascinating tidbits! Really glad Brahms survived the accident. I can picture Jean Valjean (or the local village strongman) having to lift the cart off of the little boy’s chest. Have a great week. Dad

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  3. Who owns the copyright on “The Etude” at this point? Would anyone be interesting scanning the complete set, then publishing them as a set of DVD-ROMs? (Note: I don’t have a set, just a few issues bought off ebay.)

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