He may be almost entirely forgotten in America by the 21st Century, but in his own time Deems Taylor is something of a personality in the classical music world above and beyond his own chosen work as a composer whose post-Romantic style proves engaging in the moment but (to too many critics) forgettable beyond it.
As respected a critic as he is a musician, Taylor’s career includes stations as the chief serious music critic for the New York World (eventually the World-Telegram and Sun) since 1921 and editor of Musical America from 1927-29. Indeed, in 1924, Taylor had the distinction of writing the World‘s review of one of the most fabled concerts in American music history: the evening at Aeolian Hall during which Paul Whiteman’s jazz orchestra was joined by George Gershwin to perform Rhapsody in Blue for its world premiere:
In a way this was the most interesting offering of the afternoon, for it was an experiment in treating the jazz instrumental and thematic idiom seriously, and it was by no means an unsuccessful one. Despite its shortcomings—chief of which were an occasional sacrifice of appropriate scoring to momentary effect, and a lack of continuity in the musical structure—Mr. Gershwin’s piece possessed at least two themes of genuine musical worth and displayed a latent ability on the part of this young composer to say something of considerable interest in his chosen idiom.
Taylor’s published criticism would lead him to radio, of course, possibly beginning with the series of discourses he gave on CBS for its weekly broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic’s 1936-37 season. Indeed, he anthologised those plus several writings from the World, the New York American (eventually to merge into the Journal-American), The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Ladies Home Journal, into Of Men and Music (1937). The book remains (to this writer, anyway) a fascinating examination of one sometimes iconoclastic serious music critic (far more iconoclastic than his own musical compositions) who seems to have been determined to keep serious music from being treated, well, serious to death:
While I can hardly claim . . . anything so ambitious as a message, I do find, upon reading [Of Men and Music] as a whole, that it represents a point of view, one that I have held as long as I can remember. If this book tries to say a few definite things, they are these: that behind every musician lurks a man, who is fully as interesting as the trade he follows; that music is written for our enjoyment, and only incidentally for our edification; and that many a potential music lover is frightened away by the solemnity of music’s devotees. They would make more converts if they would rise from their knees.
Such quiet wryness explains much, too, about why Deems Taylor becomes a sought after radio guest, not just on such exercises as the brainy Information, Please, or as the host of Radio Hall of Fame in the mid-1940s (during which run Paul Whiteman will be a guest performer, incidentally), but on programs in which he doesn’t seem to mind at all becoming part of the comic mayhem. He might not think to slip a whoopee cushion under the seat of a musical snob, but he might not be able to resist laughing at the lout who does, either.
Archie (Ed Gardner) flummoxes Taylor into hearing his minor masterpiece of musical mangling, “Leave Us Face It,” which he says is going to be turned into a symphony . . . which just might compel even the munificently tolerant Taylor to reach for the nearest rye bottle.
Miss Duffy: Florence Halop. Finnegan: Charles Cantor. Eddie: Eddie Green. Music: Peter Van Steeden Orchestra. Writers: Ed Gardner, Abe Burrows, possibly Larry Marks, possibly Lew Meltzer. (Note: File marks original date erroneously as 12 January 1944.)
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Vic & Sade: Beautiful, Beautiful Wallpaper (NBC, 1941)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Dining Out to Celebrate (NBC, 1944)
Romance: Elizabeth of Austria (CBS, 1944)
The Life of Riley: Riley’s Honeymoon (NBC, 1947)
Dragnet: The Big Tomato (NBC, 1951)
Father Knows Best: Sound Matchmaking (NBC, 1951)
Fibber McGeee & Molly: Citizen X Revealed (NBC, 1954)
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: The Duke Red Matter (Part Three; CBS, 1956)
Gunsmoke: The Boots (CBS, 1959)