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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Paul Fromm

Paul Fromm

But when was your 75th birthday?" we asked Paul Fromm, having failed to find a listing of one of the world's great music patrons in any of the reference works we had consulted. "No one knew it in Chicago, either," he said. "I tried to tiptoe my way through it." (It actually was on September 28, 1981.) His wry wit and profound wisdom are hallmarks of the man who, thirty years ago this spring, resolved to make his money in the wine business and spend it in music.

The Fromm Music Foundation was established in 1952 and the number of contemporary composers who have benefited from its largess is approaching the 150 mark from commissions alone. In addition, the Fromm Music Foundation, jointly with various musical institutions, has sponsored many concerts and festivals; has been a principal patron of the Contemporary Chamber Players in Chicago; has stimulated and subsidized recordings and radio programs devoted to contemporary music; has organized and sponsored fellowship programs in music criticism; has, from 1962 to 1972, funded the journal Perspectives of New Music; has sponsored since 1956, jointly with the Berkshire Music Center, the extensive contemporary musical activities at Tanglewood; and, with a view to perpetuity, has established the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, quoting John Maynard Keynes in its very founding statement: "The task of an official body in the arts is not to teach or censor, but to give courage, confidence and opportunity to artists."

Born in the small Bavarian town of Kitzingen, Paul Fromm recalls that "if you wanted to hear music, you had to make music." His family was musical and, by the time he quit school to go to work in Frankfurt, he had become a proficient pianist. "In those days, there were transcriptions for piano, four-hands of just about everything, and my brother Herbert and I had the repertory in our fingers and our ears. We were five children and, except for one, we all sang or played, so you see that music has been a lifetime passion. When I lived in Germany, I went to Donaueschingen every year and heard the music which was being written by Bartok, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and the so-called avant-garde of the time. We weren't passive consumers but active participants in music-making, and we were not the exception. Every professional person was deeply steeped in the humanities. The prospects of a new book by Thomas Mann or a new painting or musical work generated unbelievable excitement and made our adrenalin flow. Today we live in a technological society in which we can go to the moon without knowing or loving Beethoven."

The Fromm family's wine business was established in 1864. When the political climate of Germany grew increasingly troubled, an American client suggested that young Paul go to work for him in Chicago. He arrived on July 4, 1938, and, witnessing the Independence Day festivities, thought that revolution had broken out. Six months later, he began his own firm on the $1500 savings he had been able to bring out of Germany. Here, in the New World, Paul Fromm began to cultivate his twin legacies: the wine importation business and his total commitment to music, and most particularly the music of his own time. "It is not enough to support the artist," Fromm says. "It is even more important to nourish the artistic spirit. Our composers over the last thirty years must have felt lonely at times. We have tried to make them feel that they are not alone in the world. We do concern ourselves with individuals and individual issues, rather than with anonymous aspects of cultural life."

Was it not tricky, we asked him, to exercise so much judgmental responsibility? How does one determine what is beautiful? "If you are in search of masterpieces, and if you weigh the music you hear on the illusory scale of masterpiece probabilities, I would have to say that the masterpiece will always elude you, because posterity must make the ultimate judgment. The only reliable tool to assess intrinsic artistic merit is historical perspective."

Composers today generally support themselves from activities other than composing. Most teach, having found an economic haven in academia. We asked if he thought this has been good for them. "I doubt it. We give them economic security, but we also quarantine them in a world which has no connection with the real world. The environment of the university is probably not the most wholesome. Even within its confines, the composer is not given a forum outside of the parameters of the music profession. But, do we want our composers to starve to death?"

Paul Fromm's illuminating remarks to the governing boards of the Boston Symphony Orchestra were reprinted under the title "The Role Of Symphony Orchestra Boards" in Symphony Magazine (October/November 1981). He stated: "In the last analysis, music exists for the audience." He amplified: "Audiences are never homogeneous. There's something almost mystical about them. In the long run, though, audiences must always be reduced to individuals, because the artistic experience gives rise to individual response. The performer's function is to inform people, to involve them. But, as Chekhov wrote in a letter, `You cannot bring Gogol to the people; you must bring the people to Gogol.' What now passes for music education is often limited to Christmas carols and marching bands. A humanistic society accepts its responsibility to teach music as a fundamental component of education."

Fromm has clearly formed ideas on the do's and don'ts of programming. "We should not play unproven contemporary works in juxtaposition with the masterworks of the past., In exactly the same way, it would be unfair to present to the public a portrait of Beethoven by playing his feeble Battle Symphony on a program with The Rite of Spring. The only way to integrate 20th century music into the mainstream is for performers and conductors to play contemporary music which they really love. The wholesale diffusion of contemporary music is really not a commitment, but almost like social aid based on the concept of charity to the poor. That's O.K. for social work, but not for cultural support. Think of the great conductors of the past, of Bruno Walter, or Beecham, or Koussevitzky. They championed composers and played their works over and over again. That was commitment. That is the only way to establish contemporary repertoire. Let's begin with the early decades of our century, and let this music serve as a frame of reference which will lead us up to the present."

Paul Fromm cannot imagine "a good life" which is not steeped in "humanistic aspiration" and fears that a society without the broadbased ideological tenets of humanism promotes robots and automatons. A good patron of the arts, he says, "must have respect for the dignity and supremacy of the creative personality. He must understand that music would cease to exist without constant regeneration and rejuvenation. A good patron must feel himself to be an active participant in the creative process. The musical experience is a unique interaction between composer, performer, and listener, based on a certain intensity of concentration. The patron should seek to facilitate that intensity."

Given his own guidelines, Paul Fromm has accurately defined and described the unique contribution he has made to the contemporary composer and, ultimately, to the spirit of the music of our time.

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