ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
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
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.