Thursday, March 31, 2016

Wallace Sabine: A Tour of Symphony Hall, Part 1

We took a tour of Symphony Hall several weeks ago, on a blustery Saturday morning. I'm not sure why it took me so long to tell you about it. (Perhaps it's because I needed to stop steaming....)

I love music, but I don't go to many classical concerts, or concerts of any kind. For many years, I produced and house-managed a chamber-music concert series in Boston. Such a job requires hyper-alertness to potential issues and disasters on stage and in the hall. I'd listen with one ear to the violinist's shaky intonation while listening with the other ear to somebody snoring in the front rows, pondering how to intervene if no one sitting nearby did. I was always poised to race down the stairs with my flashlight to help people leaving in the darkness. (Even so, a few people fell, and I helped them back on their feet.) Such responsibility becomes ingrained, I found. When it's been your job to worry about everything and everyone before, during, and after performances, it's hard to stop thinking like a house manager and enjoy the music you've paid for with your ticket. I kept worrying, every noise distracted me, and I kept wanting to jump up to help people in concert halls for years afterward. Then I gave up.

I think I must be cured by now, but I still don't go to concerts, possibly because I'm lazy, cheap, or both. Music feeds the soul. I should do better.

But I went to Symphony Hall, and this is why:

How great is THAT? I knew it was hanging in the lobby and I'd been wanting to see it for months. I was thrilled. It's perfect. It was conceived and executed by his old friends and Harvard colleagues, and I'll bet anything that his widow Jane approved the text.

It is the only memorial Professor Sabine has around here, as far as I know, except for this modest one in Bigelow Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery:

I have some press clippings from when the plaque was unveiled, in late October, 1946:

His widow Jane, aged 83, in was his only survivor by then, except for a granddaughter born many years after he died. His oldest daughter Janet had died earlier in 1946. I wonder if their granddaughter was present for the ceremony; I hope so.

At the ceremony, Jane Sabine set the record straight as to whether the Classical statues lining the hall were purely decorative or had a purpose:

I was compelled to set the record straight myself after our tour guide old our group in no uncertain terms that Professor Sabine had taught at MIT. My husband and I had turned to each other in horror. The poor man knows more than he ever wanted to about the Sabine family and was well aware that young Wallace had arrived at Harvard as a student, became a professor after receiving his master's degree, and kept his post until he died. 

In Boston, you do not mistake Harvard for MIT or vice versa. So, after the tour, I quietly approached our guide, complimented her on her tour and then mentioned, as politely as I could, her error. 

The guide, who is an acquaintance, brushed me aside. "Oh, well!" she said, "There's certainly been controversy about that!" And before I could disagree, she turned her back on me.

In my hand was Wallace' Sabine's biography, opened to a relevant page. (I had to bring it; I couldn't have left it at home any more than I could have left my chin or my elbow at home. It wanted to go.)  

I was stunned into silence for a moment. Controversy? Really? Professor Sabine lived a mere century ago, not in the Middle Ages or the Pleistocene Epoch. His biographical facts are not lost in the sands of time like those of, say, Jesus. There's nothing even a tad murky about his past, his work, or his character; on the contrary, his life was filled with extraordinarily clear thoughts and actions. And there's a comprehensive biography, thanks to his wife. 

I couldn't believe what I was hearing from a BSO tour guide. Or that she refused to listen to me.

She quickly moved away. She had been letting her tour group have the run of backstage for a good 20 minutes at that point, but she suddenly decided it was time to herd everyone together to leave. 

To be continued


  1. You can walk up the street at the end of the month and enjoy this concert.

    Lovely setting, talented group.

  2. Hi - I think the controversy was an attempt to make MIT into a

    "Harvard Technological Department."

    1. But it was hardly a "controversy" over where he worked — he never left Harvard, never taught at MIT, and the two schools were never merged. But thank you for commenting!!

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