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Wall Street Rags and Riches

A parallel survey of the historical soundtrack and stock market crashes reveals that musicians are not deaf to the beat of the financial markets, the euphoric crescendo and inevitable diminuendo of boom and bust, the ecstatic coloratura of good times and the gloomy introits to bad. Financial indices reflect, even if in inverse proportion, the universal demand for healing song when things go bad.

How else to explain the fact that the resounding collapse of 1929 led seamlessly into one of the great years of American popular song: 1930 yielded Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on Mind,” Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” and Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale”—to name just a few. There’s also Harold’s Arlen’s “Get Happy.” Composed in 1929 and published the following year, the song might be heard to respond, if indirectly, to depression, economic or otherwise. Coupled with Ted Koehler’s bouncy lyric, the music is almost ridiculously optimistic, though it is not the Secretary of the Treasury (then the tax-evading tycoon Andrew Mellon), but the Holy Ghost that provides the necessary stimulus package:

Forget your troubles c’mon get happy,
you better chase all your cares away.
Shout hallelujah c’mon get happy
get ready for the judgment day.

Good humor mixes with apocalyptic for this much-needed palliative for those newly dark times: the music and lyrics are all about diverting the listener from the cruel realities of the present.

Music has buoyed markets for as long as they have existed. The greatest musician of the Dutch Golden Age, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck had already been dead fifteen years by the time the tulip craze imploded in 1637, but his music remained popular at the time of the crash. Sweelinck had made himself famous in part by playing organ concerts featuring variations on secular dance tunes in the Old Church in Amsterdam as traders strolled below, making deals that included rampant speculation on tulips. That’s why I’ve always heard in the insouciant charm of his variations something of the effervescent thrill of high-risk stock trading.

The Old Church was then, as now, in the heart of Amsterdam’s red-light district so that these schemes were forged with sex for sale just outside the unconsecrated walls. (In the reformed church, religious buildings became sacred only when the Word was present—a convenient theological principle that allowed the enterprising Dutch to make multi-purpose use of ecclesiastical edifices.) That the secular songs treated by Sweelinck often had lascivious texts—implicit in Sweelinck’s instrumental elaborations of them — confirms that his performances were energized by the same magnetic field that binds sex and money. Stock-jobbing and prostitution offer kindred, and sometimes conjoined, forms of arousal.

Before the advent of the Euro, Sweelinck’s proud portrait graced the ten guilder note on what was then Europe’s most colorful currency. This was an apt commemoration for the Orpheus of Amsterdam’s vital contribution to culture and commerce—an artificial distinction for at least this one entrepreneurial Dutchman.

Similarly, I like to think that Handel penned the music for the South Bubble Sea, which burst in August of 1720, puncturing a host of similarly corrupt stock schemes across Europe.

The bubble was born with The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, a curiously far-reaching document that concluded the War of the Spanish Succession. One of its terms granted the South Sea Company exclusive British trading rights in the Atlantic slave trade between West Africa and the Americas. The scheme was set up by the Lord Treasurer, Robert Harley, to help service the massive deficits run up during the war; holders of short-term government debt were convinced to take shares in the new company.

Only two years in London, Handel was called upon to produce the necessary commemorative music for the religious service to mark the end of the war and the signing of the treaty; his so-called Utrecht Te Deum  was duly performed in St. Paul’s Cathedral in July of 1713 in all its triumphal splendor. But the work’s sublime pronouncements of righteousness and manifest destiny masked the dark secret that a brutal enterprise carried out “beyond the seas” propped up the military-commercial complex at home.

Thus Handel launched the South Sea Bubble with his trademark racing strings, trumpet blasts, and choral acclamations; his music never stopped accompanying the work of Empire, from his own time and into our own. The seemingly sincere expressions of individual thanks delivered by the soloists and the collective rapture of mighty choruses borne aloft on wings of magisterial counterpoint into St. Paul’s famous dome: these were the eternal sounds of peace and prosperity for a chosen people. And these divine reverberations only confirmed for the numerous South Sea speculators attending the service that God, too, was a shareholder.

In its all-consuming reach, the South Sea craze resembled the heady days of the winter of 1636-7 when tulip futures were available in virtually every Dutch tavern in the land, and the early fall of 1929 when taxi drivers and maids were watching the ticker tape as eagerly as were company presidents.

It would have been surprising if Handel hadn’t gotten into the act, too. He invested relatively early in South Sea stock, probably around 1716, and fortuitously sold in 1718, well ahead of the crash of August 1720, though also before the ten-fold increase that inflated the bubble over the first half of the year, when the frenzy swept across the entire nation and all its classes.

While Handel escaped the financial carnage, his patron during the 1710s, James Brydges (Marquess of Canarvon and later Duke of Chandos) did not. Brydges had accumulated his vast wealth as paymaster-general in the War of the Spanish Succession, and then became a significant investor in the South Sea Company. Confidently treading the well-worn insiders’ path that leads from a killing in war to an even bigger killing in peace, Brydges now turned to exploiting the very war debt he had helped balloon.

It was at Cannons, Brydge’s princely house in Edgware on the then-outskirts of London that Handel’s lovely pastoral entertainment Acis and Galateawas performed in 1718 at the height of good times. The music smiles with much that is tranquil and pleasant, but trouble soon strides into the story in the form of a monocular giant, who, spurned by Galatea, kills her lover, the shepherd Acis. I like to hear in this evocation of death lurking in arcadia as a portent of the crash to come: the mascot of shattered share prices should not be the brute bear, but the one-eyed, two-legged, skull-smashing phallus, Polyphemus bellowing Handel’s “I rage, I melt, I burn.”

When the South Sea bubble burst Brydges was ruined, hanging tenuously on to his house and status by marrying into a dowry of 40,000 pounds sterling. But Brydge’s heir inherited only debt, and soon after the Duke’s death in 1744, the magnificent Cannons was demolished.

It strikes me as oddly fitting that the Harvard Business School is home to the South Sea Bubble Collection. The riot of engravings and hilarious songs spawned by the crisis can be trawled through on-line at great length. The homepage greets visitors with the words “Sunk in Lucre’s Sordid Charms”—a motto which could just as well apply to the up-and-coming schemers of Harvard Business School as to the South Sea speculators of yore.

At the time of the 1720 crash the great lords of England were organizing another stock company: the Royal Academy of Music, which was to bring Italian opera back to London after a short hiatus. In spite of the financial difficulties faced by many of its aristocratic shareholders, the enterprise went ahead, with Handel at its artistic helm. Opera was expensive, star singers most of all. Yet the Italian greats were imported at vast cost, and the aftermath of the bubble proved to be opera’s greatest period in London. The retrenchments pursued by the Metropolitan Opera House after the 1929 crash, when outraged singers were asked to take a ten percent pay cut, were never inflicted on Handel’s post-bubble casts.

But this too was a kind of madness: the great leading man Senesino, the castrato who premiered the title role of Handel’s Giulio Cesareamong many other important parts, returned to Italy after his long London sojourn and built a lavish mansion with his takings. Over the doorway he inscribed the motto: “this house was built on the folly of the English.”

Though the movie musical fed a mass market far different than that of Italian opera in early eighteenth-century London, the appeal of opulent entertainment even, or perhaps especially, during economic downturns unites Handel and Busby Berkeley, whose career was born with the Great Depression and flourished over its course.

While the relationship between music and markets is a complicated one, the correspondences between them are far from random. It is not merely the zeitgeist that accounts, for example, for the appearance John Philip Sousa’s most famous march “Stars and Stripes Forever” in the same year as the Panic of 1896, which brought with it an acute Depression. On the same day that William Jennings Bryan delivered his Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in July of 1896, a spontaneous display of flag-waving erupted in the New York stock exchange. The long-time broker, H. R. Halsted, who later died of food poisoning, procured what the New York Timesaccount called “a large American flag.” As Halsted began marching around the boardroom, “instantly cheers for the flag arose, and fully 150 brokers fell into line behind the standard bearer and marched around the room three times. Mingled with frequent cheering there were cries of ‘Give us sound money!’ ‘Down with populism!’ ‘The American flag against the red!’ Down with the Anarchists!’ &c.” (How different is the present-day attitude on the floor of the exchange each time soft-money in the form of “quantative easing” comes sluicing in!

An alliance of monied Democrats and Republicans now distantly familiar to us formed quickly: “Members of the Bankers and Brokers’ Republican Campaign Club had a large supply of McKinley buttons, and they found plenty of Democratic brokers willing to wear them.” Even trading was halted for the enactment this outpouring of fiscal responsibility and nationalist sentiment.

Is not the proper music for these nineteenth-century brokers in lock-step Sousa’s celebrated march, just as it could well have been for the draping of the huge stars-and-stripes across the Exchange after September 11, the brightly colored, super-thin, anti-terror prophylactic that still sheathes the erect columns of the building’s neo-classical facade? Composed in a year of financial disaster, Sousa’s greatest hit is the patriotic hymn of unbridled capitalism; whether urged on by macho trombones or cheery piccolos, this America marches unwaveringly towards a brighter future, if not brighter for everyone, then certainly for the captains of the financial industry and their faithful lieutenants.

In contrast to music historians and festival organizers, who habitually capitalize on anniversaries, market watchers steer a wide course around such commemorations, since they inevitably direct thoughts towards the cyclic nature of markets and the unavoidable crash around the corner. Thus the Panic of 1907, when stock prices dropped by 50 per cent, received hardly a nod during its turbulent hundredth anniversary year. Maybe next year the South Sea Bubble will get its due, though with Brexit in the mix that may be to conjure the dark side of the zeitgeist.

Looking back musically, we can still see a bright orange cone marking this deep pothole in America’s golden pavements. Composed in the wake of the Panic, Scott Joplin’s “Wall Street Rag” appeared in 1909 when confidence in the markets had been largely restored.

The unbridled, if blinkered, gung-ho of Sousa gives way to a good deal of doubt. Joplin was also adept at playing the patriotic card; the cover of his “Nonpareil Rag” of 1907 shows Uncle Sam unfurling an American flag. But Wall Street registers a much wider range of emotion, even fears, though it, too, never makes claims for great profundity.

The epigrammatic opening of Joplin’s Wall Street is cast in “Very Slow March Time” rather than the “Slow March Time” of so many of the composer’s other two-steps and rags. It’s as if the poised brightness of these other pieces has been transformed into a dirge; indeed the cover of “Wall Street”  looks down towards Trinity Church, and the dark-suited mob assembled in front of the Stock Exchange looks as if it has gathered for a funeral. (The brisk tempo of the allegedly original Joplin piano roll, recorded on a modern instrument and released in 2008 by Editions Milan Music, is a wrong-headed application of the hundred-year-old technology; as he did on many of his printed scores, Joplin enjoined the buyers of his music in the starkest terms not to rush: “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast!”)

The rag’s opening section, “Panic in Wall Street” depicts the “Brokers feeling melancholy.” Nowadays, no one would think to ascribe such an introspective, contemplative state to momentarily impoverished Wall Streeters forlornly nursing their martinis and patting their suit pocket to check for the reserves of pharmaceutical cocaine or opioids (and thinking it too bad that Purdue Pharma is not a publicly traded company, and if so, wishing they had at last sold it short). It is precisely Joplin’s elegant handling of this rarefied sentiment that sends a classy strain of tubercular European salon music wafting over the manic, money-hungry stone and asphalt caverns of New York’s financial district. There is a subtlety here that Sousa had no time or talent for.

The next section of the rag moves from these shapely Chopinesque chromatic inflections and gracefully sliding parallel figures to the rollicking right-hand chords and thundering bass octaves of “Good times coming.” I’ll bet Joplin had Sousa in his ears for this. Soon enough, of course, “Good times have come” and Joplin focuses his musical material in the middle-range of the piano, where the breathless repetitions gather a locomotive’s momentum.

The rag closes with financial worries chased away. Now even the greedy have time for entertainment. Re-enriched, Wall Street can let itself have fun again: “Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares.” The left hand romps along as the right hand ascends to the top of its compass, like the surging Dow. The carefree and poor, as if unaffected by the cycles of the market, and never burdened by the heavy responsibilities of steering the economy, offer up their carefree song for the celebration of the financiers. Thus Joplin feeds the myth: what’s good for Wall Street is good for America.

But the final section is ambiguous. The rag does not embrace the system without some qualms. “Genuine negro ragtime” invokes a notion of authenticity—of noble savagery—that the high-collared brokers can never attain: the dividends of pleasure that only music can pay are never taxable.

Yes, Joplin wanted to make a buck, too. In 1899, He negotiated a royalty of a cent per copy of his “Maple Leaf Rag,” a deal that brought him some $360 a year for the rest of his life. His publisher made a lot more money out of the hit than Joplin did, and he he was often in financial distress. The outburst of African-American joy after a black period in the markets wants to make us believe that way down at the bottom of the economic heap someone will always be singing and dancing,

Still, “Wall Street” does what Wall Street wants: it consoles in bad times and rejoices in good. In spite of the superficial attempt to convey social unity across class and race, however, the surreal concluding tableau of Joplin’s rag, with its wealthy whites dancing in front of the stock exchange to joyful black music, cannot fully divert our ears and eyes from the more fundamental, and still operative, truth conveyed by this final image: the negroes have the rags, the brokers the riches.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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