Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Who Was M. D. Herter Norton?

by Michael Ochs

Every musicologist is familiar with the firm of W. W. Norton, publisher of the time-honored Music in Western Civilization by Paul Henry Lang, published in 1941 and actively in print for 65 years; Donald J. Grout’s 1960 History of Western Music, whose ninth edition is due this spring; The Enjoyment of Music by Joseph Machlis (whose immigrant father was a typesetter for a Yiddish newspaper), published in 1955 and now in its eleventh edition; Nicolas Slonimsky’s first book, Music Since 1900, a tome of some 600 pages whose sixth edition of 2001 (published by Schirmer Reference) had doubled in length; and the eminent period histories of Western music begun in 1940 with Gustave Reese’s Music in the Middle Ages and concluded 69 years later by Daniel Heartz’s classical-era trilogy covering 1720 to 1802.

But how did the firm named for its co-founder, William Warder Norton, ever get into the business of publishing such “books that live in music,” a phrase the company used for many years? The dedication in my well-worn copy of Reese’s Music in the Renaissance provides a clue: “To M. D. Herter Norton, who prompted the writing of this book and its predecessor.” So who was this M. D. Herter Norton anyway, W. W.’s father? brother? son? As it turns out, “M. D.” was a fine violinist, a respected translator, and the co-founder of W. W. Norton & Company. Known to her friends as Polly, Margaret Dows Herter Norton was also W. W.’s wife.

Warder and Polly Norton
(W. W. Norton & Co.)
The Nortons established the company in 1923, and in fall 1926 issued “A First Catalogue of Books,” listing all their thirteen titles, including The Meaning of a Liberal Education; Psychology; Behaviorism; and Industrial Psychology. Several books were aimed at “busy people today, with limited time for reading, [who] want their information in as concise a form as possible.” The books were said to “slip conveniently into the pocket and . . . may be had for only a dollar a volume.” By this time, Polly had already published The Art of String Quartet Playing with Carl Fischer, Inc., prompting words of praise from H. L. Mencken, among others.

The company’s first music book appeared in 1927, a translation by Polly and Alice Plaut Kortschak of Paul Bekker’s The Story of Music: An Historical Sketch of the Changes in Musical Form. Bekker was an important German music critic, and Norton later published his The Story of the Orchestra. Alfred J. Swan, whose field was ancient Russian Orthodox chant, contributed Music 1900–1930, whose last chapter must have been written with great prescience given that the book came out in 1929. The 1930s saw three books by pianist Olga Samaroff Stokowski, the first woman to debut at Carnegie Hall, performing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. (The colorful Samaroff, born Lucy Mary Agnes Hickenlooper in San Antonio, Texas, was divorced from her second husband, Leopold Stokowski, in 1923.)

Other Norton writers from the 1930s include Carlos Chávez and Herbert Weinstock, co-authors of the curiously titled Toward a New Music: Music and Electricity; David Mannes, co-founder of the eponymous College of Music; David Ewen; Douglas Moore; Ernst Krenek; and ethnomusicologist Helen H. Roberts, who wrote on ancient Southern California Indian songs. The Young Cosima, a novel about the daughter of Franz Liszt and second wife of Richard Wagner, was the product of “Henry Handel Richardson,” pen name of the successful writer Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson. That five music books from this fledgling publisher were written by women can surely be attributed to the influence of Polly Norton.

But Polly Norton’s publishing of other people’s books was only one part of this multifaceted woman’s accomplishments. Beginning with Stories of God in 1932, she herself translated and published, under Norton’s imprint, nine volumes of works and letters by Rainer Maria Rilke. (Her Rilke translations have been set to music by George Perle, David Diamond, and others.) She also translated Walter Wiora’s The Four Ages of Music, two books containing MGG (Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart) articles on historical eras by Friedrich Blume, and several non-music books. And she teamed up with composer Roy Harris to arrange Bach’s Kunst der Fuge for string quartet, first recorded by the Roth Quartet in 1935.

Less well known is her involvement in the early years of the American Musicological Society. She wrote about the founding of the Society in the first issue of its Bulletin, whose entire run from 1936 to 1948 she edited. She then served for ten years on the editorial board of its successor, the Journal of the American Musicological Society, writing the journal’s very first review. (All the other original board members have highly recognizable names: Strunk, Broder, Coopersmith, Einstein, Grout, Kinkeldey, and Sachs.) All the while, she co-authored, edited, or translated articles for the The Musical Quarterly by such luminaries as Marc Pincherle, Georges de Saint-Foix, Henri Prunières, Willi Reich, Karl Geiringer, Arthur Mendel, and Hans David.

Warder Norton died in 1945 at the age of 54. Polly later remarried, and in the 1950s generously transferred control of W. W. Norton & Company to its employees, who must surrender their stock when they retire or leave. Now in its 91st year with a staff of four hundred, the firm stands as the largest and oldest publishing house owned wholly by its employees. It lists some 250 music books in print or forthcoming, from Walter Piston’s Counterpoint (1944) to Liel Leibovitz’s A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen (April 2014). More about Norton’s history may be found HERE

Michael Ochs is former Richard F. French Librarian at Harvard and past music editor at W. W. Norton & Company. He recently completed a piano-vocal score of Di goldene kale (The Golden Bride), a 1923 Yiddish-American operetta, for a concert performance by the National Yiddish Theater–Folksbiene in May. A critical edition of the full score will be published in the MUSA series: Music of the United States of America.

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