"You are a combination Santa Claus-grandfather figure, Arthur," Harry Ellis Dickson once told the subject of this informal biographical sketch. Fiedler was -- as usual-- not in a mood for pleasantries that day. "Disgusting, isn't it?" he answered. "I've reached that age when people tell me how cute I am. Or they want to kiss me. I should say no more often."
Clearly Dickson, associate director of the Boston Pops, has not produced the simple-minded, larger-than-life, incredibly nice figure that one finds so often in the first intimate memoirs of superstars. His story is not all that intimate, either -- although he was probably closer to Fiedler than anyone but his wife Ellen -- not because Dickson lacks the willingness or the writing ability but because Fiedler was not much given to intimacy.
"For thirty-seven years," says Ellen Fiedler in a brief, pungent prologue, "I was married to him. I adored him, but it wasn't easy. He was impenetrable, a curmudgeon, often a great burden to me, but he never ceased to fascinate me."
She was not alone; ultimately, he fascinated millions. Fiedler never really tried to cultivate a warm, cuddly image, although he would occasionally put on a funny hat to make an audience happy and he genuinely loved to chase fire engines. So did Ellen; it was a strong bond between them -- stronger, perhaps, than their children. When she first announced to him that she was pregnant, "he just looked at her and said, 'But I thought we were happy the way we were.'"
A larger part of the Fiedler mystiques, which is ultimately not destroyed but deepened in this uncompromisingly honest portrayal, was probably due to his composers and arrangers. Richard Hayman could take the most banal, formula-ridden pop hit of a given moment and immortalize it in a brilliant symphonis setting. Not only could Leroy Anderson apotheosize a lilting string of traditional Irish melodies or set jazz motifs in a sound-frame like Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings; he made original music out of the sounds of a typewriter, a syncopated clock, a cat's meow, even (in "Classical Juke Box") a record with a defective groove, repeating the same few notes over and over with a little clock to recycle the sequence. Fiedler encouraged these men and gave their music to the world through one of history's great orchestras. Unlike many musical idols, his real strength lay in the music, not the charisma; the substance, not the flash.
At first, Dickson reports, Fiedler "had no idea what the general populace liked in music, and he did not want them to run away. To assure success, he selected 'Stars and Stripes Forever,' several well-known operatic overtures . . . Sigmund Romberg's brand new hit, 'Blue Moon,' and a lighter classical work. Little by little, Arthur began bringing in symphonies -- one or two movements at a time -- educating the masses to what he believed to be the better things in life." In 1935, he gave his audience the acid test -- a cycle of all Beethoven's symphonies except the Ninth -- and scored "a huge success."
An important point was that, for hundreds of thousands of Bostonians, the better things in life under Fiedler's baton were free. He conceived the idea of an outdoor summer season in the heart of the city, where people could bring blankets and even a picnic lunch, stretch out on the grass and enjoy good music in a relaxed atmosphere. Today, the idea may seem simple and obvious, but it was revolutionary in the late 1920s, particularly in a city as conservative and socially rigid as Boston. Good music was for rich people; attendance at symphony (preferably on Friday afternoon) was a mark of social statue. Band concerts, certainly -- but a symphony orchestra playing outdoors without tickets? Inconceivable. Making it happen was virtually a one-man job against enormous obstacles from society, government and nature.
Fiedler raised funds, solved acoustic problems, reassured public authorities who feared riots, and braved "a host of weird things" that Dickson narrates with nostalgic glee: "Rain nearly ruined the instruments. We were invaded by ants, gnats, flies and mosquitos. On the night of July 5, 1930, a blue horsefly bit Arthur's neck, almost causing him to stop conducting. A bee popped out of Joe Wilfinger's violin. The orchestra suffered a mass of ugly red welts, and one trombonist was overheard by a newspaper to comment: 'This is one hell of a way to earn a living!'"
Perhaps, but Fiedler's combination of high performance standards and total anti-snobbism, presented to a mass audience, was a great way to build a public for good music. Today, Boston has one of the world's liveliest and most varied music scenes, and every member of that scene, from Joel Cohen's superb early music group to ysarah Caldwell's imaginative opera company, owes a debt to Arthur Fiedler. Because of his tours, broadcasts and records, that debt is shared by all musicians in the United States and a large part of the world. In his own wry, uncompromising way -- which honors Fiedler's example, though he might not have been happy with the result -- Harry Ellis Dickson has helped to repay that debt.