“Mark Twain’s Music Box” & Cosmopolitan Twain

Tomorrow night – Friday, February 8th – at the Park Church in Elmira the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes will be performing “Mark Twain’s Music Box,” a program loosely based upon the music which Samuel Clemens chose to have programmed into the expensive customized music box his wife gave him as a birthday present during their extended visit to Europe in 1878. “Mark Twain’s Music Box” was originally performed in 2008 and is based upon an essay with the same title published by Kerry Driscoll that same year.

2008 essay which inspired music program.

Dr. Driscoll is currently a Professor Emerita at University of St. Joseph in Hartford, CT. She has also been a professor at Elmira College, a Quarry Farm Fellow, Trouble Begins lecturer, and consultant for both the Center for Mark Twain Studies and the Mark Twain House & Museum. Her most recent book, Mark Twain Among The Indians, was published last year.

Mark Twain Across the Indians

“Mark Twain’s Music Box” was part of a volume of essays, Cosmopolitan Twain, which focused on rescuing Twain from being merely “the American,” and instead presented him, as editor Ann Ryan puts it, as “competitive, skeptical, necessarily tolerant, multilingual and multicultural, frankly materialistic and acquisitive.”

Naturally, Twain’s cosmopolitan-ness was increased by the globetrotting he did during his maturity. The premise of Driscoll’s essay is that the music box purchased in Geneva for $400 ($9,500 today) is representative both of Twain’s absorption in cosmopolitan aesthetics and his anxiety about that absorption. Crucially, Driscoll argues that Sam and Livy’s European travels were, paradoxically, about the return home, when they could furnish their home with expensive and exotic purchases which would impress their Hartford neighbors, who the Clemenses, in typically nouveau riche fashion, were intimidated by and eager to please.

Sam’s concern with how the Hartford home and all within it would be judged by visitors explains why choosing what melodies would be programmed into his music box proved a difficult and lengthy task, one which he did not complete for four months. He feared that poor choices would reveal his uncultivated tastes. Moreover, Driscoll argues, these anxieties caused him to be disappointed by the finished product, even to the point of claiming he had been delivered the wrong music box.

Dr. Driscoll’s essay is based upon original research and explores many aspects of the Clemenses life in Hartford and Europe beyond the acquisition of the music box. Check out Cosmopolitan Twain from a bookseller or library near you! And come see the OSFL, in collaboration with the Center for Mark Twain Studies, perform “Mark Twain’s Music Box” at the Park Church.