American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Modernism in music during the twentieth century evolved in ways fundamentally different from the manner in which modernism flourished during the same period of time in painting and literature. Three central and novel techniques of modernism in the visual arts – expressionism, abstraction and non objective painting – rapidly became widespread and popular, despite the expected initial shock and critical rejection. These elements became absorbed into popular culture, advertising design and interior decoration. Modernism in the visual arts found the large and appreciative public it maintains to this day.

Likewise, in literature, the stylistic innovations of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce (and their counterparts in France, Russia and Germany) in gained a significant following among critics and readers. In fact, the continuing conservative tradition of realist painting and narrative fiction which h flourished alongside of modernism in literature and painting profited from the very success of modernism. The self-consciously progressive work of living artists and writers has dominated the discourse in painting and literature throughout the twentieth century, just as it did during the nineteenth century.

In the world of concert music, dramatic innovations emerged during the first three decades of the twentieth century: the emancipation from the idea of dissonance, and continuity and predictability in rhythm; polytonality; atonality and twelve tone music. However, these all had the effect of alienating the large audience for music inherited from the nineteenth century. Despite critical acclaim for these novel strategies for writing music, the twentieth century turned its back on this new music It embraced the world of concert music as a museum designed for the art of recreation. In this century, the performance of music from the past has held center stage.

Therefore, both the novel music of the century as well as the more conservative music by composers who retained tonality and traditional forms became part of a cultural ghetto. Today the audience for contemporary music is a fraction of what exists for art and literature. This fact presents a marked contrast with the state of affairs of a century ago. Dutiful and symbolic presentations– almost exclusively first (and therefore last) performances – of new music certainly have continued to exist. However, without the protective presence of the university, twentieth century modernism in concert music, from the perspective of American culture as a whole, might have become even more marginal than it is now. Furthermore, very few of the hallmarks of musical modernism have seeped into our cultural consciousness, whether in popular music, film music, or advertising jingles. The clichés of Mahler, and a few derivatives from Stravinsky and Bartok have made their way, but little else.

As this century draws to a close, this should not deter us from attempting to make the great achievements of musical modernism of this century, particularly in America, better known and better liked bye concert audience. This concert attempts to use the appreciation for the great legacy of modernism in the visual arts as an approach to this task. Perhaps the work of the musical peers of Mark Rothko, Agnes martin and Ellsworth Kelly (and by inference, of William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings) presented on this program needed more time to be accepted and embraced than the work of modernist painters and writers.

Indeed, the works on this program have been chosen to parallel chronologically the works on display at the Whitney museum. Beyond mere contemporaneity, the works on this program show how certain American composers explored modernist approaches which engaged a non-traditional and non-representational, almost abstract and angular surface within which the expressive possibilities of music could be extended in an evidently twentieth century manner. In some cases (e.g., the pieces by Steve Reich and Morton Feldman) the composers cultivated a direct link to the world of painting. All the composters on this program were leading figures in American modernism during the years 1930-1975. They were innovators whose works offer suggestive opportunities for comparison with the creations of American painters and sculptors who were their contemporaries.

Beyond the challenge facing all twentieth century composers to extend a pattern of musical innovation which began with Richard Wagner, the American composer has also felt compelled to locate his or her peculiar “American” voice in order to break from the overpowering hegemony of the European example. As in the visual arts, the impact of European modernism on Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century was decisive. The European influence in music would be renewed with the emigration of European composers to America in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The allure of the example of Europe, did not, however, relieve the sense of a burden, widespread among American composers, to find some sort of national voice. In the 1890’s, in part spurred by Antonin Dvorak’s sojourn in America, American composers, from Edward MacDowell and Charles Ives to Arthur Farwell and Rubin Goldmark struggled to reconcile their European artistic heritage with some construct of Americanism.

In this sense, the composers on this program were all motivated by three objectives which were not always easy to reconcile: 1) the desire to sustain the ideal of music as a universal language, inclusive of modernist ideas; 2) to embrace non European sources, from the African American, native American and Asian traditions; and 3) to assert some clear American identity. Henry Cowell wrote “I want to live in the whole world of music.” Yet Roger Sessions argued against “national character” as the “aim” of art. Aaron Copland and Ruth Crawford Seeger sought to carry forward Charles Ives’ assertion the American composers should be “interested in working things out for themselves to a great extent.” At the same time, just as Burgoyne Diller was influenced by Mondrian, Sessions and later Copland adapted Schoenberg’s twelve tone strategy and continued to work within European formal models such as the sonata and symphony. Like MacDowell, Sessions, Copland and Riegger all studied either in “Europe or with Europeans. In contrasts, Henry Cowell, the great inspiring experimenter, was trained in America and was invited to Europe in the 1920’s to present his peculiarly American innovations.

At this concert, the listener is being asked to respond to the musical results and to think of the strategies adopted by each composer as analogues to the more familiar path breaking attitudes toward form, materials, surfaces, the relationship between observer and object, and the purposes of art adopted by American modernist painters. Searching for precise parallels between visual modernism and musical modernism in America during the half century covered by the Whitney exhibition and this concert ultimately may appear artificial or futile, despite evident historical commonalities and linkages. But by comparing these American composers with their counterparts in art, rather than with their predecessors in music, a new avenue of appreciation and affection can be opened up to a vital powerful and too often overlooked American aesthetic legacy.