American Originals

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert American Originals, performed on Nov 17, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The evolution of an American tradition in orchestral music has always been beset by an equivocal attitude to what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. As a former European possession and a nation of immigrants, the United States initially derived much of its high culture from the old world. At the same time, however, European art and culture came to be viewed beginning in the nineteenth century with increasing suspicion and resistance. European traditions smacked of elitist and aristocratic societies, and therefore did not seem compatible with American democratic ideals. Americans were proud of their national character, which is even today still often equated with the middle-class Protestant values of the first group of European immigrants to dominate the United States socially and politically. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American painters and writers (many of whom studied in Europe) were torn between emulation of European traditions and the desire to express an original American identity.

In music, this tension was especially acute because music was particularly affected by the massive and continuous European immigration after the Civil War. As the United States began to embody innovation and entrepreneurship in all fields from commerce and industry to design and architecture, distinguished Europeans visited America to learn and partake of American originality. But music was not part of the nineteenth-century conception of the American achievement of originality; Europeans did not come to learn about music in the new world but rather to supply it. Music differed from other disciplines in America in several respects. First, it was a performing art that did not present linguistic obstacles for the performers; second, its most established stars were Europeans with European training; and third, its audience was constantly replenished from the waves of new immigrants pouring into the United States who carried their cultural legacies with them. As a result, the United States became a dominant market for classical music from Europe in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, the American market for classical music in the half century before World War I can be compared to the Japanese and Korean markets for classical music after World War II. Every major European performer and composer from Anton Rubinstein to Richard Strauss traveled to America, lured by big fees and enthusiastic audiences. Among the most spectacular occasions in American music in the nineteenth century was Johann Strauss’s tour of America. Theodore Thomas, the legendary conductor and builder of American orchestras in the late nineteenth century was born and schooled in Germany. Many Italian, French, and Scandinavian performers and composers helped build America’s great orchestras, conservatories, and musical life. The first conductor to perform in the United States’ greatest concert hall, Carnegie Hall, was Tchaikovsky. When the Boston Symphony Orchestra was founded, its conductor and most of its players were imported. James Levine is in fact the first native-born American music director in that venerable orchestra’s history.

Therefore as Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Dickinson were shaping a distinctive American literary tradition, those musicians and composers who wanted to discover an American musical tradition were facing a particularly complex problem. Some American composers of the late nineteenth century, such as John Knowles Paine and George Chadwick, remained faithful to their European training, and wrote music that discreetly displayed American subject matter (Rip van Winkle, for instance) brilliantly ensconced within the finest European symphonic traditions. Ironically, it was Antonin Dvořák (with the help of Henry Krehbiel) who upon his arrival as the newly chosen head of the National Conservatory in New York in 1892 pronounced that America should look to its own native traditions for its musical identity. Adding to the irony, he specifically mentioned as sources for these traditions the descendents of the United States’ two largest involuntarily displaced populations: the native Americans and the African slaves. But what Dvořák of course was really advocating was that Americans follow a firmly established European tradition in which Dvořák himself excelled, that of exoticizing the classical tradition by applying folk-music elements. For Dvořák, African American music could have the same invigorating effect on a base of European classical form as Moravian and Bohemian music did. But these appropriations do not make a new musical identity. Their purpose is only to enhance the old, established tradition, which is why the folk elements used before World War I did not even have to be authentic, but only sound appropriately exotic.

The composer, however, who answered Dvořák’s challenge in an utterly innovative and unexpected way, indeed a way that succeeded in self-consciously legitimizing a distinct American identity in music was neither Paine nor Chadwick, but Charles Ives (1874-1954). In personality as well as artistic career, Ives was the quintessential New Englander. The son of a band leader, Ives lived out a dream of success as a pioneering force on Wall Street in the insurance business as well as eventually becoming recognized as a ground-breaking composer. He was a radical democrat without sacrifice to his commitment to ideals of capitalist entrepreneurship, patriotism, and freedom of thought and expression. But like many Puritan democrats, Ives’s America was the one in which he had been raised and the one that he just missed: mid-nineteenth-century Connecticut, a world that infused him with nostalgia and conservatism. Both nostalgia and conservatism in his complicated personality found expression in Ives’s music. As Dvořák had suggested, Ives appropriated elements from non-symphonic, distinctly American forms. For Ives these included tunes derived from the New England hymns, marching band music, Yale football songs, Stephan Foster, and church organ music with which he had grown up. His use of these tunes created a refracted image of American identity tied to the post-Civil War era on the southern New England landscape. However conservative the ideology of this identity created from these tunes may be though, the way in which Ives utilized them demonstrates his unique brand of experimentalism, the innovative freedom that he so cherished in the America he knew. Rather than exalting the American elements in a traditional symphonic rendering, Ives used a collage-like technique that breaks open notions of musical continuity. He layered rhythms and sounds in a manner that transformed the tunes, the form, and the harmony of orchestral music. Familiar tunes made unfamiliar evoke shadows of recognition, which are fragmentary and uncertain markers in a thrilling, unpredictable river of harmonies and dissonances. Ives used the most nostalgic elements of American life to experiment in a way unthinkable outside of the United States. He became the architect of American musical modernism. He stopped composing in the late 1920s, and it was only years later that his originality finally earned him his proper due. Ives had an enormous influence on Henry Cowell, Aaron Copland, Bernard Hermann, John Cage, and the young Elliott Carter. Ives’s Fourth Symphony waited until 1965 for its premiere by the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. It is thus a fitting selection for the orchestra’s fortieth anniversary season.

John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) bears some similarity to Charles Ives. Carpenter also had a distinguished career in business as well as composing. Like Ives, his wealth and independence ensured a certain amount of license to do as he pleased. He was not an academic caught in a subculture bound by European tradition. He also shared Ives’s determination to find an original American voice in music. But for Carpenter, the basis of such a voice was not in a nostalgic, pastoral image of New England, but rather in the excitement of a country of advancement in industry and technology. Carpenter’s ideal America was located in its urban centers where astonishing varieties of cultures and classes mixed and new ideas formed, where the continuous work of commercial and social progress was made possible by the new buildings, spaces, and instruments of American invention. For Carpenter, the cultural universalism that existed no where but in the United States and which would come to dominate the twentieth century afforded the United States a stature equal to the greatest societies of Europe. That sentiment of equality with Europe informs his music. In a way, Carpenter is a mirror image in reverse of Charles Ives. Instead of transforming archetypal American themes within a radically new musical vision, Carpenter found American culture itself radical enough to invigorate a tired European tradition. Using contemporary and commercial elements, Carpenter tried to express what was different about modern American life; his originality rests in using American materials conventionally, thereby demonstrating the unconventionality of his America. (His efforts are distinguished from those of his nineteenth century predecessors who wished to show that American culture was as good as European culture because American arts resembled European art.) Carpenter however, partly because he was caught within a classical music tradition, never matched Gershwin’s achievements. Perhaps because of his reliance on ephemeral popular materials and conventional forms, he fell into obscurity. He is only now coming up for serious reconsideration, thanks to a timely new biography by Howard Pollack, who also wrote the leading biography of Aaron Copland.

Between these two counterpoints in American music, today’s program offers a third example of American originality in the work of Morton Feldman (1926-1987). Both Ives and Carpenter, though distinctly different in their approaches, were quite clear on what being an American meant to them. Privileged, successful businessmen, both expressed views of a society and nation created by their rebellious white Protestant ancestors. But for Morton Feldman, a product of the prolonged Eastern European Jewish emigration to New York, such a vision of the United States was distant at best. The intellectual environment created between the 1930s and 1950s by these immigrants, effectively described by such writers as Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe, was steeped in awareness of cultures, both European and American, which they did not find entirely satisfactory and sought to transform. The result in Feldman’s case, as in many others, was a radicalization based not in geography or nationalism but in temporality, a pan-national, pan-disciplinary idea of modernism. Morton Feldman was deeply engaged with the visual arts, and attempted to prove through his musical connection with abstract expressionism the theory offered so eloquently by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard in his great novelistic monologue Old Masters: ultimately it is impossible to separate the aural and the visual from informing one another. Feldman wanted to integrate the aesthetic ambitions of modernist painting into the writing of music; he went even further, and sought to invent a new way of visualizing and notating sound. Feldman’s use of time and sonority derived precisely from the notion of abstraction and non-objectivity that dominated the art and theory among the first generation of abstract expressionists, as well as their successors, the color field painters. If reading Emerson, Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott can help one understand Ives, then contemplating Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and the writer Clement Greenberg would be as useful in appreciating Morton Feldman’s project as a composer.

Feldman’s generation included the first American artists and writers of Jewish origin whose work entered the canon of that which is now considered quintessentially American. Indeed the achievements of post-war American painting dramatically overshadowed the European visual arts and shifted the center of gravity in what defined twentieth century painting and sculpture from Europe to America. In this sense, through their appropriation and extension of modernism (not necessarily American), the painter, writers, and composers of Feldman’s generation created an American tradition as consciously and viably as did Ives and Carpenter. When we try to understand and compare their three very distinctive contributions to the emergence of American originality, we find ourselves asking not only what it means to be American, but what it means to be original. Is American originality based on some simplistic concept of “being American”—whatever that may mean to anyone—or is it perhaps finally a relative concept, always evolving and reinventing itself in order to respond constructively to a changing world in which idealizations of national identity and dreams of universal art still to play a role?