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Music and Democracy

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Sounds of Democracy, which was performed on October 11, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

During the past century—the hundred years since America entered World War I—what has been (and still might be) the connection between the essentially European traditions of orchestral and symphonic music and the ideals, demands, and predicaments of American democracy? The historical precedents of form and expression that preoccupied the American composers on today’s program emerged from a political world quite different from the American experience. Classical and Romantic concert music witnessed its significant development in a condition of un-freedom—a century of reaction and failed revolution—during which Europe remained largely dominated by monarchies that severely restricted a citizen’s political participation.

The impressive and predominant link forged between large-scale musical forms and politics during the second half of the nineteenth century in the European context concerned nationalism—the use of music to define and assert nascent and emerging modern national identities. Wagner and Sibelius are two obvious examples of this. American composers, however, faced barriers to any simple emulation of the European rhetorical manner of connecting musical expression and the articulation of modern nationalism. America, by 1900, was an unusual amalgam of immigrants, descendants of slaves, and surviving native populations. Not only was America a relatively young political construction, without a shared language or religion, but it was also made up of distinct regions and lacked persuasive, quasi-religious, unifying myths. Its leading post-civil war distinguishing symbols, particularly during the decades of mass immigration, were its founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. America was a land of laws, rights, and a government that imagined an equality of citizenship between those who were born on its land and those that acquired it later in life (with the exception of the right to become President). The legal rhetoric of the nation’s founding was a vision of an egalitarian democracy that offered to all the right to political participation, economic opportunity, and protection from tyranny, the fact and legacy of slavery notwithstanding.

Indeed, the career and biographies of the three composers on this program—all of whom knew one another—suggest this point. Sessions was the quintessential Anglo-American aristocrat, a scion of founders of the nation. Copland descended from a relatively early cohort of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to America who pursued a rapid and successful path to acculturation. Leonard Bernstein was a first generation American Jew of Eastern European origins whose parents negotiated the language and customs of their newfound national home with charming eccentricity and who remained (in contrast to Copland’s parents) evidently tied, in manners and mores, to the old country.

What kind of music fits the celebration of equal citizenship and love of freedom, extols the promises of democracy and the rule of law, and is distinctly American all without striking an exclusionary or nativist note? Copland’s 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man, which became central to his 1946 Third Symphony, was used during the bicentennial celebrations of 1976 to express America’s spirit. But as Byron Adams reminds us, during the 1950s that unique Copland sound—found in the powerful Lincoln Portrait, also from 1942—was under suspicion, and not only for biographical reasons (e.g. Copland’s liberal political sympathies). Perhaps its theatrical solemnity and restrained modernism made it too similar to certain types of “left wing” musical aesthetics—even those of Shostakovich. Copland, like his (and Bernstein’s) friend Marc Blitzstein and contemporaries Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill, had become skeptical during the 1930s of radical musical modernism. It was too remote and too hard for listeners. Modernism, despite its overt embrace of an inherent parallelism between radical progressive change in art and politics, actually created an intolerable distance between the masses and the artist.

Copland’s populism succeeded; works like Billy the Kid (1938) and Appalachian Spring (1944) made him the iconic voice of America at mid-century. And Copland’s populist brand of modern music never quite lost its association with a liberal expansive view of the nation—one associated with Lincoln and Roosevelt. Copland’s most famous and devoted protégé was Leonard Bernstein, whose music owes a singular debt to Copland.

But Bernstein, a committed and politically engaged liberal, was also deeply influenced by the confessional aesthetics of Gustav Mahler, a composer with whom he closely identified. For Mahler, the symphonic form was an essay in self-revelation; it became a chronicle of a psychological journey, both real and imagined. The aesthetics of Copland and Mahler meet in Bernstein’s Third Symphony. Although conceived and largely completed before the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, the symphony, owing to its theme and date of completion and first performance, was received as a musical evocation of a national tragedy, in which violence marred law and civility. Its emotions are raw and its musical fabric theatrical and direct in a manner reminiscent of Copland.

If Copland and Bernstein represent a populist modernism that maintained a distance from more radical musical innovations, Roger Sessions was America’s foremost proponent of an aggressive modernism. He was a lifelong proponent of the ethical necessity of maintaining a parallel between progressive politics and progressive aesthetics. The Second Symphony was written during the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, over two years spanning the president’s death and the beginning of the Truman era, and therefore the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War. The work is a tribute to FDR (a sentiment evident in the third movement) and the dedication came at a time when the consequences of FDR’s death were becoming visible: a shift away from the ideals of the New Deal, growing anti-communism, and a resurgent conservatism.

For Sessions, a celebration of the legacy of FDR required the same forward-looking approach to musical composition as FDR had brought to politics. Sessions regarded his commitment to the complex craft of the development of musical ideas and the extension of musical language away from the practices of late romanticism as consistent with a progressive and liberal agenda, just as Copland and Bernstein regarded the embrace of accessibility and tonality as essential to a democratic musical art. In the modernism of Sessions’ Second Symphony one finds a powerful evocation of American intensity and vitality. The first two movements are filled with humor, grace, and brilliance. The orchestration and rhythm are unmistakably both American and modern. The symphony’s uncompromising formal sophistication lends the work its magnetism, allure, and power. Even an eloquence similar to that of Copland can be heard in the Adagio, reminding the listeners of the sense of loss at FDR’s death that Copland and Sessions—contemporaries and friends—shared. But the last movement of the symphony returns, the grief at the loss of a great president notwithstanding, to the optimism, innovation, and brash ebullience of the American spirit audible at the start of the work.

From the vantage point of 2017, these three works point to the special challenge composers now face in the task of writing music that celebrates democracy in America. One of the central differences between autocracy and democracy is the way in which political leadership is construed. Democracy seeks to place law and the deliberative process (trial by jury, legislatures, town hall meetings, open hearings) above personality. Leadership by charisma or personal power is traditionally frowned upon in a democracy. The admiration Sessions expresses for FDR and Bernstein expresses for JFK were posthumous. There was no hint of flattery or currying favor with power. And the substance of the admiration was for the ideals these presidents stood for, and for their hopes for a more just and free country. Consider FDR’s Four Freedoms and JFK’s creation of the Peace Corps. And Copland’s work is not dedicated to any individual. It was written for the opening of an auditorium on the campus of MIT, and signals the enduring link between freedom and education, between democracy and the search for truth and the respect for the advancement of knowledge.

As we listen to these three works we need to recall that we now live in an era when the cult of personality around the holder of the same office as FDR and JFK overwhelms our respect for law and deliberation, challenges the ideals of tolerance, and contests the very premises of the conduct of science and advancement of knowledge. The three composers on this program each sought to celebrate their patriotism and allegiance to America by evoking, through music, a commitment to freedom and justice. They used divergent approaches to bring home a shared unique American sensibility regarding freedom and justice in democracy that we would be well advised to remember and cherish.

Aaron Copland, Canticle of Freedom

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert The Sounds of Democracy, which was performed on October 11, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Born November 14, 1900 in Brooklyn, New York
Died December 2, 1990 in North Tarrytown, New York
Composed in 1955
Premiered in 1955 at Kresge Auditorium, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Performance Time: Approximately 13 minutes

On May 26, 1953, Aaron Copland appeared before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) chaired the committee; the committee’s infamous chief counsel Roy Cohn was present. The anti-Communist crusader McCarthy called Copland to testify about his left-wing political convictions. Earlier that year, a right-wing congressman, Representative Fred Busbey, had agitated successfully to remove Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait from President-elect Eisenhower’s inaugural concert.

The stakes could not have been higher for Copland: just being summoned before McCarthy and his Redbaiting committee had an adverse though temporary effect on Copland’s career. Worse, the committee had the power to charge and imprison witnesses that they found recalcitrant. Although Roy Cohn aggressively tried to entrap him into admitting that he was a Communist “sympathizer,” Copland replied to such questions with calm dignity and refused to “name names” of his supposed associates. Both McCarthy and Cohn were completely ignorant about classical music; they had no idea of Copland’s international fame or his accomplishments. After the hearing, Copland jotted down some of his thoughts about McCarthy: “He is like a plebeian Faustus who has been given a magic wand by an invisible Mephisto—as long as the menace is there, the wand will work.” Fortunately for Copland, he was not recalled for further testimony before the Subcommittee.

Copland’s Canticle of Freedom, which was commissioned by MIT for the dedication of Kresge Auditorium, was completed in 1955. It was a direct, dignified, and noble response to McCarthy’s demagoguery. Copland’s biographer, Howard Pollack, has observed that this score “stared McCarthyism squarely in the face.” Canticle of Freedom is scored for orchestra and chorus. Copland cast the piece in a tripartite form similar to that of A Lincoln Portrait, with chorus instead of a narrator announcing the final section. The text comes from an epic poem by the fourteenth-century Scottish poet John Barbour (c. 1320–1395). When the chorus enters, it becomes clear that the dynamic rhythmic pattern with which Canticle of Freedom begins has its origin in the word “freedom” itself, so that both the rhythm and the concept of freedom pervade this stirring score.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Roger Sessions, Symphony No. 2

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert The Sounds of Democracy, which will be performed on October 11, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Born December 28, 1896 in Brooklyn, New York
Died March 16, 1985 in Princeton, New Jersey
Composed in 1944–46
Premiered on January 9, 1947 by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteaux
Performance Time: Approximately 26 minutes

Roger Huntington Sessions was born in Brooklyn and raised in Hadley, Massachusetts. His ancestors included Samuel Huntington, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the Rt. Rev. Dan Huntington, a noted Episcopalian Bishop of Central New York. Sessions noted, “I come from an old family and that is undoubtedly part of my life, because I realized that with that background I always had a basic sense of social security; I mean a security in American society.” This august pedigree extended to his education as well: Sessions studied at Harvard University, at Yale University under Horatio Parker, and privately with Ernest Bloch. Sessions was an immensely influential composition teacher, and he served on the faculties of Smith College; Princeton University; the University of California, Berkeley; and the Julliard School, among others. During his lifetime, Sessions received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rome Prize in 1926, and two Pulitzer Prizes for Music. He was also elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

William W. Austin wrote in handsome tribute to Sessions: “In all his works the vast range of his craft and the intensity of his thought are evident. . . . For those capable of appreciating his technique, the music is deeply rewarding.” One of the most rewarding of Sessions’ scores is his Symphony No. 2 (1946), which was commissioned by Columbia University’s Ditson Fund. It is touchingly dedicated “To the Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” An unusual aspect of the orchestration is the prominence of both piano and harp. Cast in four movements, the symphony includes a short, satirical scherzo as the second movement and a kaleidoscopic finale. Its heart, however, is found in its brooding slow movement. In his trenchant article on Sessions, Joseph Kerman singled out this movement for special commendation: “The sombre crisis before the ending (but not the ending itself) remains in mind as the focus of the whole symphony.”

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Leonard Bernstein, Symphony No. 3, Kaddish

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert The Sounds of Democracy, which was performed on October 11, 2017 at Carnegie Hall.

Born August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts
Died October 14, 1990, in New York City
Composed in 1961–63; Revised in 1977
Premiered on December 10, 1963 in Tel Aviv by the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein with mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel
Performance Time: Approximately 41 minutes

As Leonard Bernstein’s biographer Humphrey Burton notes, “Between 1957 and 1971, the year of the Mass, [Bernstein] completed only two works: the Kaddish Symphony (No. 3) of 1963 and the Chichester Psalms of 1965.” There were several reasons for this slim output: the pressures of a thriving conducting career; the challenges of responding to the American musical modernist aesthetics of the time, which favored Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique; and the composer’s own exacting self-criticism. Of these two works, the largely cheerful and extroverted Chichester Psalms has remained popular. In contrast, the Kaddish Symphony is seldom performed, partly because of its fierce, dark introversion and partly because it requires a narrator, a large orchestra, a soprano soloist, and a chorus.

Bernstein’s inimitable compositional voice pervades the Kaddish Symphony. Although it flirts with the twelve-tone technique, the piece is full of traits that characterize much of Bernstein’s music: glittering orchestration, tonal lyricism, and American dance rhythms. Unlike the Chichester Psalms, however, the Kaddish Symphony is shadowed by its composer’s ambition as explicitly articulated in the score’s narration.

Bernstein fashioned the Kaddish Symphony’s narration in the manner of the Book of Job, in which God’s decrees are harshly challenged. As Jack Gottlieb observes, “This Speaker’s text dominates the symphony and is woven into the fabric of the music (although some listeners have expressed the desire to hear the music without it. I, for one, find a few of its passages “purple” and some of its similes obvious).” For some listeners, the text’s self-conscious oratory proved to be an impediment; others were unruffled.

Although it was generally lauded upon its premiere in Israel, American critics lambasted the symphony when the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Munch, first presented it in the United States on January 10, 1964. Although the Kaddish Symphony was completed before President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, Bernstein reverently dedicated the score to his memory.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.