Common Ground: African-American & Jewish-American Composers, 1930-1955

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Common Ground performed on April 15, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In our day and age it is rare that any single “classical music” concert event can find itself caught in the web of a contemporary cultural and political crisis. We have come to regard concert life and the music of the concert hall as essentially matters of entertainment and aesthetic taste, entirely divorced from the nasty world of politics and social conflict. Even though there are some who welcome this sort of distance in terms of history, this has not always been the case. Musical life has been a significant part of political life. Chopin, Verdi, and Wagner are perhaps the most obvious examples of composers who regarded their work as vital to a community defined precisely in terms of its politics.

This concert was planned in the knowledge that over the past quarter-century a painful strain in the relations between Jewish Americans and African Americans has developed. However, the extent of the hate and deception exhibited in recent months was not anticipated.

It is hoped that this concert can contribute to the current political debate by presenting a moment of history when matters were different. Not nostalgia, but rather the exploration of different models from which to draw inspiration for the present and future is at issue here.

The composers on this program born into Jewish families who integrated African-American materials in their work–Gershwin, Gruenberg and Gould–did so in ways which earned the respect and admiration of their African-American contemporaries and colleagues. The composers of African-American descent–Price, Ellington and Kay–who integrated European traditions with African-American traditions, did so in ways which earned the respect and admiration of their non-African-American contemporaries and colleagues. There is perhaps no better indication of these reciprocal relationships than the use made by Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and others, of Gershwin’s theme, “I Got Rhythm.”

At mid-century, Jewish Americans tended to regard their African-American contemporaries as allies. Both communities experienced in recent and distant history oppression, discrimination, prejudice and the brutality of violence. The African-American community did not regard the Jew as the quintessential example of the American white oppressor. The facts of slavery and the disappointments stemming from the era of reconstruction were more recent than they are today. The idea that the poor and disenfranchised immigrant Jewish population that fled to America at the turn of the century and their descendants were at the root of white racism in America, was decidedly implausible.

The fact that European Jews were white enabled them to assimilate–to escape poverty and the ghetto and experience a security and prosperity without parallel in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. This has made the adoption within segments of the African-American community of the distorted rhetoric and lies of European anti-Semitism, seem reasonable today. Old fashioned anti-Semitism might serve as an easy way to explain to new generations the inexplicable and inexcusable: the failure of American society in the second half of this century to bring social and economic equality and justice to the African-American community.

The credo shared by all the composers on this program included: 1) faith in the social and economic potential of democracy and 2) the hope that neither a distinct white nor black identity would emerge, but instead a unique amalgam. More to the point, the Jewish-American composers represented here rejected the idea that they were prisoners of a heritage of something that was truly “Jewish.” In fact, they turned to the music of the African-American experience because it seemed to be at the heart of what they dreamed they would be part of: an America in which they could feel comfortable and celebrate. They had less interest in the New England cultural tradition with which Charles Ives was obsessed.

Furthermore, the notion that ethnic identity can be essentialized –defined as this or that in some seemingly authentic manner – and its ownership restricted to a single group, was foreign. A universalism, perhaps naive from our point of view (but blissfully so), prevailed. Jews did not resent the fact that Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre, played on the eve of Yom Kippur in many Reform synagogues, was written by a German-Christian. George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was not regarded as somehow invalid – as an example of humiliating exploitation. Florence Price’s overt adoption of the example of Dvorák’s New World Symphony was not seen as a betrayal of her identity as an African-American. Neither was Ellington’s music for the screen and concert stage seen as a concession to a dominant “white” culture. In this sense it is a poignant matter of irony that Ulysses Kay’s piece on this program won the Gershwin prize.

The works by Gruenberg, Gershwin and Gould reflect their conviction that the African-American experience was at the root of American cultural identity. There was no separate “white” alternative; no shred of white supremacist ideology can be found. Florence Price believed that the European symphonic tradition needed, for its own sake, the materials of the African-American experience. What is now sometimes belittled as a “male dominated” purely “European” expressive art was seen as a vehicle for the powerful expression of the ideas and sentiments of an African-American woman composer. Duke Ellington, one of the greatest composers of this century, sought to reach the concert hall public with his music without thinking that the concert hall was “Eurocentric” and thus subject to avoidance because it was not multi-cultural.

We need to be reminded that in our current way of thinking about these issues we have stripped both the past and the present of individuality and diversity. Just as there is no single definition of the “Jewish” neither is there of the “African-American.” There never has been. We have obliterated the true details of the past and turned the past into a self-serving caricature by which we measure the present falsely in the name of history.

It is hoped that in the encounter with the wonderful and partly unfamiliar music on this program we can be reminded of how things might be different. The idea of cultural diversity based on discrete units which are somehow ethnically “authentic” and unsullied by “the other” is a fraud. We are each predictable and unpredictable amalgams of many diverse influences. The seemingly scholarly claims on behalf of preserving one or another tradition are invalid because the traditions to which they refer are our own constructions.

If the art of music can play, as it has, a salutatory role in politics then let us acknowledge that it constitutes a creative common ground which mirrors the essential equality of each individual creator, player and listener; an arena where affection and respect (as evident in each piece of music on this program) can be achieved so that it can be broadened beyond the reach of notes played and heard.

Affection, honesty, curiosity and respect –reflected in the composer’s conceit that everything is at the disposal of the creator, and that nothing is off limits –are shown amply by two living composers who are deans of our concert hall tradition: Morton Gould and Ulysses Kay; two less well known composers from the past: Florence Price and Louis Gruenberg; and two of the greatest figures of our art: Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. May their music drown out the hate and violence with which we live and inspire us to create a new common American ground of our own making.

On behalf of all the musicians, staff and supporters of the ASO, may I express the hope that this will be more than “just” a concert; but an inspiration to all of how we might better deal and communicate with one another to make this city and our nation as truly human as the music heard tonight makes us realize is possible.