Dreams & Realities: Reinventing American Music 1929-42

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Dreams & Realities: Reinventing American Music performed on March 12, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In his classic 1983 study Music in the New World, Charles Hamm characterizes the period from 1894 to the outbreak of the second World War in the history of American music as “the search for a national identity.” Hamm, like many writers before him, begins the discussion of this “search” with the controversy that erupted over Antonin Dvorák ’s endlessly quoted assertion that American composers should find their own voice by doing something other than producing bland imitations of European musical models. Dvorák had come to America to take over the National Conservatory in New York, but unlike many subsequent European composers who came to work in America, including Mahler and Schöenberg, Dvorák was enchanted by that which he regarded to be uniquely American. He did not wield the heavy hand of presumed cultural superiority as did many European musicians who worked in the New World. Dvorák students included Will Marion Cook, the African American composer who helped create the American musical theater; Harry Burleigh, another distinguished African American musician; and Rubin Goldmark, the nephew of Karl Goldmark and one of Aaron Copland’s teachers.

Dvorák encouraged his students to seek in African American and Native American music the sources for a new American musical vocabulary and sound. His example inspired Arthur Farwell, among others, who was a particular champion of Native American traditions. Dvorák was indeed prescient, in that the decades which followed his brief sojourn in American saw the emergence of jazz amid other American and popular folk idioms, all of which would eventually leave an indelible imprint on musical culture not only in America, but in Europe and elsewhere in the world. However, the struggle over national identity remained unresolved, not so much in popular culture, but in the concert music tradition. Among American composers, Dvorák proposition was not greeted with unmitigated enthusiasm. Quite to the contrary, prominent Americans ranging from Amy Beach to Edward MacDowell to Charles Ives took exception to Dvorák’s contention. To many of them, America had already developed its own voice through the ways in which the European musical heritage had been transformed in an American manner–particularly in New England–by English, Irish, and German immigrants.

The polemics of the early twentieth century regarding the “true” and “proper” nature of American music paralleled anxieties about American national uniqueness in painting and literature. America was, by any European standard, a young country marked by brashness, wealth, and superior industrial and economic achievement. The American piano had by 1900 become the world’s standard. After 1919, America, by virtue of its decisive entrance into World War I, emerged as a dominant world military and political power. However, American artists and writers continued to struggle with what seemed to be the overwhelming allure of European trends. These trends included modernism, whether in the form of Stravinsky’s work, or Dada, or Surrealism. At the same time, a new American culture, particularly the jazz and dance which emanated from New York in the 1920s, became wildly popular in Europe. For composers who saw themselves in a European tradition, the challenge was to find ways to bridge the gap between a vital popular culture that culture that seemed unquestionably American, and the prestigious high cultural traditions of a European character, which could also plausibly be argued to be American, albeit more evidently derivative.

External events helped to focus the identity problem and point the way to new solutions. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression which ensued radically transformed American life. To begin with, no American artist could avoid coming to grips with the economic and social crisis of the decade. Furthermore, the extent of unemployment and poverty foreground the knotty question of the purpose and role of art. Would music continued to be an art form in America, designed for concert-halls constructed during the gilded age and populated by upper middle-class citizens, self-consciously emulating habits of patronage and taste which took their model from English and continental examples? How could composers trained as “classical” musicians reach their fellow citizens on a large scale, in a decade in which the talking film, the radio, and the phonograph exerted an unparalleled influence and in which a nation turned to art and mass entertainment for solace, escape and inspiration? The stark realities of modernity and national soul-searching demanded an imaginative response within the arts, particularly music.

The composers on tonight’s program offer the listener a glimpse of a decisive decade in the equally momentous political and social shift in our nation self image. During the 1930s, Frederick Converse taught at the New England Conservatory. The movement “Manhattan” from his American Sketches is the earliest music in our program. It was written in 1928, just before the onset of the Depression. Of it the composer wrote that its improvement was “descriptive” without being “realistic.” Indeed, the optimism and exuberance of the 1920s are evident to the ear. Converse said that he sought to express “the activity and turmoil of the great city; the grandeur as well as the sinister sordidness of its various scenes. Through it runs a thread of loneliness which is often felt by sensitive souls in such overpowering surroundings.” Converse studied at Harvard with Julia Knowles Paine, who in turn had studied in Germany. Converse himself also went to Munich to study with Rheinberger. Perhaps motivated by the momentum of the twenties, he turned to the task of writing music which would mirror the distinctly American. American Sketches bears the subtitle “Seeing America First.” Converse’s most famous piece, Flivver Ten Million, written 1927 was a take-off on the staggering success of the Ford Motor Company’s production line.

The spirit of Converse’s music quickly became dated (despite the merits of the music itself), as can be inferred from Aaron Copland’s Statements, which was the next work in this program to be written. It was begun in 1932, although it was premiered a decade later in New York The work occupies a pivotal place in Copland’s cannon. He had gone to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, and the music he wrote during the 1920s represented a period of experimentation with modernism. Between 1928 and 1931, he and Roger Sessions sponsored a legendary series of concerts in New York devoted to new music. But in the summer of 1934, Copland underwent a political transformation. Moved by the Depression, his politics turned to the left. He was impressed by the radical farmers of Minnesota, where he was staying that summer and he realized that the people of America, not merely the urban intellectuals of New York, were attracted to socialism and communism, despite the surface dissimilarity to the voluble and highly intellectual New York radicals he knew so well. In fact, as Vivian Perlis recounts, Copland made the only political speech of his life to the farmers in Bmidji, Minnesota in the summer of 1934. It was during that summer that Copland completed most of the work on Statements. This piece represents Copland’s transition from his modernist strategies to the more populist work of the late 1930s and 1940s for which he has became most famous. In Statements, one can hear Copland’s initial efforts to find a modern voice which could reach a larger population with integrity. The work is designed to be the beginnings of the aesthetic bride Copland sought to build linking radical New York, modernist Paris and rural Minnesota.

Elie Siegmeister went further than Copland in terms of his politics. The New Deal, for all its merits, did not in the end effectively solve the economic problems of the decade. The war ultimately would. Siegmeister, who also studied with Boulanger, was a political radical. He became a member of the Composer’s Collective in New York, and wrote under the name of Swift. He pioneered the use of American folk music and was determined to write music that was both populist, politically inspired, and unmistakably American. He was, among other things, a founder and moving force behind American Ballad Singers. Like Copland, but more aggressively, Siegmeister returned to Dvorák’s exhortation, but extended the search for American roots beyond race, focusing instead on class. He found in rural America and the urban working class a powerful musical voice and a new public for modern composition.

Ruth Crawford Seeger, as her distinguished biographer Judith Tick notes, was a committed experimentalist and modernist. Unlike Copland or Siegmeister, she displayed less of an initial debt to European models. Ironically, however, the work on this program, written one year after the Siegmeister, was her only foray in the use of folk materials. Nevertheless, like Siegmeister, she worked on behalf of the documentation and dissemination of American folk music. Rissolty, Rossolty emerged out of a collaboration with the towering figure of the American folkrevival of the 1930s and 1940s, Alan Lomax. Seeger was one of America’s most gifted composers. Unfortunately her name remains familiar to the public primarily through her association with her husband Charles, the distinguished theorist and experimentalist composer, and her stepson Pete Seeger, who has unflaggingly continued the progressive political and aesthetic traditions of the 1930’s to this day.

Roy Harris, unlike Copland, became famous first during the 1930s. He was born on Lincoln’s birthday in Nebraska. He came from a working-class family, grew up in California, and worked for a time as a truck-driver. Unlike Copland or Siegmeister, both of whom were Jews who came of age in New York, Harris seemed quintessentially American, rather like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Harris preferred to think of himself as an autodidact, even though he too had studied with Nadia Boulanger and had been influenced by Arthur Farwell, who among other things introduced him to the work of Walt Whitman (whose poetry Frederick Converse brilliantly set in The Mystic Trumpeter in 1904). Harris’s first symphony ,entitled 1933, was premiered in Boston by Serge Koussevitzky. In 1936, Harris married Beula Duffey, later known as Johana Harris, a pianist with whom he collaborated for many years. The Folk Song Symphony, which was first written in 1940, revised in 1942, and premiered on the last day of that year, marks the high point of the intense effort which began in the early 1930s to integrate American folk music with symphonic concert music. This symphony has always stood in the shadow of its predecessor, the third symphony, the only one of Harris’s to retain a place in the current repertory.

Apart from the recurrent references to folk music in several of the works on this program, there is little question that there is something uniquely American about all the music on tonight’s program. Particularly intriguing is the way in which many of the composers, especially Seeger and Copland, seek to make a synthesis out of modernism and a recognizable Americanism. All of the music with the exception of Converse’s takes inspiration from a political commitment to the renewal of participatory democracy and social justice. In this sense, all the music written after the Converse work (although it as well in its own way) can be understood as political. The question then for the contemporary listener is whether this music still speaks to us today.

We have become accustomed to an overarching assumption of how the standard repertoire of music evolves. We are given to understand that many pieces of music are written and even well-received when first played, but few stand the proverbial “test of time.” Somehow, certain works are able to transcend their context and speak to succeeding generations and are played over and over again. When works such as the ones on this program are revisited, we are often told that the exhumation is either unjustified or in vain. The music which is revived which has not remained consistently on concert programs is understood to be- however well intentioned-simply not great music.

It may very well be that this commonplace assumption about how a canon of musical works comes into being is flawed. Perhaps there is nothing inherently objective or right about the “test of time”. The music for this program was not chosen simply because it fits a coherent historical narrative. There are many works from the 1930s and early 1940s which would have qualified just as well. No doubt there was and still is much well intentioned and well crafted “political art” that fails to do more than merely be political. That is not the case with respect to the works on today’s program.

Nevertheless, it is particularly instructive for us today to reexamine the art and music of the 1930s. Their reappearance in today’s political context can be illuminating to us as we grapple with today’s issues concerning art and politics. The 1990s have turned out to be a decade in which questions of national and ethnic identity have come to the forefront of national debate. We are inundated by discussions of multiculturalism. We hear much talk of social fragmentation and the loss of a coherent sense of America’s culture. Insofar as music is both a mirror and catalyst of cultural movements, it is particularly apt to listen once again to the music of the 1930s written by composers who struggled with comparable issues of identity and purpose. Whether one is interested in these political and cultural questions or not, as one turns the pages of these various scores, one cannot help but be impressed by the quality of the musical imagination in these works and by their ambition, integrity and freshness of spirit. They are worth hearing, not only as works of music in and of themselves, shorn of their historical context, but as expressions of American composers who understood their role as doing more than just writing music for the sake of career and fame, or music simply designed to entertain and win the approval a small group of self-styled experts. It is our view that these American works deserve to be heard and appreciated more than a half-century later as worthy and convincing contributions to a distinctly American twentieth-century compositional tradition.