The American 1980’s

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The American 1980’s performed on May 22, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When Leopold Stokowski founded the American Symphony Orchestra over thirty years ago, one of his ambitions was to create a showcase for American musicians – including American composers. It may be hard to believe, but in 1962 the prejudice that Americans were somehow inferior to their European colleagues possessed considerable currency. Impresarios, critics, and public alike seemed to feel more confident with individuals with Slavic names, a German heritage, or French provenance. The notion was that they exemplified aesthetic “traditions” that were magically passed on from generation to generation. Within the realm of concert music, an American insecurity vis-à-vis Europe dates from the nineteenth century. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, a startling percentage of the members of major orchestras in the United States were from Europe. To this day we undervalue the American music written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There still seems to be some sense of surprise, for example, when a work by John Knowles Paine or George Chadwick is played and turns out to be very good.

In the post-World War II era, matters began to change, helped no doubt by the European fascination with American jazz. Leonard Bernstein and Van Cliburn are perhaps the best-known American classical musicians from the mid-century to have successfully overcome the prejudice. American composers, however, have had a somewhat tougher task than American performers, since the blossoming of American compositional talent in the mid-century coincided with an accelerating decline of interest on the part of the public in contemporary music in general. Too much of a remarkable repository of fine twentieth-century American music remains unplayed. Leopold Stokowski, like his counterpart Serge Koussevitzky, worked to bring American composers out of their second-place status. Both of them commissioned and performed a staggering array of new American works. In his later years, Stokowski turned his attention to assisting American players and conductors. The American Symphony Orchestra is the legacy of that effort.

In 1992 the American Symphony Orchestra invited Richard Wilson to become its first Composer-in-Residence. In this capacity he has planned a concert devoted to American composers that fits within the larger artistic mission of the ASO. Earlier this year we played a concert of two works by composers from the former Soviet Union. We believed that, beyond their compelling musical properties, these works could be understood in the context of the momentous decade of the 1980s, which witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In some ways, the present concert can be considered something of a parallel. The 1980s, the era of Reagan and Bush, had a coherence made up of such diverse phenomena as neoconservatism, the explosion of interest in minimalism, and junk bonds. Behind these obviously journalistic phrases, however, was considerable activity and exploration by American composers. This concert highlights music from that decade by focusing on the work of four composers at mid-career, all of whom remain active and are currently at work on new projects. It is a particular pleasure for us to break the habit that is commonplace in most orchestras: the nearly exclusive focus on first performances and world premieres.

There is a terrifying incongruity between the effort and energy required to write a piece of music and the reality that, if the work is heard at all, chances are it will be heard only once. Months and years mirror themselves in a few brief moments on stage. Works of visual art don’t disappear, and books can be forever. But pieces of music need to be performed more than once for them to have even a fighting chance to gain the attention and affection of listeners. We hope that we have the opportunity once again in the future to give works from the recent past their much-needed second, third, fourth, or fifth hearing and to continue the tradition, started by Stokowski, of supporting and encouraging living American composers.