Uptown/Downtown: American Music 1880-1930

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Uptown/Downtown: American Music 1880-1930, performed on Oct 22, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The American Symphony Orchestra, founded by Leopold Stokowski as a way of supporting American instrumentalists and composers, is pleased to begin its thirty-fifth season by presenting a program devoted to American music. The program we have chosen offers a wide spectrum of American music from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all works closely associated with New York City. These compositions demonstrate the trials and triumphs experienced by American musicians who were committed to the enterprise of fashioning an American musical culture which could hold its own without apology against the daunting legacy of Europe–particularly German-speaking Europe, where all of the composers in tonight’s program pursued their musical education.

It is a truism to assert that by comparison to its European counterparts, America is a young nation. This country’s relative youthfulness, combined with the fact that it evolved substantially as a nation of immigrants, helped frame an issue that plagued American artists through the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century: how might the distinctly American be defined and expressed? Was there and could there be a unique American counterpart to European cultural achievement in literature, painting, and music? If the voluntary and involuntary immigrants who came to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought with them defined cultural heritages, discrete languages and societal traditions, what then would emerge, culturally speaking, from their interactions and their future in the new world? In literature, most American writers suffered from a peculiarly American form of what Harold Bloom has terms the “anxiety of influence”: the world of English letters was never far from the consciousness of American writers. Some, like Poe, James, and Wharton, mastered the greatest traditions of European fiction. But a distinctly American voice could also be discerned as the nation matured through the nineteenth into the twentieth century, particularly in the works of Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Cather, and Faulkner. That, however, did not dampen the sensibility that Europe remained the source an showcase of the highest literary achievement and refinement. One only needs to think of the many American writers who lived as expatriates in Europe during the twentieth century to remind ourselves of the persistent insecurity and ambivalence felt by many about American culture. The anglophilia of T.S. Eliot, for example, was an extreme incarnation of such cultural snobbery.

If the English language shared by Americans made identity a difficult issue for American writers, the American landscape did not make matters easier for American painters. Despite the achievements of the Hudson River school, American painters, perhaps until Abstract Expressionism in the mid-twentieth century, felt themselves in the shadow of both European traditions and European contemporaries. When we consider the canvases of Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, or Childe Hassam, our minds tend to drift immediately to the more famous contemporary French exponents of Impressionism. Even the work of the Ashcan school seems less interesting to us than historically parallel European movements. Twentieth-century modernism began as a European phenomenon. Decades later, when we look at the work of Burgoyne Diller from the 1930s, we easily detect the European influence, in this case of Piet Mondrian. Only in the 1940s did American art begin to seem distinctive to both American and European eyes.

In the area of music the circumstances tell a somewhat different story. In music, the influence of immigration would make its first and deepest mark on forms that would emerge as definitely American. That creative transformation is most evident in such phenomena as ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, and jazz. In large measure as a result of the influence of African Americans, by the end of the nineteenth century America had already developed original forms of popular music. But genteel music, both in the salon and in the concert hall, suffered profoundly–even more than music’s literary and cultural counterparts–from comparisons with Europe. In the arenas in which Europeans excelled–concert music–a uniquely American contribution developed more gradually and haltingly. Americans still remain suspicious of the capacity of a European art form based on aristocratic patronage to adapt to populist American circumstances. Concert music, more than painting and literature, still seems associated with the pretentious aspects of the ambition to become “cultured” in some vaguely undemocratic way.

When Antonin Dvorák came to take over the National Conservatory in New York in 1892, he urged American musicians to turn to African American and Native American roots to find a distinct voice (he was spurred on by the New York critic Henry Krehbiel). Dvorák ’s sense that American composers were too wedded to European models was well-founded. Two of the composers on this program, Edward MacDowell and George Chadwick, were typical. Their works reflect the indispensable European training that American composers of that era felt they needed. After studying in Europe, both of these men returned to America to teach: MacDowell at Columbia, and Chadwick at the New England Conservatory in Boston. The prestige of their work was enhanced by the fact that Chadwick had been a student of Jadassohn in Leipzig and Rheinberger in Munich, and MacDowell had studied with Joachim Raff in Frankfurt and Louis Ehlert in Wiesbaden. MacDowell’s career as a teacher and performer in Europe and his appearance before Franz Liszt lent him a special aura among Americans. Nevertheless, these composers tried to assert in the formats of the European symphony and concerto, an American sensibility, particularly in the use of construction of themes. Chadwick’s first works, particularly the concert overture Rip Van Winkle, despite its overtly American program, were embraced with enthusiasm in Europe as American realizations of European models. Given Dvorák ’s plea, it is ironic that the symphony by Chadwick on this program was chosen by Dvorák himself to receive the coveted prize of the National Conservatory in 1894.

MacDowell’s and Chadwick’s audible debt to their German mentors is pervasive, but when one turns to what is conceivably the other end of the scale in that era–the music of Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern, one realized that the gulf between so-called popular and serious music was no so great as it is today, and that the character of the melodies, the orchestral sound, and more ephemerally, the mood of all the music on tonight’s program can be perceived as emerging from a single source. That source is precisely the crossroads between the effort to be American and yet competitive with European standards. Victor Herbert was born in Ireland and educated in Germany, and came to America as a result of his wife Therese Foerster’s engagement at the Metropolitan Opera. Herbert played in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and began to conduct and write his own music. Like many immigrants, he became enamored of the peculiarities of American life and landscape and wrote all sorts of music ranging from marches to film scores (including The Fall of a Nation).

Herbert’s greatest achievements, however, were in the arena of popular musical theater. He wrote more than forty operettas, most of which had their premieres on Broadway. The most famous of these is Babes in Toyland (1903), based indirectly on L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Immigration itself was the focus of some of Herbert’s popular work; Naughty Marietta is about the relationship between an immigrant Italian girl and a man from Kentucky. Eileen, originally entitled The Heart of Erin (1917), is typically American in its self-conscious assertion of American-Irish solidarity with Ireland. Mademoiselle Modiste takes on another favorite subject also treated by Henry James (who played it out in a different social class and very different context): the relationship between a rich American man and a young Parisian woman. Herbert, a founding member of ASCAP, was an indefatigable popularizer of music and a staunch advocate of American composers and musicians. Using the same artistic heritage as MacDowell and Chadwick, he ventured to adapt another European model, the operetta, and create a bridge between American popular music of the nineteenth century and a different European tradition, equally indebted to concert music. His music clearly shows the skills of a composer well-trained in nineteenth-century European compositional strategies.

When one thinks of the influence of the Jewish immigration of the late nineteenth century to New York City on American popular musical culture, one thinks first of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. The patterns and sensibilities of the Eastern European Yiddish song seemed to be eminently adaptable to the world of early twentieth-century New York. But in American musical theater specifically, it was the earlier German-Jewish immigration to New York that played a decisive role. Oscar Hammerstein II’s grandfather, who founded the Manhattan Opera House, was born in what today is Poland, but which at the time of his birth was part of Germany. His formative years were spend in Hamburg, and he came to New York sometime around 1860. His grandson would collaborate with another musician of German Jewish descent who was born in New York, Jerome Kern. Kern also felt compelled to go to Europe for further training and chose to receive his advanced musical education in Heidelberg. Ironically, a larger number of his songs became popular as added numbers in American productions of European operettas.

It is a paradox in the evolution of an American music that what we now consider quintessentially American in spirit was developed by those who had every reason to consider themselves outsiders. Immigrants and t heir children articulated the sounds and styles on the stage that we now associate with Mississippi, Oklahoma, and the West. Two descendant of German Jewish immigrants wrote “Ol’ Man River” and other icons of vernacular American music. Jerome Kern’s greatest achievement was Showboat from 1927, a work which deals explicitly with America’s identity as a nation of contentious cultural intersections. Partly influenced by the very same compositional ambitions that compelled MacDowell and Chadwick, Kern pioneered the development of the American musical as an integrated form, with a coherent musical trajectory from beginning to end. He rejected the model of musical theater as a medley of disparate, popular songs. Despite the immense success which both Herbert and Kern achieved in popular mediums, however, they never lost the desire to make their mark in the hallowed European tradition of concert music, the world from which MacDowell and Chadwick never departed. Like George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, despite their successes, Herbert and Kern suspected they would only be vindicated in the eyes of history if they succeeded as “serious” composers. To that end, Kern agreed in 1914 to the creation of an orchestral suite from Showboat entitled “Scenario.”

All of the music on tonight’s program has a direct association with the cultural life of New York City. MacDowell, a pivotal force in the music department of Columbia University, was lionized by New York society. Chadwick, although based in Boston, achieved the singular honor of being recognized by Dvorák in New York. The tradition of Broadway and the American musical theater in New York owes much to Herbert and Kern. But to the credit of both American concert and popular music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the distance between Tin Pan Alley–the center of sheet music publishing in New York–which a century about was located between 14th and 28th Streets, and the more refined reaches of Morningside Heights or Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera, was, as I hope tonight’s performance demonstrates, far narrower than we might at first glance imagine. Perhaps as this century comes to a close, we will once again witness a new incarnation of the inspired creative influence of immigration on the arts in America and a convincing cross-fertilization between popular and concert music.