An American Biography: The Music of Henry Cowell

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert An American Biography: The Music of Henry Cowell, performed on Jan 29, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This evening’s concert goes to the very heart of the original mission of the American Symphony Orchestra. American Symphony’s founder Leopold Stokowski was a controversial figure, looked down upon by those who considered his style and approach to music to be vulgar, and his self-invented personality too flashy and artificial. But oddly enough, that early icon of conductorial hair style actually had substance and principle—something that happens too rarely, particularly in the world of classical music. For all his commercial success and reputation as a Hollywood figure, Stokowski was from the outset a persistent innovator and explorer. He may always not be remembered for particular interpretations of masterworks, but he certainly will be remembered as one of the creators of the modern standard of orchestral sonority, the nearly technicolor lushness of the blended sound of the modern orchestra, still cherished today. Stokowski’s truly distinctive contribution, however, was his broadening of access to new audiences and his advocacy of new and unknown music. While at the Philadelphia Orchestra, and later during his tenure at the American Symphony Orchestra, he fearlessly presented new repertoire.

Stokowski’s presence in American musical life coincided with a cultural movement in music that mirrored the brashness of an America that had just taken its place as a major player in the world. When one reads the fine essay by Richard Teitelbaum that follows, one should remember that Henry Cowell was twenty years old when the United States entered the First World War. His career coincided with a time in history in which the America of his day was the China of today. The United States was growing rapidly and was at the cutting edge of industrial competitiveness. It had outstripped Europe and was on its way to becoming the largest economy in the world. During Cowell’s lifetime it would take its place as the most powerful nation on earth. For Europeans, Americans represented industriousness, competition, innovation; America was the future. While earlier generations of European intellectuals found ways to see the United States as backward and provincial, by the time World War I ended, America was no longer a plausible object of derision. Rather it became an object of fascination and emulation, and for that very reason, also a focus of anxiety. In the interwar period, the distinguished German critic and theorist Siegfried Krackauer pointed to the Radio City Rockettes to exemplify the dangers of spiritual mechanization of the human that powered America’s economic and political domination. Through music and film, America became a leading exporter of culture. Given the devastation that took place in Europe, European artists flocked to the United States for patronage and audiences.

It is therefore not surprising that while all this was going on, an optimistic spirit of innovation flourished in the arts in the United States. Cowell’s career coincides with the advent of American modernism in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Insofar as music in American life before 1917 seemed to be derivative in its indebtedness to European models, the challenge facing young American artists in the 1920s was the creation of something distinctly and uniquely American. Now that America, though still young, seemed fully realized as a nation, it demanded that its own distinctive voice be heard. The character of that voice would have to match the industrial spirit of America. It had to be marked by a self-conscious modernity and a faith in innovation.

In this regard, there was no more distinctly American composer in the first half of the twentieth century than Henry Cowell. He was an experimentalist and a pluralist. True to America’s identity as an immigrant nation, he embraced influences from numerous sources. He broke the boundaries that had been erected between types and genres of music. He invented new sounds. He introduced the work of composers from all over the world to American audiences. No individual was more responsible than Cowell for bringing America’s first truly original master of composition, Charles Ives, to the public’s attention. Ives reciprocated with support for Cowell and his activities. Cowell’s interest encompassed not only experimental and avant-garde modernism, but that which we today awkwardly call “world music”. As Richard Teitelbaum suggests, this may have been the result of his being born on the West Coast, which retained more of a link to Asia, while the East Coast seemed to preserve its residual debt to Europe. Cowell’s energy and productivity are themselves a source of amazement. So too is the list of those indebted to Cowell for his role as mentor and advocate.

This impressive record of achievement thus begs the question: why is it that more than three quarters of the devoted audience for classical and concert music today might not recognize even the name of Henry Cowell, much less his music? A search of programs by American orchestras and ensembles will reveal that very little if any of Cowell’s music is played. (On the list of orchestras that have played Cowell’s music, the American Symphony would be toward the top, owing largely to Stokowski’s advocacy and to recent performances of several of Cowell’s works.) Is the answer to the question that Cowell was simply a great organizer, teacher, and thinker whose music isn’t worth performing? That would be the most commonplace answer.

Its apparent plausibility rests in the mistaken but recalcitrant idea that first, the standard repertory today reflects the collective and legitimate aesthetic judgment of history and therefore a quasi-Darwinian process of objective selection, and second, that music is an art that demands competitive comparison, that only works befitting the attribute “masterpiece” deserve the time and effort to be heard and played in concert. By this standard, not a single work by Henry Cowell has survived. Indeed, from the perspective of self-styled connoisseurs and aficionados, most of the music performed at American Symphony Orchestra concerts (especially works never recorded) deserve before the performance to be met with skepticism, and after dismissed with the comment that these works do not compare with the major works of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Bartók, or Stravinsky.

he judgment of history does not constitute an objective test. Consider the fate of Henry Cowell. The scandal surrounding his imprisonment for homosexuality, and the easy association in many circles between aesthetic radicalism and left-wing politics damaged his reputation and career during his lifetime and posthumously. For all of America’s celebration of its own love of invention and innovation, there has been a dark side to American cultural life: an enormous pressure to conform, the rule of a marketplace that is intolerant of genuine individuality and dissent, and a risk-averse anti-intellectualism derived from mistrust, isolationism, and commercial interest. Henry Cowell’s career and music have consistently tripped the wires of all of these negative attitudes. As a result, for the last fifty years, his music was deprived of the hearing it deserved except in a small community of devoted advocates. More exposure is necessary to permit a reasonable assessment of the worth of his many compositions. Only after repeated performances can we as performers and listeners decide which works we prefer and which seem more persuasive than others. Even within the output of the most famous composers there are hierarchies of taste. In Cowell’s case, exposure denied by the musical establishment at large for extraneous and specious reasons has prevented most listeners from exercising any sort of judgment. That is what makes Cowell the perfect subject for the mission of the American Symphony.

For some odd reason, changing inherited impressions has become much harder in music than it has in either painting or literature. In music, the unremitting standard of the “masterpiece” is more of an excluding factor than it is in any other art. Why does listening to a piece of concert music require a judgment to determine it is not something else—perhaps by Stravinsky, Mozart, Mahler, or Copland? We do not read books this way, and we do not view paintings this way. We do not furnish our homes with paintings and prints and objects that way. No one can argue that the idea that a painting of Botticelli or a play by Shakespeare are daunting and overwhelming examples of the triumph of human imagination. But the greatest Botticelli or Shakespeare need not diminish our appreciation of other paintings and plays. We do not reject plays and paintings old or new in our theaters and museums because they are not Botticelli and Shakespeare. We do not demand that the only things performed or displayed are by Botticelli and Shakespeare. We profess a wider and more eclectic range of appreciation for unquestionably excellent examples of human expression in painting and writing. Yet in music, a dominant snobbery apparent in writers, performers, and listeners would shut down the exercise of curiosity. Young performers and conductors learn and offer almost exactly the same historical repertoire that their counterparts did thirty and fifty years ago. Concert promoters encourage this. But as Cowell understood, music is an experience of life in the world. There is a wide range of music that inspires, ennobles and delights audiences who have the insight to listen to a work in relation to their personal preferences or opinions, not in relation to what they have learned are the narrow group of the “best” composers and compositions.

Our reasons for performing unfamiliar repertoire are not about searching for lost treasures. We are not on some sort of Antiques Roadshow, trying to assess rare work by some pre-existing standard of comparative values. We are not in the business of being musical truffle hounds. Rather, we perform Henry Cowell’s music, as well as the music on past and future programs of the American Symphony, to show not rarity but the unexpected vastness, quality, and depth of musical expression that is available to be heard within the history of music. Our only standard is that it is music that deserves to be enjoyed and experienced. The music must have the inspiration and craftsmanship to capture the attention of those who love to play and listen. Not every work will take its place alongside an acknowledged masterpiece, but it doesn’t have to. As in other arts, all kinds of music contribute to an unimaginably large and varied experience, in which anyone will eventually find something they like. For those who restricted their capacity for the joy of music to a few famous works (an unreasonable fragment of cultural history), they may find that repetition of those works will ultimately eviscerate their power to move the listener by eroding the essential reactions of surprise and engagement those works inspire.

In the course of history, generations reverse themselves. The great work of the past can fade and be replaced by a reversal of judgment. In the end what appeals to the audience is determined by criteria the audience brings to their experience, shaped by the historical circumstances around them. That is what lies beneath the legendary observation of Leonard Bernstein regarding Gustav Mahler’s assertion that “my time will come”: it did. Mahler’s music did not change, but the way it was perceived and interpreted underwent a radical reevaluation.

Henry Cowell may be due for such a reevaluation. Despite the skepticism of those who consider themselves “in the know,” the response of American Symphony’s loyal audiences since the founding of the orchestra by Stokowski to new repertoire has been one of delight. They, like the musicians in the orchestra, respond to excitement, character, substance, and surprise in music. We hope this continued attitude will give a reprieve to music unfairly neglected and forgotten by the self-styled arbiters of taste who pronounce summary judgment based on criteria worthy of a beauty contest or quiz show.