Inventing an American Music

Inventing an American Music

By Nicholas E. Tawa

Written for the concert The Composer’s Voice, performed on Oct 6, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

A unending cultural debate began in the 1890s on the question of what comprises an American music? Edward MacDowell, an outstanding composer of the 1890s, had maintained it to be music written by any American composer who had lived in the United States and participated in American life, and who could not help but unconsciously capture his American experience in whatever he created. The famous Czech composer Antonin Dvorák, then sojourning in New York City, said this was not enough. He advocated instead, a conscious nationalistic approach that incorporated distinctive vernacular music idioms–popular à la Stephen Foster, Amerindian, or African-American. All of the composers represented on this program have figured largely in the American scene and embody at least the first approach in their works. All of them, too, at some point consciously made use of American idioms. Finally, each one had to find his own way, reconciling past with present trying to invent an American music sincerely his own but that also embraced the American society of which he was a part.

Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991), in birth, in musical education, and stylistic growth, had followed a markedly similar path to that of Aaron Copland. He became a political radical in the 1930s and tried to address ordinary laborers, office workers, and college students with his in music. Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight is a cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra, on a poem by Vachel Lindsay. It was completed in September 1937. The vocal lines interpret the meaning of the text; the harmonies are meant to augment the colors conjured up by the physical milieu delineated in the poem. He lays out his entirely original work guided by the historical and character indications of the poem rather than by any theoretical music laws. A restless Lincoln moves through a dark landscape while anguished over the woes of humanity. Diatonicism, spacious intervals of perfect fourths and fifths, some major-minor attractive choral resonances pervade the measures. The musical ending makes a strong, affirmative, uplifting assertion, all voices homophonically united, on the phrase “He cannot rest until the Workers’ Earth shall come, Bringing peace to Cornland, Alp, and Sea.”

Frederick Shepherd Converse (1871-1940) taught, and composed music in Boston for his entire life. His training in aGermanic style came from John Knowles Paine, at Harvard. For much of his life he composed in this style, which lacked a deliberate native orientation. Suddenly, in 1926, he came out with Flivver Ten Million, an innovative musical romp for orchestra on the serio-comic life of an American automobile that incorporated scraps of popular and traditional tunes. The next year, he composed California for orchestra, made up of festival scenes that depicted the state’s history via Spanish, Amerindian, and American vernacular song and dance. In 1929, Converse completed the orchestration of American Sketches, a symphonic suite, which the Boston Symphony premiered in 1935. Some material, originally intended for California, appears in its measures. Its descriptive but not realistic movements begin with “Manhattan,” where the bustle and tension, splendor and meanness, and ultimately the loneliness of the city are described without resorting to jazz or Broadway rhythms. “The Father of Waters” follows. It introduces a broad and tranquil melody to capture the placid flow of the Mississippi and utilizes an old African-American melody, “The Levee Moan,” which Converse had found in Carl Sandburg’s The American Song Bag. “Chicken Reel” is next, a straightforward, scherzo-is presentation of an old country-fiddler’s tune, which also came from Sandburg. Last, “Bright Angel’ Trail (A Legend of the Grand Canyon)” encompasses the feelings aroused by the Canyon’s enigmatic depths, kaleidoscopic lighting, magnificent vistas, and legend of the birth of the Hopi Indian tribe in its chasm.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990), the “composer from Brooklyn,” after study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, had gone through a jazz-Stravinsky stylistic period in the mid-1920s, but then turned to an abstract, atonal, highly dissonant, and off-putting style in 1929 that continued until the mid-1930s. Statements, an example of this second style, was completed in 1935 on a commission from the League of Composers. It did not receive acomplete performance until 1942 with Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic. Six succinct orchestral movements, each of striking character, were given suggestive titles to facilitate the public’s understanding of the composer’s intent. The first, “Militant,” features a single theme, five-measures long and markedly bold in rhythm, except in the short, quiet, and slower middle section. The texture is polyphonic; the harmony, non-triadic and sometimes polytonal. The second, “Cryptic,” sets forth three brief ideas heard in fragmentary patterns, implying a serial approach, and exploiting unusual timbres. Mysterious and leaving much unsaid, it proceeds in linear fashion, remaining expressive and personal throughout, and closing as quietly as it had opened. Movement Three, “Dogmatic,” is a satirical scherzo based on a four-note rhythmic motive and makes an impression not unlike Shostakovich’s The Age of Gold ballet suit. The melodic treatment is pointillistic; the chords sound chunky. A discreet insertion of the theme from his Piano Variations (1930) occurs. Number four, “Subjective,” incorporates the first of his Elegies for violin and viola, which he wrote in Mexico in 1932. Placid, poetic lines heard in divided strings, with the string basses silent, project a contemplative mood throughout. Next, “Jingo” presents a humorous, busy-about-nothing rondo where intermittently “The Sidewalks of New York” surfaces. The crass pounding out of a three-quarter-note rhythmical pattern on the same tone characterizes much of the movement. Here, even more than in the third movement, there is a hint of Shostakovich. Finally, “Prophetic” veers between meditative expressivity and strident drama. A slow introduction ushers in the main theme, a chorale whose harmonic background hints at a traditional triadic constructions. One discerns, as if in a distorting mirror, the sounds of the Appalachian Spring, still to come.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) always felt that he was the American composer. Born in Oklahoma, he claimed the West, from the Mississippi to the Pacific, as his territory and considered the music he wrote as embodying the will of the American people. His Third Symphony (1939) had been acclaimed throughout the nation. He hoped to achieve a similar success with his Fourth Symphony, entitled The Folk Song Symphony, written in the autumn of 1939 and January and February of 1940. Its premiere was in Cleveland, in December 1940. Harris said that he conceived the work as a way to bring together high-school, college, and community choruses with their symphony orchestras. The songs come from Cowboy and Other Frontier Ballads and American Ballads and Folksongs, collected by Jon and Alan Lomax or from The American Song Bag of Carl Sandburg. Most of the choral singing is a direct unison rendering of attractive traditional American tunes. Without question the ambience and essential quality of the composition is genuinely American. there is no question of the composer’s sincerity. Harmony is usually unobtrusive and consonant with the spirit of the tunes, only occasionally introducing an element of incongruousness or inappropriateness. For most of its length, however, the symphony remains vital and distinctive. The first movement, “Welcome Party,” relies on an almost exact quotation of the P. S. Gilmore song, published in 1963, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” The rhythms are jaunty and rambunctious. Movement two, “Western Cowboy,” employs two plaintive tunes, “Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” (which is endlessly repeated) and “As I Walked Out in the Streets of Loredo.” A pleasant “Interlude,” “Dance Tunes for Strings and Percussion,” with fiddle tunes modeled after extant types, closes off the first section.

The fourth movement, “Mountaineer Love Song,” features a haunting melody from North Carolina, “Yandro” or “I’m Goin’ Away for to Stay a Little While.” The result is a superb nostalgic lament. Another instrumental dance “Interlude,” comes after. This time it is for full orchestra, resembles a hoe-down, and turns out very likable. It employs the melodies of “The Birds’ Courting Song” or “The Blackbird and the Crow” and “Jump tip, My Lady.” The sixth movement, “Negro Fantasy,” (Draws on the traditional “Moanin’,” sung by black and white Southern congregations. Real musical development takes place throughout. The composer’s inspiration is convincing. Last, the “Finale” is based on the cowboy song “If Ever I Travel Thus Road Again,” plus a recurrence of the Gilmore song heard in the first movement. This closing movement is extremely brief and barely suffices to round off the entire work.