American Music of the Roaring 20s

By Sebastian Danila

The period around World War I, from about 1910 to the late 1920s, was arguably the most consequential one for Western music, in general, and for the American musical scene, in particular. The belief that the dominant Romantic tradition had reached an irreversible crisis point was widely shared among many young composers. In what became the most turbulent time in music history – stylistically and aesthetically – this quest for new modes of musical expression led to an unprecedented degree of technical experimentation and divergent compositional tendencies.  Rejecting the tonal ambiguity and extreme chromaticism of late Romanticism, some composers sought new principles of organization, ones that would expand the possibilities of the twelve-note chromatic scale. In works like Erwartung (1909), Pierrot lunaire (1912) or later in his Five Piano Pieces (1923) Arnold Schoenberg moved progressively from a chromaticism freed from any rigid diatonic substructures to a completely novel system of pitch organization, the dodecaphony (or twelve-note system). Other composers, like Igor Stravinsky or Béla Bartók, attempted to renovate musical expression with atavistic explorations of ancient musical cultures, from a distant past. Others, like Maurice Ravel in Le tombeau de Couperin (1917) or Sergei Prokofiev in his “Classical” Symphony (1916-17) reflect a new interest in reestablishing links to earlier eras, the Baroque and the Classical, respectively. 

In the years immediately following World War I, this ‘spirit of the new’ that produced such immense cultural transformations in Europe, was also present in the United States, where the artistic scene experienced an unprecedented burst of creativity. Responding to the horror and whole-scale destruction of that war, American artists, writers and composers rejected the exalted ideals of the previous century, focusing instead on creating new means of expression, ones that would accurately reflect the realities this new age required. Just as in Europe a decade earlier, the gradual erosion of the Romantic tradition, with its more or less ìuniversalî language, led to the emergence of a musical pluralism that freed the American composers to flourish and develop in extraordinary ways. With jazz, many composers found a new source of inspiration, one distinctly American, as well as thoroughly fresh, modern, and exciting. Some of the works offered on this program reflect a fascination in the Roaring Twenties with this language, with its irresistible rhythmic energy and catchy melodies. Other composers sought to push the boundaries of musical expression with radical, ‘ultra-modern’ languages. Whether by polytonality, pentatonic scales, jagged counterpoint and asymmetric ostinatos, or brash atonality, the creative impulses of this generation are presented here in their arguably finest exponents.


George Antheil
A Jazz Symphony
Born July 8, 1900, in Trenton, New Jersey
Died February 12, 1959, New York, New York

Composed 1925, revised 1955
Premiered on April 10, 1927 in New York, New York
Conducted by Allie Ross
Performance Time: Approximately 8 minutes

Among the composers on the leading edge of musical practice in the 1920s George Antheil, (1900-1959) was indubitably the enfant terrible of this generation (indeed, his own 1945 autobiography was titled The Bad Boy of Music). Having already scandalized post-war Parisian society with his concerts – which included works with titles such as Airplane Sonata or Death of Machines – Antheil was admired and championed by illustrious contemporaries like Joyce, Pound, and Picasso, who recognized in him many of their own ‘modernist’ ideas.

Long fascinated with jazz, having incorporated elements from it in his Symphony No. 1 or the Jazz Sonata, it wasn’t until A Jazz Symphony of 1927 that he fully integrated that style within a “classical” framework. The result, as he modestly put it, was “…one of the very first symphonic expressions which attempted to synthesize [sic] American jazz as a legitimate artistic expression.” He was fully aware of that other, much more famous attempt by Gershwin to do just that and was forced to begrudgingly admit that his own work post-dated Rhapsody in Blue “only slightly.”

Written in one movement, and here presented in its 1955 revision which tightened the orchestration and condensed the material, the Jazz Symphony exemplifies Antheil’s striking language from this period of rhythmically propulsive, self-contained blocks juxtaposed with supercharged ostinato patterns. The soloistic piano moments in this version – another nod to Gershwin, perhaps? – while not as prominent in the original version, run the gamut from upbeat ragtime tunes to tone clusters. Starting with a comical Latin-inspired tune and ending with a mawkish waltz, with quotes from Scott Joplin and the Rite of Spring thrown in along the way for good measure, Antheil creates a thoroughly original and entertaining score, one that marries unabashedly the vernacular with the highbrow. 


Ruth Crawford Seeger
Music for Small Orchestra
Born July 3, 1901, East Liverpool, Ohio
Died November 18, 1953, Chevy Chase, Maryland

Composed 1926
Premiered in 1969 at West Texas University in Canyon, Texas
Performance time: Approximately 10 minutes

Long associated with the circle of ‘ultra-modern’ composers which included the likes of Varèse, Cowell, and Ruggles, Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) was also amongst its most forward-looking exponents. Her highly structured organizations of pitch, durations, rhythm and dynamics in String Quartet 1931, for example, anticipate the post-World War II integral serialism of Boulez. A product of Chicagoís American Conservatory of Music, she developed a radical vocabulary that employed asymmetric meters and rhythms, dissonant counterpoint, juxtaposed ostinato patterns, ‘stacked-fourth’ chords – which Ives has also used to great effect – and polytonality, all suffused in a language of remarkable freshness and originality. 

Written in 1926, Crawford’s Music for Small Orchestra dates from her early period in Chicago, one marked by renewed experimentations and constant explorations of ever-widening musical paths. The scoring alone is unique, not to say odd: flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, four violins and two celli. By omitting violas and basses, and reducing the piano to a role of equal partner to the others – unlike the outsized role it plays in Antheil’s Jazz Symphony – she is free to create a fresh palette of colors and possibilities. Structured in two movements of similar length, the first movement opens with a single tone (F) repeated insistently by the piano in syncopated patterns, punctuated by low chords and shifting polyrhythms. This slow-paced, obsessive repetition of a single pitch (it last for more than 20 measures) foreshadows the pitch-derived aural experimentations of Scelsi or Feldman more than 30 years later.  As solemn, slow and quiet the first movement is, where the dynamic level hardly rises above piano, the second movement is a boisterous affair. Marked ‘in roguish humor,’ Crawford playfully takes here the idea of rhythmic and melodic ostinatos to new extremes, creating layers upon layers of increasingly loud and cacophonous expressions in one spirited Scherzo. To further emphasize the ‘roguish’ character here, the thematic ideas in this movement are very angular, with wide intervals between the pitches, as if to imitate some raucous laughter. Again, the contrast with the opening movement could not be greater, as the thematic material there is smoother, with the notes moving ever so slightly, in an imperceptibly undulating manner.


Aaron Copland
Music for the Theatre
Born November 14, 1900, Brooklyn, New York, New York
Died December 2, 1990, Sleepy Hollow, New York

Composed 1925
Premiered on November 20, 1925 in Boston
Conducted by Serge Koussevitzky
Performance Time: Approximately 21 minutes

For most people at that time, American or otherwise, the most impactful, the most quintessentially American music of the 1920s was jazz. It comes thus as no surprise that upon returning to the United States in 1924 after a few years abroad, Aaron Copland (1900-1990), in his quest to write music that was at once modern and American, turned to jazz. As he later recalled: “Our concern was not with the quotable hymn or spiritual: we wanted to find a music that would speak of universal things in a vernacular of American speech rhythms. We wanted to write music on a level that left popular music far behind – music with a largeness of utterance wholly representative of the country that Whitman has envisaged.” To him, jazz was more than a medium, an idiom to be incorporated into his own language; it was a symbol of “Americanism,” a manifestation of the dynamism that American society represented after World War I. Moreover, and perhaps because of that, it was perceived as a symbol of modernism and modernity itself. 

Of the works he wrote at this time, Music for the Theatre (1925) was the first to explicitly show the influence of jazz. Conceived as a suite for small orchestra in five symmetrically ordered movements, the workís bichordal harmonies, motoric rhythms, and squeaking sonorities displayed the same anti-Romantic aesthetic as his ‘ultra-modern’ contemporaries. 

A declamatory motto theme introduced by the trumpet makes occasional appearances throughout the piece, providing a fully unified, coherent overall narrative arc. In the second movement, titled “Dance,” brassy colors, muted trumpets and extensive solos visibly display here Copland’s affinity for jazz. In one instance, the solo E-flat clarinet is instructed to play certain notes “a little sharp” while the solo trumpet response a few bars later with the same notes is marked “a little flat” – thus indicating the bending of pitches typical of blues (blue third). In the middle of the fourth movement, a racy trumpet solo over a punctuated, accented bass line played by the low winds and strings indicates that the title of the movement (“Burlesque”) is perhaps more than a suggestion: “It is whorehouse music!” a horrified Roy Harris commented at the time. Music for the Theatre captures the energy and spirit of the Jazz Age and proudly proclaims its commitment to a national, “American” identity.  


Florence Price
Andante moderato for string orchestra
Born April 9, 1887, Little Rock, Arizona
Died June 3, 1953, Chicago, Illinois

Composed in 1929
Arranged for string orchestra in 2020
Performance Time: Approximately 7 minutes

Florence Price (1887-1953) had a career that was marked by many “firsts”: the first black American woman to win the Wanamaker competition in 1932 for her Symphony in E minor, the first black woman to win have an orchestral work performed by a major American orchestra in 1933, when Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her symphony led by Frederick Stock. Yet in spite of that, recognition was intermittent, if not elusive, in her lifetime. She had no illusions as to the reason for that: “…two handicaps – those of my sex and race” as she wrote in a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, were major impediments for her not receiving wider appreciation. Having divorced her abusive husband to support herself and her two daughters, she took on a variety of projects: played the theatre organ for silent films, made numerous choral arrangements, worked as orchestrator, wrote popular music for commercial purposes, etc.

Like Ruth Crawford Seeger, she was active in Chicago circles in the 1920s and yet, unlike Crawford Seeger, her outlook was decidedly aligned with the more American cultivated ideal of music, represented by composers like Howard Hanson or Harris during that decade. She often incorporated spirituals and African-American dance rhythms (such as the Juba) in her music, and, while her musical language was essentially conservative, her colorful harmonic gestures were singularly fresh and inspired. The Andante moderato performed tonight exemplifies her stylistic approach from this period. Originally written as the second movement of a string quartet (here presented in a string orchestra arrangement by Peter Stanley Martin), the entire movement displays a gentle lyricism that harkens back to Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, and is infused with the pentatonic inflections of spiritual music. Even in the minor mode of the middle faster-paced ‘B section,’ the mood remains one of tender contemplation. The piece ends with a coda that effortlessly and gracefully combines materials from both contrasting sections.

After a long period of wrongful neglect, following the discovery in 2009 of numerous boxes of her manuscripts in a long-abandoned house outside of Chicago, Price’s music has finally seen a resurgence of interest, with many performances taking place and recordings being released, which attests to her appeal to newer generations of listeners.


John Alden Carpenter
Krazy Kat
Born February 28, 1876, Park Ridge, Illinois
Died April 26, 1951, Chicago, Illinois

Composed 1921
Premiered on on January 20, 1922 in New York, New York
Conducted by George Barrère
Performance time: Approximately 13 minutes

Another Chicagoan, this time born and raised, John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) was from an older generation than the other composers present on this program. A son of a rich industrialist, he studied at Harvard with John Knowles Paine, after which he moved back to Chicago where he worked in his fatherís firm, dividing his time between composition and business (much like his almost-exact contemporary Charles Ives did – albeit with insurance). Among the first to recognize the importance and potential of jazz music as a true, American genre, he employed many of its elements as early as 1915, in his Concertino for Piano and Orchestra. 

Some of the same elements are to be found in his 1921 choreographic sketch – which Carpenter referred to as a “jazz pantomime” – Krazy Kat, based on the comic strip by George Herriman. First performed in concert, in Chicago, in December 1921, the ballet was then premiered in New York at Town Hall in January 1922 and has remained something of a rarity since. Set to a scenario by Herriman himself, with choreography by former Ballets Russes dancer Adolph Bolm (who created the role of the Moor in Petrushka), the ballet tells the story of Krazy, who after waking up and seeing a poster for a dance ball that evening, starts preparing for the ball and dances a Spanish dance. Ignatz Mouse then enters in disguise, offers Krazy a catnip bouqet, which it smells and after which, in a fit, it starts dancing the ‘Katnip Blues.’ Krazy’s dance is interrupted as Ignatz throws a brick at it, after which the mouse runs away. Krazy, stunned by the blow, falls asleep, leaving the cat in the same state as it was at the beginning. 

The ten-minute ballet is divided into brief episodes, each comprising short sections. Suffused with humour and delicately orchestrated, abundant with syncopated jazz rhythms, tempo changes, and rich yet elegant harmonic progressions, the score remains a testament to the fascination of so many composers of the 1920s with jazz and their attempts ñ to varying degrees of success, but always with entertaining results ñ to assimilate its style and its language.

Written for

American Expressions

American Expressions – SOLD OUT