Inventing America

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Inventing America, performed on Sep 25, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When Leopold Stokowski founded the American Symphony Orchestra in 1962 as a naturalized European-born citizen, he was still fighting an old battle. That battle was over the question of how to make symphonic music genuinely American. Despite our nostalgia (fueled by distorted accounts of the past) for a time when classical music played to full houses and was embraced as a central part of cultural life, American orchestral life before 1962 was not very American. The rosters of orchestral musicians revealed large numbers of Europeans, both recruits and émigrés fleeing from persecution. The major conductors, with the exception of Leonard Bernstein, were all European. And the standard repertoire was overwhelmingly European. Stokowski, who during his tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra (and with his hand-shaking cameo with Mickey Mouse) stayed in the vanguard for democratizing classical music, made his final contribution to its Americanization by creating the American Symphony Orchestra. Two principles were of paramount importance to him. First, the concerts had to be accessible in price to a wide public in a manner reflective of the egalitarian streak in American democracy (a principle that still guides this Orchestra’s mission). Second, the personnel of the Orchestra were to be all native-born American musicians.

Forty years later, the American Symphony doesn’t need to go out of its way to maintain the second principle. Orchestras in America are now many in number and today the personnel is overwhelmingly American. We still import conductors from abroad but we see many Americans in important posts in the United States and even Americans with significant posts abroad. Indeed the whole issue of this sort of patriotism has changed in character. Internationalism and globalization have asserted themselves for better or worse. Orchestras need not be instruments of national self-representation. This is particularly true for a country such as the United States, which has prided itself on being an inclusive nation of immigrants. In this sense Stokowski’s initial premise was too narrow. If there is a magic to America, it rests on the capacity to make the many émigrés who played in the NBC Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic fifty years ago, feel entirely American. This is a nation, after all, where citizenship is not acquired exclusively by birth or genealogy. This fact ought to give American nationalism a less virulent xenophobic character. What makes many of us proud to be Americans is the absence of a nativism, and the embrace of freedom and the capacity to dissent.

Another aspect that concerned Stokowski, however, remains inadequately addressed: the repertoire. The situation he confronted has, if anything, gotten worse rather than better. The generation of Stokowski, which included Koussevitzky, Klemperer, and in part Bernstein, was committed to the ongoing tradition of new music. Each of the great conductors championed one or two living composers. Stokowski was particularly interested in furthering a tradition of American composition. It is in that spirit that we present this afternoon’s program.

Today’s concert is designed to address two issues: first, the self-conscious effort in the twentieth century to generate a distinctly original American symphonic tradition, and second, the generational question in music history, crystallized in this case by the relationship of teacher and student. The music on this afternoon’s program dates from a crucial era in American history: that between World War I and the onset of the New Deal. What is special about this period is that it represents America’s bold and unabashed entrance into world politics as a dominant force. World War I brought the nineteenth century to an end. Despite the United States’s imperialist adventure in the Spanish American War and its brokering of the peace in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, its debut as a super power really occurred in 1917, when it participated conclusively in what at that time was the largest war in history. The years that followed the end of World War I became a period of experimentation and bravado, glittering innovation and intoxicating prosperity. The works by Ernest Bloch and Roger Sessions were composed in this era of expansion, optimism and greed. The 1920s were also a period that marked the end of open borders for the United States and a decline in rates of immigration. America began consolidating itself as a new national entity. Randall Thompson’s work was composed after the market crash of 1929 during the Hoover years, but before the onset of the awareness of the gravity and extent of the Great Depression, and prior to the progressive agenda of the New Deal.

With the New Deal came a shift in the ambitions of American composers. Roy Harris and Aaron Copland, for example, were inspired by the rediscovery of an American folk tradition and embraced a populist style. They stepped away from the optimistic and in some cases arrogant claims of modernism as it put forward a progressive musical vocabulary, adequate to the burgeoning scientific and technological transformation of the period. This more populist turn was anticipated already by the senior member of today’s trio of composers, Ernest Bloch. Bloch was not a native of America but an immigrant. Born a Jew in Switzerland, he came well equipped to appreciate the United States. Switzerland, despite its xenophobia, is one of the West’s oldest and most successful democracies, with a profound history of civic egalitarianism (though in the 1920s only for men). America was the best hope for the European Jew who wanted to acquire political rights. For Bloch as for many immigrants, America was a dream come true, a land of promise not only in the material sense but in ethical and political senses as well. The Epic Rhapsody is unwittingly as close as any piece can come to the work imagined by the protagonist of Israel Zangwill’s famous play from the turn of the century, The Melting Pot. In that play, the protagonist, David Quixano, is a Jewish composer who has fled persecution and dreams of writing an epic and visionary orchestral and choral work that evokes, in the spirit of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the promise of the New World in a distinctly American way. Bloch materialized Zangwill’s image and produced a work that, when it premiered, was an outstanding success. It was heralded, performed, and held up as the first truly American act of symphonic self-expression. But then after its initial impact, it disappeared quickly from the repertoire, much to the composer’s dismay. The lasting achievement of an American sound would fall to the son of immigrants, Aaron Copland, and Ernest Bloch would be remembered primarily for his powerful expressions of Ashkenazi Jewish faith in works such as Schelomo (1916) and Baal Shem (1923).

But Bloch’s enthusiastic romance with America was not without its residue. The brief fame of the work left a lasting impression on Harris, Copland, and subsequent composers who sought to realize the dream of a truly American symphony. (With a smile we can remember that in the 1920s no one paid any attention to Charles Ives. It would be Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra that would give the world premiere in the 1960s of the most American of all symphonies, Ives’s Fourth.) Bloch’s real legacy in America, however, was as a teacher more than as a composer. Two unmistakably American talents, Roger Sessions and Randall Thompson, both of multi-generational Anglo-Saxon stock and with no apparent insecurities about their identities, seemed to understand that the traditions of classical music were traditionally European. Just as young talents in the 1890s went either abroad to study or sought out Dvořák at the National Conservatory in New York, Thompson and Sessions chose to study with a true European master, Ernest Bloch. Twenty years later it would be Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg who would achieve public recognition as teachers of American composers.

This brings us to the second theme of this concert, generational change and the relationship between teacher and pupil. Today’s program is a study in contrasts. Randall Thompson is the less remembered figure in music history. He was a longtime, well-respected teacher at Harvard. But with the exception of a few choral works, the Alleluia and the Testament to Freedom (performed by the ASO in 2000), Thompson’s music has almost entirely fallen out of the active repertory. But Thompson sustained the somewhat conservative aesthetics and vocabulary of his teacher Bloch. In this sense Thompson’s music can be set alongside symphonic works of Harris and Copland from the 1930s and 1940s. Thompson’s allusion to jazz elements was not only a characteristic habit of composers in the 1920s, including George Antheil, but it was a symbol of both the American and the modern. It might be argued that Bloch did set a direction for American music distinct from European modernism defined by Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger and the more radical post-tonal variety pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. However Thompson also, like Bloch, may have his greatest importance as a teacher rather than as a composer.

The same can be said of Roger Sessions. However, Sessions’s music and reputation have survived in a much more active manner. Sessions steadfastly held to the ideal of developing a modernist American musical vocabulary framed in a European tradition. Unlike John Cage or Henry Cowell, he was not, strictly speaking, an experimentalist. His sense of form and structure is classical and conservative, but his realization in terms of sound is visionary and avant-garde. His chamber and orchestra works are still held in high esteem and appear with some frequency. (The American Symphony recently recorded his Eighth Symphony.) Sessions’s music is difficult, but in the spirit of Bloch it is deeply emotional and expressive. Sessions created an expressionist modernism, an American equivalent of the music of Alban Berg. His music is not academic or dry but intense and powerful. Like Thompson he had a long, distinguished career as a teacher. He was also among the most articulate and literate of American composers. His writings on music are among the finest produced in twentieth-century America.

There is an irony in the fact that Bloch’s attempt to transform a European tradition into an American one is eclectic and drifts within America toward a populism that would be fully realized by Copland in Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man. Yet the idea of a sing-along at the end of the Symphony in a moment of patriotic enthusiasm remains startling and novel. For all the talk of finding ways to reach a broader public, no composer of any stature has tried to do something comparable to what Bloch asks for at the end of this monumental work. Bridging the symphonic experience and the habits of popular singing even to the extent of karaoke has never been easy, but here Bloch also pierces the barrier between active participation and passive listening, and between professional and amateur.

Bloch’s two most successful and prominent American pupils developed their own distinct characters as composers, but they learned two vital lessons from their teacher. First, music is an art of emotional expression directed at a broad public. It is an alluring mix of the intimate and the civic. Although Thompson and Sessions took different paths in terms of the musical methods they adopted, they understood from Bloch that the writing of music was not a matter of “art for art’s sake” or simple virtuosity. Second, they recognized along with their teacher the enormous opportunity that America offered. As a mature industrial world power placed in a massive and diverse landscape both urban and rural, America offered a new and challenging context in which a tradition of musical composition could emerge that was clearly a product of novel geographic and historical circumstances. Both Thompson’s and Sessions’s symphonies mirror optimism and opportunity of the sort that would also attract other European artists such as Edgar Varése and Piet Mondrian. What is remarkable is that the era from which the works of Sessions and Thompson date was a moment when the definition of the American, in stark contrast to Bloch’s Rhapsody, bypassed the obvious source of national self-identification: folk tradition. To the immigrant like Bloch or Dvořák, the concept of nationalism could easily be expressed by so-called nativist elements. But for confident American-born white Anglo-Saxon men, the challenge of the 1920s was to find the distinctly American in the modern.