Music of the American Dream (part 1)

There is much more to American music than Rhapsody in Blue and West Side Story. So, as Independence Day approaches and with it a feast of American CDs, Simon Trezise tells the complete story of a great but still largely unknown musical tradition.

What exactly is American music? Is it the smoky, seedy jazz and blues of Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody in Blue or the healthy, great outdoors of Appalachian Spring and Rodeo? It is Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein’s West Side Story and Barber’s Adagio for Strings which have made the great impact internationally as ‘American music’. This music is played in countless film soundtracks and commercials, and it has come to symbolise the freedom, energy and direct expression of a country emerging from centuries of European domination. But while this music immediately conjures up the United States – from the cotton fields to New York to the Wild West – there is another, more abstract side. There is the neglected, European-influenced composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, George Chadwick and Amy Beach, and later the minimalist pioneers Philip Glass and John Cage.

There have been distinctive musical cultures on American soil for centuries in the form of Indian tribal music; but these were ignored by the early European settlers. The settlers were often driven to America to pursue their religious beliefs – usually Protestant – free from prejudice and persecution. It is not surprising, then, to discover that the first signs of post-colonial American musical culture are unaccompanied psalm settings. Much of this activity was centred in New England and led to the creation of an extensive repertoire, including hymns, many of which were taken up years later by Charles Ives in his all-inclusive works.

The first African slaves appeared in Virginia in 1619: these reluctant early settlers brought with them a most promising seed for later developments, namely the origins of ragtime and jazz, both of which were to leave an indelible impression on American music in the twentieth century.

Many European musicians came to America bringing with them skills and music that led to many years of European domination. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were the main centres, boasting by the nineteenth century fine orchestras, publishing houses, and opera houses that could, as America became increasingly wealthy, equal most European houses; the Metropolitan Opera of New York (founded in 1883) almost immediately established itself among the world’s elite with artists such as Sembrich and later Caruso.

America’s secret music
Much of the music composed was indistinguishable from European models, but a few figures changed that by drawing on national dance and song, which had flourished for many years in an independent vein. Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861) took as his starting point the Viennese classical style, but he grafted onto it quotations from national airs such as ‘Yankee Doodle’ in his vocal and instrumental pieces. Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-69), a native of Louisiana, was also a romantic nationalist, strongly driven by love for his country. In his First Symphony (1857-61) he uses bamboula drums to accentuate and Afro-Cuban dance.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, a handful of composers confirmed the continuing supremacy of European symphonic music and even when they looked elsewhere, the traditions drawn upon were not necessarily American. Amy Beach (1867-1944), one of the first women composers to secure an international reputation, recognised that living in Boston, the hub of so much musical activity, she was more likely to encounter Irish music than anything more native; thus, she incorporates many tunes from Ireland into her delightful Gaelic Symphony of 1898.

George W Chadwick (1854-1931) and Horatio Parker (1863-1919) both followed Brahms in their music. Chadwick’s Third Symphony, for example, is considerably (and sometimes quite effortfully) in debt to the German master. But both composers found some relief in the example of Dvorák, who encouraged American composers to look at Indian and Negro music, setting a superlative and unequalled example in his own Ninth Symphony, From the New World. Chadwick’s absorbing Symphonic Sketches breathe fresh air into Dvorák’s symphonic forms, suggesting the wide open spaces and dynamic vistas of the New World.

As new European influences came on the scene, American composers responded. Debussy’s music was played early on in America (La Mer received a fine performance in Boston under Karl Muck in 1907, just two years after its Paris premiere). The young and tragically short-lived Charles T Griffes (1884-1920) blended orientalism with French impressionism in The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan (1912).


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