AMERICAN MUSIC – AN ALTERNATIVE NARRATIVE
PostClassical Ensemble’s 2015-16 Season
The Standard Narrative for American concert music starts with Aaron Copland after World War I. It presumes that Copland and others of his generation were the first to create an “American style” based on American songs, American rhythms, American energies. Such populist Copland scores as Billy the Kid (1938) and Appalachian Spring (1944) are seen as seminal. At the same time, these composers are observed engaged in the project of creating an American symphonic canon, hot in pursuit of the Great American Symphony.
Part two of the same narrative, post-World War II, observed a mass migration to non-tonal styles, Copland included. This music (a product of Cold War times) was not remotely “populist.” In fact, it forged a schism between composer and audience.
In my Classical Music in America: A History (2005), I propose that in fact there are multiple American musical narratives, none of which take precedence over the others. I call these “musical streams, all of which achieved substantial results and none of which reached fruition.” In particular, I dispute the assumption that there was no American, American-sounding concert music of great merit before Copland.
The biggest flaw in the Standard Narrative is that, having been constructed beginning in the thirties, it fails to account for the genius of Charles Ives – whose music was not yet generally known. It is now evident that Ives composed Great American Symphonies some time before the interwar composers took up that cause: both his Symphony No. 2 (1907-1909) and Symphony No. 4 (1912-1925) are supreme achievements, mating American vernacular sounds and images with a hallowed European template.
And there are others. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, back in the 1850s, used black Creole tunes from his native New Orleans to fashion a captivating American idiom – music that didn’t re-enter the repertoire until the 1950s. In Boston, George Chadwick (dismissed by Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Leonard Bernstein in their influential versions of the Standard Narrative) created Jubilee (1895) and other salty American cameos that our orchestras have yet to discover. In New York, Antonin Dvorak turned himself into an American, creating an 1890s New World style inspired by “Negro melodies.”
And there is a “maverick” American tradition defined by such idiosyncratic, self-made Americans as Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Lou Harrison. Beginning with stray car parts, they collaboratively created the percussion ensemble as a musical genre. They also prophetically merged Western and Eastern musical styles. Harrison (1917-2003), in particular, was an American master who had no use for the Standard Narrative. He heralded today’s pervasive “postclassical” music, a post-modern phenomenon that chucks every assumption that “classical music” on the European model retains priority as the highest possible realm of musical experience.
Finally, there is a tradition of “interlopers” who have blended American popular and classical styles. Here the seminal figure is George Gershwin – once widely dismissed (as was Ives) as a dilettante. If we can admit film music to this “musical stream,” the towering figure is Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), best-remembered for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock on such films as Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Herrmann was ignored by the established non-tonal composers of his day. Now is the time to discover his concert works – of which the Clarinet Quintet (1967) is an American masterpiece somewhat in the style of Vertigo. As a leading radio conductor, Herrmann was an early champion of Charles Ives (as was Lou Harrison).
PostClassical Ensemble’s 2015-16 season explores alternatives to the Standard Narrative. From the fecund pre-World War I period, we celebrate Dvorak’s assistant Harry Burleigh (1866-1949), who was instrumental in transplanting spirituals into the concert hall. In fact, such pivotal Burleigh arrangements as “Deep River” are as much compositions as transcriptions – an observation we’ll explore in “Deep River” – The Art of the Spiritual.
Coming next, chronically, is Charles Ives, whose Second Symphony (belatedly premiered by Leonard Bernstein in 1951) has yet to attain the canonic status it obviously deserves. PCE’s Angel Gil-Ordonez conducts the Georgetown University in this American masterpiece – part of a PCE-produced Ives weekend also including two peerless Ives advocates: baritone William Sharp and pianist Steven Mayer.
Bernard Herrmann – Screen, Stage, and Radio is a multi-week immersion experience advocating the versatility and ingenuity of a leading American musician still incompletely known. Our series of screenings and concerts includes world-premiere restorations of two classic Norman Corwin radio dramas (music by Herrmann) in live performance, as well as a one-hour exploration of The Music of Psycho.
Lou Harrison – The Indonesian Connection illuminates Harrison’s groundbreaking percussion compositions, alongside Cowell and Cage, as well as his mature gamelan-inspired idiom. (PCE will also record a Harrison CD for Naxos.)
Finally, our “Schnyderfest” explores the musical world of the Swiss-American composer Daniel Schnyder (b. 1961) – an emblematic postclassical musician who delves deeply into jazz (he is a gifted saxophonist), and also mines the musics of Africa and Asia. With California’s Pacific Symphony, PCE has commissioned a Schnyder Pipa Concerto for the pipa genius Min Xiao-fen – to be premiered at the National Gallery of Art May 1. Our Schnyder weekend also includes Schnyder’s takes on George Gershwin and on Kurt Weill (a key post-Gershwin “interloper”), as well as F.W. Murnau’s silent cinema classic Faust (1926) with Schnyder’s film-score performed live.
I write in Classical Music in America:
In 1965 Elliott Carter lamented “the tendency for each generation in America to wipe away the memory of the previous one, and the general neglect of our own recent past, which we treat as a curiosity useful for young scholars in exercising their research techniques – so characteristic of American treatment of the work of its important artists.”
Carter’s plaint applies to . . . the streams of American classical music, each of which so little interacted with any other. It points to a pervasive fragmentation, to an absence of lineage and continuity complicated by a late start and a heterogeneous population, by two world wars and the confusing influx of powerful refugees. But this same fragmentation may be read as a protean variety: of composers who imitated Europe or rejected it; who preferred German music or French; who viewed the popular arts as a threat or as a point of departure. To a surprising degree – surprising because American institutions of performance have understood so little – American composers have partaken in the diversity of American music as a whole. It is, in the aggregate, a defining attribute.
Executive Director, PostClassical Ensemble