Commentary Magazine

American Music: The Years of Hope


American Music: The Years of Hope
by Samuel Lipman

On one of the accreditation visits which European guardians of cultural life periodically pay us, the polyglot literary critic George Steiner has measured America and found it, as ever, wanting. Writing in the quarterly Salmagundi (Fall 1980/Winter 1981), he rejects the creative significance of our entire society, accusing us of having produced nothing, save some literature, of original importance. What virtues we have, in his view, are either importations from the old country or applications of wealth and energy to the conserving of otherwise alien artifacts.

In his strictures Steiner says a great deal about our musical life as well, and ventures a broad characterization of American efforts in composition. The passage is worth quoting at some length:

Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter are composers of undoubted stature. Charles Ives is a most intriguing “original.” Up to this point in its history, however, American music has been of an essentially provincial character. The great symphony of “the new world” is by Dvorák. It is Varèse’s Amériques which comes nearest to a musical transposition of its spacious subject. Again, limiting oneself to the 20th century—a limitation inherently weighted in America’s favor—it is obvious that there are in American music no names to set beside those of Stravinsky, of Schoenberg, of Bartók, of Alban Berg and Anton von Webern, that the oeuvre of a Prokofiev, of a Shostakovich, perhaps even of a Benjamin Britten represents an executive “density” and imaginative continuity strikingly absent from the work of American composers. And even if the Stockhausen-Boulez era is now passing, its role, its formal and substantive logic in the history of Western music, are on a level which, until now, American composers have rarely challenged, let alone matched.

To answer this comprehensive charge in Steiner’s terms is to deal with it on the ground staked out by his admirably skillful use of language. Although he limits his consideration to this century—a frame of reference he finds weighted in our favor—in fact all the figures he mentions, with the exception of Shostakovich and Britten, were formed musically well before World War I, that great watershed in high musical culture. And even here he hedges a bit, speaking only of the oeuvre of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Britten. Similarly, although he does not praise Boulez and Stockhausen explicitly, by mentioning their “formal and substantive logic” he manages to avoid giving the proper devil’s due to John Cage.

Perhaps we ought to be inured to this sort of thing; Steiner’s cultural diagnosis, after all, only carries on in the spirit of his predecessors, going all the way back to Mrs. Trollope. And yet—can it be denied that what he says about our music finds an extraordinary resonance in our own attitude toward ourselves? For what Steiner has done is only to echo, pointedly it is true, the verdict of our own musical institutions, large and small, rich and poor, superior and inferior; among these institutions I give, as is only proper, pride of place to our audience.

It takes no great perspicacity to observe that we are at this time securely a musical colony of Europe and of the musicians Europe has trained. Our great orchestras are, as if by right, in the hands of foreign maestri; even the aspiring ensembles of sunbelt and badlands feel the need to employ these missionaries to the heathen. As with conductors, so with soloists and singers. And since commercial developments do in fact mirror the expression of cultivated taste, we can hardly be surprised at the virtually complete withdrawal of major American companies from the domestic recording of serious music.



In the world of American composition, the situation is the same. The recent tenure of Pierre Boulez at the New York Philharmonic, intellectually and musically the most interesting such period in the domestic musical life of the past quarter century, was marked by expressed disdain for almost all our native products. Elsewhere new American works have been and are being played, but these performances arise out of a sense of duty and a consciousness of external pressure; it is not too much to say that each premiere has about it the palpable air of a final performance. The recent Kennedy Center American music competition, in which the works of even the most respected and best-known American composers were submitted, seems tacit confirmation of the general predicament of our creative situation. The meager result of the musical components of our 1976 Bicentennial celebration is, alas, another.

Was it always so? One piece of evidence suggests that things were once better, that American music in another day was marked both by hope and by a sense of fulfillment. The piece of evidence is the spate of birthdays of our grand old composers which we have been celebrating in the past few years. In 1980 Aaron Copland—a child of the century—was eighty; William. Schuman and Samuel Barber were seventy; Virgil Thomson, at eighty-four, was given the accolade of a PBS special. And to round out our recent observances, three years ago Elliott Carter was seventy, and five years ago Roger Sessions was eighty.

The attention devoted to the birthday of Copland in particular suggests, as such events always do, that history is preferred to actuality. Yet the enjoyment with which today’s audiences listen to Copland’s music is undeniable; a Copland concert even does well at the box office. And public reaction to the now frequently played music of Barber and Schuman, though perhaps less full-blooded than in the case of Copland, carries the same message: this is our music, our sound, and our pleasure.



Let us then, for the moment, leave behind George Steiner’s negative conclusions. Let us rather try to answer a valuable question posed in the headline of a recent article by Peter Davis in the New York Times: “America’s Senior Composers—Why Was Their Impact Profound?” Davis’s own answer stresses the relative simplicity and unity of the music scene of the 1930′s and 1940′s, as contrasted with today’s fragmentation, and the fact that such men as Copland were the first American composers who were sufficiently free of the prior taint of Eurocentric academicism to use national materials and speak with a national voice.

Any attempt to expand and broaden Davis’s answer, and to draw conclusions from it, should properly begin with a consideration of the remarkable confluence of creative talent born in the two decades centered on 1900. If we perform the unfashionable task of looking up birth dates, we will find that these years produced no fewer than eleven major American composers, all of whom have written a body of interesting, significant, and affecting music. Merely to name them in the order of their birth-dates is to appreciate their riches. In 1893 Douglas Moore was born and in 1894 Walter Piston; in 1896 Virgil Thomson, Howard Hanson, and Roger Sessions; in 1897 Henry Cowell and in 1898 Roy Harris; in 1900 Aaron Copland; in 1908 Elliott Carter, and in 1910 Samuel Barber and William Schuman. Though none of these men is unknown—and a few of them have been the object of national attention—the music of several is today almost forgotten, and the music of others is honored more in the breach than in the hearing. For that reason it may be worthwhile to sketch, in however rudimentary a fashion, the achievement of these eleven composers.



To begin with Douglas Moore is to make clear the ground of American consciousness on which so many of these composers have stood. Moore’s first mature work was the 1924 Pageant of P.T. Barnum. Some years after his innocent and happy treatment of America’s favorite showman, he went on in 1938 to set Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster. His last opera, the 1966 Carry Nation, is another example of his preoccupation with the American past. In the finest work of his career, the 1956 The Ballad of Baby Doe, Moore wrote an American classic, capturing in high art for years to come the frontier sadness of failed dreams and opportunities, of personal disaster in a world of speculative uncertainty. Here is not America as viewed by Europeans; here is the real thing, the colors right and the balances finely tuned.

By contrast, the achievement of Walter Piston has nothing of overt nationalism about it at all. It is the achievement of an absolute musician, wide, solid, and full of musical beauty. Piston is best known for a lighter work, The Incredible Flutist, a ballet suite premiered in 1938 by the Boston Pops Orchestra and by no less famous an American conductor than Arthur Fiedler. More importantly, he wrote eight symphonies spanning the years 1937 to 1965, more than a half-dozen works for solo instruments and orchestra, and a wealth of chamber music. It is in his string quartets in particular that Piston’s richness and profundity can be experienced; both the Second Quartet of 1935 and the Fifth Quartet of 1962 are complex works of pure music-making, and nothing short of masterly.

With Howard Hanson we come to one of the most distinguished all-around careers in the history of American music. By turns composer, music-school administrator, and tireless conductor of his own and his colleagues’ works, Hanson is a romantic symphonist able to domesticate in his own music the influence of Sibelius and also of Rachmaninoff. In such an extraordinary work as his 1938 Third Symphony he has combined a rich Slavic-Nordic harmonic palette with open, long lined, characteristically American-sounding melodies.



Little need be said here of Virgil Thomson, now rich in years and honors. His film scores from the mid-30′s, The Plough that Broke the Plains and The River, are classics of that descriptive genre. On a more elevated level, he is perhaps the most accomplished setter of American speech rhythms ever to write serious music. He has managed in his two Gertrude Stein operas, the 1927-28 Four Saints in Three Acts and the 1947 The Mother of Us All, to make clear that which no amount of literary criticism seems yet to have found possible: the connection between the sophisticated expatriate modernism of the 1920′s and its roots in plain American life.

As can be gathered even from George Steiner’s limited praise, Roger Sessions has indeed been one of our most important composers. It can be said of him that in his quiet, self-effacing, and self-respecting way he has been our musical conscience. Open to influence but never an imitator, he first made his name with The Black Maskers of 1923. In his long career he has written nine symphonies, many of them in the years after 1958. The first of these later works—another of the numerous Third Symphonies of high quality which American composers have produced—is serene and uncompromising, a lesson in how musical dryness can be rich in feeling, and how dissonance need not rob harmonic structure of recognizable shape. His chamber music, too, including the string quartets of 1936 and 1951 and a 1958 string quintet, commands deep respect and enduring affection. His 1970 setting of Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d is an altogether more penetrating and authentic work than Hindemith’s 1946 treatment of the same words. Given Sessions’s stature, it is a particular disgrace of an already shame-ridden industry that not one of his works is currently available in an up-to-date recording on a major commercial label.

Henry Cowell is, in the way which later came to full flower (and perhaps even went to seed) in the person of John Cage, a difficult and varied phenomenon to encompass. At one and the same time highly serious in his commitment to music and seemingly aimless in his unceasing experimentalism, Cowell was a lifelong propagandist for “New Musical Resources,” as the title of his 1930 book put it. At first these new resources lay for him in unorthodox sounds—which included playing the keys of the piano with fists and elbows and plucking the strings inside in the fashion of a harp; but he was also an early innovator in complex rhythms and the serial ordering of composition. Cowell was deeply interested in music from cultures other than Western, and he was an early innovator in methods of musical indeterminacy, paving the way for post-World War II developments. At last he seemed to come to a kind of rest in his American past, utilizing the spirit of old tunes and forms in a music purged of the avant-garde. But even when we take into account the relative quietude of his later music, his entire career suggests not the arrival but the quest.

The reputation of Roy Harris can be described as a brilliant high followed by a slow descent into a kind of obsolescence. Of all the American Third Symphonies, his was the most successful; indeed it may well be our most frequently performed native symphony. His First Symphony, commissioned in 1933 and premiered the next year by Koussevitsky in Boston, combines rhythmic disjunctions and jerkiness with the beginnings of an identifiable melodic style. It was his particular brand of melody which was to make Harris’s fame in 1937 with the Third Symphony. On occasion his reliance on the folk ethos—in, for example, the 1940 Folksong Symphony—makes it difficult to accept some of his work as belonging to an altogether serious genre. In his chamber music, however, the musical impulse seems refined, elegant, and moving. Harris’s prolific output is another casualty of the current American recording scene.



In contrast to the desuetude which has befallen so many American composers, Aaron Copland has become something of a legend in his own time. By melodic shape he has conquered, so fusing his style with the materials on which he has drawn that it remains a matter of fine speculation whether he has created the American sound or the American sound has created him. He has written always with effort and care, producing finely crafted scores never a minute too long and containing never a note too many. It is our loss that he stopped composing, or so it is believed, in the middle 1960′s. Through his performing career, and especially through his genial personality, he has been a clear witness to the proposition that there can be an American music both serious and successful, both native and universal.

With Elliott Carter we arrive at an achievement—and a problem—very close to the heart of the contemporary composer’s relation to his audience. That problem, simply put, involves the degree of complexity and heterogeneity which even educated listeners can reasonably be expected to comprehend. From beginnings not uninfluenced by Copland, if his 1939-43 Elegy is any evidence, Carter has taken a path of increasing severity and complexity, reaching in his music of the last three decades an intellectual density fascinating to performers and as yet bewildering to audiences. Still, at least as late as the 1965 Piano Concerto, the by now classic American sound of wide-spaced melodies is audible in Carter’s music; all that impedes an appreciation of this quality is the multiplicity of the notes, the sophistication of the rhythms which accompany them, and the formidable thickness of the texture in which they are embedded. Were the musical value of Carter’s building blocks not so self-evident, no one would even make the attempt to understand his work; as it is, we are locked into trying.

Samuel Barber, whose recent death removed a figure of special distinction in our national music life, was vastly successful as a composer of instrumental music. His 1949 Piano Sonata is the most recent piece to have entered the international virtuoso repertory. His 1941 Violin Concerto and 1962 Piano Concerto are widely and successfully performed. As an orchestral composer he possessed the grand line, as his works demonstrate from the 1936 First Symphony on. His melodies and harmonies linger in the ear; once heard, the famous Adagio for Strings, also written in 1936, can never be forgotten. His vocal music, too, has a special prominence. Not one but two of his operas were performed by the Metropolitan Opera, itself hardly a recent booster of native efforts. While Vanessa (1958) had a promising start with the critics and public, it did not enter the repertory. Antony and Cleopatra (1966), written for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera house at Lincoln Center, proved an initial disappointment. Still, listening to a tape of the original performance strongly suggests that here, too, Barber’s music will last, and that his vocal music may well represent his finest achievement.

It is fitting to bring these thumbnail appreciations to a close with William Schuman, who is not only still composing but also still serving as spokesman and goad for an American music. Early in his writing career, his music seemed a combination of motor energy and a melodic line—if not an accompanying atmosphere—drawn from popular American music. These qualities are exemplified in the unjustly neglected 1942 Piano Concerto. Increasingly, however, a tragic, tightly dark-hued mood has become prominent in his music. In To Thee, Old Cause and the Ninth Symphony, both of 1968, this note is particularly pronounced; in the latter work, inspired by the monument in Rome to the Jews and Christians killed by the Nazis in the Ardeatine Caves, there is evident a new, almost demonic, quality developing out of his earlier rhythmic nervousness. Overall, he seems to be accepting with some nobility a downturn in the American fortunes he would rather have celebrated. His is a talent and a music as yet undervalued, even during his seventieth birthday year.



It is plain from even a cursory glance at these composers and their work that we have found no single, uniform style, no overarching similarity of musical approach, no consistently identifiable American character. Rather we have found conservatives and modernists, romantics and intellectuals, nationalists and cosmopolitans, the self-willed and the eclectic. What, then, links these diverse creators? Perhaps the unifying element is to be found not in output but in input, not in effect but in cause. Instead of trying to unify their music, it might be better to try to understand the world into which they were born and the world in which they wrote.

From the point of view of today’s mood of apathy, cultural pessimism, and anomie, the turn of the century in this country seems a time of enthusiasm, optimism, and even integration. The frontier had been won; the domestic economy, though still subject to bubbles and panics, was expanding at a historically unparalleled rate; immigrants by the million were being easily absorbed; science and technology were prolonging life and making it easier; in extending its borders in both the Caribbean and the Orient, America was claiming its manifest destiny. At home, a call was also being heard to cultural greatness. The system of higher education was being modernized and professionalized; American painting was restless with the call of modernism, and museums and private collections all over the country were enlarging apace; in music, American orchestras—and the Metropolitan Opera—were in the process of becoming the equal of any in the world. For the first time in our history, an independent, broadly-based artistic culture was seen as an inevitable and desirable development.

Some of this momentum undoubtedly continued into the years before World War I. Nonetheless, the period of the 1910′s and the early 1920′s seem like plague years. Our intervention in Mexico, labor unrest at home, our backdoor entry into World War I, the demeaning peace negotiations at Versailles, the farce of Prohibition, the stench of corruption in national politics—in a few years our national self-image, especially as perceived by our culture-creating classes, had gone from Parsifal to something approaching an impotent rotter. Thus it was that, immediately after the war which America had fought to save democracy, Europe became the refuge of our best and brightest. For both Copland and Thomson, Paris in particular was the home of music, of art, of life. Nor were they alone; of our eleven composers, ten were in Europe for extended periods between the wars, most to study, some to live. Only William Schuman stayed home.

But this mass departure did not last. Most of our composers began coming home even during the 1920′s. Copland’s case is typical. By 1925 he had decided to return home to write a consciously American music. Virgil Thomson had been back in this country in 1923 and 1924 and returned periodically thereafter until the outbreak of World War II. By 1927 he was working with Gertrude Stein on Four Saints. Similarly, Moore had left Paris in 1921; Hanson had left Rome in 1924; Harris had left Paris (and his teacher Nadia Boulanger) in 1929.

The idea of America was in the air. Ernest Bloch, an American resident since 1916, wrote in 1926 a giant symphonic poem entitled simply America; based on traditional and folk sources, it ended with something very close to a national anthem. On a less exalted level, Douglas Moore had written his evocation of P.T. Barnum in 1924. In the 1930′s this explicitly nationalist movement in music gathered steam; among the many examples of the trend are Randall Thompson’s 1932 choral work, Americana, and Henry Cowell’s 1937 American Melting Pot and the Old American Country Set.

The concern of American artists with their homeland was undoubtedly increased after 1929 by the world-wide depression, which hit America with particular force. Family allowances and fellowships shrank, and for reasons both moral and economic the expatriate life no longer seemed supportable as it once had. The America these artists came home to was vastly different from what it had been just a few years before. The crash, far from being a cause of disorganization or revolution, had produced the powerful political reaction of the New Deal. Along with the effort to reconstruct the economy came a desire to build a new society, a confidence in our national toughness under adversity, and a belief in the future of native culture. World conditions furthered this American mood, not least among intellectuals; for many of them, the Popular Front, born of Stalin’s desire for allies against Hitler, inspired respect both for the attractiveness of the masses and the goodness and power of the United States.



For musicians, the teeming America of the 1930′s was no longer a simple extension of the Europe which had earlier enthralled them. Everywhere in America there was new musical life, as demonstrated by a large increase in orchestras and concerts (the majority of them privately financed), in music education all the way down to the elementary-school level, and above all in radio broadcasting both national and local. And, most gratifying to composers, audiences across the country were newly willing to listen to native products in a manner neither patronizing nor dutiful, but rather out of a desire for art as the shared experience of the community.

Americans had become more receptive not only to their own culture, but to musical culture in general. With the rise of Nazism, émigrés came at first from Hitler’s Germany, then from Austria, and finally from all of Europe for shelter and employment. In this exodus were the most distinguished composers and performers of the age, who brought to American musical life a new energy and sophistication; their contribution was made on the basis of permanent residence, not, in the manner of today, as an incidental benefit scattered during concert tours.

It seems reasonable to speculate that our new national musical strength, though most prominently displayed in the rise of explicitly nationalist compositions, also must have deeply affected those artists who had no desire to write specifically “American” works. The music flowed from many composers in a hitherto unexampled (for America) richness, variety, and depth. Such diverse composers as Hanson, Piston, Sessions, and Barber, with all their different feelings about America and Europe, nonetheless partook with the nationalists of an enthusiasm for the creative possibilities here at home, and exemplified in their music the high seriousness of the national mood.

The first years of the 1940′s saw a continuation of this momentum. The build-up to World War II concentrated the minds of the American people; the Japanese attack which finally brought us into the war completed the process of unification which had begun back in the late 1920′s. So beguiling was this atmosphere that composers not infrequently succumbed to a kind of grandiosity which, as in the case of Randall Thompson’s 1943 The Testament of Freedom, a musical setting of the words of Jefferson, quickly became its own punishment.

Victory, when it came, produced an unavoidable feeling of let-down, and the unstable peace that followed the war blurred the lines between good guys and bad guys that had been so clear in the 1930′s. Then, too, travel once again became possible and even easy, exposing Americans once again to the blandishments of our musical mother countries where the wine was better and artists were truly respected.



Looming over all these factors was an overriding loss of national confidence. Slowest to appear in the economic arena, it was manifest first in politics. By 1947 it became clear that elements of both the Right and the Left had deserted the Center of the grand American wartime coalition, the one to support a new isolationism and the other to advocate sympathy for Soviet policies. In ideas, the prevailing tone of discussion was set by the rise of the existentialist philosophy associated with Heidegger and Sartre. Only in painting and to some extent in dance did American culture remain a world pace setter.

In music the American retreat was shown in various ways both public and private. A mini-generation of European artists, blocked from world careers by war, now toured the United States in force. The fact of cheaper wages abroad, aided by a union ban on domestic recording here, spurred the takeover of the American recording market by European labels and artists. The most gifted American music students, performers and composers alike, began once again to go to Europe in droves to study; in this they were aided by imaginative federal government subsidies.

In composition the late 1940′s saw the initial triumph of what has been called the Second Viennese School, but which might with equal justice be called the First School of Paris. René Leibowitz and Olivier Messiaen became the gurus of many of our younger composers. Boulez and Stockhausen soon followed, and the era of Darmstadt was upon us. It was soon to be the age of integral serialism and later of aleatorics, of the signal generator and the tape recorder. Yet first-class music continued to be written here, not only by the composers I have described above, but also by their followers and successors. Some continued on their own paths, independent of international trends; others, as time passed, seemed to compose less and less.

But whatever happened to individual composers, what was missing was the sense of a distinctly American music, of distinctly American developments in composition. Indeed, by the time the New York intellectuals clustered around Partisan Review rediscovered America in 1952 (in the famous symposium, “Our Country and Our Culture”), American music speaking of and to our own situation was gone, and with it the atmosphere of hope which had marked earlier decades.

Is such a collective atmosphere indeed necessary for music-making? Can great music not be produced by socially isolated artists writing out of the experience of their isolation? There can be no ready answer to this question: individuals can individually do just about anything. But artistic movements, broad trends informing and informed by a whole society, do seem to be deeply related to social optimism—even when such optimism, as in 19th-century Germany, may be less than solidly based.

A warning, however, is in order here. Because such positive social attitudes may be vital to the creation of art does not mean that they—or the art itself—can be elicited by the conscious actions of those who hold the reins of politics and society. Above all, optimism, like happiness, can never be the planned result of governmental fiat or bureaucratic direction. No lasting art issued from the exhortations to joy of Hitler and Goebbels; Stalin’s policy of Socialist Realism resulted not in the enlivening of music but in the persecution of musicians. Any similar attempt in our vegetarian American context would bring about something vastly more benign, but equally lifeless.



Since I began with George Steiner, it would not be fair to end without attempting to answer his strictures about American music. Are any of the composers I have discussed here, from Moore to Schuman, the equal of the European names he cites?

At this moment in the history of musical taste, the reputations of such as Schoenberg and Bartók plainly stand by themselves. The problem, however, is that if we persist in judging all musical activity as Steiner does, by the received standards of the masterpiece and the immortal oeuvre, we will forever remain what he has accused us of being—conservators of someone else’s far greater past. Such a judgment might be fair and even constructive if elsewhere in the world there were at this time vibrant musical health and glorious creative activity. But the great musical cultures of Europe seem no better off—except, of course, for their history—than do we.

Whatever value Europe may have had for us as a model in the past, it does not seem to be a viable model today. If we are to revivify our musical life, it is to our own past that we must look for both inspiration and confidence. What I have tried to suggest is that we do indeed possess a musical past of which we can be proud. How we will use that pride is a matter of creative invention, not of imitation. It is for composers to provide the invention; perhaps it is for society to provide the context.

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