A Song By Any Other Name

Francis Hopkinson, learned 18th-century judge and signer of the Declaration of Independence, claimed to be the first native-born European American to compose music. His song, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” was published in 1759 and is apparently the first American-composed vocal work to see print. His Seven Songs for the Harpsichord (called “songs” but written for keyboard alone), dedicated to his friend George Washington, followed in 1788. The Federal Gazette carried an advertisement for the set, saying, “These songs are composed in an easy, familiar style intended for young Practitioners on the Harpsichord or Forte Piano, and is the first work of this kind attempted in the United States.” Note “familiar” and “attempted.”

Contemporary with Hopkinson, the peg-legged tanner William Billings also wrote music. It wasn’t familiar and it attempted nothing but to be itself. Without friends in high places, Billings could make no claim to be the first native-born American composer. His rude and ragged “fuguing tunes,” as he called them, broke the rules or ignored them. Billings was poor and ill-educated and yet, without advertisements, his hymn, “Chester,” became a popular song of rebellion during the American Revolution. What Hopkinson “attempted” was, of course, to write music in America as they might be writing it in Europe. Find his music online, and you’ll discover that he succeeded, if that’s the word, at producing pale imitations of what he emulated. What Billings did was make music that sounded right and strong and engaging to his ear. He, too, succeeded.

The Hopkinson-Billings split plays out through much of American musical history. Chadwick gives us Germany; Ives gives us New England. Griffes takes us to Paris; Joplin gives us a tour of St. Louis. And so on. Some composers look back to the European traditions or across the Atlantic to current fashion, while others go about the business of creating musical responses to the lives they live. This is not a normative issue. The European emulators have composed works of great quality, while writing for the here-and-now is no guarantee the result will stir listeners.

But when most people think of “classical music,” they think of the European-derived sort. Play one of Hopkinson’s harpsichord pieces for an average listener, followed by one of Billings’s fuguing tunes. Then ask the listener to classify the pieces just heard. The answer will come quickly for the Hopkinson: classical. Billings will most likely prompt a furrowed brow and an “I don’t know.”

The core story of Western art music is the invention, development, and disintegration of harmony, the progress from plainsong to modal harmony to tonality to post-tonality. America had no role in that history. Harmony went from Perotin to Palestrina to J.S. Bach to Wagner to Webern entirely without American input. Of course, the European invention called harmony is now globally ubiquitous. And that means that, in some sense, classical music is also global and therefore (nominally at least) American. But it’s also Indian, Afghani, Indonesian, Egyptian, Japanese, etc. It’s everybody’s and nobody’s.

Examples can be found throughout the United States of iambic pentameter, Sufism, polo, and Korean food. That doesn’t make any of them American. Soccer is played in America, but no one calls it an “American” sport. So, why do we keep insisting there can be such a thing as American classical music, as opposed to classical music that happens to be made in America? Viewed from numerous perspectives, classical music doesn’t fit an American mold.

  • If America is the profit-seeking market of products, promotions, and sales, then the low stakes, non-profit world of classical music is clearly not American.

  • If America is the rejection of European culture for a new perspective, then classical music belongs by definition to Europe, even to Old Europe, and not to us.

  • If America is the melting pot of every conceivable influence, then the unblended art music of Europe is not American.

Why is it helpful to American composers to know this? Because most of us are educated in the university/conservatory system, which instills the idea that what we do is necessarily a continuation of the traditions set down in Europe over the past three centuries. And that’s not true.

I’m not arguing for pop culture, as opposed to so-called “high culture.” The decay of high culture has prompted commodification so extreme we barely notice that a new elitism has grown up around wealthy purveyors of pop, eliminating the old distinction. To love the products of European high culture in the present milieu is to reject the elitism of corporate pop. This essay is only a note to say: I believe it could be helpful to stop thinking of ourselves as “classical” composers.

In a genre-crazy world, that’s hard to avoid, I know. “What kind of music do you write?” needs to be answered somehow, and the answer that comes most easily is “classical,” or maybe that handy oxymoron, “contemporary classical.” In truth, unless you are a total imitator, the music you write is simply your music. It may be written for symphony orchestra or gamelan or pop vocalist or GarageBand, but whatever it is, it’s the music of an individual that cannot adequately be classified or pigeonholed. A critical listener will spot influences, but an open-minded one will hear what’s new and unique to you. That, more than anything else I can think of, is American.

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Kenneth LaFave
Kenneth LaFave

Kenneth LaFave‘s music has been performed by the Phoenix Symphony, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago String Quartet, the Kansas City Chorale, Close Encounters with Music, and many other artists and organizations. With librettist Robert Kastenbaum, LaFave has composed the 30-minute cabaret opera Closing Time, the full-length musical Outlaw Heart, and American Gothic, a full-length opera in one act. LaFave’s most recent commissions include Gateways, a concerto for electric guitar and wind symphony; and The Medicine Gift, for two horns, piano and narrator, set to a text by his wife, Susan LaFave.