Rediscovering Henry Cowell

[Ed. Note: The following article has been excerpted from an essay by Leon Botstein written for the program book for An American Biography: The Music of Henry Cowell, the upcoming American Symphony Orchestra concert he will conduct at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall on January 29, 2010. The issues Botstein raises go well beyond their pertinence to that particular event and even beyond the music of any individual composer and therefore seemed particularly appropriate to present on these pages. - FJO]

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Henry Cowell
Photo courtesy G. Schirmer / Associated Music Publishers

There was no more distinctly American composer in the first half of the 20th century than Henry Cowell. Cowell was twenty years old when the United States entered the First World War. His career coincided with a time in history in which the America of his day was the China of today. The United States was growing rapidly and was at the cutting edge of industrial competitiveness. It had outstripped Europe and was on its way to becoming the largest economy in the world. During Cowell’s lifetime it would take its place as the most powerful nation on earth. For Europeans, Americans represented industriousness, competition, innovation; America was the future. While earlier generations of European intellectuals found ways to see the United States as backward and provincial, by the time World War I ended, America was no longer a plausible object of derision. Rather it became an object of fascination and emulation, and for that very reason, also a focus of anxiety. In the interwar period, the distinguished German critic and theorist Siegfried Krackauer pointed to the Radio City Rockettes to exemplify the dangers of spiritual mechanization of the human that powered America’s economic and political domination. Through music and film, America became a leading exporter of culture. Given the devastation that took place in Europe, European artists flocked to the United States for patronage and audiences.

It is therefore not surprising that while all this was going on, an optimistic spirit of innovation flourished in the arts in the United States. Insofar as music in American life before 1917 seemed to be derivative in its indebtedness to European models, the challenge facing young American artists in the 1920s was the creation of something distinctly and uniquely American. Now that America, though still young, seemed fully realized as a nation, it demanded that its own distinctive voice be heard. The character of that voice would have to match the industrial spirit of America. It had to be marked by a self-conscious modernity and a faith in innovation.

Cowell’s career coincides with the advent of American modernism in painting, sculpture, and architecture. He was an experimentalist and a pluralist. True to America’s identity as an immigrant nation, he embraced influences from numerous sources. He broke the boundaries that had been erected between types and genres of music. He invented new sounds. He introduced the work of composers from all over the world to American audiences. No individual was more responsible than Cowell for bringing America’s first truly original master of composition, Charles Ives, to the public’s attention. Ives reciprocated with support for Cowell and his activities. Cowell’s interests encompassed not only experimental and avant-garde modernism, but that which we today awkwardly call world music. And while his energy and productivity are themselves a source of amazement, so too is the list of those indebted to Cowell for his role as mentor and advocate.

This impressive record of achievement thus begs the question: why is it that more than three quarters of the devoted audience for classical and concert music today might not recognize even the name Henry Cowell, much less his music? A search of programs by American orchestras and ensembles will reveal that very little if any of Cowell’s music is played. Is the answer to the question that Cowell was simply a great organizer, teacher, and thinker whose music isn’t worth performing? That would be the most commonplace answer.

Its apparent plausibility rests in the mistaken but recalcitrant idea that first, the standard repertory today reflects the collective and legitimate aesthetic judgment of history and therefore a quasi-Darwinian process of objective selection, and second, that music is an art that demands competitive comparison, that only works befitting the attribute “masterpiece” deserve the time and effort to be heard and played in concert. By this standard, not a single work by Henry Cowell has survived. Indeed, from the perspective of the self-styled arbiters of taste who pronounce summary judgment based on criteria worthy of a beauty contest or quiz show, music such as his deserves to be met with skepticism before the performance, and afterwards dismissed with the comment that these works do not compare with the major works of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Bartók, or Stravinsky.

But the judgment of history does not constitute an objective test. Consider the fate of Henry Cowell. The scandal surrounding his imprisonment for homosexuality, and the easy association in many circles between aesthetic radicalism and left-wing politics damaged his reputation and career during his lifetime and posthumously. For all of America’s celebration of its own love of invention and innovation, there has been a dark side to American cultural life: an enormous pressure to conform, the rule of a marketplace that is intolerant of genuine individuality and dissent, and a risk-averse anti-intellectualism derived from mistrust, isolationism, and commercial interest. Henry Cowell’s career and music have consistently tripped the wires of all of these negative attitudes. As a result, for the last fifty years, his music was deprived of the hearing it deserved except in a small community of devoted advocates. More exposure is necessary to permit a reasonable assessment of the worth of his many compositions. Only after repeated performances can we as performers and listeners decide which works we prefer and which seem more persuasive than others. Even within the output of the most famous composers there are hierarchies of taste. In Cowell’s case, exposure denied by the musical establishment at large for extraneous and specious reasons has prevented most listeners from exercising any sort of judgment.

For some odd reason, changing inherited impressions has become much harder in music than it has in either painting or literature. In music, the unremitting standard of the “masterpiece” is more of an excluding factor than it is in any other art. Why does listening to a piece of concert music require a judgment to determine it is not something else—perhaps by Stravinsky, Mozart, Mahler, or Copland? We do not read books this way, and we do not view paintings this way. We do not furnish our homes with paintings and prints and objects that way. No one could argue with the idea that Botticelli’s paintings or Shakespeare’s plays are daunting and overwhelming examples of the triumph of human imagination. But the greatest Botticelli or Shakespeare need not diminish our appreciation of other paintings and plays. We do not reject plays and paintings old or new in our theaters and museums because they are not Botticelli and Shakespeare. We do not demand that the only things performed or displayed are by Botticelli and Shakespeare. We profess a wider and more eclectic range of appreciation for unquestionably excellent examples of human expression in painting and writing. Yet in music, a dominant snobbery apparent in writers, performers, and listeners would shut down the exercise of curiosity. Young performers and conductors learn and offer almost exactly the same historical repertoire that their counterparts did thirty and fifty years ago. Concert promoters encourage this. But as Cowell understood, music is an experience of life in the world. There is a wide range of music that inspires, ennobles and delights audiences who have the insight to listen to a work in relation to their personal preferences or opinions, not in relation to what they have learned are the narrow group of the “best” composers and compositions.

Performing unfamiliar repertoire is not about searching for lost treasures. Our only standard is that it is music that deserves to be enjoyed and experienced. The music must have the inspiration and craftsmanship to capture the attention of those who love to play and listen. We should not be on some sort of Antiques Roadshow, trying to assess rare work by some pre-existing standard of comparative values. We should not be in the business of being musical truffle hounds. Performing Henry Cowell’s music shows not rarity but the unexpected vastness, quality, and depth of musical expression that is available to be heard within the history of music. Not every work will take its place alongside an acknowledged masterpiece, but it doesn’t have to.

As in other arts, all kinds of music contribute to an unimaginably large and varied experience, in which anyone will eventually find something they like. For those who restricted their capacity for the joy of music to a few famous works (an unreasonable fragment of cultural history), they may find that repetition of those works will ultimately eviscerate their power to move the listener by eroding the essential reactions of surprise and engagement those works inspire.

In the course of history, generations reverse themselves. The great work of the past can fade and be replaced by a reversal of judgment. In the end what appeals to the audience is determined by criteria the audience brings to their experience, shaped by the historical circumstances around them. That is what lies beneath the legendary observation of Leonard Bernstein regarding Gustav Mahler’s assertion that “my time will come”: it did. Mahler’s music did not change, but the way it was perceived and interpreted underwent a radical reevaluation. Henry Cowell may be due for such a reevaluation.

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Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra
Photo by Richard Termine; courtesy 21C Media Group

Leon Botstein has had a multifaceted career as a conductor, musicologist, and administrator. Music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) since 1992 and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Israel Broadcasting Authority since 2003, he is also the Editor of The Musical Quarterly (since 1992) and has served as the President of New York’s Bard College since 1975 where he is additionally the Leon Levy Professor in the Arts and Humanities and the co-director of the Bard Music Festival. At the age of 23, Botstein became the youngest college president in the history of the country, heading Franconia College in New Hampshire from 1970 to 1975. He is the author of Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture (Doubleday, 1997); Judentum und Modernität: Essays zur Rolle der Juden in der Deutschen und Österreichischen Kultur, 1848–1938 (Böhlau Verlag, 1991); The History of Listening: How Music Creates Meaning (forthcoming, Basic Books); and Music and Modernism (forthcoming, Yale University Press), and has additionally written articles on a variety of topics for the Christian Science Monitor, Chronicle of Higher Education, Gramophone, Harper’s, New Republic, New York Times, 19th-Century Music, Partisan Review, Psychoanalytic Psychology, Salmagundi, and the Times Literary Supplement, among others. Botstein’s extensive discography, both with ASO and other orchestras, includes premiere recordings of works by Max Bruch, Ernö Dohnányi, Johh Foulds, George Perle, Roger Sessions, Bruno Walter, and Richard Wilson, among others. Upcoming concert performances, in addition to the ASO’s all-Cowell program, include a program devoted to late 20th century Russian orchestral works, also with ASO, a program devoted to rarely heard works by Dvorak with the Jerusalem Symphony (March 2010), and appearances at the 2010 Bard Music Festival, Alban Berg and his World (August 13-22).