Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music

One of the ways in which Aaron Copland reached out to a “large audience of inexperienced listeners” was through the use of a clearly American reference–a cowboy tune–in the second section of the piece. Copland was not alone in employing this kind of musical device, and it must have worked well on radio. For one, it gave listeners something to listen for, and it also fed into a sense of national pride.

It is evident from contemporary description of two of the works commissioned by the networks that the composers were "courting" a broad American audience. Philip JamesStation WGZBX, which won the NBC Orchestra Prize in 1932, appears to have been an appealing mixture of nineteenth-century symphony and swingin’ realism. The first movement is entitled “In the Lobby.” Written in sonata form, it is “meant to portray the corridors of a large broadcasting station.” More importantly, “occasionally the doors of near-by studios” open, allowing Mr. James to musically suggest not only jazz, so distinctively American, but also Native American and Chinese music. After the scherzo and the slow movement, jazz re-emerges in the fourth movement, a rondo called “Mikestruck.” The movement is “an exuberantly cheerful…’Tempo di Jazz.’”

Evidently in a similar vein was Jerome MorossTall Story, commissioned by CBS in 1938. I was unable to access a detailed description of the piece, much less a recording; it seems, however, that Moross’ attempt to evoke America musically, while it may have appealed to an audience, left at least one critic nonplussed. Goddard Lieberson, reviewing for Modern Music, felt that the composer “expressed (his) nationalism in most mundane terms, and with a kind of realism in which we hear all but the temple-block footsteps of a Ferde Grofé mule.”

Music on the Air, from which I extracted the description of Station WGZBX, was designed to be a musical appreciation guide for the radio listener. This book reinforces the notion that at that time of its publication in 1934, there were some composers and many listeners who expected American music to sound recognizably American. The section “American Music Makers,” for instance, was devoted exclusively to essays focussing on American folk music. In the section “In Our Own Time,” however, only four pages were devoted to new American concert music, a collection of short essays called “As the Composers See It.” Of these composers, the only one who saw modernism was the ubiquitous Philip James, who addressed it in rather disparaging terms. “So-called modern music is born largely of controversy,” he wrote, and “the great composer…is not troubled to any extent with modernism or any other ‘ism.’”

Significantly, the “Biographical Sketches” at the end of the volume did not include profiles of experimental composers such as Carl Ruggles, more traditional composers of art music such as Copland or Roy Harris, or even that pioneer in the use of Americana, Charles Ives. This section did, however, include entries for composers such as Howard Brockway, a Juilliard professor who wrote music that relied heavily on Kentucky folk songs; Harry Thacker Burleigh, a student of Dvorak who made many arrangements of African-American spirituals; and Charles Wakefield Cadman, who used Indian themes in his work.

Included in Music on the Air was an essay by the director of the Eastman School of Music, Howard Hanson, entitled “Tendencies in American Music.” Hanson began by stating flat out that “the present world is intensely nationalistic.” He felt that in the years since 1920, the rise of music education had led to the first large crop of American composers imbued with a “national musical consciousness.” Hanson then identified five tendencies in contemporary music that reflected this new American consciousness. They included the use of Native American material, African-American spirituals, jazz, and American folk music. He even described a quintessentially American inspiration for his own Romantic writing: the “sentimentalism” of American popular songs.

Pride in America shows in the titles of several short-lived weeklies carried by NBC and CBS. In addition to American School of the Air, on CBS, which featured American folk music, Our American Music and America in Music were both carried by the NBC Blue Network. Our American Music aired in 1932 and 1933, and America in Music was broadcast in late 1934 and early 1935. Musical Americana aired on CBS during the last part of the decade.

From Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music
by Jennifer Undercofler
© 2000 NewMusicBox