Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers

“Full” essay- or book-length accounts of American music provide far greater and more coherent histories and analyses of movements, genres, and zeitgeist, but they tend to take the “great man” approach to the subject: sections and chapters revolve around only a few already-famous composers as the most characteristic or most influential figures of their time. These are not appropriate sources for information on secondary historical characters or young composers—or, for that matter, truly contemporary music aside from what minimalism has morphed into.

John Rockwell‘s important All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) is now too old to be included in this survey, and it’s also really too detail-oriented: each of the 20 chapters revolves around a single figure (or ensemble). But it’s written with style and conviction, and there’s something courageous and strangely appealing about a book that places Milton Babbitt, Laurie Anderson, Ornette Coleman, Stephen Sondheim, and Neil Young on a level playing field.

Another volume I’ll let pass with minimal comment is Perspectives on American Music Since 1950, edited by James R. Heintze (Garland, 1999). It has a promising title but looks to be a collection of unrelated conference papers so specialized (a profile of Mary Lou Williams, an examination of David Diamond‘s String Quartet No. 10, a look at African-American organ literature, an introduction to five New Orleans composers of the 1990s) that it loses coherence. This abandonment of the grand line, unfortunately, is all too common among today’s academic tomes, even those by single authors. I’m going to concentrate on books that work through condensation rather than atomization.

I regret that I’ve never been able to get my hands on Kyle Gann‘s highly regarded American Music in the Twentieth Century, which seems to be the only book of its kind that recognizes that there was more going on in the 1990s than Phil Glass and John Adams. From what I’ve heard—and, knowing his other writing, I have no reason to doubt this—Gann covers particularly the last 50 years of American composition with sympathy and insight, but doesn’t withhold his opinions. The book is apparently so good that it’s always checked out of the library. And at 51 bucks for 400 pages, it’s obviously aimed at deep-pocket institutions rather than individual enthusiasts.

John Warthen Strubel’s History of American Classical Music: MacDowell through Minimalism (Facts on File, 1995) is a book to read straight through, although it can be dipped into profitably. Strubel asserts that American classical music is undeniably linked to European antecedents, but it evolved in a manner that requires it to be evaluated by its own standards and criteria. This sounds like special pleading, and you can’t help wondering if Strubel is implying that our music should be held to lower standards because of its disadvantaged origins. Strubel dismisses most American composition before Ives as a “blind alley” of imitation, but he glosses over the fact that so much 20th-century American music was beholden to the likes of Stravinsky and especially Webern.

Chapters are arranged more thematically than chronologically, although Strubel does give a sense of time passing, because he isolates Copland, Thomson, and Harris from Hanson, Sessions, and Piston, and these are segregated from “The Generation of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties” and “The Roots of Dissatisfaction: Foundations of the ’60s Avant-Garde.” His chapter on “Post-modernism” is basically a catch-all for living composers who are neither serialist, minimalist, nor aleatoric.

Sometimes Strubel writes like a perfect gentleman. An extensive chapter integrates Copland’s biography and work; this section is well written, completely neutral, and objective, and avoids technicalities. Griffes also receives substantial coverage and well-mannered advocacy. And there’s a good little section on George Perle: two paragraphs almost free of CV, discussing his manner of musical thinking without becoming technical (or even mentioning specific works, unfortunately, aside from a book).

As Strubel bounds into the later 20th century, he can hit pretty hard—which is a relief after all these other namby-pamby reference books, but it’s difficult to figure out where his home corner is. He cites with apparent sympathy the “full-scale revolution against the repressive influence of Babbitt, Sessions, and other 12-tone composers in the training of American serious composers,” yet he rebukes David Del Tredici for “his blatantly romantic style, which appears to cater to the lowest common denominator of reactionary attitudes on the part of the listening public.” At the end of his man-handling of Del Tredici comes a back-handed compliment doubling as a slap at another major composer: “His work always displays consummate craft in orchestration and melodic conception and tends to be less derivative than that of his friend and colleague, John Corigliano. Whether it will survive remains to be seen.”

As we approach the present, Strubel discusses the usual suspects: William Bolcom, Bernard Rands, Jacob Druckman, Stephen Albert, Joan Tower, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. The minimalism chapter focuses on the standard five guys—Young, Riley, Reich, Glass and Adams, concentrating especially on Glass (who wrote the book’s foreword) and hardly at all on Adams.

The appendices are very interesting, but some have little practical application. A year-by-year timeline of American music history is a good resource for program annotators; a list of composers by state of origin is fun but ultimately meaningless (composers move); and “The Fundamental Repertoire of American Classical Music” covers more than the fundamentals—it includes the symphonies of Antheil, two operas by Deems Taylor, film scores by Bernard Herrmann and several theater pieces by Glass that have already fallen from view.

As far as it goes, this is a fine source of information and cultural analysis—as long as you’re in the mood for an argument.

Wilfrid Mellers‘s Music in a New Found Land: Themes and Developments in the History of American Music (Oxford University Press, 1987) is billed as a revision of the 1964 edition, but there’s actually little “revision”; the original text stands, meaning that the material on Elliott Carter and Morton Feldman was already grossly incomplete and out of date by 1987, and now here we are in the 21st century. Essays are thematic, not chronological, and in many ways this makes more sense out of American music than a timeline approach. Mellers pays close attention to jazz, too, but not white popular music. He has paltry interest in 19th-century American music; too bad, because though much of it was, indeed, watered-down Schumann and Brahms, there was also much of enduring interest, particularly the later work of Chadwick. In the new foreword, though, Mellers does make up for some omissions in the first edition, writing appreciatively of the works of such figures as Charles Seeger and Dane Rudhyar (“a real, if slightly mad, composer”). Then comes a roll call of composers active in the 20 years following the book’s initial publication, which constitutes the “revision,” and in some ways is the most provocative chapter.

This is likely the only general book on American music that links Philip Glass’ 1980s form of minimalism to the “‘libidinal’ philosophy of Jacques Derrida and J.-F. Lyotard“—this toward the end of an even-handed discussion of minimalism that reveals Mellers’ deep reservations about the movement. Elsewhere, Mellers can seem at least mildly eccentric, but at least he’s putting forward well-grounded opinions based on personal experience, rather than retyping press releases. He indulges, for instance, in measured praise of Jon Appleton, “a minor, exclusively electronic composer”: “Jon Appleton, like Erik Satie, may be an important, little composer. By way of a modern machine, his music says something about birth and human potential; at the same time it offers a dispassionately comic assessment of our no less human limitations.” On Copland: “Copland is not a ‘great’ composer—perhaps not even a great composer in potentia, like Ives. But he is a very important composer in twentieth-century history, for he is the first artist to define precisely, in sound, an aspect of our urban experience.” And Mellers is not always a nice guy, nor entirely accurate in his citations: “Though Barber is always a more musical composer than Menotti, there is not much to choose between the slower parts of Dei [sic] Natali and Amahl and the Night Visitors, which has become a TV perennial. In both, the Hollywood gloss is a prostitution of the Christmas mystery. It seems sacrilegious, whether one believes in that mystery or not.”

As John Worthen Strubel points out in his own book, “Mellers qualified virtually every positive statement he made with some chauvinistic aside betraying his tacit assumption that American classical music could only be evaluated by the yardstick of European musical evolution.” Eurocentric, outdated, and occasionally testy, Mellers’ book nevertheless remains a provocative and readable version of The Big Picture.

Charles J. Hall’s A Chronicle of American Music, 1700-1995 (Schirmer Books, 1996) is a year-by-year listing of American musical milestones in the context of other arts and culture around the world. Each year includes historical and world cultural events, highlights in American art and literature, then information on the American music situation. There’s always a half page or so on “The Vernacular/Commercial Scene,” itemizing the year’s births (through 1971), deaths, top performing groups, “new beginnings” (festivals and record labels), honors, publications, and number-one hits. The section on the “Cultivated/Art Music Scene” features the same information, but more plentifully, including debuts, people in new positions of authority in music organizations and educational institutions, honors and awards, the establishments of musical ensembles, a dozen or so major books on music, and lists of new works (but no mention of premiere performances). This last category is subdivided by genre: chamber music, choral/vocal, concertos, electronic, operas, orchestra/band, piano/organ, and symphonies. As we near the present day, the composers mentioned tend to be those who get a lot of press (in 1995, Carter, Corigliano, Danielpour, Mackey, Rochberg, Rorem, and Wernick occupy the chamber music slot), but not every listed composer is a star. The works of Bob Muczynski enjoy 16 mentions, those of Dan Asia nine. No mention of Dan Coleman or Annie Gosfeld, though.

Otto Karolyi‘s Modern American Music: From Charles Ives to the Minimalists (Cygnus Arts, 1996) is an entry-level primer by an outsider, a Paris-born, Budapest-educated, Scotland-based music professor. It’s quite short and so takes a canonical approach to American music of the 20th century, although one could quibble with some of Karolyi’s decisions; Earle Brown gets a couple of pages, but there’s nothing on William Schuman. There are full chapters on Ives, Gershwin, Copland (for whom Karolyi holds both admiration and reservations), Varèse, and Cage. Such diverse mid-century figures as Ruggles, Piston, Thomson, and Barber are grouped into their own chapter, as are such “modernist front-runners” as Cowell, Sessions, Partch, Carter, Babbitt, Brown, and Crumb. As usual, the minimalists get the final chapter (not counting a strange blurb pulling together the Latin Americans Villa-Lobos, Chavez, and Kagel), as if minimalism were the culmination of 20th-century music, whereas of course minimalism reached its apogee in the 1970s and then began evolving into several other things. It’s too bad so few authors and editors choose to end their surveys with a look at the influence of rock and world music on American art music of the 1990s, and the integration of technology into acoustic ensembles. Karolyi runs with the pack.

One of the stated aims in the Cambridge History of American Music (David Nicholls, editor. Cambridge University Press, 1998) is to “represent the realities of America’s [diverse] music history as faithfully as possible. Thus (to employ H. Wiley Hitchcock‘s terms) the cultivated tradition is afforded significantly less prominence than the various vernacular traditions.” This is going to strike conservative readers as excessively P.C., but the title, after all, shows that this is a history of American music, not just American classical music.

Nineteen authors, almost all of them professors at American universities, contribute 20 substantial chapters on topics arranged, insofar as possible, chronologically from “American Indian Musics, Past and Present” to “Tonal Traditions in Art Music Since 1960.” The final three chapters are of greatest importance to readers interested in living American composers—”Serialism and Complexity” by Stephen Peles, “Avant-garde and Experimental Music” by David Nicholls, and the aforementioned “Tonal Traditions in Art Music since 1960″ by Jonathan W. Bernard—but they each must cover so much ground that they focus on trends and controversies rather than individual contributions. Necessarily, the allusions are to the big names, with only fleeting and unenlightening references in passing to the likes of Phill Niblock and Peter Garland.

Bernard, at least, is not afraid to call it as he sees it; Bernstein‘s “Kaddish” Symphony is “frankly embarrassing” and, in the late works of Hovhaness, “a truly corny sensibility now seems to have entered the picture.” Bernard declares that “Hovhaness could be called the Grandma Moses of contemporary American music if such a remark were not easily construed as an insult to folk art.” He writes sympathetically, though, of Del Tredici’s Alice works. He’s ambivalent about Michael Torke, whom he describes as “talented and intelligent, but he also comes across as extremely cynical.” He also gives serious, if extremely brief, consideration to Michael Daugherty, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Christopher Rouse. Daugherty and Kernis, in particular, are too young to be considered by most of the other reference books, so in this respect the Cambridge History is especially valuable.

Richard Crawford, in his America’s Musical Life (W.W. Norton, 2001), brings us an extremely valuable, comprehensive account, but not one to be dipped into for quick info on an individual composer. It begins, like the Cambridge History, with Native American music, but peters out in the 1980s. It’s particularly strong on most facets of music in 19th-century America. Also like Cambridge, there’s a strong focus on non-classical music in the 20th century; indeed, American art-music composers since the Depression are crammed into only two chapters (the second devoted mainly to the unrelated topics of the sexual revolution and its manifestation in popular music, and how the minimalists have attempted to bridge the gap between composer, and audience). These are plopped amid considerations of jazz, rock, Broadway, pop, and ethnicity and other subjects. Elliott Carter and John Cage, among a few others, do receive fairly extensive and sympathetic treatment. But in going for the widest possible view of American music, Crawford leaves most contemporary classical composers out of focus.

From Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers
By James Reel
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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