View From Even Further East: The Importance of Being Europe


Daniel Felsenfeld

Waiting in the Iberia terminal of New York’s JFK airport, I am more nervous than usual. The flight, much delayed, will soon spirit me away to Madrid, Spain; after a few connections I will ultimately end up in Gijon, Asturias, a small city on the north coast. There, at the jejune-but-mighty Piano España Festival, pianist Jenny Lin will premiere my newest piece Insomnia Redux; 4am, written just for this occasion. I’ve been in this situation before: waiting at an airline terminal for a flight that will take me to hear a world premiere; but this one is different because it is my European debut.

It’s not the Concertgebouw Orchestra or the Vienna Staatsoper, granted, but it is indeed Europe. And this is, for some barely graspable reason, terribly important. For weeks, I have been impressing my friends by telling them about this upcoming performance, and one thing seems to be across-the-board startling to them: Europe. The Continent. Abroad. It gets me thinking.

Of course, classical music was, at the beginning, an import, strictly European, and still these shadows hang over our heads. There’s a notion, mostly of the under-the-radar variety, that we will never be able to compete. Not just in music, but in almost all aspects of our cultural life: for years Americans have been bewitched by that far-off land—with the languages we cannot speak (for the most part), the haute cuisines and coutures, the misty art movies and bloody history. We love and trust accents. How many of you have assumed a French child speaking his native tongue to be immensely gifted? We simply adore the foreign, always have.

Our first generation of American composers, called collectively the First Boston School by some, all got their start in Germany. John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote, George Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, and Horatio Parker (who taught Charles Ives) all studied their double fugue, harmony and solfeggio with German teachers, and came back writing ersatz Brahms or Strauss. They went on to form music departments in important schools: Paine started the program at Harvard, the first in the country; Chadwick was at the helm of America’s oldest conservatory, New England, for three decades; Parker initiated the program at Yale; and MacDowell—aside from founding the country’s first and arguably still most important artist’s colony—got Columbia University’s curriculum off the ground. Their music was played often and by major orchestras like the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, which were then themselves young institutions. And though some, particularly Chadwick and MacDowell, began to write in what might now be considered an “American” idiom—a music full of jaunty rhythms, broad harmonies and Scotch snaps—most of this music was, on all levels, of a completely imported aesthetic.

In fact, when Jeanette Thurber decided to form a conservatory in New York, and wanted a teacher who could not only enlighten the students, but who would serve as the great definer of an “American” sound, none of these men were sought—it was an Eastern European by the name of Antonin Dvorak who was brought here with this express purpose. He was not only to write a great opera on Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, but was even commissioned to compose a new national anthem. With many fine, well wrought, and even Euro-trained composers running major music departments and writing expertly crafted, inventive works, it was still a European—albeit an Eastern one—who could presumably outdo them all.

The most important and knowledgeable scholar on this front is the always-impressive Joseph Horowitz, whose books Understanding Toscanini and Wagner Nights should be required reading for all classical musicians, especially composers. In his Toscanini exegesis, he traces the phenomenon I am discussing, the import of the European as the great savior of American music—its creator, its interpreter, its keeper-of-the-flame. In Wagner Nights he resurrects conductor Anton Seidl, Wagner’s friend and amanuensis, whose summer afternoon concerts of the music of his beloved mentor at Coney Island caused many a rich housewife to swoon with what they later came to understand was orgasmic delight. Neither of these men, whose success and celebrity was primarily American, had any sort of investment in the music of the land that fed them. Seidl might best be remembered as the man who led that most American of works: Dvorak’s New World Symphony—and citing that as local is like calling An American in Paris a great piece of French music.

Many of these composers sought out some principally American sources for their music, and though it is a touch disturbing to read of today, a lot of them thought the future lay in “negro melodies” and the songs of our own native noble savages. A whole “Indianist” movement rose, and some prominent people like Busoni hopped on the bandwagon. The savage beating of the tom-toms, the gentle smoking of the peace pipe, and the oppressed-but-happy tunes coming from the plantation slave quarters were what Europe viewed as the music this new world had to offer. Condescendingly of course, they found this “folk” stuff cute, savage, untrained, and far removed from their more cultured string quartets, symphonies, and grand operas. Reading about it today, it all scans at best as precious; at worst as horrid, ignorant, and downright offensive. But again, this was a Euro conception of America—we, back then, did not have any sort of tradition of our own, so what little musical material was actually available was used with little success. And let us not ever forget that the noble savages so deeply romanticized as American were not only an evolved civilization—as advanced as any on the continent—but were pretty much done in by the interlopers, while at the same time being exploited for their quaint ways. I think it is a part of our history we’d rather leave out of the books.

Eventually, of course, American composers grew into their own, defying their continental roots and creating a truly native sound from native people. But did these people sign up for courses at Yale with Parker or Columbia with MacDowell? With the notable exception of Charles Ives, no. Instead, people like Virgil Thomson, William Schuman, David Diamond, Marc Blitzstein, Elliott Carter, Ned Rorem, and Aaron Copland packed their steamer trunks and headed to Europe—Paris, this time, to study with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger. And so the great American music of the subsequent generations is also borne of the Euro in some way or another.

For a good portion of this century, America was the place to be, and many of the globally acknowledged greats proudly became American ex-pats: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Krenek, Hindemith, Bartòk, and Varèse all sought asylum from their own war-torn lands. So for a while our great composers, whom we held dear and began to count among our own, were as imported as Dvorak. And Americans flocked to study with these men when they could; composers ranging in style from Arthur Berger to Harold Shapero to John Cage all formed alliances, and from them learned imported aesthetics. Like Dvorak, these composers never quite went native, though they saw America as the proverbial land of opportunity the same as everyone else. After all, there was Hollywood, and though none of these men ever wrote a film score, each one tried. Money was to be made, and no doubt a European composer being attached to the project would lend any Hollywood epic currency. But Stravinsky remained Russian and Schoenberg Austrian, and American composers remained sidelined a bit.

There was a grand period mid-century where it seemed like the Euro-fascination might have been on the abate. Leonard Bernstein, who lived, studied, and worked primarily in America, became the most prominent conductor in the world. To that post he took his own missionary zeal, conducting into the repertoire a wide range of music, from Copland to Varèse to Ives to Babbitt to his own jazzy, frenetic, thoroughly American scores. He was never content to just lay out, Toscanini-style, the great European masterworks, but wanted the world to watch, to know, and to hear this great music, all of it being proudly and singly American. He was a presence at the newly-founded Tanglewood, a summer camp run by Aaron Copland and Serge Koussevitzky—and a place for Americans to go make music together. Not exclusive by any means, but for the first time more inclusive than most places.

But sadly even Bernstein, our own native son, took a dark turn towards the enticing land across the Atlantic. He became interested, near the end of his life, in being the world’s greatest interpreter of Wagner, Mahler, and Beethoven; he conducted fewer and fewer scores of his American colleagues; he wanted the stamp of approval from Europe more than ever, conducing more and more in Vienna and Berlin, less the champion of America and more the pan-global, excessive presence. It seemed the heyday was at an end. And his replacement at the Philharmonic: Pierre Boulez, a young, dangerous Frenchman, who believed that there was a certain, particular direction concert music ought to take—the direction he and his French colleagues had predetermined. This passing of the baton will no doubt be looked on by history as the time where American music became quickly passé. We, once again, trusted Europeans to determine our own musical fate, and some fascinating composers woke up to find they had become obsolete practically overnight.

From there, American music began to crumble. Schuman, Diamond, Blitzstein, and Harris did not hear their music played nearly as often. Interest seemed to wane in this still-new American symphonic school when these composers were just entering their prime. Though a few composers—again, seeking the bulk of their training either in Europe or from the European models—were just then coming into their own. It was the rebellious sixties, and with the advent of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and the rise of the portable synthesizer, many composers—like Otto Luening and Milton Babbitt in New York, or Morton Subotnick on the West Coast — were seeking new sounds, turning away from acoustic instruments (and even audiences) to forge a new path, pushing the boundaries of sonic possibilities. But even here there were imports: Ussachevsky and Davidovsky, among the many others. We still didn’t quite trust our own, even when our own toed (or defined) the party line.

Today the climate is confusing at best—though perhaps that’s the trouble with living in one’s own time without the benefit of myopia-destroying historical perspective. If you read the press, and listen to the malaise of the vocal American composers, it seems everyone is unhappy: Ned Rorem and John Corigliano, two composers labeled (undoubtedly against their will and to their displeasure) “neo-romantic” speak in spleen because they have, in their lifetimes, seen what was once-great and a huge portion of the cultural dialogue get pushed to the sidelines, becoming a sub-culture of a sub-culture of a sub-culture. To hear the post-Webern crowd like Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt speak, one would think their music was unplayed in their native land, so disheartened are they with the reception of their work. (This is, of course, a gross exaggeration: perhaps their music is not as widely loved as they might like, but it hardly gathers dust, especially with the likes of Boulez acquiring important post after important post.) And the minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich—along with their downtown offspring like those associated with Bang on a Can—seem to do a good deal less complaining for the simple reason that any acceptance they have gotten has been strictly on their own terms. Not cursing darkness by vitriol against the establishment, but by going underground and making their own scene—starting their own “orchestras” and creating their own record labels—when the climate of the “classical” community was far from clement to their work. But this doesn’t mean that, under their we-didn’t-want-to-be-accepted-by-that-bloodless-and-anti-art-institution stance, as sincere as it is, there isn’t a bit of a longing beneath. After all, these are composers equally trained as anyone, equal lovers of the great (and admittedly European) tradition as any Carter or Corigliano, and though they sought an alternate route, undoubtedly they too feel a little shorted. I certainly feel it on their behalf, especially in enduring the endless ire that is cast against them in any academic setting. For many they represent the end; but where, I ask, was the beginning?

Looking back on the 20th century—a process we have only scratched the surface of, having just exited and not having the necessary distance—there seems to be two ways to be accepted as an American composer: be a bit of a crank or cow to Europe. We do love our outsiders, so if you do what Harry Partch or Henry Cowell or Terry Riley or Lou Harrison or Henry Brant or Conlon Nancarrow (or even John Adams) did—hit the road; find an outpost outside the normal cultural centers; do your thing in isolation after a hard day of working an unrelated job— you will have a great American “outsider” tradition behind you, and likely be hailed pleasantly “countercultural.” Perhaps someday you will even be recognized, in an “and-he-walked-among-us, unbeknownst” sort of way. This requires taking in a certain amount of “square” disapproval for what you do—and if you don’t come by this shade in a genuine way, you can always create it ex nihilo: plenty of people mythologize their own dissent, it adds to the misanthropic appeal, and makes for good television later, if you ever come to be fully appreciated. Not slighting the above-mentioned composers at all—they are all quite brilliant—but when I hear someone who pushes themselves into this way of being without having the chops to back it up, I am always reminded of the island people who lived outside Japan and did not, in the sixties, know that World War II had yet ended.

Or just bite the bullet and go to Europe. Learn their ways, get your start there, and perhaps even, like Elliott Carter—or at least like the opinion he and his staunch advocates seem to have—be only accepted there, shunned by your native land to whom you have offered so much. Even if this is disastrously untrue. Many fine American careers, like that of Copland or Rorem or Sessions, got a fine kickoff on the continent.

So the tough question remains: What is, in this inclement atmosphere, the role of a composer in our society today? Obviously I cannot answer that singly or quickly, but I do intend not to simply state the problems. It’s too easy, and puts this author in line with all the doomsayers and Times critics who bang on and on (and on and on and on…) about the death of “classical music” and its important institutions (and with them their potential for livelihood if you get me). So, here on the precipice of a career in composition—like many composers are, even those of reasonable status and with much experience—with my thoughts all a-jumble as to how to possibly make this work, I offer some strong opinions.

This is America, still, the land where one’s own breaks need to be made, be they in business or art or politics. We can trifle with complaints about how much better things are elsewhere—and for composers, they truly are; when we hear about State-supported arts or something along those lines, of course we go understandably green with envy and throw up our hands. America is the ultimate D.I.Y. world, and the thing that most matters is that we do, in fact, do it. No more waiting for the phone to ring, imagining the thousands of important commissions and performances that will ultimately await us if we are simply patient and prudent enough. Consider this a call to action.

The American composer, in the abstract, needs to be a larger presence than he or she is, and therefore a little nationalistic pride is du rigeur. Not to say that Europe is second rate or has little to offer; quite the contrary—ours is indeed, at the root, a graphed tradition. But then again, so are all traditions. Nobody, not even someone born into the most musically active Viennese family, is handed a lineage; everyone has to learn it. T.S. Eliot makes this point not only in his essays, but in his poetry, which is steeped in the Euro-roots but strictly (and powerfully) American.

In these political times, we have been carefully taught to understand the idea of loving America as loving the actions, no matter how reprehensible, of our government. Displaying a flag means supporting a war, sending many of us into a forgivably anti-American stance. Perhaps in the coming years, more and more concerts of contemporary music from far elsewhere will grace our concert platforms, doing a service for the “other” while native composers are offered very few chances. It is a sad byproduct of media manipulation, but it does not always have to be thus. I myself am deeply proud of my country. This land has produced some of the most important art in the 20th century, and though we have more savvy writers than we do readers, or composers than we do listeners, history will remember this time with America at the vanguard, the edge—avant-ing from the garde, as it were.

It is a delicate line to walk, therefore: being involved and learned in the great European tradition (and we must learn it and learn it well, lest we become as bad as anyone who denies history; music is a language, and language is an organism, and an organism is never borne out of whole cloth) without being so besotted with it that we forget our own. And honestly, as I consider Davidovsky and Varèse to be American composers, this is not to exclude any foreign-born composers from participation. It’s not your bloodline that is important; it is your deportment.

To the performers reading this: play American music. Take it on as your duty and responsibility to your own country. If you want to have a nice place to work when you grow older, it is important that the stage be set and dressed well. To only play the classics and the Europeans is like teaching a class in poetry but never mentioning the great American poets or instructing your students about their work. Play music by your friends, your colleagues, your elder statesmen, your teachers, your favorite homeboys, but by all means play it. This is not to ignore Beethoven and Schubert by any means—play their music well as much as you can—or even contemporary music from elsewhere, but when seeking the new, seek something that happens in your own backyard first. Don’t play bad music, but find the good which is native—I think you will find it as rewarding as playing anything.

To the composers reading this: I go with Ezra Pound’s famous soundbyte-cum-exortation: “make it new.” Don’t let the avant-garde become (as it largely has) a preservationist society, whereby the techniques of over half a century ago (or more) are put forth as cutting edge. Every piece does not have to change the world, but your pieces ought not to be a rehash of some once-forward-thinking techniques simply for their own sake. With the vast amount of musical resources available to us, it is high time we all took advantage of all of them. I am not saying composers aren’t creating new things, but I think there is a part of us that still feels apologetic or beholden to those across the Atlantic, and I am here to tell you in plain American that we are simply not. Sure they are at our atavistic aesthetic roots as classical musicians, but how long does a culture need to exist before it can stand on its own. I draw the line in that sand at the century mark, and here we are three years past.

It is also important for us to worry less about the trappings—the prizes, the aprobations, the big university jobs—and worry more about the work. We must not only compose the best possible music which comes from the deepest and most profound understanding of our tradition, but we must be a real presence on “the scene,” writing honest and straightforward criticism (indeed a Pandora’s Box for another article which I will let lie, for now, like an open wound), supporting one another, attending concerts, starting concert series, performance groups and magazines—and above all, trying to help each other. I am saying come together. It will ensure a future for all of us.

If this really is the home of the brave, then let’s prove it by leaping headlong out of the nest. Let’s get together on this one, lovers of musical freedom, and embrace our roots and our heritage while striking out on our own. Shine on you crazy diamonds, like I know you can.

And in case you were wondering, my European premiere went rather well. And of course I am glad for my newfound international celebrity, even though it was only a small town in the upper reaches of Spain. The struggle continues…

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