Back to Nature: Tracing the History of an American Classical Tradition

Can we draw the conclusion from these beginnings that there is an American classical music tradition distinct from that of Europe?

Historically, this question has received two answers: “obviously no,” and “obviously yes.” “Obviously no” seems based in common sense and general public perception. By and large, American composers write string quartets and symphonies, which were forms inherited from Europe, and they use European notation, instruments, and orchestras.

“Obviously yes” is the more rebellious and argumentative answer. Certainly it is a simple matter to find techniques and devices in the works of individual Americans (John Cage‘s chance processes, Harry Partch‘s 43-tone scale, Conlon Nancarrow‘s player-piano accelerations, La Monte Young‘s drones, Steve Reich‘s phase-shifting) that have no European antecedents. The more polemical task is to prove that all these anomalies are part of an American tradition, that there is a continuity to the madness of so many isolated figures. It is the lack of a public perception of this continuity that gives “obviously no” its aura of common sense.

The compromise answer is attractive, and was most famously stated by Virgil Thomson: “American music is whatever is written by American composers.” The formulation is so generous that one yearns to adopt it; it absolves us of the necessity of determining which American composers are more “American” and which more “European.” Unfortunately, such a liberal libertarian view – as level playing fields tend to do – has worked greatly to the advantage of the stronger side against the weaker.

From the beginning the American composer has labored under an assumption that crippled his or her creativity: any innovation, any departure from Europeanprecedent, tends to be interpreted as a technical deficiency. So interpreted by whom? By those who see it as their business to uphold European tradition – that is, not by the public, but by critics, music professors, orchestra musicians, and others who have vested interests. Amazingly, this is still almost as true today as it was a hundred years ago.

The composers who write orchestral and chamber works based in European forms – one might mention Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, and more recently John Corigliano and John Harbison among many, many others – are widely regarded as normative. Those who invent their own tunings or instruments, like Partch, or notations, like Cage, or structures and ensembles, like Philip Glass, are assumed to be technically deficient; if they had been trained well, they would write “real” music. Such composers are marginalized as “tinkerers,” “eccentrics,” more generously as “experimentalists,” and recently “mavericks,” less generously as “not serious” and even (as Gunther Schuller calls them) “the kook composers.” And most of all: “amateurs.”

And so the more precise answer to the above question is that there is a split – and always has been a split, and perhaps always will be a split – in American music between the composers who see themselves as continuing the European tradition and who are regarded as mainstream, and the composers who see themselves as outside the European tradition and who are regarded as colorful amateurs. In practice, unfortunately, Thomson’s definition takes a more sinister form: “American music is whatever is written by American composers, some of whom are professionals and others amateurs.”

The historical continuity of this split is much easier to demonstrate than the continuity of any single American tradition per se. The composers regarded as mainstream in 19th-century America were John Knowles Paine (1839-1906, who taught at Harvard), George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931, New England Conservatory), Horatio Parker (1863-1919, Yale), and Edward MacDowell (1860-1908, Columbia University). All were educated in Germany, and all championed the “modern Romantic movement,” meaning Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. Their works today, such as Parker’s Hora novissima and Chadwick’s symphonies, are listened to, if at all, patronizingly, and rightly so. They may have been “professionals,” but they were imitators.

The Americans who didn’t study in Europe are a more colorful bunch. After Billings, Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861) was our next eccentric, writing flagrantly programmatic works such as Barbecue Divertimento and The Ornithological Combat of Kings. Though born in Bohemia, he moved to America in 1810 and didn’t begin composing, self-taught, until 1818. The equally irrepressible Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) studied in Europe, but with the radical, academically unacceptable Berlioz rather than the doctrinaire Germans. Decades before multiculturalism, he worked African and Cuban idioms into a Chopinesque piano style. We even had composers who didn’t study in Europe, yet wrote in European genres: George Frederick Bristow (1825-1898), our best home-grown symphonist; Amy Beach (1867-1944), the first American to visit Europe not to study, but to promote her own music; and Arthur Foote (1853-1937), who drew on the influence of American Indian songs.

A look at these 19th-century distinctions is instructive, for we are not so close to their politics, and can see them more objectively than the composers of our own time. Billings’s music has survived in rural hymnody, the piano works of Gottschalk have always remained popular, and audiences and performers get a charge from Heinrich’s music when it is revived. Less often acknowledged is that the symphonies of Bristow, the piano concerto and mass of Amy Beach, and the chamber music of Arthur Foote offer a sincerity and authenticity that raises them above the works of Chadwick and Parker in musical interest.

Nineteenth-century American music, and its continued 20th-century reception, offer a clear moral: going to a distant and presumably culturally superior continent to gain a foreign polish tends to result in pompous, dry, intrinsically timid, and imitative music, whereas staying closer to home and following your inborn instincts at least gives your music sincerity, and possibly a liveliness that will not lose its appeal.

The question remains, however: do the “amateurs” really form a tradition?

From Back to Nature: Tracing the History of an American Classical Tradition
By Kyle Gann
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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