H. Wiley Hitchcock: Changing History
FRANK J. OTERI: Now in terms of America’s music history—I remember when Kyle Gann‘s book came out a few years back, and Gann was involved in the most recent edition of your book, he wrote the last chapter…
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Right—in the 4th edition, which came out in 2000.
FRANK J. OTERI: Everybody said that the thing they found so surprising and refreshing about his book was that minimalism, rather than being the last chapter was smack in the middle, because so much has happened since then. I’m going to say something that is almost the opposite of that about the 4th edition of your book. We normally think of America’s musical history as beginning with Charles Ives. Very rarely there might be a small chapter about things that happened before but then it’s straight to Ives. What I found so refreshing about your book is that Ives occurs halfway through your book! There’s all this stuff before Ives that most of us don’t pay attention to at all. And I think it’s part of this idea of America not really acknowledging that we have a musical history. There were a lot of fascinating composer before Ives. There were a lot of really inventive music done before Ives and that stuff gets done even less than recent American music.
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Yes. I think especially in the field of popular music—I’m talking about pre-Ives popular music, which has now become a kind of folk music—it’s become a part of our vernacular upbringings. I was interested in Ives in the first place, in this connection, and I’ve maintained that interest in a big way.
FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve published a great deal about Ives.
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Lots of publications, and I’ve just completed a critical edition of 129 songs by Ives, which is going to be published next year [as a volume of the American Musicological Society's series called MUSA—Music of the U.S.A.].
FRANK J. OTERI: So there are an additional 15 beyond the canonic 114.
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: You are exactly right! At any rate, one thing that interested me in Ives and why I found him so interesting and worth a chapter all by himself in the history of American music is that he was really the first serious composer of non-pop music, let’s say, to find a usable past in American music, in earlier American music: the music of Civil War songs, band marches, dance tunes, and American hymnody. And he put them to excellent use, not only out of nostalgia for the early days but out of appreciation of the music. His father, of course, George Ives, encouraged him in this, as a musician himself if not a composer. So, yeah, there’s a lot of music back there.
FRANK J. OTERI: Of course, the other thing about Ives is that in some ways he was a pivotal figure on another level in that he was the first really major composer to be almost a complete outcast in a way. He was completely outside the musical establishment of the time and this whole tradition, I mean, we toss around this term maverick…
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Yes.
FRANK J. OTERI: You know, the whole notion of outsider composers, there are examples of it, I mean Gann likes to say that Billings was an outsider and that Heinrich was an outsider, but not really in the same way that Ives was an outsider.
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: No. Billings was by no means an outsider to the culture, to his own culture. He was an outsider, though, in terms of his independence of thought, claiming that he was a self-learned composer, and an outsider in his first publication, which was a book consisting of nobody else’s music but his own. He was a real outsider in that: that was a total first in American music.
FRANK J. OTERI: And that his music was not European. It didn’t follow the rules that the Europeans enshrined, you know, the proper way that voice-leading should go.
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Right. Exactly.
FRANK J. OTERI: He did it his own way, but Ives took it one step further ’cause Ives was not only an outsider in terms of his music not having a relationship to European music, but it didn’t have a relationship to other American music, even though, ultimately, it did.
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: It did.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a wonderful paradox…
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: It had very little to do with the so-called classical music, or as I prefer to call it the cultivated tradition of American music, it had little to do with that—but lots to do with other kinds of traditional American music, what I call the vernacular traditions of American music. Well, you know, it’s interesting: Michael Tilson Thomas put on this “maverick” series of concerts out in San Francisco a couple of years ago and I was looking at the program book and at the composers in it, and, yeah, they’re all the figures that we think of as “The Mavericks”: Harrison, Cage, then going back: Cowell, Ives, Heinrich, and back to Billings and so on. I’m interested these days, for my own personal reasons, in Virgil Thomson. Increasingly I am thinking of him as a maverick. Nobody thinks of him as such, but he was. For example, long before Copland turned to what he imagined to be folk music, Thomson was doing it out of his own roots in Kansas City, Missouri—his roots in white gospel hymnody, Baptist hymnody, American hymnody. In the mid ’20s he was doing that and by 1934 we had his opera Four Saints in Three Acts which was rooted in that music—and in that sense he was a maverick, before Copland and others turned to such music, in that populist, Americanist era of the 1930s, the Depression era…
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I would say he was a maverick on some other levels. This whole idea of getting people to come to his apartment and sit for a portrait and create a piece of music based on that.
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Well, yes. [laughs] You see that larger music score on the wall over there? That’s Virgil’s last complete composition; it’s a portrait of me.
FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, wow!
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Yeah! It’s called Two Birds. When Virgil finished the portrait, which he did in his apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, he gave a little grunt of pleasure and surprise, and said “Look! It’s the end of the page and it’s the end of the piece. Now I’ve got to go pee. Here’s the score, and you can look at it, but you can’t ask me anything about it. [FJO laughs] Now excuse me.”
FRANK J. OTERI: So that was his last piece.
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: It was his last completed piece, yes.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow! How soon did he die after that?
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Well, the portrait was in May of 1988, and he died about a year and a half after that.
FRANK J. OTERI: Has that piece ever been recorded?
H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: I don’t think it’s been recorded, though it’s been played. Jacquelyn Helin has played it in concerts; perhaps others, too.