What is American about American Music?
by Klye Gann for American Public Media,
William Billings was the only person in 18th-century Boston to list his profession as “Singing Master.” Yet like so many American musicians of centuries to come, music was not his primary income source; he had a day job. He was a tanner, and tanned hides for a living. The description that comes down to us of William Billings is not prepossessing. He is said to have had only one eye, one leg shorter than the other, a withered arm, an alarming snuff habit, and an “uncommon negligence of dress.” However, in 1770 – six years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, and the same year that Ludwig Van Beethoven was born in Germany – Billings published a book of 120 hymns and choral pieces that he had composed himself in a collection called The New England Psalm Singer. (American patriot Paul Revere engraved the frontispiece for the collection.) Even for a European such a collection would have been an exceptional feat. For a self-taught Boston tanner, it was unimaginable. Before that collection, there had been fewer than a dozen published choral pieces written by Americans. With one stroke Billings increased that number tenfold.
Billings’ anthems and so called “fuging tunes,” such as Be Glad, then, America and Lamentation over Boston, spoke of the American Revolutionary experience in terms of Biblical grandeur. The Billings hymn that would become most famous was “Chester,” a stirring Revolutionary War tune that would still be included in children’s school books well into the 20th century:
-Let tyrants shake their iron rods
-And slavery clank its galling chains
-We fear them not, we trust in God.
-New England’s God forever reigns.
The glory of Billings’ music is its irrepressible tunefulness, matched with a liveliness of rhythm unafraid to shift gears as the text requires. The fact that European standards of counterpoint were sometimes violated did not bother him. In the introduction to The New-England Psalm-Singer, Billings wrote the archetypal declaration of American music’s independence from Europe:
“…all the hard, dry, studied rules that ever was prescribed, will not enable any person to form an air…. I don’t think myself confin’d to any Rules for composition, laid down by any that went before me, neither should I think (were I to pretend to lay down Rules) that any who came after me were any ways obligated to adhere to them… I think it is best for every Composer to be his own Carver.”
Billings music wasn’t always appreciated by his contemporaries. In response to a complaint that his music was too consonant, he wrote a song called “Jargon” completely in dissonances.
-Let horrid Jargon split the air
-And rive the nerves asunder;
-Let hateful discord greet the ear
-As terrible as thunder.
In response, some local boys tied two cats together by the tails and hung them from the sign of Billings’ tannery shop to let them howl.
The fault lines and tensions of American music were ordained in the earliest years of our national history. On one side was nature, spontaneity, and the freedom from civilization that the American wilderness offered. On the other was Europe, and those in the growing East-coast metropolitan centers who felt that European civilization should be transplanted to these shores lock, stock, and barrel. On one hand were composers like Billings, Anthony Philip Heinrich, and Louis Moreau Gottschalk who believed that Americans could create their own national music from local materials, the inspiration of nature, and sheer Yankee inventiveness. On the other were critics like John Sullivan Dwight, hymn writers like Lowell Mason, and music professors like Horatio Parker who insisted that American music should be subject to the standards and rules developed by the great European masters like Haydn and Mozart. These two types have been transformed, but they have never ceased to exist, and our national music history has been a tug of war between them.
Billings’ choral music, along with that of Supply Belcher, Daniel Read, and other fuging tune writers from the New England tradition, dominated American choral music in the first decades of the 19th century. But in the 1830s and ’40s, new winds began blowing across America. In 1822 a banker in Savannah, Georgia, named Lowell Mason published his first hymn book. Mason had studied music with a German named Frederick L. Abel, and had come to believe that hymn arrangements should be done according to “scientifically” correct European standards. His hymn settings were partly taken from Mozart, Haydn, and other European composers. Further hymn collections followed in 1829 and 1831, with songs like “When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Joy to the World,” and “Nearer My God to Thee.”In 1837 Mason became superintendent of music in the Boston schools. Through his educational activities and widely reproduced hymn books, Mason had a tremendous impact across America, replacing the indigenous New England tradition of fuging tunes with hymns based on allegedly correct European models. Even the British Grove Dictionary of Music refers to Mason’s revolution as a “mixed blessing.”
Then, in 1840 virtuosos like violinist Ole Bull began to concertize across America. In 1843, Ureli Corelli Hill and members of the fledgeling New York Philharmonic presented the first string quartet series. Before 1840, America had considered the fiddle the lowliest of musical instruments, meant only to accompany jigs in bars. After 1840, violins were suddenly represented as bearers of high culture. John Sullivan Dwight, known as “the dean of Boston music critics,” championed Beethoven and described the glories of European music in terms of religious ecstasy. Dwight was a part of the Transcendentalist movement centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; Dwight had joined Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, in an ill-fated communal living experiment at a place called Brook Farm. The Transcendentalists threw their weight on the side of European culture. Margaret Fuller, one of the movement’s leading intellectuals, went so far as to write an imaginary letter to Beethoven, who at the time had been dead for 16 years:
“…oh blessed master!,” she wrote. “Like a humble wife to the sage, or poet, it is my triumph that I can understand and cherish thee…. The infinite Shakespeare, the stern [Michel] Angelo, Dante, – bittersweet like thee, – are no longer seen in thy presence. …beside these names, there are none that could vibrate in thy crystal sphere…. There is none greater than Shakespeare; he, too, is a god; but his creations are successive; thy fiat comprehends them all.” Nevertheless, Charles Ives, seeing a different side of Transcendentalism, would write many years later: “Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute, but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘The Symphony.’”
Against this roaring wind of European aesthetics, joined as it was to pious morality and upper-class pretentions, certain American composers still campaigned for an indigenous tradition, an American music that had something American about it. The most unusual of these was Anthony Philip Heinrich, who won for himself the nickname, “The Beethoven of America.” Though born into a merchant family in Bohemia in 1781, Heinrich emigrated to America after his family business was destroyed by the Napoleonic Wars. Once in America, he decided to make a living through music, in which he had previously been only an amateur. He pushed inland to Lexington, Kentucky, where, in 1817, he put together the first American performance of a Beethoven symphony, No. 1. Convalescing in a log cabin in the Kentucky wilderness in 1818, Heinrich had a vision that he should compose music, and so at the age of 37, he taught himself theory and became a composer.
Today Heinrich’s bizarre works, with titles like Barbecue Divertimento, Hail to Kentucky, and The Yankee Doodleiad, seem humorous, but he was tremendously successful in his lifetime, even making tours of Europe. His greatest work, he felt, was a grand symphony entitled The Ornithological Combat of Kings: or The Condor of the Andes and the Eagle of the Cordilleras. With its energetic bursts of timpani in the opening measures, it was certainly unlike anything being done in Europe in the 1840s.
Today, perhaps the best-known 19th-century American composer is Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Born in New Orleans in 1829, Gottschalk was exposed early to African, Creole, and West Indian influences, and was a pioneer at incorporating them into his music. He also studied in Europe, but in France with Hector Berlioz, a figure considered scandalous by American standards. Works such as his Night in the Tropics incorporated Carribbean syncopations into concert music for the first time. Following Berlioz’s example, Gottschalk presented “monster concerts” of ten pianos or 900 musicians, and played over a thousand concerts between 1862 and ’65 alone. Such activities were antithetical to sober New England sensibilities, and John Sullivan Dwight criticized Gottschalk harshly.
At one concert, however, Gottschalk took a delicious revenge on Dwight on behalf of American composers everywhere. He played a work of his own and attributed it to Beethoven in the program, also playing a Beethoven work identified as his own; Dwight, predictably, praised the “Beethoven” composition and lambasted Gottschalk’s music for its “amateurish inanities.” Afterwards, Gottschalk wrote to Dwight to apologize for the unfortunate printing error.
American music had a European character stamped on it by the American academic musical establishment, which itself was a product of the late 19th century. Before 1870, there was no such thing as a college music course; universities were meant for academic courses in science, history, and languages. Music was a mere extracurricular amusement. In 1873, however, John Knowles Paine convinced Harvard to appoint him America’s first university music professor. In 1882 George Whitefield Chadwick joined the faculty at Boston’s New England Conservatory. In 1894 Horatio Parker took a teaching position at Yale, where his most famous and most recalcitrant student would be Charles Ives. Paine, Chadwick, and Parker were all trained in Europe: Paine had studied in Berlin, Chadwick at Leipzig Conservatory, and Parker in Munich.
Along with John Sullivan Dwight, Paine championed what he called the “modern Romantic movement,” meaning Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and Mendelssohn, as well as Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. Together Paine, Chadwick, and Parker formed a cultural triumverate of East Coast academicians who excersized an enormous power in imposing on American musicians an exaggerated awe of European musical standards and practices.
Today the music of these European-trained professors is of only specialist interest. Parker was known for his sacred choral work Hora Novissima, Chadwick for his Brahmsian Second Symphony, Paine for his Mass in D and two symphonies. By contrast, the music of our 19th-century mavericks remains popular. The choral music of Billings has continued to be sung in the South and Appalachia as part of the rural tradition of shaped-note singing. Gottschalk’s virtuoso piano works such as The Banjo, Bamboula, and Souvenir de Porto Rico have always remained popular as the pianistic analogue to the homespun songs of Stephen Foster. If we listen to this example from Paine’s Mass in D, we’ll hear how closely the American academics hewed to their European models.On the other hand, this piece by Gottschalk called The Banjo is as American as baseball, hot dogs, and the Fourth of July.
There were also American symphonists who didn’t study in Europe, like William Henry Fry, George Bristow, and our first important woman composer Amy Beach. Fry’s “Santa Claus” Symphony and Bristow’s “Arcadian” Symphony may not have the Continental polish of works by Paine and Chadwick, but they are livelier and more individual. The “Arcadian” Symphony is subtitled “The Pioneer,” and Bristow opened it with an unusual gesture for a symphony: a long, lonely, unaccompanied violin solo. Both Fry and Bristow campaigned as critics for an indigenous American music, and in 1854 Bristow temporarily quit his job as violinist in the New York Philharmonic to protest the orchestra’s treatment of American composers.
Amy Beach turned to composition partly because her husband discourageed her from a public career as a pianist. Nevertheless, after his death she resumed concertizing, and became, in 1911 our first native composer to travel to Europe, not to study, but to promote her own music.
In 1983, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak sparked a controversy about what made American music American. Unlike other European composers who came through America to tour and make money, leaving as quickly as possible, Dvorak came to stay, temporarily, as dirctor of New York’s National Conservatory of Music from 1892 to ’95. In 1983 he was completing his now-famous “New World” Symphony supposedly based on Negro themes such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Dvorak made a statement to the press which was quoted in the New York Herald: “I am now satisfied…” he said, “that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies…. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.”
The following week, the Boston Herald printed indignant replies by American composers, including Paine, Chadwick, and Beach. Paine, taking an internationalist viewpoint, disagreed that American music need differ in any way from European music. “Dr. Dvorak…,” he wrote, “greatly overestimates the influence that national melodies and folk-songs have exercised on the higher forms of musical art. In the case of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and other German masters, the old folk-songs have been used to a limited extent as motives; but movements founded on such themes are exceptional in comparison with the immense amount of entirely original thematic material that constitutes the bulk of their music….”
Amy Beach, on the other hand, sympathized with the attempt to create a national music, but felt that Negro melodies need not be the entire basis for it. “The African population of the United States,” she wrote, “is far too small for its songs to be considered ‘American.’ It represents only one factor in the composition of our nation…. We of the north should be far more likely to be influenced by the old English, Scotch, or Irish songs, inherited… from our ancestors.” In response, Beach wrote the work for which she is best-known today, her Gaelic Symphony, based on Irish folksongs.
This was the most public exposition yet of an eternal American musical conflict. What is America’s folk music? African-American, Appalachian, songs from Ireland, pop music? And what role should it serve for American composers? As a melting pot the United States has been in a unique position, the only major nation whose music was not allowed to grow naturally, but with a wealth of conspicuous and often contentious soul-searching.
Throughout America’s history the conflict between European training and indigenous folk sources has resonated, coming back over and over again in different guises. From the beginning the American composer labored under an assumption that crippled his or her creativity: any innovation, any departure from European precedent, might be interpreted as a technical deficiency. Europeans like Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner were free to ignore the past and create their own rules, but American symphonists such as Bristow, Chadwick, and Beach dared not transgress beyond precedents set by even the more conservative Europeans like Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak. As Henry Cowell wrote, “Transplanted to the United States, the rules of harmony and composition took on a doctrinaire authority that was the more dogmatic for being second hand.”
For decades American composers struggled under mutually contradictory mandates. On one hand, they were expected to demonstrate a level of formal and technical polish equal Schumann, Brahms, and the other familiar European masters. On another, they were expected to keep pace with Europe’s latest trends. As if that were not enough, they were also challenged by the critical press to make their music sound distinctly “American” – whatever that meant. Composer Henry Gilbert stated the problem in sharp terms: “American music…,” he wrote in 1915, “has this problem to face: that it can only become ultimately distinctive by leaving the paths of imitation, and that by leaving the paths of imitation it must temporarily sacrifice both immediate success and the respect… of both public and academician.”Decade by decade we can chart the great divide between those American composers who sought to be original and those who sought to live up to European standards.
In the 1920s, there was the Pan American Association organization versus the League of Composers. The Pan American Association was founded by maverick composer Edgard Varèse, and was dedicated to performing music by composers of the Western hemisphere. Its members included Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, the Mexican Carlos Chavez, Roy Harris, and Wallingford Riegger, most of whom had not studied in Europe. Typical of the Pan American Association was Varèse’s hair-raising 1931 work for percussion orchestra called Ionisation, the first work written in the Western world entirely for percussion, and his riotous work for orchestra, Arcana.
The League of Composers, on the other hand, included mostly composers who had studied in Paris or Fontainbleau, the most important being Aaron Copland. Heavily influenced by the aggressive new works of Igor Stravinsky, the Europhilic League composers supported the new French style of neoclassicism, and performed primarily European music. The League of Composers might have been more typified by the Piano Variations of Aaron Copland, which flirted with the trends of dissonance and abstraction being championed in Europe at the time.
The League had wealthier patrons, and were backed by two important conductors, Serge Koussevitsky of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Pan Americans, meanwhile, kept going primarily through the generous financial backing of Charles Ives, who used the fortune he had made in the insurance business to support performance and publication of American music.
After World War II the fight surfaced again in a new form. Composers such as Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, George Perle, and others felt that the future of music lay with the 12-tone language developed by Arnold Schönberg, who had emigrated to America in 1933. Their music was typified by Sessions, who famously stated, “I have no sympathy for consciously sought originality.” The tremendous influx of European emigre composers before and during World War II, including Schönberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Krenek, and many others, represented a deluge of European influence that temporarily buried American trends during the 1950s and much of the ’60s. As one composer of the period, Edward T. Cone, put it, “the American past is the European past and… the foundation provided by the great line [meaning Beethoven, Brahms, and so on] is basic to the development of music in the United States as well as Europe.”
Opposed to this overwhelming trend were a number of maverick American composers who continued working in non-European idioms during the 1950s with very little support: John Cage, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow. Scorning 12-tone technique as a dead end, and as an expression of post-War angst that meant little or nothing to American audiences, these composers embraced world music influences and technology, as Cage did in his Credo in US, the first piece to use the turntable as a musical instrument.
One would have thought that by the late 20th century, Europe’s psychological claims on American composers would have relaxed. But in the 1980s, the dichotomy returned again in full force, with different philosophies, different protagonists. On one side, many of the composers writing for orchestra had abandoned 12-tone music and returned to a newly ironic approach to the rhetoric of 19th-century romanticism. Composers like George Rochberg, Jacob Druckman, John Corigliano, David Del Tredici, William Bolcom, and John Harbison developed what became known as the New Romanticism, a return to the harmonies, timbres, and forms of 19th-century European music, although with elements of pastiche and rhythmic fragmentation.
At the very same time, beginning in the late 1970s, there was a move among the maverick composers to appropriate the materials of rock and pop music. Music, so the philosophy went, should derive from the vernacular music of the people, and by the late 1970s, most people’s vernacular music was rock. Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca started writing symphonies for electric guitars. Robert Ashley wrote an opera, Perfect Lives, with a rock beat. Laurie Anderson came out of the avant-garde and actually had a hit single, “O Superman,” hit number two on the pop charts in England in 1981. Even those composers who didn’t go so far as to use a propulsive backbeat were writing a simple, accessible music growing from the avant-garde movement that had taken off in the 1960s: minimalism. One of the best of these was William Duckworth, whose Time Curve Preludes brought together bluegrass and minimalist influences, in much the same way that Gottschalk’s The Banjo had fused 19th-century banjo playing with romanticism. Two hundred years of history should be enough to suggest that this rift in American music may be permanent. There are two streams of American music both claiming to occupy the same position. For some musicians, America is simply Europe’s western branch, and our musical tradition is a linear continuation of the same tradition that grew from Bach through Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schönberg. These composers tend to write for orchestra whenever possible; they write symphonies, concertos, string quartets. For other composers – the mavericks – the dominance of European music represents an imperialism we’ve been waiting for decades to escape. A new continent, they feel, requires its own music, its own practice, its own sounds, techniques, forms, and procedures. Its music should be drawn from the local enviornment, the sounds of home; its forms should be relevant to American society, not to a 19th-century European aristocracy that no longer exists. These two viewpoints have never been reconciled. It is unlikely that either will disappear in the forseeable future.
In future essays, we’ll explore many of the ways American composers have drawn the music from American life: by imitating the rhythmic style of jazz, by using American electronic technology, by writing symphonic works for electric guitars. Art is a transformation of the world around us – at least, that’s the standpoint of the American Mavericks.
Kyle Gann, born 1955 in Dallas, Texas, is a composer and was new-music critic for the Village Voice from 1986 to 2005. Since 1997 he has taught music theory, history, and composition at Bard College. He is the author of The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (Cambridge University Press, 1995), American Music in the 20th Century (Schirmer Books, 1997), Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice (University of California Press, 2006), No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33″ (Yale University Press, 2010), and Robert Ashley (University of Illinois Press, 2010; forthcoming).
Gann studied composition with Ben Johnston, Morton Feldman, and Peter Gena, and his music is often microtonal, using up to 37 pitches per octave. His rhythmic language, based on differing successive and simultaneous tempos, was developed from his study of Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo Indian musics. His music has been performed on the New Music America, Bang on a Can, and Spoleto festivals. His major works include Sunken City, a piano concerto commissioned by the Orkest de Volharding in Amsterdam; Transcendental Sonnets, a 35-minute work for choir and orchestra commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir; Custer and Sitting Bull, a microtonal, one-man music theater work he’s performed more than 30 times from Brisbane to Moscow; The Planets, commissioned by the Relache ensemble via Music in Motion and continued under a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artists’ Fellowship; and The Hudson River Trilogy, a trio of microtonal chamber operas written with librettist Jeffrey Sichel, the first of which, Cinderella’s Bad Magic, was premiered in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 2007, choreographer Mark Morris made a large-ensemble dance, Looky, from five of Gann’s works for Disklavier (computerized player piano).
In addition to Bard, Gann has taught at Columbia University, Brooklyn College, the School of the Art Instutute of Chicago, and Bucknell University. His writings include more than 2500 articles for more than 45 publications, including scholarly articles on La Monte Young (in Perspectives of New Music), Henry Cowell, John Cage, Edgard Varèse, Ben Johnston, Mikel Rouse, John Luther Adams, Dennis Johnson, and other American composers. He writes the “American Composer” column for Chamber Music magazine, and he was awarded the Peabody Award (2003), the Stagebill Award (1999) and the Deems-Taylor Award (2003) for his writings. His music is available on the New Albion, New World, Cold Blue, Lovely Music, Mode, Meyer Media, New Tone, and Monroe Street labels. In 2003, the American Music Center awarded Gann its Letter of Distinction, along with Steve Reich, Wayne Shorter, and George Crumb. You can learn more about Mr. Gann and his writings at: http://www.kylegann.com/resume.html or email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org