Bias and Sexism in the Search for the Great American Symphony

When I was working on the readings for our upcoming class, I was perplexed by the choices made in order to procure the definition of ‘American’ music.  It just sounded to me like no one knew what they wanted, criticizing composers for sounding too European while accepting music from foreign enemies into the American cannon over those from marginalized groups of Americans.  Fauser’s and Shadel’s articles do an especially good job in complicating the relationship between American music and European opinion, as the idea that American music must be differentiated in some way came from the Europeans and was put into practice first by Dvorak in his New World symphony.

Beach Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32 ‘Gaelic’

I was interested in the portion of Shadel’s article on Amy Beach’s response to Dvorak’s symphony and how she created her own interpretation.  Having been born and raised in America, one would think that Beach would have a leg up on Dvorak in composing American symphonies.  Her Gaelic Symphony, being the first symphony composed by an American woman, fits much of the criteria proposed of the idealized ‘great American symphony’; However, alongside the thinly veiled racism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was thinly veiled sexism.  She was not taken seriously by critics due to her gender, despite her symphony being adored by audiences.  Compared to Dvorak and Chadwick, Beach’s music was described by critics as “delicate”, “beautiful” and “tender”, while “other early reviewers… did not comment at any length on the expression of a national identity given the works clear dialogue with Dvorak” (Shadle 255).  It was striking that many of the quotes, whether positive or negative, couldn’t help but mention Beach’s gender in relation to the music, while “the most negative critics displayed heightened anxiety over the emergence of a truly valid American symphonic voice capable of speaking to international audiences” (Shadle 255).  This is what people had been hoping for in the ‘great American symphony’; however, for some, the fact that this voice was coming from a woman was the sole thing rendering the attempt invalid.

Beach, Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic Symphony”, I. Allegro con fuoco:

https://stolaf.naxosmusiclibrary.com/mediaplayer/playfer.asp?br=320&tl=75616

Dvorak, Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, “From the New World”, I. Adagio- Allegro molto

https://stolaf.naxosmusiclibrary.com/mediaplayer/player.asp?br=320&tl=371713

Chadwick, Symphony No. 3 in F Major, I. Allegro sostenuto:

https://stolaf.naxosmusiclibrary.com/mediaplayer/player.asp?br=320&tl=260155

Chadwick purportedly told Beach after her symphony’s debut, “I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine new work by any one of us, and as such you will have to be counted in, whether you will or not—one of the boys” (Block).

American music has a long history of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, etc.  When we think about American music, we must also stop to think about who’s experiences we are validating and invalidating.  Who are we letting participate and why?  We cannot tout the idea of an American “melting pot” of musical culture if different groups are not all respected equally.

 

Works Cited:

Annegret Fauser, Sounds of War

Beach, Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic Symphony”

Block, Adrienne Fried, and E. Douglas Bomberger. “Beach [Cheney], Amy Marcy.” Grove Music Online.  October 16, 2013. Oxford University Press. Date of access 16 Oct. 2019,

Chadwick, Symphony No. 3 in F Major

Douglas Shadle, Orchestrating the Nation

Dvorak, Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, “From the New World”

“Naxos Music Library – Invaluable Resource for Music Enthusiasts and Collectors.” Naxos Music Library – Invaluable Resource for Music Enthusiasts and Collectors, https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/.

 

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