The Depression’s Effects on American Concert Life

During the Depression, American concert life survived on patronage, but that was hardly enough to keep them afloat because potential audiences didn’t have the financials to attend live performances. Audiences turned to radios to listen to orchestras and the invention of sound film eliminated the need for silent film orchestras. The first half of the Depression left about 70% of all musicians unemployed, and the government was able to create the Federal Music Project to support these musicians. At its peak, the program employed 16,000 musicians and supported 28 symphony orchestras, creating more abundant access to music.

However, America’s post-Depression concert life thrived more than it had before. Thanks to the efforts of musicians during the Depression, concert halls were bringing in broader and larger audiences than ever before. The episode Upbeat in Music from Time Magazine’s The March of Time discusses America’s post-Depression concert life. One of the highlights of classical music’s growing audiences was the healthy state of 200 symphony orchestras (compared to the 28 government-backed orchestras of the Depression).

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment in concert music directly following the Depression years was the American Federation of Musicians’ efforts for royalties in 1943. Because the Depression put such an emphasis on radio broadcasts and recorded music, the AFM made a move to fully share the profits made from commercial use of recorded music. James Caesar Petrillo, AFM’s president, led these efforts; he demanded that royalties on classical recordings be paid to a union employment fund and forbade union musicians from performing for any recording company. Despite heavy public criticism, he was backed by 138,000 union members and they found success when all but the two largest recording companies of the time agreed to their terms. With the success of these efforts, the AFM used these funds for the advancement of live concert music.

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Upbeat in Music. Produced by Home Box Office. 

Copland’s Inspiration and Fears for El Salón México

Schaal, Eric. Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez. , . Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed November 06, 2017.)

Copland and Chávez

In a letter to Mexican composer/conductor Charlos Chávez, Copland wrote “I am terribly afraid of what you will say of the Salon Mexico–perhaps it is not Mexican at all and I would look so foolish,” which shows his concern regarding appropriation. He may have gone ahead with orchestrating and publishing the piece, but he was well-meaning in the same way that Dvorak was with his New World Symphony. Some differences here are that Copland interacted mostly as a tourist in Mexican culture and drew on more accurate sources for Mexican folk melodies.

Copland’s October 1934 letter to Chávez

In addition, Copland published The Story Behind My El Salón México in the quarterly journal Tempo. He discusses that the music he heard during his two summers in Tlaxcala, isn’t what inspired this piece as much as the spirit of Mexico, specifically regarding “their humanity, their separate shyness, their dignity and unique charm.” He, like many other composers writing in this style, relied on the use of folk melodies, but his goal was never to quote them directly, instead choosing to heighten without falsifying the natural simplicity of the songs.

On the subject of whether this was good or bad appropriation, I would argue that this was good appropriation because of his genuine approach to the piece; Copland never claimed or exploited Mexican folk traditions. Additionally he was aware of his position as a white man composing in a Mexican style (even calling himself a gringo) and was completely taken aback by the support that he received from the Orquesta Sinfónica de México (who premiered the work with Chávez in 1937). The group viewed his composition as a foreigner finding their melodies as worthy in the world of Western repertoire which gave him affirmation regarding his fear that the piece would be perceived as a foolish attempt of claiming Mexican culture.

Crist, Elizabeth B. and Wayne Shirley. The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Copland, Aaron. “The Story Behind My El Salón México.” Tempo, no. 4 (1939): 2-4.

Copland, Aaron. Letter from Aaron Copland to Carlos Chávez, October 15, 1934. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed November 07, 2017.)

Schaal, Eric. Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez. , . Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed November 06, 2017.)

A comparison of St. Olaf’s contribution to the oppression of marginalized composers

From the perspective of St. Olaf, our institution has supported the oppression of marginalized composers, and it is evident when looking through the archives of the Manitou Messenger. For example, when searching Amy Beach’s name, only one article comes up: Month showcases women’s work. The 2008 article discusses a student recital of works by female composers as well as a faculty recital honoring Amy Beach’s work.

Extending the search to female composers, 3 articles appear, only 2 of them holding relevant information in support of female composers. The 2002 article Cecilia’s Circle visits discusses the four-woman ensemble Cecilia’s Circle, who came to St. Olaf for a week-long visit in order to honor female composers from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. St. Olaf was lucky to have the opportunity to have a group like this come to give recitals, masterclasses, and guest lectures, but it’s also very disappointing that there has only been one other major occasion in which female composers have been celebrated on our campus in 15 years. In addition, the Halvorson music library only has six LPs that feature her works, five of them compilations with other composers and just one focusing on her piano works (The Piano Music of Mrs. H. H. A. Beach).

On the other hand, there are no results in the Manitou Messenger archive when searching “William Grant Still,” and only one article from 1979 when searching “black composers.” The article Lecturer to appear for Black History Month discusses St. Olaf guests William Nelson (Ohio State University political scientist) and Raymond Jackson (pianist) and Jackson’s recital of piano music by black composers. To me, this seems like an enthralling event that is long overdue to be done again on this campus. The article also cites the composers whose pieces Jackson played, so it is possible to use that as a starting point when searching for music by black composers. When turning to Halvorson’s LP collection, we only have two compilation albums that feature Still’s work, and no albums of only his works.

Mitchell, Elizabeth. “Month showcases women’s work.” The Manitou Messenger, No. 14, Vol. 121 (2008): 1.

Dion, Laurie. “Cecilia’s Circle visits.” The Manitou Messenger, No. 13, Vol. 115 (2002): 14.
Unknown. “Lecturer to appear for Black History Month.” The Manitou Messenger, No. 12, Vol. 92 (1979): 3.

Is sexism in music better now than it was a century ago?

The cover for Amy Beach’s 4 Sketches, Op. 15, from the Americana Sheet Music Collection

It is without question that Amy Beach was among the early influential American composers, with a decorated career of both composition and performance. Her career took place during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, which was prime time for white male hegemony, yet Beach still found great success. She was privileged to have taken music lessons and married young, which in turn allowed her to hone in on her compositional and piano performance skills. With the death of her much older husband in 1911, Beach was able to go abroad to Europe for a performance tour, returning to the States in 1914 because of World War I. This did not stop her from performing though, since she took on a cross-country tour of the United States. Beach often took her performance opportunities to play her own pieces, which is clearly shown with her extensive piano repertoire. Featured below is a the fourth sketch titled Fireflies, from her 4 Sketches, Op. 15.

A 1915 opinions article by the Morning Oregonian defends not only Beach’s piano skills, but her compositional feats as well. Discussing how major composers of the time such as Claude Debussy or Hugo Wolf didn’t write a single symphony like Beach did, the author claimed that hers was one that demanded the highest respect. Despite sexism of the time, Beach was still regarded as a great composer, but why don’t we hear about her music anymore?

In September 2017, the New York Times honored Amy Beach’s 150th birthday with an article on her life and works. The biggest takeaway I found in this article was that her “Gaelic” Symphony shot her to compositional fame, but no orchestras have programmed hersymphony or any of her orchestral works for this season. While Beach experienced sexism at the height of her career, it is clear that sexism in classical music is still alive and well when none of our major orchestras will honor her works on this anniversary.

Robin, William. “Amy Beach, a Pioneering American Composer, Turns 150.” The New York Times. September 01, 2017. Accessed October 24, 2017.

“Capacity House Greets Kathleen Lawler in New York Recital. Tom Dobson, Also, among Oregonian Singers to Occupy Limelight.” Morning Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), March 28, 1915. (found on America’s Historical Newspapers)


Marian Anderson: A Defiant Voice

Marian Anderson was an incredibly accomplished African American opera singer, having performed for European royalty, even garnering a song written specifically for her by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Her success in Europe was welcomed back home in the States with a debut at Carnegie Hall in 1935. However, her decorated performance history was not invincible to America’s racism. Like any other African American, Anderson was restricted to use of “colored only” waiting rooms, hotels, and train cars.

The Chicago Defender reported on Marian Anderson’s iconic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Howard University and Anderson’s manager arranged for her to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., but were met with common racial bias of the time. The Daughters of the American Revolution owned the hall and refused to host her, likely because of her race. In response, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Marian Anderson Committee made alternative arrangements for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday of 1939.

Her first set of songs opened with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” followed by standards from the classical repertoire. However, the real defiance came after intermission, in which Anderson performed a set of spirituals. Because of the history that spirituals hold, Anderson was essentially making a political statement that she would not let the barriers of racism hold her back from performing for the masses (in fact, there were 75,000 people at this performance). Having built a career off of opera, singing spirituals and closing the concert with an encore of “Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen” showed her strength in her refusal to be held back by racial bias of the time.

“MARIAN ANDERSON SINGS TO 75,000 IN OPEN AIR RECITAL.” 1939.The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Apr 15, 1.

“Marian Anderson: Musical Icon.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,

A ’60s Update to Spirituals

On the subject of authenticity, I think it is fair to say that one should deeply understand the context of the music they are performing in order to reproduce it in a manner that respects and preserves its roots. For example, spirituals come from an African American slave tradition, and several people reproduce spirituals outside of the gospel.

Elvis Presley – Joshua Fit the Battle (1966)

The jazz setting of Green’s recording is pretty appropriate for the song, especially when the history of jazz is taken into account. In our readings, we have learned that a large part of the African musical tradition includes improvisation, which appropriately takes places in spirituals, the blues, and jazz. In other words, Green’s performance furthers the tradition of African music in America.

A small comparison between the two recordings is that Green’s album lists the song as Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho while Presley’s is listed as Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho. The subtle change of “de” and “the” actually show the difference between how the two artists likely absorbed the song for the first time. The fact that Presley’s album lists it as “the” buys into the idea that “de” is not proper English, and should therefore be corrected, while Green leaves it as is because that is how slaves created and sang the song.

Grant Green – Feelin’ the Spirit (1963)

Lastly, I think a big fault in Elvis’ recording is that he decided to sing this spiritual in a major mode, which fails to pay true homage to the origins of the piece. I’m not trying to say that every spiritual must be in a minor mode to depict the anguish of the tradition that it comes from, but I think that altering the mode of specific songs poses a problem, especially when the performer will never experience the context in which these spirituals were originally sung in. In addition, it seems that Elvis recorded spirituals because he enjoyed them, which was not the reason why they existed in the first place. Spirituals were a means of consolation for the suffering of slavery, and Green’s album, Feelin’ the Spirit (1963), captures this in his time-appropriate era of the Civil Rights Movement. Green did not necessarily want to reproduce the music in its original context, but to bring this music to the nation at a time when they needed the same hope for equality that slaves did.

The Alteration of Spirituals in the Civil Rights Movement

In Amiri Baraka’s Blues People: Negro Music in White America, he regards African music in terms of its intent, saying that one of its stark differences from Western music was that it was purely functional; it wasn’t meant to exist as art. We see that this African tradition appears in the life of the slave, with work song and spirituals existing as a means of necessary expression that called to God for freedom.

Zora Neale Hurston’s also discusses slave song in Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals, and how they never remain in their original form regardless of publication because each rendition depicts a different mood. For example, the spiritual “Gospel Plow” was originally a work song, but it was performed in during the Civil Rights Era, changing its context, which proved her statement that spirituals are not confined to slavery. In this situation, lyrics have been altered to fit the context of the performance. Looking at “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” we see the lyrics of “Gospel Plow” change to fit the context of freedom marches. The tunes stayed the same but the verses changed as folks improvised them. In addition, the lyrics vary between each recording, so the side by side comparison is only one example of the lyrical change.

Gospel Plow and Keep Your Eyes on the Prize with commentary

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize


So when Hurston says “Each singing of the piece is a new creation,” the Civil Rights Era literally made a new creation out of this spiritual to adapt to special events such as freedom marches. This also connects back to Baraka’s argument that work song and spirituals were a necessary means of expression because these songs gave a message of perseverance during the freedom marches, no matter what they protesters were faced with.

Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs. Recorded January 1, 1990. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1990, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 3, 2017. 

WNEW’s Story of Selma. Folkways Records, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 3, 2017. 

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals.” In Music In the USA: A Documentary Companion, edited by Judith Tick and Paul Beaudoin, 506-509. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Dvorak and the Spirit of Indian Music

In this 1893 New York Herald article, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak discusses his 9th symphony, From the New World. Dvorak says that “since he has been in this country, I have been deeply interested in the national music of the negroes and Indians,” later concluding that the two styles of music were nearly identical as a national genre. Because of his interest in the national American style of music, he studied Indian melodies that a friend gave to him, becoming inspired by the spirit of their being, later composing this symphony on the basis of that spirit.

However, the manuscript that was given to Dvorak wouldn’t have been enough for him to authentically understand Indian music. As we have encountered in Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life, Europeans at the end of the Civil War found that the culture of Indian music was worth preserving, though their transcribing methods were fairly limited. Because there are several forms in which Indian music can exist and because those forms can be dependent on their purpose in the moment of a ritual, transcribing what one hears in a single performance then fixes the identity of that music. In addition, most of the documented Indian music was from the perspective of non-Indians and the Indian music that Dvorak studied followed this trend.

With that in mind, it’s evident that Dvorak’s attempt at composing in the “spirit of Indian music” is completely removed from Indian culture. Even though he studied a “certain number of Indian melodies,” his encounter is secondhand, failing to understand the circumstances in which that music would have been performed. In addition, we don’t have records of what music he was looking at, so the credibility of that source dwindles further. Had he experienced an Indian ritual in person, his compositional approach would have likely been more legitimate and true to its source.

Article sources

  • [No known author], “Dvorak on His New Work,” New York Herald (New York City, NY), Dec. 15, 1893.
  • Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), 389.