When Classical Music Was Cool – Mid-1900s America

Nowadays, and throughout much of history, highbrow classical music has typically been reserved for an estranged elite – an exclusive club that everyone could hypothetically join, but hardly anyone ever does. (Other than you of course, dearest Reader, who are most exceptional) The reason for this hierarchical cultural separation, both in music and other areas, is manifold, ranging from snarky snobbery to preposterous pretentiousness. However, this need not, and – perhaps more importantly – has not, always been the case. As noted in the March of Time database’s newsreel, Upbeat in Music1,

America’s serious composers are winning recognition from an ever-widening public, through performances by symphonic conductors like the New York Philharmonic’s Rodzinski…. The nation’s crowded concert halls testify to the new and growing enthusiasm of hundreds of thousands of everyday citizens for good music. The classics they have heard on records or on the radio, the moving artistry and musicianship of singers, who today are being heard by the whole country.  And, like Marian Anderson, are singing songs which are part of the native music of America.

The 3 Tenors – one of the strongest examples of classical musicians who became outrageously popular beyond the traditional classical sphere

As Karene Grad explains2, the divide between classical and popular music was much smaller in post-WWII America. She even goes so far as to say that “the years following World War II saw the popularization of high culture in America.” The arts at that time were a fundamental piece of the struggle to create an exceptional American identity. Unfortunately, arts are no longer such a valued piece of American culture and identity today. It seems as though new cuts are made in arts programs across the country every day, and that it is hopeless to try and fight against America’s modern STEM-centric worldview. However, we can take solace in the fact that there was a time when arts did play a central part in American culture, and perhaps, if we work at it hard enough, such a time might come again.

1 Upbeat in Music. Produced by Home Box Office. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C1792615. Accessed November 16, 2017.

2 Grad, Karene, Agnew, Jean-Christophe, and Cott, Nancy F. When High Culture Became Popular Culture: Classical Music in Postwar America, 1945–1965, 2006, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. https://search.proquest.com/docview/304983472?accountid=351. Accessed November 16, 2017.

Florence B. Price

On June 15th, 1933, Florence Price made history: the Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony in E minor, making her the first African-American woman composer to have a work performed by a major orchestra.

This work, originally subtitled “Negro Symphony,” draws on many of the stylistic traits of African-American folk music without ever explicitly quoting folk melodies;  instead of writing symphonic music around a 12-bar blues or a spiritual tune, as did many of her contemporaries, Price instead incorporates some of the harmonic and melodic elements of blues and spirituals into her own unique voice.  The resulting composition is strikingly original.

Despite the high quality of her music, Price had difficulty attaining performances of her work.  In a 1943 letter to Sergei Koussevitzky, she explains the manifold struggles she faces as both a female composer and a composer of color:

“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, frothy, lacking in depth, logic, and virility.  Add to that the incident of race – I have Colored blood in my veins – and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position”

In the remainder of the letter, Price asks Koussevitzky to consider one of her compositions, insisting that he make “no concession” on the basis of race or sex, but rather evaluate the score on its musical merit alone.  Despite receiving many such letters from Price, Koussevitzky never programmed a single one of her works.

The underrepresentation and erasure of Florence Price continues to the present day: after searching several databases, I found that there is only one recording of the Symphony in E minor that is readily available to the public.  Scholarly research on Price’s life is also relatively sparse, with the writings of late musicologist Rae Linda Brown existing as some of the only works that honor Price’s life and pay homage to her music.  The conspicuous silence surrounding Price in scholarly and musical discourses clearly illustrates the racist and sexist systems that ceaselessly oppress female composers of color.  Performing, researching, and recording the music of these underrepresented composers is essential if we ever hope to dismantle these systems and construct a new musical landscape that truly offers equal opportunities for all people.

Sources

Fabre, Geneviève, and Michel Feith. Temples for tomorrow: looking back at the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana University Press, 2001.

Price, Florence B. “Recorded Music of the African Diaspora, Vol. 3.” Albany Records, 2011.

 

MacDowell’s “New England Idyls”

In Edward MacDowell’s “New England Idyls,” he combines classical European harmonic elements with titles and epigraphs that evoke a purely American setting.  The resulting character pieces are incredibly descriptive and strive towards an American musical national style equivalent to the Russian style created by Mussorgsky and the Polish style created by Chopin.

the original art featured on the cover of “New England Idyls”

European harmonic idioms of the 19th century are very prominent in “New England Idyls.”  The third piece in the set, entitled “Mid-Winter,”is particularly rich in Romantic German- and French-sounding harmonies.  Throughout the movement there is intense chromatic saturation, typical of Wagner and Strauss.  Also reminiscent of these composers is the harmonic shifts by third instead of by fourth and fifth, which MacDowell employs to very dramatic effect.  MacDowell also writes colorful non-functional harmonies that are reminiscent of Debussy (of whom MacDowell was an almost perfect contemporary).

 

one example of MacDowell’s epigrap

Complementing his Romantic harmonies are MacDowell’s epigraphs. Similar to the titles of Debussy’s piano preludes, these short snippets of text frame the colorful, descriptive music, lending a sort of program to each piece.  Unlike Debussy’s brief and cryptic inscriptions, however, MacDowell’s texts are substantial and highly specific, evoking images of the New Hampshire countryside.  Most of the movements describe natural features such as An Old Garden, In Deep Woods, To An Old Pine.  Two others describe other facets of the American experience: Native American culture is represented (for better or for worse) in Indian Idyl, and a facet of white America’s religious history is portrayed in From Puritan Days.

http://webfiles.wulib.wustl.edu/units/music/supplcat/b10311282.pdf

As we have seen, MacDowell strives to create an American classical music by adopting a European musical style and imbuing it with American textual imagery from his own personal experiences in New Hampshire.  Whether or not he succeeds in this endeavor is up to the listener to decide.

 

Sources

Crawford, Richard. The American Musical Landscape. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993.

Dolores Pesce and Margery Morgan Lowens. “MacDowell, Edward.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed 24 Oct. 2017.

MacDowell, Edward. New England Idyls. Boston: Arthur P. Schmidt, 1902.

 

Beach’s Variations and the Success of the American Female Composer

Amy Beach (September 5, 1867–December 27, 1944) was an American composer and pianist. She was primarily self-taught in composition and was the first successful female composer of large works as well as the first president of the Society of American WomenComposers. She worked to further the works of young composers and was also known as “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach” at many of her concert piano performances.

This is the cover of a manuscript being held in the Amy Cheney Beach Collection, which is housed in the Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections of the University of Missouri - Kansas City.

This is the cover of a manuscript being held in the Amy Cheney Beach Collection, which is housed in the Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections of the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

Amy Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60 was one of many great works she composed for piano. Based on songs “of unknown origin” collected by Reverend and Mrs. William W. Sleeper during their time living as missionaries in the Balkan region, the variations play upon “O Maiko Moya,” “Stara Planina,” and “Nasadil e Dado,” among other Balkan folk tunes. (Beach did not collect any of the folksongs her works were based on.) The variations employ switches between different themes to make up their complex texture.

The following is a loose translation of the text of “O Maiko Moya,” which is the first theme introduced in the work. Although there is no text to be sung or read with this work (this is a piano work, after all) this is important to the structure of the work and is suggestive of the overall tone of the variations and the cultural background that they were based on.

“O my poor country, to thy sons so dear,

Why art thou weeping, why this sadness drear?

Alas! thou raven, messenger of woe,

Over those fresh grave moanest thou so?”

The different folk songs do not all have to deal with Balkan nationalistic pride, rather, some texts relate to the mountains, or a story of a grandfather planting a small garden. As is the case in any piece written as a theme with variations, the variations gradually move away from the original motivic elements and provide new context for different themes.

In her analysis of Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, Dr. Adrienne Fried Block suggested that Beach borrowed from Beethoven’s tonal scheme for his Six Variations, op. 34. Beethoven’s Variations was one of the pieces that Beach regularly performed in her solo piano performances and one of the few variations that she regularly played throughout her career. It makes sense then, that this piece had such an effect on her own music. The Balkan Themes were in minor, which affected the tonal adjustments she made to the piece and prevented her from using Beethoven’s Variations structure exactly as it is (it should be noted that the speculation that Beach borrowed from Beethoven is a part of Dr. Block’s correspondence to a E. Douglas Bomberger).

Overall, Beach’s Variations are lively, yet melancholy in mood. Beach was known to incorporate romanticism and delayed resolution into her work, later on moving away from tonality. It is no surprise that Beach has been declared the first successful American female composer of large-scale music, although I think it would be interesting to explore the published music of other female composers and try to understand where they “fell short” of the success of their male counterparts, causing America to have to wait until the late 1800s for a female composer of Beach’s accomplishment.

 

Beach, Amy. Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60. Boston: Arthur P. Schmidt, 1906. http://javanese.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/0/0f/IMSLP08550-Beach_-_Op.60__Variations_on_Balkan_Themes.pdf.

Beach, Amy. Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60. Performed by Virginia Eskin. Composed 1904.

Bomberger, E. Douglas, and Adrienne Fried Block. “On Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60.” American Music 11, no. 3 (1993): 368-71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3052509.