Joseph Horowitz: Classical Music in America

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1. HEINRICH (1781-1861):
Andante and Polacca from La Buona Mattina, part of The Dawning of Music in Kentucky (1820)
Steven Mayer, piano (7:00)

With Louis Moreau Gottschalk, William Henry Fry, and George Bristow, Anthony Philip Heinrich was one of four important American composers for orchestra 150 years ago. Known as (among other things) the "Beethoven from Kenturky," he was born in Bohemia in 1781 and self-taught. He first visited the United States in 1805 and later wound up settling in Philadelphia, then Pittsburgh (to which he walked, a distance of 300 miles), then Kentucky (where he initially lived in a log cabin), then Boston, then New York. In the last city, he was a personage: teacher, violinist, conductor, feuding critic, enterprising self-presenter and self-promoter. It may be doubted whether any New York orchestra was adequately prepared for the Heinrich opuses assayed under the composer's baton. Heinrich's orchestral scores employ up to 44 individual parts, often moving at exceptional speeds. Eschewing development and formalized structure, they eagerly scramble and recycle seeming scraps of Haydn and Beethoven. Their means of organization and continuity signify bold invention or bold incompetence. This boldness is at all times impressive. Time has not tamed Father Heinrich.

2. FRY (1813-1864):
Macbeth Overture (1864)
Tony Rowe conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos) 8.559057 (10:33)

William Henry Fry was the first music critic for a major American daily newspaper: Horace Greeley's influential New York Tribune. In this capacity, he fulminated over the neglect of contemporary American composers, especially himself. Fry the composer did not lack popularity and acclaim. But his taste of success, and travels abroad, heightened his infuriated awareness that the United States lacked the means to school, present, and promote its own creative musical talent. "I make common cause with Americans, born or naturalized, who are engaged in the world's Art struggle and against degrading deference to European dictation," he trumpeted. What does Fry's music sound like? His opera Leonora, produced in Philadelphia and New York, is Italian bel canto. But neither does Fry disdain German and French influences. In his Macbeth Overture a recurrent theme in trombones and tuba precisely insinuates "Double, double toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble." Elsewhere, the orchestra mimics "All hail Macbeth!" and - at the close - "Long live King Malcolm!" The catchy tunes and narrative fire, however innocent, are contagious. Granted, the piece suffers by comparison with Verdi, an obvious model. But there are other contexts for judgment. As another critic wrote of another Fry opus, his music "demands our attention for more reasons than one. It is American; it is home-made and therefore entitled to fair hearing and to lenient judgment." What is more, Fry was writing for prebellum New York -- for a polyglot music crowd itching to have fun.

3. GOTTSCHALK (1829-1869):
The Banjo (1855)

Steven Mayer, piano
Night in the Tropics (1859), movement two: Fiesta criolla
Richard Rosenberg conducting the Hot Springs Music Festival Orchestra (Naxos 8.559036) (6:05)

Louis Moreau Gottschalk is far the most famous and accomplished of the mid-century Americans and the most audibly a product of the New World. Raised on saucy Caribbean delicacies, he flouts Europe not primitively and aggressively, like Fry or Heinrich, but with sublime insouciance and practiced finesse. This is because he was in part a cultivated European. He was born in New Orleans, a city semi-French, semi-Spanish, semi-American, with a thriving operatic culture. From the age of thirteen he studied in Paris, where he became a successful pianist/composer whose admirers included Berlioz and Hugo. He arrived in New York in 1863. He later took off for Havana and points south. Gottschalk's piano works - he wrote more than one hundred, all in short forms - profitably belong to an era when distinctions between art and entertainment remained blurred. Worldly yet unself-conscious, they combine a Chopinesque command of the pearly Romantic keyboard with a easy access to the pungent vernacular strains he encountered on New Orleans streets, in South American dance halls and North American music halls. What other American has produced a virtuoso etude as original and enduring as The Banjo, whose rapid-fire strumming intimates Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races" in a whirlwind of pulsating, strobe-lit color?

The two-movement "Romantic symphony" Night in the Tropics, composed for a monster orchestra including the latest valved brass, and Afro-Cuban drums and maracas, testifies to Gottschalk's flair for gargantuan spectacle, as well as a nascent gift for the larger forms. The climactic, roof-raising fiesta criolla is cunningly paced and varied; there is even a comically incongruous fugal episode. This is top-drawer American repertoire, virtually unplayed by American orchestras.

4. BEACH (1867-1944):
Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor (1899), movement one: Allegro moderato
Alan Feinberg, piano, with Kenneth Schermerhorn conducting the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.559139) (17:44)

CHADWICK (1854-1931):
Jubilee (1895)
Kuchar conducting Ukrainian National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.559213) (08:13)

George Whitefield Chadwick was the leader among equals of the New England composers of his generation - more than any such composers' aggregation before or since, a genuine American school of shared interests, enthusiasms, and accomplishments. He studied in Leipzig and Munich. Arthur Foote studied with the Berlin-educated John Knowles Paine. Horatio Parker studied with Chadwick, then in Munich. Amy Beach was the youngest of the "Boston boys," in whose company she was explicitly accepted by Chadwick even though her gender prevented her from attending the boys' frequent gatherings at the St. Botolph Club and Gavern Club. Beach and Chadwick are the Second New England School composers who most matter today - the former because she most vividly gauges the costs of Brahmin self-confinement, the latter because in the history of American classical music he is the first symphonic composer to fashion a recognizably American style.

Boston embraced Amy Cheney. Her Boston Symphony Orchestra debut, playing Chopin's F minor Piano Concerto at the age of seventeen, was a triumph. When, as the twenty-seven-year-old Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, she completed her Gaelic Symphony, the Boston Symphony premiered it to demonstrative public and journalistic acclaim. The thirty-five minute, four-movement C-sharp minor Piano Concerto came next. In this long and tempestuous work, the soloist - Beach herself - is hero, by turns contemplative and explosive. Her confrontational posture and savvy capacity for display are qualities utterly uncharacteristic of a Foote, Parker, or Chadwick. Notwithstanding an abundance of borrowed gestures, the concerto is not lacking in originality. It deserves a caliber of advocacy - a famous pianist influentially to champion its highest possibilities - it has yet to enjoy.

If Beach never managed to achieve a fully distinctive stylistic signature, Chadwick possesses a recognizable voice steeped in the vernacular of cracker-barrel humor, fiddle tunes, and minstrel songs. This affinity - often incidental, sometimes suppressed -- was at at least occasionally conscious; in his memoirs he wrote that he was "determined to make" his Symphonic Sketches "American in style - as [he] understood the term." Jubilee, the first of the four Sketches, deserves to be an American staple. Its Yankee exuberance and heartwarming nostalgia are iconic of Mark Twain's America. A horn flourish nearly quotes Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races." The gorgeous second subject, coming next, begs for an Oscar Hammerstein lyric. The materials are vividly colored and recolored throughout. The coda's poetic glow is the sunset toward which movie cowboys would canter in decades to come.

5. MACDOWELL (1860-1908):
Dirge, from the Indian Suite (1892)
Takuo Yuasa conducting the Ulster Symphony (Naxos 8.559075) (6:19)

STRONG (1856-1948):
Sintram Symphony (1888), movement two: Langsam
Adriano conducting the Moscow Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.559018) (10:43)

As of 1900, the most eminent American concert composer was Edward MacDowell. He began his musical studies in New York. At the age of fifteen he was taken to Europe. He eventually settled in Germany, to work with distinguished teachers, to be encouraged by Liszt, and to make his reputation. As with Gottschalk, his fame preceded him upon his return to the United States. In 1903, with his creative years behind him, he revealingly confided that the Dirge, from his Indian Suite, was what pleased him most "of all my music." An American variant on Siegfried's Funeral Music, from Wagner's Gotterdammerung, it abandons this composer's typical melodrama and nostalgia to seek profundity, and tenuously rises toward the "world-sorrow" he here aspired to express.

MacDowell's limitations are set in sharp relief by a contemporaneous American who more fully inhabits the Wagner/Liszt mode, who commands something like their heights and depths of erotic/demonic abandon and mystical /religious ecstasy: MacDowell's friend George Templeton Strong. Strong's fifty-minute Sintram Symphony, inspired by Durer's phantasmagoric "Knight, Death and the Devil," steaming with Tristan and Parsifal and Bruckner, is formidably and precariously epochal; its breadth of stride cannot be found among MacDowell and his other Boston and New York colleagues. The work enjoyed a highly successful premiere in New York in 1892 and was, like its composer, subsequently forgotten. In Switzerland, where Strong eventually settled, the Sintram symphony was conducted by Ernest Ansermet in 1912 and 1932. Here is yet another American overdue for revival and exploration.

6. DVORAK (1841-1904): American Suite, Op. 98 (1894), movements
3 (Moderato)
4 (Andante)
5 (Allegro)

DVORAK: Humoresques
Nos. 4 (F major)
7 (G-flat major) Op. 101 (1894)
Benjamin Pasternack, piano

What Willa Cather, describing the impact of Dvorak's New World Symphony in her novel The Song of the Lark (1915), called "the immeasurable yearning of all flat lands" is embodied in the clean sonority and uncluttered, unadorned musical space of Dvorak's American style. The little-known American Suite, begun in New York just after the premiere of the New World Symphony, is a case in point. Dvorak wrote it for solo piano, then lovingly orchestrated it in 1895. Simplicity - its serene speech, shunning compositional virtuosity - is its crux. This, Dvorak's method, is also his intended message. The third movement is a jaunty dance not far removed from the world of stride piano. The fourth evokes the vacant Iowa landscape of which he found "sometimes very sad, sad to despair." In Spillville, Iowa, Dvorak had listened to interracial Kickapoo Medicine Show musicians, including two African-Americans who intermingled Native American dances with banjo and guitar. In the American Suite, prairie vacancy mates with cakewalk, and - in the fifth and final movement - an A minor "Indian" tune turns into an A major minstrel song.

In Dvorak's Humoresques, composed in Prague in between stints in Manhattan, the composer's American and Bohemian styles are sometimes juxtaposed cheek by jowl. The Fourth Humoresque begins with a seeming snatch of Porgy and Bess - composed by George Gershwin four decades later. If the Fourth Humoresque is obscure, the Seventh hums a dance tune so familiar in the United States that many Americans doubtless assume an American composed it.

7. FARWELL (1872-1952):
Navajo War Dance No. 2 (1904) Benjamin Pasternack, piano

Pawnee Horses for solo piano (1905) and a cappella chorus (1937)
Benjamin Pasternack, piano; The University of Texas Chamber Singers, James Morrow conducting

The Indianist movement in American music, largely inspired by Dvorak, was spearheaded by the fascinating and insufficiently remembered composer/journalist Arthur Farwell. Though the Indianists are today vaguely recalled (if at all) are naïve and culturally exploitative, Farwell was no naif. He viewed Native American chant as one part of a varied tapestry of Americana. His lifelong reverence for the Native American - which began in childhood, when he lived for a time in a Native American village on Lake Superior - was an honorable, if Romanticized, product of his time. As a pioneering publisher of American composers, he abhorred sentimentality "like poison" and if it cannot be said that all his own music transcends kitsch, his best works deserve to be perpetuated as superior early efforts to create a singular American concert style. Pawnee Horses (1905), barely a minute long, is based on an Omaha song Farwell considered so complex in its rhythms that it could not be performed by "any known singer except an Indian." With its dissonance and rhythmic bite (remarkably progressive for 1904), the Navajo War Dance No. 2 - dedicated to John Kirkpatrick (later to champion Ives' Concord Sonata), who held it in high regard - suggests something like a New World Bartok. Farwell's eight-part a cappella version of Pawnee Horses - music not yet commercially recorded -- unforgettably elaborates the earlier piano work.

8. IVES (1874-1954):
Thoreau, from the Concord Sonata (1911-15)

Steven Mayer, piano, with readings by Kerry Shale from Thoreau's (14:40)

To a degree uncanny and extreme, the preserved memories of father and childhood anchored Charles Ives's creative identity - as did his surrogate Transcendentalist fathers Emerson and Thoreau. In Ives' essay "Thoreau" the writer sits "rapt in reverie, amidst goldenrod, sandcherry and sumac." The restless eagerness of an early morning tramp gradually slows toward "the tempo of Nature"; a buoyant, too personal introspection gives way to harmonious solitude. Ives' indelible musical rendering of misted water, cloud and dew, of "drifting meadows of the air" is both physical and metaphysical. Tolling octaves in the bass evoke "the faint sound of the Concord bell....At a distance over the woods the sounds acquire a certain vibratory hum as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept....A vibration of the universal lyre." An innate music merges with nature and with the idea of nature.

9. LOEFFLER (1861-1935):
Le Saint Jour de Paques (Easter Sunday) from Music for Four Stringed Instruments (1917)
DaVinci Quartet (Naxos 8.559077) (7:40)

America's most accomplished aestheticist composer, Charles Martin Loeffler was court musician to Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner. Though he claimed to have been born in Alsace, recent scholarship suggests that his actual birthplace was Berlin. Though wondrously deracinated - his English was German-accented; he lived as a child in Hungary and Russia - his orientation was predominantly French. Plainsong is also a strong influence on his exotic style. Music for Four Stringed Instruments, infused with Gregorian chant, composed in memory of a friend's son killed in combat, is both an elegy and hymn. Loeffler was the one fin-de-siecle Boston composer whose national reputation survived World War I; he remained highly esteemed through the 1930s.


GRIFFES (1884-1920):
I. Feroce; Allegretto con moto

II. Molto tranquillo
III. Allegro viace
Piano Sonata (1919)
Michael Lewin, piano (Naxos 8.559023) (14:28)

Born in Elmira, New York, Charles Tomlinson Griffes studied in Berlin and returned to the United States in 1907 a highly competent composer of German-style songs in German. The French Impressionists and Scriabin greatly influenced such subsequent compositions as The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan. Griffes also composed in "Japanese" style, with nondirectional harmonies and delicately tinted instrumental effects. Late in his brief thirteen-year composing career, he repudiated "the reputation of an orientalist and nothing more" and forged a mature idiom combining exotic fragrance and sensuality with primal sinew. This new side of Griffes - engaged, visceral -- is sealed by his Piano Sonata, a taught, tightly organized exercise in New World diablerie, in three linked movements. If the hallucinatory frenzy of this music evokes Scriabin, its savagery is American. Though a white-hot 1950s recording by William Masselos should have made it an American staple, it remains little performed.

11. COPLAND (1900-1990):
Piano Variations (1930)
Benjamin Pasternack, piano (Naxos 8.559184) (11:53)

The Piano Variations of Aaron Copland were a bracing wake-up call, a new American sound for New World modernists coming of age after World-War I . The angular rhythms and dissonant tonal shards vibrate with the intensity and nervous energy of Copland's New York. Versus the warm American roots exhumed by Dvorak, and the familiar Germanic models he applied, this is skyscraper music of steel and concrete. No previous American had achieved such concise freshness of style.

Symphony No. 3 (1937)
Marin Alsop conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra

If any American composer of the interwar decades rivaled Copland in the public imagination it was Roy Harris: a "genuine American," born on Lincoln's birthday in a log cabin in Oklahoma. Then as now, Harri's one-movement Third Symphony proved his signature achievement. The magnificent beginning suggests that he has, like some musical deus ex machina, swooped down from on high to mediate an even exchange between Old World traditions and New World wilderness adventure. A loping, striding cello song probes the surrounding silence. The long lines of this melody, the irregular phrases seamlessly bound, the spacious textures and open fourths and fifths suggest an American plainchant (pun and all). The Third Symphony's pioneer trek next discovers a pastorale: cowboy and honky-tonk snatches wafted above shimmering strings. Then comes a rugged fugue not according to the book. Harris wrestles with a curt, thrusting theme: he thwacks it, turns it upside down, sets it astride galloping strings.

13. VARESE (1883-1965):
Integrales (1925)
Christopher Lyndon-Gee conducting the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.554820) (11:00)

The European composer who most sensationally infiltrated American classical music after World War I was a marauding wild man: Edgard Varese, a father figure for those who sought radical direction. Reviewing Integrales as performed by Leopold Stokowski in 1925, the critic Paul Rosenfeld - an influential arbiter of the musically new -- claimed its composer for the New World: "he has come into relationship with elements of American life, and found corresponding rhythms within himself set free." Typical of Varese is the absence of strings, of tonal harmony, of thematic development. Ferruccio Busoni, with whom Varese had studied in Berlin, pertinently espoused an "absolute music" without boundaries or divisions. By 1930, Varese had emerged as a leading figure among America's "ultra-modern" composers, a group also prominently including Henry Cowell and Carl Ruggles.

14. GERSHWIN (1898-1937):
An American in Paris (1928)
James Judd conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Naxos 8.559107 (11:18)

With the advent of radio and recordings, the postwar decades produced popular music as we know it, and with it the central achievement of American music in the first half of the twentieth century: jazz. Its most ardent supporters included Europe's leading composers. Its most threatening manifestation, for Copland and other Americans that the Europeans routinely ignored, was the composer whose concert works most popularly and completely joined Carnegie Hall to Harlem, and who succeeded in Hollywood and even on Broadway. George Gershwin was a self-made millionaire, maddeningly endowed with a supreme ego the more daunting for its immunity to pettiness or jealousy, whose Rhapsody in Blue, Piano Concerto in F, and An American in Paris galvanized a broader American public than the concert output of any previous American. In the last-named of these works, the narrative structure - adventures of a cheeky tourist/composer - shrewdly rationalizes the song-medley form, and the culminating song-stew cleverly combines many tuneful ingredients.

15. BERNSTEIN (1918-1990):
Prologue to West Side Story (1957)
Kenneth Schermerhorn conducting the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.559126) (4:18)

Claimant to the combined aspirations of Copland, Gershwin, and Koussevitzky, Leonard Bernstein created a landmark Broadway musical in which elements of opera powerfully intermingled. His crowning compositional achievement, marrying high and low, West Side Story appeared only months after he had proclaimed Americans "in a historical position now similar to that of the popular musical theater in Germany" just before Mozart took the Singspiel and elevated it to a work of art. "And this event can happen any second. It's almost as though it is our moment in history."


GLASS (b. 1937):
Violin Concerto (1987), movement three
Adele Anthony, violin, with Takuo Yuasa conducting the Ulster Symphony Orchestra. (Naxos 8.559056) (9:20)

In the late twentieth century, American classical music was refreshed by a reductionist antidote to modernist complexity. A new aesthetic, "minimalism," created musical structure through repetition. The steady pulse, simple harmonies, and electronic instruments of American popular music were potent influences, as were such non-Western genres as Indonesian gamelan and Indian raga. The result was a music of stasis, quiescently hovering or racing in place. Philip Glass - who consciously charted a radical break with 12-tone composers of "crazy creepy music"; who studied with Ravi Shankar, traveled in Morocco and India, and practiced Tibetan Buddhism - called it "intentionless" music, in contradistinction to tension-and-release Western trajectories. In his moody Violin Concerto, the soloist runs a minimalist obstacle course. Glass's connectedness with a mass of listeners was something new in American concert music since Bernstein's Candide Overture and West Side Story Dances. As significant, he is a player: not since Bernstein has so popular a concert composer been so popular a performer.

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