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8.223715 - AMERICAN INDIANISTS, Vol. 1

The American Indianists

The American Indianists


The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed the inception of a substantial musical interest in North American Indian culture. Musical compositions based on original tribal chants which researchers, in close collaboration with extant tribes, had made available to the public were produced in substantial numbers. Although it might be considered an exaggeration to classify the productions of this group of Indianists as a fully-fledged artistic movement, nonetheless it was obvious that a group of composers, of which Arthur Farwell was the animating spirit, aspired to free themselves from the all- dominating influence of the German musical tradition in favour of an authentic musical idiom which drew its inspiration from various sources of popular musical expression.. In this sense, it was not so much the necessity to emancipate themselves from a cultural tradition which had become stifling, as in the case of the European primitives, but rather a quest for a typically American cultural source.


The compositions which are presented here represent a panorama of this particular aspect of American music. From the Land of the Sky-Blue Water is an exquisite lyric by Charles Wakefield Cadman, based on an Omaha love- song. The allusion to the sound of the flute, which was the only lyric instrument possessed by the Indians, is even more evident in Charles Sanford Skilton's Sioux Flute Serenade. As a rule, these instruments were constructed by the local medicine-man, which conferred upon them magic powers of seduction, and were played by young Indians with remarkable dexterity. The Cheyenne War-Dance is a telling work in which, curiously enough, there is a basso ostinato similar to that which Chopin employs in his Polonaise Op. 53. The Kikapoo Social Dance imitates the reiterative beat of the drums, onto which the simple song motif is grafted. After a first exposition, the theme is represented accompanied by vivacious figurations.


Preston Ware Orem's American Indian Rhapsody is one of the more brilliant and formally developed compositions in this Indian vein. Stylistically, it is akin to the examples of the Lisztian Hungarian Rhapsodies in that it cites, in its long, virtuosic parabola, ten thematic allusions to chants of the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Sioux, Chippewa, Pueblo and Cree tribes.


Edward MacDowell was among the first of the American composers to avail himself of American Indian folklore. His Indian Suite, Opus 48, for orchestra, was completed before Dvorak's From the New World Symphony, and shows references to authentic Indian chants drawn from Theodore Baker's treatise, On the Music of the North American Indians, published in Leipzig in 1882. The fourth movement of this suite, entitled Dirge, which is included here in the piano transcription of Otto Taubmann, is a funeral lament which anticipates Ravel's Le Gibet.


Indian Scenes is the result of a close collaboration between Henry Franklin Belknap Gilbert and Edward Curtis, who was a renowned photographer and lecturer. Titles of the Indian Scenes correspond to Curtis' photographs, from which Gilbert drew his inspiration, and the music reveals the influence of the phonographic recordings which Curtis had made in the course of his anthropological excursions in the North American continent. The music is quite solemn and mysterious, and follows very closely the declamatory style of many Indian chants.


With its respect for the original themes and its simple but effective harmonization, Lyrics of the Red Man, by Harvey Worthington Loomis, allows us to sense the peculiarities of Indian songs, which in many cases contain a concealed meaning, and do not show any of the spontaneous attributes so typical of our popular music. The themes which Loomis uses in these three pieces are derived from Omaha tribal music. The first refers to the ritual of the sacred pipe, the second is a song of sorrow, while the third presents us a motif from a children's game, coupled with a more lyrical motif drawn from the Omaha Wa-Wan ceremony.


An impressionist sensitivity pervades Une Jeune Indienne, composed by George Templeton Strong during his extended Swiss sojourn on the shores of Lake Geneva. This composition is taken from his suite Au Pays Des Peaux- Rouges, in which the composer seemingly undertakes an imaginary voyage in the search for a vanished Indian world whose existence still lingers in his imagination.


Arthur Farwell is represented in this panorama by only two examples of his vast array of compositions based on Indian sources. The first, A Song of Peace, draws its inspirations from the Omaha Sacred Pipe ceremony, while the second, in contrast, Navajo War Dance, evokes the more savage aspect of Indian nature. Farwell himself writes, with reference to this contrast, that "too many people think of the American Indian only as a savage. I have depicted in my Indian music many phases of Indian life which were far from being savage, but true to its quaint, poetic and picturesque aspects as well as to its mythological conceptions. Being criticized because of these matters as being untrue to this "savage" Indian nature, I wrote the Navajo War Dance in the hope of gratifying my critics in this respect..."


The journey along this Indian trail ends with Some Indian Songs and Dances by Blair Fairchild. Perhaps reputing illusory any attempt to revive the authentic Indian chant by means of a piano, the composer has avoided the use of illustrations in preference to a style "in the manner or' Indian themes; with no little success it would seem, judging from the evocative, distinctive results obtained in the short works presented here.


Dario Muller

(English translation by James Loomis)

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