With More Americana

Ever heard of John Antes?

He’s an early American composer—very early. Born in 1740, he was a composer, a watchmaker, inventor, instrument maker, missionary, officer of the Moravian Church and all-around good guy. Believed to be the first native-born composer of chamber music, he was also a world traveler, spending most of his life abroad. He found himself in Egypt, Greece and Germany, before settling in England. It is believed that Franz Joseph Haydn was one of his pals, on the island. He also had a cool nom de plume, “Giovanni A-T-S Dilletante Americano.”

But here’s the thing: John Antes never wrote music in America, always abroad. In fact, he wrote his first chamber music in Egypt. So, the more you know...

Anyway, today I caught Victor Carr Jr., another one of the boys over at ClassicsToday.com, reviewing a disc with one of John Antes’ String Trios—the disc is called: American Voices.

On it you’ll find:

John Antes – Trio in D minor (1780)
George Gershwin – Lullaby (1919)
Samuel Barber – Quartet for Strings (1936)
Ruth Crawford Seeger – String Quartet (1931)
Leonard Bernstein – Clarinet Sonata (1939)
Joan Tower – A Gift (2007)

Here’s what he has to say about the Antes:

Antes was trained in Germany, so his music not surprisingly is in the style of Haydn and Mozart (don't expect any "Yankee Doodle" here), and this trio is a well crafted, tuneful, and satisfying piece.

Okay. That’s pretty positive. The Gershwin:

The program leapfrogs over the 19th century [...] to land at Gershwin's haunting Lullaby for String Quartet, played here with an affecting tenderness.

Trite, but positive. Barber?

Here the power and passion of the music comes through even in its original four-strings version.

And Ruth:

The concert shifts abruptly toward modernism with Ruth Crawford Seeger's String Quartet, a prickly and complex work that lies stylistically at the midpoint between Bartók and Elliott Carter.

Hilarious! “Mozart lies stylistically at the midpoint between Bach and Beethoven.” M’kay. I'm not sure what he's trying to say, there.

Either way, “prickly and complex” are both rather neutral descriptors, neither good nor bad, tempered even.

So how about Lenny?

Seeing Bernstein's name could give the impression of impending tuneful relief from Seeger's gnarly atonality...

I take that back. He’s happy that he might get some relief from the Ruth. His impression of Ruth is, thus, not positive. (that’s fine; it’s an opinion)

...but actually the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano catches Bernstein in his "serious music" mode, and you'd be hard pressed to recognize the composer of West Side Story and Chichester Psalms in this angular but very well constructed music.

Weird, but positive. It seems that precisely what he didn’t like about the Ruth, he was able to ignore in the Lenny.

Whatever. How ‘bout Joan?

Finally, we arrive at the 21st century with Joan Tower's A Gift, for piano, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, written in the composer's usual darkly dramatic style. The brooding of Memories leads to the agitation of A Song, followed by the mournful With Feeling. Though there's nothing remotely toe-tapping about the concluding To Dance With, it does end the work with a stimulating display of nervous energy.

A very positive, two thumbs up. Sounds great.

So what's my problem, today?

Overall, this is a very interesting program, but one that could have been made more lively, and certainly more representative of America, by including one of the many pieces for string quartet by, say, William Grant Still.

Exactly! One would be hard-pressed to call Antes’ music American, since he wrote all of it in the old world. Right? Wrong.

There's a certain trendiness in the selection of the more modern pieces that perhaps shows a lack of imagination.

Huh? It’s trendy to program newer music? As I see it, only one of the pieces was written in the past 70 years, and it got a glowing review. What’s wrong with that? If we’re talking, however, about newer pieces on this disc that didn’t receive a positive review, we can cross-out Lenny, Sam and Georgie.

That leaves us with Ruth, the only negative on the disc. Translation: Ruth Crawford is not representative of America.

Saying that takes some big, fucking balls.


gustav said...

What a dumbass. Whatever...however, I know that Bernstein Sonata and I can tell you that, although no one snaps or sings, it most definitely sounds just like Bernstein. But then again, there I go again thinking that you should actually study music (I mean, not just dates and places, and whose fucking recording of Bruckner's 4th Symphony I just absolutely must own!)...Barf!

Empiricus said...

I thought Sat Arep would have been all over this one.

Sator Arepo said...

Any Ruth Crawford detractors can meet me in the alley; I'll be with Mr Smashy (that's what I call my Smashing Bat).

[That sentence is also true if you substitute "champagne" for "Ruth Crawford.]

Wait, you know what? Forget it. More for me.


"Bernstein? Bah! He was a *theater* composer!"

--my former teacher)

Robert Gable said...

Segregating classical music by country makes no sense to me.

Sator Arepo said...

Well, sure. But "segregating" seems like a loaded word for "classifying".

But I do agree. However, any classification is going to be flawed in some way. Year? Well, really, is 17th century Javanese music anything like 17th century Chinese music? Let alone Austrian? Australian?

Is there a classification ("segregation") that makes any sense at all? Arguably, even "composer" is a flawed way to distinguish between pieces.

Robert Gable said...

Ok, maybe I was overstating my view since in fact my listening habits and my blog are both organized around the idea of specific American works. But much non-American classical music bleeds into it.

I spent the prior decade organizing my musical life around the idea of "living composers." But they kept dying which meant I had to stop listening to music I liked. I suppose I still have several years to devise a better classification scheme.

Aaron said...

Empiricus, I'm just not seeing the Ruth Crawford slam. It seems to me that the reviewer was complaining that the collection was too small, not that anything in it was bad or un-American.

Empiricus said...

@ Aaron

While I'll admit that it wasn't the most direct and harsh attack, I think my opinion stands.

This is how I see it. Victor suggests how he might have chosen the pieces differently, by adding William Grant Still (1895-1978) in the place of one of the "trendier" newer pieces. Since he doesn't single out any one in particular, I think one can infer which one from the preceding review (remember we're looking for a "newer" piece, not necessarily the newest. That leaves us with Gershwin, Crawford and Bernstein. Both reviews for Gershwin and Bernstein are favorable. The Crawford is rather neutral. But he does express a desire for relief from the Crawford. Thus, the Ruth is the odd man out.

If all follows logically, the Crawford is the trendy newer piece. He would omit that and replace it with a piece by Still. And, again, if all follows logically, the Crawford is, thus, the least representative of America.

And since I'm here, it also follows that Ruth's String Quartet is not "lively." That BS ,too.

Is my argument flawed, Aaron, anyone? I thought it was a nice exercise in inference.


Aaron said...


Here's where I think you're inferring without a license:

Victor suggests how he might have chosen the pieces differently, by adding William Grant Still (1895-1978) in the place of one of the "trendier" newer pieces.

He doesn't do this. He says the recording "could have been made more lively, and certainly more representative of America, by including one of the many pieces for string quartet by, say, William Grant Still" and that "the selection of the more modern pieces ... perhaps shows a lack of imagination."

He doesn't suggest, as far as I can tell, axing the Crawford or anyone else. If he were to make such a suggestion, I agree with you that he'd probably get rid of the Crawford piece first, but I still don't see him doing that.

Empiricus said...

I see your point with a hearty handshake and concede mine.

Nonetheless, we're still left with his statement:

"Seeing Bernstein's name could give the impression of impending tuneful relief from Seeger's gnarly atonality..."

Thoughts, o wise master?

Aaron said...

I'm just a fella, no different 'n anyone else. Please accept this laurel and hearty handshake in return.

We could generously assume he's a surfer from about 1986 - thus the "gnarly atonality" is, like, totally tubular, bro.

Less generously, we could say that he's kind of a jerk who doesn't pick up what Crawford's layin' down, and isn't willing to follow the website's much-referenced and infrequently-followed review guidelines.

Anonymous said...

About musical segregation by country: didn't the great composers do it themselves?

Bach, Telemann, Mozart, Beethoven... to name only a few...

While it's not an exact science, I'm apt to believe that there is objective substance to such divisions- the very least being audience engagement in extra-musical nationalism. Hence, I don't see any problem with "American Music" CDs.

Go Crawford and you guys rule! Keep up the honest work and don’t take the “u” out of fun and music. Else you get FNMSIC which just plain ole aint no good for nobody.