American Music Does Not Exist

I am always a proponent of American music. Not because it is inherently good, but because so much of it is unjustly neglected. Also, I think that some of the 19th century Americans get shorted as being merely derivative of European styles and trends of the time.

Which is why I was glad to see a review about a neglected American composer who has recently had a new CD released, specifically:

Arthur Foote:

A-Fall of Francesca da Rimini, Air and Gavotte (from Serenade); Four Character Pieces after the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám; Suite in E major. Seattle Symphony, Schwarz (Naxos)

Here is a link to the disc in question (Naxos 8.559365)

Naxos has long done an admirable job of promoting and producing neglected music from many places, and their American Classics series is particularly of note in this respect.

Mr. Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News reviews it for us:

American concertgoers – indeed, conductors – are largely unaware of American music before Ives, Gershwin and Copland.

Sadly, all-too true.

But composers including Horatio Parker, Amy Beach, Charles Martin Loeffler, Charles Tomlinson Griffes and John Alden Carpenter penned music...

Yes, and some fantastic and original music to boot!

(Beach and Griffes, to me, are the most interesting in the group. That said, I have a lot of work still to do in this area to become more familiar with this music.)

...music that bears comparison with that of late 19th- and early 20th-century Europeans.

Oh. Well. Certainly the European influence is not to be ignored, but there are uniquely American things about them too. Right?

Most of these Americans were trained at least partly in Europe.

This is true as well. Actually, it continued to be true throughout most of the 20th century, as almost anyone who was anyone (to coin a phrase) went and studied with Mme. Boulanger in Paris for a while.

But Arthur Foote (1853-1937), a Bostonian most of his life, was entirely homegrown.

Foote was unique in this way, and his music was, again, strongly influenced by the European tradition. So the most interesting thing to address, it seems (and is implied), is what was American about his music. Yes? Yes.

Or, rather: no.

Still, his early tone poem Francesca da Rimini sounds like an attractive amalgam of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms.

Jewish, crazy, and never married?

I kid; but really, if this is the way we're going to go with this (and it is), how about some words about the not-European things? Anything? Something? I know: how about nothing.

The four Rubáiyát pieces suggest more up-to-date influences from Dvorák and Tchaikovsky; the Suite, for strings, could almost pass for Elgar.

I like how "almost pass for Elgar" is both sort of a compliment, and sort of condescending. And, more importantly, give no clue whatever to what facets of the music would not, in fact, pass for Elgar. Our only point of reference is European music.

Dating from around the turn of the 20th century, these are beautifully crafted and unfailingly appealing pieces.

Unfailingly appealing = practically European in every describable way!

The Seattle orchestra isn't the most refined, and sonics lack some clarity, but still this is a CD well worth hearing.

Fair enough, and the fact that it was reviewed and recommended at all is encouraging and welcome. But can we please carve out a little, tiny niche where American music can be considered on its own merits? I know it's a little three-paragraph review and not a dissertation, but how about a word or two about American music per se?

Figure 1: Arthur Foote. I've never seen his birth certificate, so he was probably a secret European, or, more likely, a secret Fascist Communist European Kenyan Muslim.


Gustav said...

Those four Rubáiyát pieces are generally nice, although, early American composers are ignored somewhat for the fact that are anomalies. Foote lived until 1937 but never wrote a note that couldn't have been written in 1880. The same is sadly true of the entire so-called Boston Six. While I guess it's important to mention that classical music has a history in the US, it was, much like modern-day health-care issues, far behind our european counterparts.

Also, worthy of note, Mendelssohn did convert to christianity, Schumann converted to crazy, and Brahms probably did it with Schumann's wife.

Sator Arepo said...

Heh. Good points by Gustav.

Empiricus said...

Not to nitpick, but...

I'm pretty confident that the Romantic sense of self and identity (i.e., nationalism) stalled the acceptance of an "American" music into the classical tradition--Gottschalk being the exemplary recipient of the "Oh how cute! An American is trying to write German music" attitude. Instead, I would bet that American music was not "behind," as you put it, Gustav, but inferior--attitudes that continued to gain steam during Foote's career (feet?). In my opinion, it's an attitude that we have yet to shake.

AnthonyS said...

John Alden Carpenter strikes me as not especially belonging to the group. His music has always struck me as being near the beginning of a unique American sound, and certainly less Germanic that his American cohorts. I think he studied with Elgar actually, but I'm too lazy to look that up. Certainly, writing pieces about comic strips, skyscrapers, and the like indicate a more modern sensibility, much like Ives' post-moderny modernism.

This article reminds me of something Stephen Harke once said-- something to effect of there being a special place in Hell for people use the construction "Your music sounds like x crossed with y".

Gustav said...

@ Emp: That's certainly part of it. A superiority complex in Europe towards the colonies has always diminished the works of American artists. But...that doesn't make the music of Charles Martin Loeffler, for example, any less pedantic, and less inventive when compared to oh, say, the Ravel, who lived during very similar dates.

@ AS: Decidedly so. Carpenter did separate himself in the 19-teens from other early Americans. Krazy Kat is a really fun piece.

AnthonyS said...

Wow, Gustav with the Charles Martin Loeffler reference.