What is “American” Music?

What is “American” Music?

Thurmaier, David

A colleague recently asked me what makes the music of Aaron Copland sound “American.” After rattling off obvious biographical facts about Copland that proved his “American-ness,” waxing rhapsodic about the “expansive” nature of his music that aurally depicts the vast dimensions of the United States, and acknowledging that Copland must be American because his music has been included in television commercials, I began to ponder more seriously the question of what defines “American” music. I have spent most of my professional career promoting awareness of American music and researching one particular Yankee composer intensively, so of course I know what American music is. Or do I?

One way to tackle the question of what makes music “American” is to look at music in the United States historically. You may be surprised to discover that relatively little indigenous American classical music existed until the late nineteenth century. Apart from pockets of classical and sacred music composed between the American Revolution and the Civil War, most American music of the early to mid-nineteenth century was of the variety that noted musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock defines as “vernacular” music. According to Hitchcock, vernacular music is “more plebeian, native, not approached self-consciously but simply grown into as one grows into one’s vernacular tongue; music understood and appreciated simply for its utilitarian or entertainment value.” Some representative vernacular genres included gospel hymnody, spirituals, popular song, band music, and by the end of the century, ragtime. One example of a celebrated composer who fused vernacular traditions with a more classical aesthetic was Stephen Foster. Foster’s songs spanned the gamut from clearly homespun tunes such as “Oh Susanna,” to parlor songs in a classical style such as “Beautiful Dreamer.”

After the Civil War, which in itself inspired a fascinating and powerful musical repertoire, a push for more academic training in music began. Music departments were spawned at schools such as Harvard, and conservatories were built especially for studying music. But composers faced a particular dilemma – what musical models were teachers going to instruct their students to follow, given that America had very little of its own classical music? The solution for most academics was to look abroad; after all, the Europeans created a magnificent corpus of music and seemed to be on the cutting edge of music composition. As a result of this ideological bent, many teachers and students studied abroad in Germany and France to develop their craft. By and large the music of noteworthy composers such as John Knowles Paine (founder of the music department at Harvard), George Whitefield Chadwick (president of the New England Conservatory of Music) and Horatio Parker (Dean of the School of Music at Yale) sounds European and adheres to the traditions of the great masters. Though Americans wrote this music, most people would question whether it exhibits qualities of “American music.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, the impetus to create music that sounded “American” arose partly as a result of a visit by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak came to America in 1892 to teach composition at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Part of Dvorak’s appeal was the perception that his music exhibited “nationalistic” traits; therefore, those hiring Dvorak wished him to promote American music traits as a composition teacher. To assist in this goal, Dvorak became acquainted with Black spirituals through an encounter with a student at the conservatory; the idiosyncratic melodic and rhythmic characteristics of spirituals would make their way into several works by Dvorak, most famously his Ninth Symphony, “From the New World.”

Though most American composers of the next century chose sources of inspiration other than spirituals, Dvorak’s advocacy of indigenous vernacular music proved to be an influential step toward developing a truly American music. Composers of the twentieth century would borrow from a wealth of traditions such as hymnody, jazz, ragtime, and blues, as well as expand their reaches to music from Asia and Eastern Europe. As was the country itself, American music became a “melting pot” of influences that synthesized into a wholly new brand of musical expression.

All of this historical background leads me back to my initial challenge to identify specific qualities that define American music. I have already suggested one quality: the assimilation of diverse influences into original classical works. Take for example Copland’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra written in 1926 after his studies in France. As Copland explained in his book Our New Music, his concerto was one of the first to “adopt the jazz idiom,” and he wanted to “see what [he] could do with it in a symphonic way.” Jazz was in its developmental stages at the time of Copland’s concerto, but it was decidedly American in conception and genesis. Later in the century, Copland would write some of the most famous American works that evoke national themes: the ballets Billy the Kid and Rodeo, the opera The Tender Land, and the music for the film based on John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. Copland was able to assimilate influences that originate in American history and mythology and bring them into the modern classical era.

Another trait that typifies American classical music is an emphasis on innovation and experimentation. In glancing at American works composed in the early twentieth century, one notices many new performance directives, instruments, and compositional ideas. By mirroring inventions and developments concurrent in technology and science, composers often derived their musical ideas from nontraditional sources. For example, the concept of the “prepared piano” – a piano with various materials such as screws, bolts, paper, and felt inserted between the strings – originated with American composers Henry Cowell and John Cage (whose father was an inventor). Or take the avant-garde composer George Antheil, the self-dubbed “Bad Boy of Music,” who wrote an infamous piece in 1924-26 entitled Ballet mecanique; the forces required to play the piece first consisted of one Pianola with amplifier, two pianos, three xylophones, electric bells, three airplane propellers made of wood and metal, tam-tam, four bass drums, and a siren. In addition, other composers wrote music based on scales, harmonies, and rhythms that differed greatly from those employed in traditional classical music. What may sound “weird” to many people reflects the search for original techniques and highlights the American spirit of innovation and experimentation.

I can think of other stylistic traits, but I would like to conclude by considering why it is essential to know about American music. We should all care about what makes our music our music. Paying closer attention to works written by Americans can reveal insights into the American character and spirit. For example, when one hears Charles Ives’s masterpiece Three Places in New England, one can attain a brief glimpse into early twentieth-century New England and try to experience what Ives saw and heard at each place. Also, knowing something about American music can assist instructors in making connections among other arts. For instance, an art class studying the paintings of Edward Hopper might examine contemporary music to discover whether American composers reflected Hopper’s stark perspective of America through their music. Finally, we owe it to the artists of our own country to devote time and interest toward exploring what they have to communicate; for if we ignore the richness of American music, we deny ourselves the chance to delve deeper into what makes us Americans.

David Thurmaier teaches music theory at Lawrence University and is a PhD candidate in music theory at Indiana University. His primary research focuses on the music of Charles Ives.

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Fall 2003

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