Establishing a canon for American music in the classroom and concert hall.

America has no culture. How many times has this been uttered by people around the world? America has plenty of entertainment: from vaudeville, ragtime and jazz to Broadway, baseball and reality television, we have always been able to pass the time, to manufacture celebrities and fill programming in every form of media. But culture? Surely not! When Americans crave culture, they import it–and why not? Americans love the exotic, and the world loves to come to America. Why should we need our own culture?

This is a tongue in cheek assessment, to be sure, but there are those who may already find themselves nodding in agreement. American culture often seems quite balanced: on one hand, we have an incredible sense of hubris, while on the other we have a massive inferiority complex. It is in this balance that so many of our cultural gems are lost. And when they are lost, or even overlooked, how may we begin to get them back?

Perhaps nowhere is this problem more evident than in concert music. Classical music is a European art form, goes the argument. It is not American; the best American composers merely borrowed from European models, and the finest orchestras tend to import their conductors and soloists (and a good portion of their musicians.) These facts are accurate, sad to say; far too many orchestras overlook top American talent in favor of more ‘exotic’ foreigners. And there is nothing wrong with foreigners! From Toscanini and Mahler to Muti and Masur, American music owes a deep debt of gratitude to men and women from all over the world who have come to America to contribute to our cultural life. But what of American talent? After all, we boast some of the best conservatories and universities in the world; why are we so eager to overlook the emergence of a talented young American musician as some sort of novelty or aberration–a second choice, at best?

Most alarming is the manifestation of the inferiority complex when it comes to American music. Our symphonic canon is, to put it mildly, underrated. In both the classroom and the concert hall, there are few perennial favorites, little patriotism aroused by, say, the performance of a Piston Symphony or the announcement of a new symphony by a Rouse or Corigliano. American music is certainly no pale imitation of European mastery! It is vivid, complex, descriptive, personable and uniquely American. 

A German knows what Beethoven means for national pride. The French have a certain way with Debussy and Bizet. The English adore Vaughan Williams and Elgar. And when it comes to the Russians and their national composers…well…to use the term devotion is hardly a hyperbole. But what of Americans? What does it mean to say Bernstein, Copland or Barber? How about Piston, Persichetti, Mennin? The post-war and cold war eras saw an arms race and space race with Russia, and every opportunity was taken to gloat and celebrate when America bested their Soviet counterparts in some area of achievement. And yet what have we been left with? The Soviets got the best years of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. We got the best of Copland, Bernstein, Barber, and many others. And yet how many times will we see those Russian masters on a program to be performed by American orchestras–while our American masters are neglected by the same ensembles? 

It is not merely a lack of performances; it is a lack of outrage at the lack of performances, a lack of awareness and an abundance of apathy. Aside from Appalachian Spring and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, there seem to be few real ‘hits’ at the box office. Why is that? 

The roots of this issue lie in two places, as far as I can tell. One is the classroom. American music is conspicuously absent from classrooms across the country. The continued compartmentalization of education is surely a factor in this matter. Heaven forbid that, while studying world war 2, we should have any mention of Copland’s Ballet for Martha or that upon examining the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy we should be introduced to Bernstein’s Kaddish. How wonderful would it be for every elementary school student to know the themes (or at least the ‘Variations on a Shaker theme’) of Copland’s ballet! 

The second, of course, is the orchestra itself. Few appearances are made on orchestral programs, and when they are they often come with extreme fanfare or on concerts dedicated entirely to American music. Triumph, of course, would be to include with the programming of American music an omission of note; to simply include this music as part of the canon would be a more effective strategy in the long run, as introducing a new food to a child without gimmicks or debate. Give the audience a chance to love this music–their music. It is not merely ownership, but a matter of identity: this music is about them, their communities and their experiences! Why should it not be a part of their life?

I often wonder when music became ‘new music.’ All music was once new music, after all: Beethoven’s Eroica shocked the Viennese, Bruckner’s symphonies perplexed audiences and Prokofiev disconcerted even his mentors. We get over it; we move on, and, most importantly, we come to accept and love it. Why has the work of Americans been so often relegated to ‘novelty’? Much of it is (or once was) an experiment; but experiments prove a thesis, and then become a standard, then ubiquitous. And is that very ubiquitousness not a definition of success? 

Finally, there are the musicians themselves. We consistently walk a fine line between a tortured quest for individuality and a desperate search for association; to belong, to have some classification. The latter seems to be a recent phenomenon, at least as far as the specialty musician, as opposed to generations past in which being a consummate musician was the ultimate honor. But today we have early music specialists and Baroque coloraturas, period instrument orchestras and avant garde ensembles. For some, crossing the line is seen as an ideological shift! And thus we have the new music specialist. And what shall we say of this musician? Should ‘new music’ be the exclusive domain and property of this specialist? Shall this musician shun the works of any composer born before the heyday of Stockhausen and consider any fellow musician who has not studied in a special program the mysterious, exclusive world of ‘new music’? 

To our great masters, of course, this would likely seem quite shocking. The greatest musical communities in history thrived on a desire to learn and live with as much music as possible. And for great performers, it was essential to have relationships with composers. When did the line between composer and performer become so salient and so important? It is an important question, concerning both interpersonal relationships and individuals. For there are many (perhaps too many) performers who look with a wary eye upon living composers, and many (again, perhaps too many!) composers who consider themselves only composers and not practicing musicians. Neither attitude is healthy. Music will be played by people; thus, relationships are vital. And those must be encouraged! 

It is a feature of nearly every artists’ biography I’ve ever read in a concert program, be it a famous soloist or conductor, or a young virtuoso. Passionately devoted to new music! proclaims a section of the bio. A champion of living composers. New music–may I please, please, please simply call it music?–needs champions; it needs devotion, patience, and faith. A composer needs to be believed in, understood, afforded genuine passion. Works need to be commissioned and performed, then performed again, and again, and again. Histories and styles need to be developed, relationships between composers and performers or ensembles formed and maintained, and a lexicon unique to that composer established as a language with which to be familiar and to which fluency is aspired. America can be described in music; it has been, and will continue to be. Composers will speak; it is time for audiences to really have a chance to listen.


3 thoughts on “Establishing a canon for American music in the classroom and concert hall.

  1. To Jason: We do perform living composers. The problem is – which camp?

    American music has been divided into many camps over the generations, and today we have many composers who write in different styles and ally themselves to a certain genre. On the one hand, we have many composers who wish to hearken back to the recent past, yet infusing the populist American sound with some of the present sounds of jazz, rock and folk music that has occupied popular culture over the last half-century. On the other hand, you still have a cadre of die-hard modernists who continue to believe that the future of new music is to continue through experimentation and to free ourselves of the shackles of the past. Then there are composers who have embraced both the old and the new, but are looked upon with suspicion by both camps. And then there are the composers who look to the European continent as inspiration.

    Furthermore, there are the composers who look at one leader and imitate this one ad infinitum. Who are these leaders? There are several. In the film world, you either accept John Williams or Hans Zimmer as a role model and take it from there, and there have been many composers for the cinema, video games and television who go this route. Some classical composers dismiss both on the grounds that both of them are charlatans and hacks. In the case of Zimmer I would agree, but if one heard many of Williams’ pre-Lucas/Spielberg scores, and his early concert scores, many would be surprised of the quality and power of these scores. For many composers who take film scoring seriously, they look to older influences such as Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, Elmer Bernstein or Jerry Goldsmith.

    Choral composers tend to imitate either John Rutter, Morten Lauridsen or Eric Whitacre, just as band composers imitate leading figures like David Gillingham, David Holsinger, Frank Ticheli or John Mackey. These are the leading figures that guide a new generation of American composers, just as Joseph alludes to Corigliano and Rouse as two of the leading composers in orchestral music today. I should also include composers such as John Adams and Michael Daugherty to this list, as they have inspired young composers as well.

    But this canon cannot be complete unless we look at two chapters in American music – our past and the indigenous sounds of minority and women composers who continue to be overlooked and ignored. Composers of the past such as Edward MacDowell, George Templeton Strong, Arthur Foote, George Chadwick, Amy Beach, Henry Hadley, Horatio Parker and John Knowles Paine are still shunned aside because their music sounds like second-rate imitations of Wagner, Brahms, Dvorak and Bruckner. For many serious devotees of music in this country, they feel that it started with Charles Ives, and even his first works under Parker’s tutelage sound like those “pale imitations” of the European masters, though there is a stronger identity that lies underneath some of them, in particular the second symphony. But to ignore the New England school, or even the emerging Midwest composers of this period (John Alden Carpenter, Leo Sowerby and Hugo Kaun, the latter residing in America until he returned to Berlin) is kicking a chapter of American music’s growth to the curb and letting it lie there forgotten. Even the early Mendelssohnian-like symphonies of George Frederick Bristow should be offered another chance.

    Women composers have had their share of champions, but when compared to male composers are still neglected, this in spite of the fact that no fewer than five women – Ellen Taafe Zwilich, Shulamit Ran, Melinda Wagner, Jennifer Higdon and Caroline Shaw – have won the Pulitzer Prize for composition. Several of these composers have entered the repertoire without question or contest because their music can stand tall against the best of the best, American or not, and this includes composers such as Augusta Read Thomas, Joan Tower and Chen Yi.

    On the other hand, many Americans are still not familiar with the concert music of African-American, Hispanic and Native American composers, in spite of several inroads that orchestra administrators and conductors pursued over the last half-century. While we do hear many works by William Grant Still or Roberto Sierra, there are dozens of composers that are still not programmed or considered by leading American orchestras, in spite of the fact that men like George Walker, Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman have won the Pulitzer. Whereas American musicians shun the European-sounding scores of the New England School, they use a Eurocentric-like sensibility to keep indigenous scores by new composers out of the limelight and promote what they feel is American music.

    A composer once said that American music is music written by an American, regardless of race, musical ideology and era. If you want the canon, you have to be inclusive of all composers of this nation.

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