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.

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Speed isn’t everything! The challenges of Barber’s ‘Adagio.’

I went to the gym this morning. My workout was fairly intense but when I finished I decided to walk the 12 blocks back to my apartment.

With the hot sun beating down on me and my muscles somewhat tired, my legs grew heavy. Climbing the hill that led me towards my avenue suddenly felt like a Herculean task. One step led to another, one foot followed more and more slowly by the other. I became quite aware of the heaviness I now felt in my legs, as if weights were attached to my ankles. Feeling frustrated, I broke into a sprint. Half a block elapsed–then a block, and I was now nearly to the top of the hill. Relieved, I decided to walk. The heaviness returned, accompanied with a new sort of fatigue. I sprinted again–no problem. But as soon as I returned to my andante pace, even with the hill now behind me, the difficulty returned, with each slow step accompanied by a sort of agony.

This is what it is like to conduct Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

It is a mark of maturity and yet a somber day when a young musician realizes that it is easier to play fast than to play slowly. No young violinist begins his practice session eager to work on his legato or the slow movement of his sonata or concerto. Heaven forbid! No, for the young musician it is speed which enthralls the audience, wins competitions and makes the girls swoon. Paganini knew this all too well–not to mention Viotti, Ysaye and other highly violinistic composers. And of course it is not limited to that instrument. The thrill of playing fast is unmistakable–rapid 16th and 32nd notes for strings and piano, double or triple tonguing for winds and brass, endless melismatic runs for singers and…well, just about everything for percussionists.

But to play slow? It hardly seems virtuosic. Playing long, sustained tones seems better suited to the first half hour of a practice session than to be a point of pride. Just ask a violinist the following question: Would you be more excited to play the first movement of a Tchaikovsky symphony or one by Bruckner?

Enter the Barber. It is not a long work by any means and, quite frankly, requires little technical virtuosity (or at least little physical virtuosity–the idea of playing 5 flats is, for a string player, something which requires a certain mental fortitude.) But the Adagio is incredibly virtuosic: it requires an incredible range of emotion and expression, absolute command of physical technique, unusual self-control and the highest levels of musicianship.

The Adagio, you see, is a paradox: It is often presented as an indulgent work, along the lines of the eponymous work by Albinoni (really more inspired by Albinoni than authored by that composer) or Mahler’s Adagietto. And yet when going to the heart of the work one realizes that it is not about self-indulgence but rather self-control. There are moments of complete and utter gratification–it does not require quite the same level of self-denial and patience as, say, Tristan und Isolde–but they are fleeting and somewhat unsatisfying, if not entirely tragic.

To say that it is a work which alludes to certain physical passions may be accurate–indeed, most musicologists and conductors have theorized that it contains certain clues which point to it being a love letter. But this work throws into relief something which we Americans often overlook: namely, the complexity of sexuality and the fact that ‘sex’ isn’t merely a singular physical act. (Disclaimer: I am not about to delve into Freudian theory nor the debate of the US Congress circa 1998.)

To put it more directly: This is not about getting through dinner and a movie on the 3rd date. It is a different sort of self-denial or delayed gratification. This Adagio is about finding a love for self, for acceptance and understanding. It is an invitation, or a hope for an invitation into the deepest emotional places one may have. It is a hope for total intimacy, even if that involves making oneself vulnerable to the point that our very existence may be questioned from all possible angles.

How may one conduct or play this? Well, in a word….slowly. In two words, very slowly. This is a work which searches, probes, thinks, desires, hungers, longs, starves and weeps. But most importantly, it breathes. It never seems fully comfortable. There are three climaxes: the first two (which are nearly identical) allow for a sigh of relief, however short-lived it may be, before moving on in search of…more. The third climax is reached after a prolonged, agonizing build up–but instead of a sigh, we are given a gasp, sharp and cut off all at once.
And what then? What is next? What answer have we been given?

For a work which lasts 7 minutes (though Bernstein and Celibidache could make it last nearly 10!) this is a monumental series of hills. To climb them at a pace of molto adagio shows that hills and valleys are often much more similar than we perceive–and forces us to ask ourselves just how much self-control (and self awareness) we truly possess.