A Chorus of Conversation: What Is American Music?

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Clockwise from left: Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Irving Fine, Aaron Copland.

Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, and Irving Fine joke, argue, compliment each other, and agree to disagree, illustrating their points with musical examples. Behind the banter in this 1950 roundtable, one detects a rich mix of fellowship and rivalry.

Seated around two pianos after a busy day at the Tanglewood Music Festival, some of the country's premier composers discuss what qualities, if any, make music specifically "American." The group first addresses the influence of jazz; the general feeling is that it has been "assimilated." There is much that couldn't have been written without jazz, but that no longer sounds like it. Europeans, however, still find jazz the primary feature of American music.

Copland's "open-air purity" is cited as another native strain. Bernstein lauds its "freshness and naïveté." They all criticize each other's piano playing. ("Wrong left hand!" "Wrong composer and wrong key!") Bernstein suggests that the music of William Schuman is typically American, with its drive and optimism. Fine disagrees, claiming today's young composers are more pessimistic. The influence of Stravinsky is debated. There's a claim that a European composer "knows in advance what he's supposed to write" because the traditions in various countries are so well established, whereas an American composer is, for better or worse, on his own. Bernstein, clearly the most media-savvy and at ease of the four, is asked to describe John Cage's "prepared piano." He indicates he can't, then does so effortlessly, ruefully concluding, "that's a little more articulate than I'd hoped for."

Opera is the final topic broached. Marc Blitzstein's upcoming production of "Regina" is praised by Bernstein, who finds it "terribly exciting and terribly American." Foss's new opera, "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," based on the work of Mark Twain, is also described. Foss, who was born in Germany, is asked for his opinion of "an American sound." All he can say is, "I never strive for it consciously."

This is a first-rate discussion by first-rate musical minds. There's no talking down to the listener. One senses the passion and commitment of the participants.  There's also, though, a somewhat melancholy historical feel to the topic. What "future" were these ardent adherents fighting over? Does "American classical music," in any sense they would understand, still exist?

Copland (1900-1990), the oldest of the four composers featured here, had already experienced great success with his "Symphony for Organ and Orchestra" (1924) as well as the famous ballet scores "Billy the Kid" (1938) and "Appalachian Spring" (1944). Born in Brooklyn, Copland studied in Europe. After a flirtation with jazz-oriented music, he focused on translating the essence of American folk music into a classical idiom. But there was nothing rustic or "primitive" about his compositional skills. As Steve Schwartz, writing for the website classical.net puts it:

To a great extent, Copland seems the product of two milieus: Paris and the United States. The States give him something not always at the front of his conscious mind – an imaginative landscape of expression, more than anything else. Along with George Gershwin, his music conveys the energy of New York and the visual power of skyscrapers. … Paris gives him a Stravinskian orientation and technique, as well as an elegance of expression – the ability to say the most with the fewest notes.

Bernstein (1918-1990) was the dominant force in American classical music for over 50 years. Starting from his early and sensational "pinch hit" performance as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, this prolifically talented performer and composer fascinated media and public alike. It's clear, even in this brief talk, how charismatic and genuinely inquiring his mind was. In a field of specialization, this wide-ranging enthusiasm was often held against him. As The New York Times reported in its obituary:

…his hydra-headed success did not please all his critics. …Many regarded him as potentially the savior of the American musical, to which he contributed scores for "'On the Town,'" "Wonderful Town," "Candide" and "West Side Story."  At the same time, others were deploring his continued activity in such fields, contending that to be a successful leader of a major orchestra he would have to focus on conducting. Still other observers of the Bernstein phenomenon wished he would concentrate on the ballet, for which he had shown an affinity ("Fancy Free," "Facsimile"), or on opera and operetta ("Trouble in Tahiti," "Candide"). Or on musical education. His television programs on such subjects as conducting, symphonic music, and jazz fascinated millions when he appeared on "Omnibus," the cultural series, and later as star of the Philharmonic's televised Young People's Concerts.

Foss (1922-2009), while also a teacher and fine pianist, is remembered today chiefly for his compositions. The website of his publisher, Carl Fischer, describes how:

…whether the musical language is serial, aleatoric, neoclassical or minimalist, the "real" Lukas Foss is always present. The essential feature of his music is the tension, so typical of the 20th century, between tradition and new modes of musical expression. Many of his works – "Time Cycle" (1960) for soprano and orchestra, "Baroque Variations" (1960) for orchestra, "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (1978) for soprano and small ensemble, "Tashi" (1986), for piano, clarinet, and string quartet, and "Renaissance Concerto" (1985), for flute and orchestra – are landmarks of the 20th-century repertoire.

Fine (1914-1962), the final member of this quartet, died of a heart attack at the age of 47. Phillip Ramey, writing of the Library of Congress's Irving Fine Collection, finds:

…an examination of Fine's small but estimable output reveals a composer who was a perfectionist on the order of Copland and Stravinsky. His works are carefully calculated and detailed, their ever-increasing emphasis on melody tellingly allied with rhythmic suppleness, clean-sounding textures, and unobtrusive but integral counterpoint. 


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.