"What About This American Music?"

Email a Friend
Composer Roy Harris publicity photo from 1944.

From the May, 1944 WQXR Program guide:

Roy Harris, who is well known to our audience, is a Westerner by birth and upbringing. He resides in Colorado Springs, where he holds the post of Composer-in-Residence to Colorado College. Rated by such publications as Time, Life and The Christian Science Monitor as "America's Leading Symphonic Composer," Harris has written six symphonies and a great deal of choral and chamber music. He has been recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Because National Music Week is celebrated this month, we asked Mr. Harris to write about American music and we feel sure his opinions will arouse your interest in contemporary composers.

American Music is here to be reckoned with, lustily growing, and confident.  With the cards scandalously stacked against them, American composers continue to develop in artistic stature and social importance. Americans are becoming aware that our native music is winning a long, tough struggle for recognition. Some are deeply interested; some are belligerent; many are fence sitters, occupied with their own daily problems. The interested ones naturally fall into two classes--naturalized Europeans and native Americans.

Some of our staunchest champions have already had the experience of helping and watching the native culture grow in other lands.  They understand that the stream of musical culture must flow onward with time, that to dam it up at any period brings stagnation. They are consequently eager that the land of their adoption should develop an important native music. Many famous interpreters as well as musicologists and writers indicate the trend in their alertness to serve American music.

But of course, American music could never develop to the point where it is today merely by the support of a small group of naturalized Americans from foreign lands. It had to be recognized and warmly supported by that vast sea of native born and educated Americans who instinctively know and feel, very strongly, that a nation of our magnitude, grandeur and abundance must have a music of our own; that we cannot buy culture; that we must make it, just as we found the ways and means to make America what it is today.

Scores of men of authority are beginning to tell the story we have been waiting for. They will open the channels which lead into the hearts and minds of the American people. They are scattered far and wide in our schools, universities, newspapers, government, commerce and industry. They and their fellow citizens will have the final vote about American music. Gradually, they will supplant those who for professional, commercial or cultural reasons are either consciously or unconsciously opposed to native music.

Broadly speaking, the symphonic and chamber music audiences of America are really 18th and 19th century European audiences. They come to the concerts as Americans living now, but the minute they enter the front door of the auditorium, they become European romantics in their tastes, understanding and preferences. They turn on their modern American radios and gramophones as modern Americans, but the minute they touch the button, they become 18th and 19th century European romantics This presto change throw-back is easily understood. These people have been conditioned to accept European music as a completely satisfying music culture. They are sincere. Nothing can be done about these people. Only a few will be able to throw off their crystallized prejudices about melody, harmony, rhythm and form--especially form. These people only react to melody which is monotonal and sequentially built of short phrases. Form to them means a mosaic treatment of a short, easily recognizable motif, held together by a series of harmonic relationships. Let us be glad that they have had, and continue to have, enjoyment of music of the past. Certainly we must not grieve that the door of our musical world is closed to most of them. Nobody should listen to music which he dislikes. That is a tortuous, anti-cultural act which brings no one good.

Nor can any good come of trying to appease those who dislike or are indifferent to native music. There is always a deep-seated reason why any conductor, teacher, critic, or executive is opposed to a native culture. The reason may be economic, social, cultural or merely personal; but we may be sure that whenever the reason is altered, the attitude which reflected it will change, and not before.

We must rather go with the mounting tide of our good fortune.

Good American music is in great demand. The demand is far greater than the supply, and each season it grows more so. Conductors, orchestras, choruses and bands, soloists, chamber groups, schools, broadcasters, publishers, are eager and waiting for good American music. The government has appropriated vast sums of money to send our music by radio and records all over the world. Foreign nations are inviting us to send or bring our scores and conduct and lecture. National educational conventions feature native music, materials and techniques, in forums that are crowded to the point of standing. In this season alone, there have been eight new American symphonies launched, to say nothing of the innumerable small pieces featured on broadcasts.

This is not wish-thinking. It is a summation of the facts accomplished. Whenever anyone brings out the shop-worn obsolete query: "Where is our American music?" we may be sure that he is really not interested in the answer. No matter how progressive he may be in other fields, he simply doesn't know his American music. "Wake up, Mr. Badger. The sun is already high."