Classical Music in the USA – 1 – Billings, Gottschalk, Foster

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“The Oxbow,” by Thomas Cole, 1836.

This nine-part history of American classical music will run through January and February on the HPR-2 program “Howard’s Day Off.” The essays covering the same material, which do not always accord precisely with the programs, are posted here in full.

We think of rock as recent, jazz as older, classical music as much older. But the actual chronology may adjust your perception of this.

Rock is not recent. Chuck Berry (1926-2017) was in his thirties when he recorded his early hits “Maybelline” in 1955 and “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1956. Bill Haley (1925-1981) recorded both “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in 1954. Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed (1921-1965), who coined the term “rock and roll,” began playing rhythm and blues records on the overnight shift at WJW Cleveland in 1951. That was two years before I was born.

By 1951, jazz was decades old. The name “jazz” dates back to about 1915, four years before my dad was born, but the syncopated music that evolved into jazz dated from not later than 1860, and by 1951, on the eve of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz had evolved through New Orleans jazz, Chicago jazz, blues, boogie woogie, swing and was well into bebop.

The phonograph was invented in 1877 but the widespread sale of flat records (as opposed to cylinders) came only in the Roaring Twenties. The 1920s also saw the first radio stations and, almost as soon, radio networks. Live jazz took off in the Roaring Twenties because it was the main music of speakeasies.

And classical music? This is where it gets interesting.

We know sheet music by Haydn circulated in the colonies while Haydn was still alive – he lived until 1809, 20 years after the inauguration of George Washington as president.

But the New York Philharmonic was not founded until 1842. The Boston Symphony was founded in 1881, one year after the Saint Louis Symphony. Carnegie Hall opened in 1891 with Tchaikovsky conducting; the Chicago Symphony formed that same year. The Philadelphia Orchestra was founded in 1900, and the Honolulu Symphony. The San Francisco Symphony was not founded until 1911. Did you know symphony orchestras came to America so late? No wonder there were so few orchestral composers in America until the last decade of the 19th century.

Several colonials of the 1700s wrote and published music, usually religious in nature and usually for singers without accompaniment. The best known today is William Billings (1746-1800), because his students formed a society that kept his music from disappearing entirely in the 1800s, and because William Schuman (1910-1992) arranged three Billings pieces as “New England Triptych,” which turned out to be his own most popular work. Billings was poor, sometimes homeless, and hobbled by physical infirmities – one leg shorter than the other, and only one good eye, according to a contemporary account – but was respected as a teacher.

Louis Gottschalk and Stephen Foster

The first American to make waves internationally in the classical world was Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), a child prodigy pianist out of New Orleans who concertized in Europe – praised by Chopin and Liszt – then throughout Latin America.

Like Chopin, Gottschalk could surprise and delight his audiences with unexpected chord changes, but he also drew on popular musical forms and rhythms he picked up in New Orleans, Havana, Puerto Rico and his other ports of call.

Gottschalk’s dad was a Jewish businessman from London who also had German antecedents. His mother from Creole, from Cuba. The family was large, prosperous and respected – compared to the rest of the South, mixed blood was no big deal in New Orleans, though society had all kinds of social conventions based on blood – and Gottschalk’s father took him to Europe for a classical music education. The Paris Conservatory rejected him, not because of race but because he was an American; his father found private tutors.

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Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

Because Gottschalk drew inspiration from popular music in the Americas, his music today provides a valuable look back, showing that syncopated music was popular before the Civil War, generations before the music of Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy or Scott Joplin. “Early” jazz may well have been a mature art form before it acquired its recordings or even its name.

The irony of Gottschalk’s career is that his extensive use of indigenous music had its impact in Europe and Latin America, where he concertized, rather than in America.

Stephen Foster (1826-1864) is often credited with popularizing the music of the South with his own compositions, and the list of his songs is certainly impressive, including “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Oh! Susanna,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon the Swanee River),” “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Camptown Races,” and “Old Black Joe.”

But Stephen Foster was born in Pittsburgh, where he got music lessons from a German émigré. He never lived in the South, indeed never even visited the South apart from a Mississippi riverboat trip for his honeymoon in 1852. What he knew, or thought he knew, about the South came entirely from minstrel shows.

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Stephen Foster.

That didn’t keep his songs from sweeping the nation, and Charles Ives (1874-1954), whose music is full of snippets from popular music, frequently quoted Foster songs.

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