“Ajax,” by John Steuart Curry, 1943.
George Gershwin was in his twenties in the Roaring Twenties. He stood out from other American composers of the same age because he became famous on Broadway before adapting his talents to classical music. Standing apart from Gershwin were composers who were classical through and through, yet belonged to their time as much – or almost as much – as Gershwin did.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990), who would come to be known as the dean of American composers, was born in Brooklyn in 1900, son of a department store owner who moved from Lithuania to Scotland to New York. Copland studied piano and composed while still a child.
After high school he played piano in dance bands, which explains why, on the evidence of his compositions, he understood jazz better than his longhair contemporaries.
Before World War I it was common for budding American composers to seek training in Germany. After World War I the artistic mecca was Paris. By the Roaring Twenties the world had fallen in love with Debussy and Ravel, breaking the German stranglehold on classical music, and the Fontainebleau School of Music offered a musical program especially for Americans. One of the teachers was a thirtysomething organist named Nadia Boulanger.
Aaron Copland was her first American student, recommended her to others, and recommended others to her. Generations of American composers would study with her, including some of the composers I’m about to discuss, and, later, for her career was long, such diverse musicians as Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla, Burt Bacharach and Quincy Jones.
Copland was perfect for the times, and for the role he undertook as a popularizer of American classical music: a sociable intellectual, affable enough to get along with difficult artists and critics, open to new influences but respectful of the public taste, reasonable and therefore persuasive in defending new music or promoting composers he thought should be better appreciated. Copland’s articles, for example, helped increase interest in Gabriel Faure, even in France.
In 1924, the same year as “Rhapsody in Blue,” Copland composed his three-movement “Organ Symphony” for Boulanger. Later he rescored it to remove the organ part and retitled it “Symphony No. 1.”
Copland moved back to New York in 1925 and lived for 30 years in modest lodgings within walking distance of Carnegie Hall. More jazzy classical music followed: the “Dance Symphony,” drawn from an unperformed ballet about a zombie, and “Music for Theatre” in 1925, the Piano Concerto in 1926. The Piano Concerto was jazzy – using “I’m Alabamy Bound” as a theme – and dissonant. “Music for Theatre” has a burlesque section. Copland said it described the ethos of a theater, not any specific play or playhouse.
Copland’s style would then undergo a change. Curiously, to understand it, we must talk politics.
We live in a U.S. society that is enthusiastic about capitalism and dismisses communism. It is easy to forget that in the 1930s things were the other way around. Communism seemed a fresh idea, while capitalism was discredited, having given the world the Great Depression. In truth, the Soviet Marxist experiment was already failing, but Western intellectuals didn’t know it yet, and in the 1930s the Soviet Union was actually our ally, something vigorously reinforced by official Washington in its wartime propaganda.
Artists and intellectuals in the Great Depression were drawn to Marxism and the idea of working for the common man. Composers were drawn to folk music; to music that non-professionals could sing and play.
Copland, typically explaining this more reasonably than most, said, “I decided it would be worth the effort to see if I could say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.”
This new thinking led Copland to write “El Salon Mexico” in 1936, “Billy the Kid” in 1938, “Quiet City” in 1940, “Rodeo” and “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Danzo Cubano” in 1942, “Appalachian Spring” in 1944, the Third Symphony in 1946, and the Clarinet Concerto in 1948.
After World War II, the politics of art shifted. Communism turned into totalitarianism, the Soviets became enemies, American intellectuals abandoned Marxist ideas, and McCarthyism went after those who had actually joined the Communist Party. Copland hadn’t, but he had been a sympathizer. Plans to perform his “Lincoln Portrait” at the Eisenhower inaugural were canceled for fear he was a pinko.
The Soviets and the West took opposite sides in a cultural battle that had implications for classical music. The Soviets pushed music for the masses, and punished Soviet composers when they got too dissonant or complicated. This is well-known in the West. What’s less well-known is that the U.S. government, to show how free the West was, gave financial support to European conferences on serial and other non-tonal music. The Darmstadt conferences had U.S. underwriting.
Copland, like Igor Stravinsky, experimented with serial composition late in life but, like Stravinsky, was unable to reach a wide public with works in that vein despite the advantage of being famous and popular.
Copland composed less and conducted more, spending his last years putting his own music and that of other Americans before audiences around the world. The first time I heard Roy Harris’s Third Symphony was at a free concert on the Mall in Washington D.C., conducted by Aaron Copland.
Roy Harris (1898-1979) was born in Oklahoma a log cabin on Lincoln’s birthday, but his family moved the family to Covina, California, where he was five. Working as a farmer, and later as a truck driver, he studied piano and clarinet, and with intercession of Aaron Copland he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. Harris’s characteristic chromaticism – restless chord changes – can be attributed partly to Boulanger turning him on to the harmonies of Renaissance music.
He moved back to America to recover from a back injury. Harris taught music at several universities – why he kept changing jobs isn’t clear to me; no one comes right out and says it, but I sometimes get a whiff of criticism of his professorial prowess. His pupils included William Schuman (whose music often sounds like Harris) and Peter Schickele (who has more than once said Harris was an important influence on him.)
Harris’s Symphony “1933,” premiered in the year of its title, was the first symphony by an American composer to be commercially recorded, and his Third Symphony is still called “the great American symphony.” Harris wrote a good deal of music using folk tunes for material.
While Harris’s Third Symphony is still acclaimed today, his overall star has fallen, and I have heard symphony musicians assert that all his music sounds the same, but not as good, as the Third. There may be something to that, yet I like the Sixth Symphony, “Gettysburg,” and though I take a minority view that most concertos are not in the top ranks of classical music, his Violin Concerto has its points. I also like some of his piano pieces and feel that some of his chamber pieces are still waiting for good recorded interpretations.
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was an apostle of music that was plain, no frills, no filler. This accorded nicely with the music-for-the-common-man thinking of the Great Depression.
Born in Kansas City, Thomson attended Harvard, toured Europe with the Harvard Glee Club, moved to Paris in 1925 and studied with Nadia Boulanger, staying 15 years. Then he moved to New York and spent 14 years as music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune.
In his reviews he pushed for clarity in music; in his music he practiced what he preached.
Walter Piston (1894-1976) was born in Maine but grew up in Boston, playing piano and violin in dance bands, then spent World War I as a Navy band musician. After graduating from Harvard he studied with Nadia Boulanger, returned to Boston and taught at Harvard until retirement. His students included Leonard Bernstein, Leroy Anderson, Elliott Carter and others.
His most popular work, from 1938, was the dance suite “The Incredible Flutist,” but his symphonies should be heard more often.
Roger Sessions (1896-1985) was, like Copland, born in Brooklyn, edited the Harvard Music Review, studied under Horatio Parker at Yale, and wrote his one hit, “The Black Masters,” in 1923. He and his wife toured Europe twice but he wasn’t part of the Boulangerie.
Sessions and Copland, who couldn’t have been more different, nevertheless agreeably co-organized a series of concerts of new music in New York. Sessions would teach at Princeton, Berkeley and Juilliard.
He composed several symphonies but his astringent style prevented his becoming popular. The faint praise he is customarily damned with it that he was a good craftsman.
Douglas Moore (1893-1969) was born on Long Island to a well-to-do family with pre-Revolutionary roots, got his music degree from Yale (he wrote the fight song) and after Navy service studied with Nadia Boulanger.
He had an early success with the 1924 suite, “The Pageant of P.T. Barnum.” His 1938 opera “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and his 1956 opera “The Ballad of Baby Doe” were successful.
William Grant Still (1895-1978) was the first broadly successful African American composer of classical music, and his 1930 symphony, “Afro-American,” was so successful it overshadowed several later symphonies that were only recently recorded.
Like Gershwin and Copland, Still had exposure to non-classical music, working as an arranger for both W.C. Handy and Paul Whiteman. He also arranged the score for the 1936 Bing Crosby film “Pennies from Heaven” (Crosby in his youth had been a singer in Paul Whiteman’s band.)
Howard Hanson (1895-1981) was not a product of the Boulangerie but helped support many who were. Born in Nebraska, he attended a precursor of Juilliard, then Northwestern University, and studied in Italy. The success of his First Symphony in 1924, and experience as an administrator while teaching music at a small college in California, led to an offer by Kodak inventor George Eastman to head the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. Hanson would be there 40 years.
He insisted that half the faculty be American and half not, and once turned down a chance to hire Bartok because of this. With the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra (principal players from the Rochester Philharmonic plus students from the Eastman School) Hanson made a series of important Mercury label recordings of American classical music.
He recorded some of his own works but mostly focused on others. Many years later, Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony made fresh recordings of Hanson works that were better than Hanson’s, and let to an upward re-evaluation of Hanson as a symphonist. His “Romantic” and “Nordic” Symphonies are still performed but his un-subtitled 3rd and 6th Symphonies are excellent.
Randall Thompson (1899-1984) was born in Boston, taught at Harvard and Wellesley, got his doctorate from the Eastman School, and eventually became head of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He did not study with Nadia Boulanger.
His choral work “Alleluia” was sung at the opening of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Mass. He wrote three excellent symphonies; the Second, 1931, is particularly good.
Except for Copland, born in 1900, all of these composers were born in the late 1800s. But more American composers were on the way who would collectively produce a more characteristic American sound.