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Title: Reflections on the Music Life in the United States

Author: Roger Sessions

Release date: January 24, 2022 [eBook #67239]

Language: English

Original publication: United States: Merlin Press, 1956

Credits: Tim Lindell and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at (This book was produced from images made available by the HathiTrust Digital Library.)



This is Volume VI of the MERLIN MUSIC BOOKS (8 volumes).

Published in this series thus far:

  1. I. Bach: The Conflict Between the Sacred and the Secular, by Leo Schrade, Professor of The History of Music, Yale University.
  2. II. Tudor Church Music, by Denis Stevens, British Broadcasting Corporation, London.
  3. III. Stravinsky, Classic Humanist, by Heinrich Strobel, Director, Music Division, Southwest German Radio System, Baden-Baden.
  4. IV. Musicians and Poets of the French Renaissance, by François Lesure, Librarian, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; Chief, Central Secretariat of “Répertoire International des Sources Musicales.
  5. V. Greek Music, Verse and Dance, by Thrasybulos Georgiades, Professor of Musicology, University of Munich.
  6. VI. Reflections on the Music Life in the United States, by Roger Sessions, Professor of Composition, Princeton University.

in the United States



Printed in Germany





I. Background and Conditions 11
II. Early History 33
III. Concerts 48
IV. Musical Theater 74
V. Music Education 98
VI. Musical Opinion 121
VII. Composers and Their Ideas: 140
Nationalism 140
Quest for Popularity 153
Countercurrents 166

[Pg 11]


The following pages represent an attempt to account for the tremendous musical development of the United States during the past thirty-five years—roughly speaking, the years since the end of World War I. We can safely characterize this development as “tremendous,” even without recourse to statistical data, so frequently cited, regarding attendance at symphony concerts, sales of “classical” recordings, new orchestras which have sprung up[Pg 12] during the period, and comparative sums of money spent on “serious” music and on baseball. Such statistics while convenient and fashionable, and assuredly not without interest, have a purely quantitative basis—such is the way of statistics—and of themselves do not reveal a vital cultural development. Leaving such matters aside, the achievement remains impressive indeed.

Let us consider certain facts which likewise tell us little of quality, but do reveal decisive changes in the conditions determining our music life. When the author of this volume decided, for instance, at the tender age of thirteen, to embark upon a career as a composer, there was no representative musician living in the United States. His parents sought the advice of two illustrious guests visiting New York to attend premières of their works at the Metropolitan Opera.[Pg 13] Having received due encouragement, the author pursued his studies and received some instruction of value; but as he began to develop, one of his teachers frankly told him that in the United States he could not acquire all he needed, and strongly urged him to continue his studies in Europe, preferably in Paris under Maurice Ravel. For good or ill, the outbreak of World War I made this project impossible. The author continued as best he could under the circumstances. However, not until he came into contact with Ernest Bloch, the first of a series of distinguished European composers who had come to live permanently in this country, was he able to find the guidance he needed, or even a knowledge of the real demands of composition toward which he had been rather blindly groping with the help of whatever he could read on the subject. It was not so much a[Pg 14] question of the content of the studies pursued with Bloch, as that of attitudes and conceptions which the latter helped him to evolve. After all, harmony, counterpoint, and all the rest were taught in music schools and college music departments, and some of the instruction was excellent. What was lacking, however, was an essential element: the conviction that such study could conceivably lead, in the United States, to achievement of real value, and, above all, in the realm of composition.

The general attitude was not far from that of a lady of the author’s acquaintance: having had associations with musicians in many parts of the world, she probably had heard the best music possible. That lady asked him, a young student, to call on her, and, waving his compositions aside without bothering even to glance at them, begged him for[Pg 15] his own good not to dream of a career as a composer. No American, she explained, could hope to achieve anything as a composer since he was not born into an atmosphere of composition and—as an American—probably did not even have music in his blood. She urged him to aim rather at being a conductor, and, as a step toward that end, gave him the (somewhat picturesque) advice to take up an orchestral instrument—preferably the oboe or the trombone—in the hope of finding a position in one of the large orchestras, as a stepping stone toward a conductorial career.

Naturally, we do not mean to speak of ourselves primarily. A whole generation of American composers faced a similar situation, and each found his own way of resolving it. Some of our contemporaries, for instance—and most of those who have distinguished themselves—did go[Pg 16] to Europe for their studies. Since the influence of French culture was at its height at the close of World War I, they often went to Paris to study with Vincent d’Indy or, more frequently and conspicuously, with Nadia Boulanger. Others sought their individual solutions elsewhere and in other ways. The striking fact is that those who aspired to genuine and serious achievement, no longer a handful of ambitious individuals who remained essentially isolated, were young Americans who had begun to learn what serious accomplishment involved. They were determined to find their way to it. Such seeking had not occurred before in the United States, but they did not find what they sought within the then existing framework of American music life.

The reason, not surprising, lies in the fact that the prevalent conception of[Pg 17] “serious” music in this country was that of an imported product. Like the lady who so earnestly advised us to study the oboe or the trombone, most Americans, even those possessed of a knowledge of the music world, were, on the whole, inclined to discount the possibility that a composer of American origin could produce anything of importance. The young composers of that period had to look to their European elders not only for the means of learning their craft, but also for an awareness of what constitutes the craft of composition. That craft, above all, is a down-to-earth awareness that musical achievement, in the last analysis, is the result of human effort, dedication, and love; that “tradition” is the cumulative experience of many individuals doing their best in every sense of the word, and that “atmosphere” exists wherever such individuals, young or old,[Pg 18] live in close contact with each other.

Thus, looking back at the conditions prevailing around 1910, our decision of that year to become a composer seems reckless almost to the point of madness. We cannot, of course, conceive of any other we could have made. Today, however, the young musician, including the composer, faces quite a different situation. If he wishes really to work and to produce even on the most artistic level, he can find much in his surroundings to encourage him. In the important centers he can find musicians capable of advising him; and in several of the large cities throughout the country he can acquire the instruction he needs. Today a composer has a fair possibility to gain at least a local hearing, and his music will be listened to with attention and interest by an appreciable number of listeners. With slight reservations it may be said that it[Pg 19] is no longer necessary for a young American musician to leave his country in order to find adequate instruction and a more intense musical life. (The reservations concern such special fields as the opera, in which a degree of European experience is vital due to conditions prevalent in that field.) It is not necessary for him to go to Europe to find more severe criteria, more competent teachers or more sympathetic colleagues, or to find the opportunity to become acquainted with first-class musicians of an older generation. In the United States he finds a complex and developed music life. The contrast with conditions of forty or fifty years ago is indeed noteworthy.

This book deals with that development, with the questions it raises and the problems it involves. Above all, this development is interesting from the point of view of the subject itself—American[Pg 20] music within the total picture of music today. It is fascinating also from another point of view: various forces have contributed to this development—historical, social, and economic forces—and action and effect raise, in one more guise, questions vital to the understanding of the world today and the state of contemporary culture both in the United States and elsewhere. In a summary discussion such as the present, many such questions—regarding the future of art and of culture itself, the nature and prospects of art in a democratic society, the fate of the individual today—will of necessity remain virtually untouched. They are, nevertheless, present by implication. For the individual artist whose one earnest preoccupation is his own production, the answers to these questions, as far as he is at all concerned with them, lie in the realm of faith and premise rather than in[Pg 21] theoretical discussion. Whatever he accomplishes will in its own measure be a witness and justification of that faith, whether or not he is aware of it. A cultural movement of any kind is not to be judged in theoretical terms, but in those of authentic achievement.

These remarks seem relevant because certain basic characteristics of our intellectual life affect our attitudes toward a cultural movement such as the development of music here during the past forty years. These characteristics have strongly influenced, and continue to influence, the movement itself, and to some extent they still determine its character. It may therefore be worth while to consider briefly certain of these features, freely acknowledging that such summary reference does not give, nor could it give, a well-rounded picture; nor will it be necessarily relevant to, say, the[Pg 22] situation in literature or in the graphic arts.

American life, American society, and American culture are characterized by a fluidity which, up to this time, has always been a part of the nature of the United States, and not the product of a specific historical moment. It derives, in fact, from all that is most deeply rooted in our national consciousness; it is a premise with which each one of us is born, and which is carried into every thought and activity. It not only corresponds to all the realities of the life Americans live, but stems from all that is most intimate and most constant in their ideas. However oversimplified we may have come to regard the popular phrases which have always characterized the United States in our own eyes and in those of our friends—“land of promise,” “land of opportunity,” “land of unlimited possibilities”—the[Pg 23] concept underlying them for the most conservative as well as for the most liberal retains the force of an ideal or even an obligation; a premise to which reference is made even at most unexpected moments and sometimes in bizarre contexts. The fluidity of our culture is both one of the basic assumptions behind these ideas and, in effect, a partial result of them. It is a result also of American geography and history—the vastness of the continent, the colorful experiences of the pioneers who tamed it, and the sense of space which we gain from the fact that it is relatively easy to move in either direction in the social scale. These are facts which every American can observe any day.

If, as we hear in recent years, these underlying factors are gradually disappearing, such a change is as yet scarcely visible in the everyday happenings which[Pg 24] constitute the immediate stuff of American life. It is still far from affecting our basic psychological premises. Fluidity, in the sense used, is one of the most essential and decisive factors of our tradition. It is likely to remain so for a long time to come. It is relevant in the present context because contemporary music life frequently takes on the aspect of a constantly shifting struggle between a number of contrasting forces. This is more true in the United States than elsewhere; and the characteristic fluidity of our cultural life is one of its features most difficult to understand, particularly for those who do not know the United States well. At the same time, in this set of facts, conditions, and premises one finds elements which have caused Americans to misunderstand other western cultures.

Another important element in our[Pg 25] tradition may be derived from the fact, evident and admitted, that in our origins we are a nation of émigrés. A dear friend of ours, of Italian origin but a fervid American convert, G. A. Borgese, once half jestingly remarked, “An American is one who was dissatisfied at home.” If one takes this idea of “dissatisfaction” in not too emotional a sense, he can take note of the variety of its causes and see that its results have proved to be many and varied. The United States has been created by nonconformists in flight from Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism, as well as by Roman Catholics in flight from Protestantism; by Irishmen in flight from famine and by German revolutionaries in flight after defeat in 1848; by venturesome tradesmen and by others who, either in the spirit of adventure or for other motives, wanted to escape from the toils of civilization; by thousands who sought[Pg 26] better economic conditions, more space, and the opportunity to prosper socially, and by others with as many other motives of dissatisfaction. Even such a sketchy summary hints at the variety and even the conflicting character of the interests which found common ground solely in the element of “dissatisfaction at home.” It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that this tradition of filial dissatisfaction and the variety of its original forms is the basis of many of the most characteristic and deeply rooted American attitudes and problems.

One can find here, for example, the explanation of the dichotomy so evident in our attitude toward Europe and everything European. It is, of course, in the final analysis a question of attitude not so much toward Europe as toward ourselves. In any case, one easily notes two tendencies which pervade the whole[Pg 27] of American cultural life, and which, though seemingly in clear opposition to one another, nevertheless often appear intermingled and confused. Let it be clear that we regard neither tendency as a definitive or final expression of the United States; on the contrary, we believe that both tendencies, at least in their obvious forms, are products of an immaturity belonging to the past, just as in the work of our greatest writers, even though present and clearly recognizable, they were transcended and transformed.

For the sake of convenience let us call them colonialism and frontierism. By colonialism we do not mean a specific reference to American colonial history or to an Anglophile tendency, but rather to that current in American cultural life which persistently looks to Europe for final criterion and cultural directive. The term frontierism is used not in reference[Pg 28] to the familiar interpretation of American history in terms of the influence of border regions on national life and development, but rather in reference to the revolt primarily against England and British culture, secondarily against European culture, and finally against culture itself, so plainly visible in American thought, American writing, and American politics. It is not necessary to recall here the various forms which these two tendencies take, nor need it be stressed that, in simplified form, they represent currents of diverse tendencies and innumerable shadings. The two attitudes, however, have deep roots, and they influence American decisions in cultural as well as in political, economic, and military matters, and bring us face to face with sometimes serious dilemmas. The experience of such dilemmas, and of the[Pg 29] choices imposed by stubborn facts, sometimes has determined the direction and hence the character of American culture. At all events, there is reason to hope that these dilemmas will gradually resolve themselves into an attitude of genuine independence, and which therefore is neither subservient to the so-called “foreign influences” nor unduly upset by them.

The tradition of “dissatisfaction” has been a decisive factor also in a different sense. The once familiar metaphor of the “melting pot” is today outmoded, possibly through thorough assimilation. In stressing the element of “dissatisfaction at home” in the backgrounds of Americans of widely differing origins, we are not only throwing into relief a common and unifying element of these peoples, but we imply also great diversity of content in the experience itself—a diversity, which[Pg 30] still persists, of motives and impulses in American life. Without devaluating the concept of the “melting pot,” or denying the fusion of peoples into one nation, we may recognize the problems and the consequent modes of thought involved in accomplishing such a fusion. This process has involved the reconciliation, to a degree, of the varied and contrasting motives which impelled heterogeneous groups of people to become American, and which became original, organic, and sometimes very powerful ingredients of our culture. It was necessary to build quickly, and to avoid catastrophic collisions of these various elements. Possibly in a manner similar to the influence of empire building on the cultural habits regarded as most typically British, the factors just mentioned have clearly contributed to two tendencies discernible in our own thinking habits:[Pg 31] on the one hand, a certain predilection for abstractions, preconceptions, and slogans; on the other, a prevalent tendency to think primarily in pragmatic terms, that is, in those of concrete situations rather than of basic principles. Both modes of thinking have admirably served our national ends, and, in their more extreme manifestations, sometimes worry and exasperate the thoughtful among us. Those who regard us with a jaundiced eye accuse us, on the one hand, of pedantry, and on the other, of opportunism; and it is certainly true that the pedants and opportunists among us know well how to exploit these tendencies.

As far as music in the United States is concerned, the influence of these two modes of thought has been noticeable, if not always propitious. Fundamentally, however, these tendencies have little to[Pg 32] do with either pedantry or opportunism. We have had the formidable tasks of both establishing standards which should keep pace with a tremendous expansion of intellectual and creative activity and which should serve to give this activity order and direction; and as well, of establishing a mode of life within which our heterogeneous elements could find a means of coexistence without dangerous clashes of principle or ideology—clashes which could easily have proved lethal to either the unity of a growing nation or our concept of liberty.

[Pg 33]


Music life in the United States must be traced back to the earliest days, those of musical activity in the churches of New England, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. In Charleston, South Carolina, in the early eighteenth century, a kind of musical drama flourished—the “ballad opera” of British origin. In New Orleans, a little later, French opera was established and survived into this century. There were ambitious composers like Francis Hopkinson, friend of Gilbert[Pg 34] Stuart, and other personalities of the Revolutionary period. There were amateurs to whom European music was by no means unfamiliar. Even among the outstanding personalities of the period there were those who, like Thomas Jefferson, took part in performances of chamber music in their own homes; or who, like Benjamin Franklin, tried their hands at the composition of string quartets (which is something of an historic curiosity). We ourselves own a copy of Geminiani’s The Compleat Tutor for the Violin, published in London in the seventeen-nineties, which was owned by one of our forbears of that period in Massachusetts.

Such facts, of course, are of interest from the standpoint of cultural history. Musicological research has taken due note of them, and probably the familiar error of confusing historical interest with[Pg 35] musical value has been made: the awkwardness of this early music has been confused with originality. The music is in no sense devoid of interest; one finds very frequently a freshness, a genuineness, and a kind of naiveté which is truly attractive. We find it hard to be convinced, however, that the parallel fifths, for instance, which occur from time to time in the music of William Billings, are the result of genuine, original style, rather than of a primitive métier; and we well remember our curious and quite spontaneous impressions on first becoming acquainted with the music of Francis Hopkinson, in which we easily recognized eighteenth-century manner and vocabulary, but missed the technical expertise and refinement so characteristic of the European music of that period—even of that with little musical value.

Such facts as we know of the music life[Pg 36] of that early time are of anecdotal rather than musical interest. They bespeak a sporadic musical activity which no doubt contributed tangibly to the music life in the large centers during the earlier nineteenth century. The city of New Orleans would seem to be exceptional in this respect. French in origin, then Spanish, again French, and finally purchased by the United States in 1803, it was a flourishing music center, and in the first half of the nineteenth century produced composers like Louis Gottschalk, who achieved a success and a reputation that was more than local or national, and that, on a certain level, still persists. The music life of New Orleans declined after the Civil War, as did the city itself, for some decades; however, the music life which had flourished there was of little influence on later developments in other parts of the country.

[Pg 37]

During the nineteenth century the United States seems to have received its real musical education. In 1825 Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, at that time professor of Italian literature at Columbia University, and Manuel Garcia, famous both as singer and teacher, were among those who established a first operatic theater in New York, which city thereby became acquainted with the most celebrated operatic works and artists of the time. In 1842 the New York Philharmonic Society, the oldest of our orchestras, was founded. Farther reaching was the influence of individual musicians like Lowell Mason in Boston, and Carl Bergmann, Leopold Damrosch, and Theodore Thomas, in New York and elsewhere—men who worked devotedly, indefatigably, and intelligently to bring the work of classic and contemporary composers before the American public.[Pg 38] Mason and Thomas, toward the midcentury, organized and performed concerts of chamber music and provided the impulse toward an increasingly intense activity of this kind. Bergmann, as conductor of the New York orchestra, and, later, Thomas and Damrosch, led the way with orchestral concerts; the list of works which they introduced to the American repertory is as impressive as can be imagined. In addition to his activities in New York, Thomas also organized the biennial festivals at Cincinnati, and eventually became the first conductor of the Chicago orchestra—a post which he held until his death in 1905.

Concert life was already flourishing. Those organizations which, along with the New York orchestra, still dominate our music life, the Boston and the Philadelphia orchestras, were established,[Pg 39] as was the Metropolitan Opera Company. They were, needless to say, initiated by groups of private individuals, of whom an appreciable number belonged to a public well provided with experience and curiosity, a public which loved music, possessed some knowledge of it, and demanded it in abundance. It is hardly necessary to point out that there were also those who cared less for music than for social esteem, prestige, and “glamor”—the reflected and artificial magic of something which they neither understood nor desired to understand, since it was the magic and not the substance that mattered; the more remote the substance, the more enticing the magic. Such contrasts always exist, and it was fashionable some years ago to throw this fact into high relief: in that way healthy and necessary self-criticism was evidenced.

[Pg 40]

Among the personalities we have reference to was Major Henry L. Higginson who founded, and then throughout his life underwrote, the Boston Symphony; he belonged to the personalities of authentic culture and real stature who demanded music in the true sense of the word, and who knew how and where to find it. It is unnecessary to discuss the artistic levels these organizations achieved; that is general knowledge. If today we are aware of certain disquieting symptoms pointing to a decline in quality by comparison with that period, they are the result of later developments to be considered in the following pages, in connection with concrete problems of today.

This necessarily brief and partial summary concerns the development of the American music public. From this public the first impulses toward actual[Pg 41] musical production in America arose. A natural consequence of these developments, musical instruction kept pace with them. Among those who received such instruction there were a few ambitious individuals. The general topic of music education in the United States will be discussed later; we here note in passing that much of the best in music education of the earlier days was contributed by immigrants—like the already mentioned Manuel Garcia—from the music centers of Europe. It was inevitable that, until very recent years (mention of this was made previously), anyone who wished to accomplish something serious was obliged to go to Europe for his decisive studies; it is also inevitable that what they produced bore traces of derivation from the various milieus—generally German or Viennese—in which they studied. Nor is it surprising[Pg 42] that this derivation generally bore a cautious and hesitant aspect, and that the American contemporaries of Mahler and Strauss are most frequently epigenes rather of Mendelssohn or Liszt. Some acquired a solid craft, if not a bold or resourceful one; in the eighteen-nineties they were following in the footsteps of the midcentury romanticists, just as, twenty years later, their successors cautiously began to retrace the footsteps of the early Debussy. There were, of course, other elements too, such as those derived from folklore and, even at that time and in a very cautious manner, from popular music.

One cannot speak of the composers of the turn of the century without expressing the deep respect due them. They were isolated, having been born into an environment unprepared for what they wanted to do, an environment which did[Pg 43] not supply them with either the resources or the moral support necessary for accomplishment. If the limitations of what they achieved are clear to us today—we see it in perspective—they are limitations inevitably arising from the situation in which they found themselves, and it would be difficult to imagine that they could have accomplished more. If their influence on later developments at first glance seems slight, it must not be forgotten that these later developments would not have been conceivable had they not broken the ground. Surely many composers still active today remember with deep gratitude the loyal and generous encouragement and friendly advice and support received from them, as did this author from his former teachers, Edward B. Hill and Horatio Parker, and from older colleagues like Arthur Whiting, Arthur Foote, and[Pg 44] Charles Martin Loeffler—men and musicians of considerable stature whose achievements were significant and who worked under conditions incomparably less favorable than those of recent date.

Let us again briefly summarize the situation at the beginning of this century: in several American cities there existed first-class orchestras, some of them led by conductors to be counted among the great of the period. Their repertory was comparable to that heard in any great European music center. There was an abundance of chamber music, as well as of solo instrumental and vocal concerts. There has been little change since that time. The change that has taken place lies in the fact that similar conditions now prevail in almost all major cities throughout our country, and, at least as important, that the concerts are presented to an overwhelmingly great extent by[Pg 45] artists resident in America, that the majority of them are American citizens and an increasing number are natives of America. There are, to be sure, also complications and disturbing elements in the present situation; of this we shall speak later.

As far as opera is concerned, the situation is not parallel. In the early years of this century, there was in New York not only the Metropolitan, already known throughout the world, but for several seasons there was also the Manhattan Opera Company, more enterprising than the former, artistically speaking. There were independent companies also in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and the venerable and still existent company in New Orleans. At the time of this writing there is only the Metropolitan—which has become much less enterprising and less glamorous—in[Pg 46] addition to the more modest but more progressive City Center Opera. Finally, there is the short autumn season of the San Francisco Opera. The operatic situation is, superficially at least, less favorable than concert life.

No doubt there are reasons why a whole generation of musicians, in the second and third decades of our century, should have become conscious of a determination to prevail as composers, performers, scholars, and teachers. However, these reasons never are entirely clear. World War I and the experiences which it brought to the United States undoubtedly played a major role, but these experiences do not afford the full explanation since the movement already had begun before the war in the minds of many who had made their decisions even as children. In this sense the war effected little change. We shall deal with[Pg 47] this in the following pages, and shall attempt to arrive at an estimate of its scope and meaning.

[Pg 48]


Negative comment on the music life in the United States is as easy to make as it is frequently heard. Less easy, but at least revealing, is an honest appraisal of the factors which make the United States a stimulating place for serious musicians to live. Like so many subjects dealing with the cultural life here, this one is clouded with propaganda, and with the assumptions propaganda nourishes. Yet, as we have previously implied, after one has discounted not[Pg 49] only the propaganda element, but also much that is problematical and immature, there remain facts which become profoundly interesting with increased knowledge.

Such reflections are applicable to the whole range of our music life, but specifically to concert and opera in this country. In no other land, we believe, is there such a divergence between what takes place, on the one hand, in the established concert and operatic life, and, on the other, in musical enterprises supported by universities, schools, or private groups of citizens, enterprises run not for profit but for the musical experience that can be gained from them. These latter aim at such quality as can be achieved under given conditions, but with no pretense that it is of the highest possible caliber. The uniqueness of this situation is remarkable; furthermore, it[Pg 50] serves to throw light, the clearest possible, on certain grave problems. Previously we have stressed the fluidity of our culture and the fact that it often presents itself under the guise of a struggle of conflicting forces. This state of affairs is, of course, not peculiar to the United States alone, but it is characteristic to some degree of all cultural life, and in fact of life itself. Here we are concerned with one of these forces, the increasing assertion of an impulse toward productive musical activity throughout a country, and its struggle for a legitimate and effective role in the whole music life. It would be premature to state that that struggle is virtually over. Even to those of us who have participated in it over the years, the problems and obstacles at moments still seem insuperable. Nevertheless, it is necessary to look back over the years to regain one’s sense of[Pg 51] perspective and one’s confidence in the eventual outcome.

Still more important, though difficult, if not impossible to prove, is the fact that, given the actual balance of forces, the obstacles derive from inertia rather than from active resistance. They consist of influences which, though powerful, are modified by so many imponderable factors that the individual at times easily imagines the sight of the road open before him. It is true that the same individual may well find himself, at other times, face to face with barriers which seem almost impenetrable, and such moments are dangerous and decisive. The dangers lie not so much in the isolation which he could expect to experience; the country is large enough, and music life is sufficiently real and benevolent, so to speak, to keep him from ever feeling completely alone, even in his early years. Rather, the[Pg 52] danger lies in that, by coming to terms with the prevalent state of affairs, he can easily achieve a measure of success, and therefore is faced with the constant temptation of compromise. This temptation is supported by a thousand varied types of pressure derived from the nature of the system which is the basis of our large musical enterprises.

One must therefore understand this system in order to understand our music life. In contrast to the countries of Europe, we do not underwrite large-scale cultural enterprises with government subsidies—with the exception, of course, of public education in the strict sense of the word, and of certain indispensable institutions such as the Library of Congress. These exceptions form so small a part of the general musical picture that they are virtually without influence. The more far-reaching question of government[Pg 53] subsidies is raised from time to time, but under American conditions it is an intricate and, at the very least, a highly controversial one. Desirable as such subsidies might seem in theory, it is an open question if they would prove to be a satisfactory solution of our problems.

In any case, public music life in overwhelming measure is the creation of private enterprise. Its present condition is the result of the fact that private patronage, which in the United States as in Europe played a great role up to World War I, scarcely exists today. This does not mean that people of means have ceased to interest themselves in music or in cultural undertakings, but rather that their interest has tended to become less personal and more diffused. There are no doubt many reasons for this change. Many of the great fortunes have disappeared or have been scattered; prices have[Pg 54] risen, as we all know; and musical enterprises have become so numerous that they no longer furnish conspicuous monuments as once they did. Finally, the administration of these enterprises has become constantly more involved and so exacting that a single individual must find it difficult to exercise control, and so impersonal that he cannot retain a sense of intimacy and real proprietorship.

The majority of the musical enterprises in the United States, the great orchestral, choral, and operatic societies—certainly the most influential among them—are administered by committees which determine policies, appoint and dismiss the artists, and concern themselves with the economic stability of their organizations. These committees are largely composed of prominent personalities, men and women of affairs and of society who are interested in music. Inevitably they need[Pg 55] the help of managers, businessmen concerned with music for reasons of profit and who bring to music a business point of view. In the absence of subsidies granted on the basis of clear and convincing artistic policies, it is necessary that these businessmen exercise the greatest care in balancing receipts and expenditures. This means that the concert society or opera company is run like a business enterprise—in which profits, to be sure, are not the main purpose, but which must be at least self-supporting, or close to it, if it is to enjoy continued existence.

This state of affairs does not imply “commercialism” in the usual sense of the word, and it would be a misconception were it so understood. Commercialism is by no means absent from our music life, but the problems arise from the necessities imposed by a system such as the one outlined, one in which cultural organizations[Pg 56] are organized in the manner of business enterprises, even though their purposes are basically noncommercial. In the effort to maintain a certain level, the enterprise must stretch its economic resources as far as possible, and in the effort to maintain or increase the resources, it must reach a constantly larger public. One observes the similarity between these processes and the dynamics of business itself, and how motives and ends become adulterated with elements of outright commercialism. It becomes possible to speak of a system, real though in no sense formally organized: it involves the committees as well as the managers, and, in the last analysis, tends to assimilate the various activities which contribute to our music life.

This situation tends to compound a confusion, already too prevalent, between artistic quality on the one hand, and[Pg 57] those factors which lead to easy public success on the other. From this confusion arises a whole series of premises and tendencies which affect the character both of prevailing criteria, and, as a natural consequence, of the impact of these criteria on our music life in general. It would certainly be misleading to ascribe all these ideas and tendencies to the said situation; obviously many date from an earlier period in which the American public was much less sophisticated than it is today and our music life far less developed. However, apart from the caution and conservatism of business itself (which must base its policies on facts ascertained by past experience and not on mortgages on the future), many of these premises and tendencies admirably serve the purpose of the system itself. We need only remember a single elementary fact: that a business, in order to survive,[Pg 58] at least in the United States of today, must produce its goods as cheaply as possible and sell them at the highest possible price. Or, from another point of view, it must persuade the public to buy precisely what is economically most convenient to produce. In the complex state of affairs which we may term “music business,” these procedures are calculated in an exact manner. The objection centers here. If, for instance, the so-called “star system” as it exists here today were completely spontaneous and natural, one might perhaps speak of the musical immaturity of a large part of the public, recognizing at the same time that the virtuoso as such has been in one form or the other, everywhere and at all times, a glamorous figure. The evils of the situation arise not so much from the fact that adulation of the virtuoso is exploited, but from the obvious manner[Pg 59] in which that adulation has been cultivated and controlled by business interests.

The result is not only an essentially artificial situation but a tendency toward what may be called an economy of scarcity, in which much of the country’s musical talent lies fallow. The fewer the stars, the brighter they shine. The artificial inflation of certain reputations—most well deserved—by means of all the resources of contemporary publicity is relatively harmless. The harm lies in that the relatively few “stars,” in order to enhance their brilliance, are surrounded by an equally artificial and striking darkness. Many young singers or performers, even though extraordinarily gifted and faultlessly trained, are faced with well-nigh insuperable obstacles when attempting a concert career, despite our hundred and sixty million inhabitants.[Pg 60] In many cases they do not even find the opportunity to develop their gifts through the constant experience a performer needs; and though they may render useful services as teachers or otherwise, the musical public is deprived of the artistic contributions they otherwise would have made. On the other hand, those who achieve stellar rank often suffer through the strain to which an excessively active, constantly demanding, and extraordinarily strenuous career subjects them. The result is that even mature artists tire too quickly and lose the fine edge of vitality which made them outstanding in the first place, while younger artists have little time and opportunity for the relaxation and reflection so important and decisive for artistic development. The system is ruthless, the more so for being virtually automatic. To be sure, it is not completely impossible[Pg 61] for the artist to resist the pressures to which it subjects him, but these pressures today are formidable, and he may easily feel that in making the attempt he runs the risk of being left behind in an intensely competitive situation.

This music business for the most part is centered in New York. That fact in itself fosters a tendency toward cultural centralization, one of the basic forces of music life today. There are also centrifugal tendencies which modify it, and which, at least in several of the large centers, may ultimately prevail. These large centers are, however, relatively few and distant from each other, and their musical autonomy is all too often attributable to the presence of one or more exceptionally strong personalities. In any case, the vast majority of American cities and towns receive their principal musical fare from New York. One of the forms[Pg 62] in which it is received is “Community Concerts,” a series contracted en bloc by a New York manager through which even small communities may see and hear a certain number of stellar personalities on the condition that they also listen to a number of less celebrated performers. In such a manner certain artists, not of stellar rank, gain the opportunity to be heard and, in rare cases, eventually to pass into the stellar category. Unfortunately, the conditions under which they operate are limited and not favorable to either musical or technical development. Since it is more economical to print a large number of programs in advance than it is to print the smaller number required for each separate concert, the artists are frequently obliged to present the same program everywhere, and, since they perform in the widest possible variety of communities, to suit this[Pg 63] program to the most primitive level of taste.

Much is said regarding the educational value of such concerts, and one would not like to deny the possibility that it exists. Anyone who has taken part in the musical development of the United States has observed cases where genuine musical awareness has grown from beginnings holding no promise at the outset. While it would be difficult to pretend that the original purpose of such concerts is educational in the real sense of that word, it cannot be denied that they bring the only chance of becoming aware of the meaning of music to many a community. There are inevitably, here and there, individuals whose eagerness and curiosity will carry them on from this point, and they will eventually make the most of what radio and phonograph can contribute to their growth. It must[Pg 64] also be said that while “organized audience plans” show the music business at its worst, it is true that of late they tend to be superseded by something better, in a constantly developing situation.

The principal problem remains, however. The business dynamism which affects so much of our music life constantly perpetuates itself, and, as can be observed in matters remote from music, often achieves a quasi-ideological status, fostering as it does a system of values favorable to business as such. There is nothing new in the ideas themselves: the taste of the public—that is, supposedly, the majority of listeners—is invoked as the final criterion, the court of last appeal. Much effort and research is devoted to the process of discovering what this majority likes best, the objective being programs and repertory in accordance[Pg 65] with the results of this research. Actually it is not that simple, especially since, with the beginning of radio and the spectacular development of the phonograph and recordings in the twenties, the musical public has grown enormously in size. Instead of numbering a few thousands concentrated in a few centers it now numbers many millions distributed over all parts of the country. It still continues to grow, not only in the provinces, but also in the centers themselves. Such a public shows the widest possible variety of taste, background, and experience. Hence it makes specific demands. As one looks at the situation from the point of view of a large musical enterprise, one may well ask which public it aims to satisfy. The tendency must be to try to satisfy, as far as possible, the majority of listeners, to offer programs which will draw the greatest possible number of[Pg 66] people into the concert hall, and to convince them that they hear the best music that can be heard anywhere. The result is a kind of business ideology which bears a curious resemblance to the sincerely and justly despised ideology of the totalitarians, even though the coercive aspects are absent. There are signs that the tendency may be gradually receding as a more alert public is becoming constantly more mature and more demanding, and before the ceaseless self-criticism, another characteristic feature of our cultural life. Perhaps, and above all, through the courageous efforts of some leading personalities (such as the late Serge Koussevitzky, who always insisted on the recognition of contemporary music, and especially our American, and like Dimitri Mitropoulos who has waged a fight for music which is considered “difficult”) a change is in store.[Pg 67] These efforts have often been surprisingly successful, and while the battle is far from won—is such a battle ever really and finally won?—one remembers, for instance, the spectacular success which Mitropoulos achieved in the 1950/51 season with a concert performance of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. One also remembers the case of Bélà Bártòk—it is frequently asked, especially in the United States, why this great composer had to die almost ignored by our musical public, while scarcely a year after his death he became, and, on the whole, has remained virtually a classic whose music today is heard, played, and even loved all over the country. Such cases, however, do not alter the fact that there still exists a curious disproportion between the reputation, accepted almost without challenge throughout the country, of a Stravinsky or a Schönberg, and the fact that Verklärte Nacht[Pg 68] and L’Oiseau de Feu are still their most frequently performed works, while their mature and more characteristic music is relatively seldom performed. This disproportion is partly rectified by the existence of many recordings of Schönberg’s music, as it was, momentarily, balanced by performances of his works in his memory just after his death.

The great public finds all music difficult to grasp, not only contemporary music. Contemporary music meets with opposition in the United States because it is unfamiliar and hence difficult. On the other hand, with only slight exaggeration it can be pointed out that tradition has very little value as a weapon against those who would prefer hearing a concerto by Rachmaninoff to one by Mozart. If, in the policy governing the choice of programs, one succeeded in[Pg 69] satisfying only the majority of listeners, nothing would be left for the elite, the certainly much smaller public wishing to hear contemporary music and, as well, the more exacting and profound music of the past. The prestige and glamor of the great names of the past rather than tradition checks this trend, opposing to it the growing demands of a considerable segment of the public. That public is gradually developing in size and experience. Furthermore, the artistic conscience of several leading musical personalities in the United States (unfortunately not all of them, whether of American or European background) oppose the “system,” the rewards of which are naturally great for those who come to terms with it; many a European performer, during the whole course of our development, has been willing to seek success in the United States at the lowest level, with little[Pg 70] concern for the musical development of our country. Such performers usually excuse their departure from standards with the supposedly low level of culture in our “backward” country and are supported in their attitude by business interests and as well by a certain element of cultural snobbery, still persisting. Fortunately there have always been others, such as Theodore Thomas of earlier days, or Karl Muck, forty-five years ago in Boston, or like the pianist Artur Schnabel, and there are still others who maintained the highest standards here as elsewhere and thus manifested fundamental respect for the American public, themselves, and their art. These personalities created, in the largest measure, our music life, and their inspired followers today obstruct its debasement.

In such a brief résumé of the forces[Pg 71] characterizing our music life much is necessarily omitted, and oversimplification is inevitable. The emerging picture is gloomy in certain respects, but it can be counterbalanced by such considerations as were voiced at the beginning of our discussion. One sometimes hears the question: if things are really so, if there is an absence of genuine tradition and we have to consider the existence of economic forces pervading our music life in an almost mechanistic fashion, is it not chimerical to hope for the development of a genuine music culture in the United States? Part of the answer will be given later when, after consideration of the even gloomier situation of the musical theater in the United States, attention must be given to the various forces which are rapidly developing outside our organized music life and which constitute a real and perpetual challenge. One must[Pg 72] insist once more on the fluidity of our culture, which is in constant development, or, as the German philosophers would say, in a constant state of “becoming.” It is interesting, at least to this author, to observe how in such a discussion one passes from a negative to a less pessimistic point of view, and one wonders why. The answer lies not only in faith in one’s own national culture, but in thousands of facts which crowd in, sometimes emanating from unexpected sources. These facts support that faith. They point to the genuine, the most vital need for musical experience in the United States, and drive toward it; they constantly seek and possibly discover fresh channels through which these experiences can be achieved. The development, in fact, is so rapid that any discussion such as the present may seem outdated even before the ink is dry. It should be remembered, finally, that[Pg 73] economic forces, however mechanistic, are, in the last analysis, the projection of spiritual forces and eventually are subject to them. In this respect, as in most others relating to our musical development, the best antidote to pessimism is retrospection.

[Pg 74]


All that has been said about the business organization of our concert life applies with at least equal force to our musical theater. The latter is the most costly as well as the most complicated form of musical production, and therefore the most problematical economically. However, the somewhat embarrassing situation of the musical theater in the United States is not only of economic origin. It may even be said that the economic difficulties are at least[Pg 75] partly derived from other problems, so to speak anterior to economics.

These problems may be broadly summarized in the statement that the serious music drama has shown signs of becoming popular only in recent years. A certain portion of the public has always shown interest and enthusiasm for opera, to be sure, and such a public has always existed; however, there are signs that it has grown both larger and more adept through the influence of radio programs, concert performances, and other forces to be discussed later. Of late, it has become customary to devote a concert to the partial or complete performance of an operatic work rarely heard in the theater in the United States, and still more recently this practice has been extended to the performance of works even from the standard repertory. Significant events were the concert renditions, by Mitropoulos[Pg 76] in New York, of Strauss’s Elektra, Berg’s Wozzeck, and Schönberg’s Erwartung; and, by Monteux in San Francisco, of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Gluck’s Orfeo. The results were not equally successful; while Elektra achieved rare acclamation in New York, the success of Pelléas in San Francisco was less conspicuous, as those who know the opera well will readily understand. But the fact that such performances are in fashion is evidence that there is still need for them at this point in our music life, and the enthusiasm for them is evidence that a public stands ready to embrace something other than the standard fare ordinarily offered by our established operatic institutions. This is only one of many symptoms of the situation. Many enterprises throughout the country have sprung up during the last twenty or twenty-five years which show that a[Pg 77] public for opera is developing; only the means of satisfying it is lacking.

The above statement that serious opera only recently has begun to show signs of becoming popular requires elucidation. The best way of approaching the question is to consider the basis on which our operatic institutions grew. We started with the institutions because, as always in the United States, there were people in those days who did not wish to be deprived in the New World of all they had been able to enjoy in the Old. The ever-present snobs gradually joined their ranks, and at the time the Metropolitan Opera was founded, twenty years after the Civil War, their influence was at its height. It was the epoch of great fortunes, of tremendous expansion of American industry and finance, and of the arrogance of recently acquired wealth. Much has been made of the fact that in the original[Pg 78] architectural planning of the Metropolitan Opera House express provision was made for the demands of social exhibitionism. All this is tiresome, no doubt, but it is relatively harmless. More important, perhaps, is that the problem of building an intelligent public was faced in all too casual a manner. The small European and cosmopolitan nucleus had no need for such education; the snobs needed little or nothing, since their aims were far from the desire for genuine artistic experience. Most others contented themselves with accepting or rejecting what was offered.

It is worth considering our operatic situation not only in itself, but in its relations to the environment into which it was transplanted. There is every reason to believe that the performances of that period were of the highest quality, and that that level declined only much later, under pressures similar to those already[Pg 79] mentioned in connection with our concert life, which in both cases arose roughly at the time of the World War I with the decline of patronage. In the last years of the nineteenth century there existed not only enough wealth fully to support such enterprises, but also a willingness to follow the best artistic advice obtainable. What was wanted was, in the direct terms, the collaboration of the most distinguished artists of Europe, and such collaboration was cheerfully and handsomely rewarded. The latest novelties were desired along with all the standard repertory, and they were mounted in the most sumptuous manner. Occasional world premières took place at the Metropolitan; the author has already referred to the fact that his parents sought the advice of foreign composers, in this case of Puccini and Humperdinck, who were in New York for the world premières of[Pg 80] The Girl of the Golden West and of Königskinder, respectively. Among the conductors at the Metropolitan were Anton Seidl, and later, Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini. While the repertory favored the nationality of the manager (under Conried German opera and under Gatti-Casazza Italian), such favoritism was, at least in part, amended by other organizations. Oscar Hammerstein, for instance, through his Manhattan Opera Company, introduced the then new German and French operas to New York. This was early in our century, and though his project was short-lived, operatic institutions, all different in complexion, were springing up in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. In the South, in New Orleans, French opera was still in existence. In the United States as in Europe the most celebrated melodies of Verdi, Donizetti, Gounod,[Pg 81] Bizet, and even Wagner were played and sung. Why then, one will ask, did opera fail to become popular?

The question is not of opera but of music drama, and has nothing to do with either the dramatic quality of the performances or with melodies. The author treasures the memory of certainly first-class performances of Otello, Die Meistersinger, Carmen, Pelléas, even of Don Giovanni and of Gluck’s Orpheus. However, certainly for most devotees opera meant something other than music drama; and this for reasons ultimately deriving from the fact that opera in the United States was still a luxury article, imported without regard for its true purpose or its true nature, and that the circumstances of its production accentuated that fact. For a public with this orientation, opera possessed the magic of an emanation from a distant and glamorous world, one which[Pg 82] retained the element of mystery. Since the artists were highly paid—as a result of a quite natural desire to have the very best available at any price—it was equally natural that the public overestimated the importance of individual singers and their voices, and remained comparatively unaware of the importance of ensemble. The “star system” did not originate in the United States, to be sure, but it found fertile soil here, as did the widespread idea of opera as a masquerade concert, a romantic pageant in which various celebrities played their roles, and the primary purpose of which was to provide sumptuous entertainment.

Such an idea of opera was in part also the result of the fact that the works were sung in their original languages, or at times in other non-English languages. The idea was prevalent that English was a bad language to sing—and such an[Pg 83] idea is not unnatural when it is considered that the singers were mainly of German, French, or Italian origin, background, or training. There were occasions on which singers sang different languages in the same performance: Chaliapin, for instance, sang Boris Godunoff in Russian, supported by an Italian cast.

Indisputably from every ideal standpoint an opera should be performed in the language in which it is written. But properly understood, opera is at least as much theater as music. Any drama—musical or otherwise—suffers through translation; yet no one would seriously suggest a performance in the United States, under any but exceptional circumstances, of a work by Chekhov, Ibsen, or Sartre in the original language. Even in regard to opera this problem is beginning to be understood; and anyone[Pg 84] who has attended recent performances in English at the Metropolitan—or imagined, on the contrary, what might have been the result had Porgy and Bess or a work of Gian-Carlo Menotti always been sung in Italian or German—has an idea of the importance of this question. For a relatively inexperienced public like the American before the World War I, a public not well versed in opera in English and unfamiliar with the languages in which the works were sung, hence, in reality, with the works themselves, the foreign language becomes an obstacle. It fosters the sense of remoteness referred to above; not only the words, but in some cases even the titles of the works remain mysterious even when the plots may be familiar. The public, as a whole, remains in the dark not only as to what Isolde and Brangäne, Isolde and Tristan, or Tristan and Kurvenal are saying in the respective[Pg 85] acts of Tristan, but also it cannot fully participate in the musical and dramatic unfolding of Otello, the infinitely delicate articulation of Falstaff, or in the complications of the last two scenes of Rigoletto. In such instances the drama is missed if the meaning of the words is not understood; and when the words are not completely understood in every detail, at least the experience of an enacted libretto can convey some of the power of the music.

It must be emphasized, however, that for any public a drama is drama only if it can become the reverse of remote. It must be truly and intimately felt; and a living theater cannot exist entirely on imported fare. In order really to live, an opera must be felt as drama; otherwise results different from those noted are scarcely obtained. Neither composer nor performer can breathe life into opera[Pg 86] unless its drama is felt, and the public takes fire only from things it has lived. It remains basically indifferent if there is no point of contact with whatever is dramatic in its own world or age; from its own epoch the public learns what drama per se is, and only from this point of departure can it understand dramas of other periods. For this reason we speak of French, or German, or Italian, or Russian opera. With few exceptions, what was lacking at the Metropolitan of the period in question were operas written in English, in quantity and in quality sufficient to solve this problem and to lay the foundations for a vital operatic tradition.

Meanwhile the economic problems characterizing our music life are becoming more acute in the field of opera. Our nonoperatic theater is doubtless the weakest point in the whole of American[Pg 87] cultural life; it may be, and often is, summarized in the words “Broadway” and “Hollywood.” The reciprocal action of the vast economic power of our theatrical and, above all, our motion picture enterprises, of increased prices and therefore increased risks, and, finally, of the huge American and even international market results in a kind of spiral: economic risks and caution operate constantly so as to keep standards at a low level. The same forces are at work, in a restricted way, in the operatic field. Little by little the operatic enterprises of which mention has been made, had to be abandoned, with the exception of the Metropolitan and the curtailed autumn season of the San Francisco Opera.

Under the pressure of rising prices, the fundamental limitations of the system became clear. The repertory remained facile, without novelties of consequence,[Pg 88] without daring of any kind. Whatever new works were heard in the United States—Mavra, Lady Macbeth of Mzensk, Wozzeck—were performed under special auspices; and while later the performance of Peter Grimes, and still later, The Rake’s Progress seemed hopeful beginnings of a possible change, the fate of these two works served only to point up the real dilemma. Broadly stated, one must admit that the performance of any new work is a serious risk in a situation where rising costs have vastly increased the economic hazards to which the enterprise is subjected. This is true even under best conditions. On the other hand, if an institution is to survive, it is imperative that fresh blood be constantly injected, and for an institution like the Metropolitan this means freshness and novelty in repertory as in everything else. One cannot permanently live on the[Pg 89] past; even revivals are not the answer.

Much has been accomplished at the Metropolitan since 1950, the advent of Rudolf Bing as its director. In the period prior to his arrival, artistic quality had seriously declined, owing in part certainly to the steadily deteriorating economic situation, but in part also to ineffectual leadership. Inevitably, some of the preconceptions indicated were responsible for the decline which economic stresses threw into higher relief. The problem of creating a satisfying operatic ensemble from casts composed of singers drawn from different parts of the world, with different backgrounds and engaged as individual stars, is great; but when rehearsals are inadequate, as they assuredly were at the time, the results are disastrous. Surprisingly good performances were achieved on occasion, especially by Bruno Walter, Fritz Stiedry,[Pg 90] and George Szell, and tentative beginnings were made in using English translations for some Mozart performances. In general, however, standards were lower than ever before.

Unquestionably, Bing has brought some changes for the better, both in repertory and standard of performance. The essential problems, however, remain, since they are not created by artistic directors, but by prevalent misconceptions. Composers, and, above all, the regulation of financial support can contribute to their solution. Certainly they are not insoluble, and there is reason for believing that forces are gradually working in the direction of a satisfactory solution. However, one must remain aware of problems and obstacles. They are formidable.

Numerous attempts are now being made in many parts of the country to[Pg 91] further the production of opera by contemporary American composers. The response has been indeed surprising. For many years thinking in terms of what might be considered genuine American opera was the rule; one peered into the void for the “real” or the “great” American opera in much the same way as one looked for “the great American novel,” and one attempted to forecast its characteristics. This is not only an example of the bent toward abstraction discussed before, but also one of a primitive and mechanistic view. In other words, the search, less for truth or artistic necessity and more for a product most likely to make headway on the American market, was in the foreground. Sometimes the answer was found in the use of so-called “American” subjects—plots taken from our history, folklore, literature, or landscape. At other times,[Pg 92] such efforts were combined with the use of folk tunes: the object was the creation of a kind of folk opera. A solution was sought in the evocation of American scenes and memories, a worthy aim only if not considered the final answer to the fundamental question. Some advocated the use of “contemporary” subject matter instead—texts seeking to incorporate characteristic aspects of modern life. Again, one cannot object, except to an irrelevant dogmatism. Solutions were sought, in fact, with reference to everything—contemporary drama, the spirit of Hollywood and Broadway, and, of course, jazz. At least one work of real value, Porgy and Bess, may be associated with these attempts, though it certainly represents them in the least self-conscious manner. However, no such program can ever be regarded as the answer to the problem.

[Pg 93]

The achievement of a genuine “national style” in any sphere whatever depends on something deeper than evocation, nostalgic or otherwise; and if what one seeks is timeliness, machines, ocean liners, or nightclubs on the stage do not suffice. What is required is drama, felt and communicated, whether it be comedy or tragedy; and this, if it is real, becomes both contemporary and national—just as Julius Caesar is both English and Elizabethan, and Tristan neither Irish nor medieval. So far as this author knows, no one has thought of reproaching Verdi for having written Egyptian, Spanish, French, or English—even American—opera in the various instances which come to mind. It is a heartening sign that American opera composers of today seem to be fully aware of this problem, however they differ as to outcome.

In any case, this is the central problem[Pg 94] of American opera. How can one hope for the growth of an American opera tradition under the conditions prevailing in our established operatic institutions, and in view of the fact that throughout the country there are only three or four which continue to exist, and those not on a desirable economic basis? One must insist once and for all that a vital American music life cannot be confined to the established conventions of concert and opera. We have already given attention to radio and recordings, which play so decisive a role, and interest us for manifesting sharp contrasts with features discussed in connection with concert and theater. Later comment is reserved for what may well be regarded as the most noteworthy aspect of American music life today: the multitude of impulses all over the country, the yearning for musical experience our concert and[Pg 95] opera life does not offer. These impulses center largely in educational institutions—in schools, conservatories, and universities. Above all, one here finds the beginnings of what may be called a different mode of opera life. In an already considerable and ever-increasing number of schools and opera departments, problems of opera production are being studied, with an undaunted willingness to experiment and, if necessary, even to fail, and with a vitality which amazes all who have the opportunity to watch it closely. At least one happy result has manifested itself, even within the framework of music life. It has shown Americans that satisfying results can be obtained in the operatic field without recourse to the luxury of stellar personalities or sumptuous modes of production. Notably at the City Center Opera in New York—an offshoot, in a sense, of the[Pg 96] opera department of the Juilliard School—some performances provided even valid competition in quality of ensemble and vitality of interpretation to identical works at the Metropolitan.

The question of adequate financial support for opera is not easily solved. There is much discussion of a Ministry of Fine Arts in Washington, and of the possibility of government subsidies for various types of musical enterprise. Some of the discussion has ignored matters involving American politics, and which contain many a snare. Governmental subsidies for the arts on the European continent date back to the pre-Revolutionary era, and carry on a long tradition in which cultural matters for the most part were kept out of politics. At the moment it seems Utopian to think that such a state of affairs could be easily achieved here at the expense of the ever-vigilant[Pg 97] taxpayer. If subsidies, at least those at the Federal level, do not seem likely or wholly desirable at the present time and under present conditions, solutions must be sought elsewhere—in municipal or state subsidies, or in large foundations. For the moment we must content ourselves with and draw encouragement from the great variety and vitality of the various forces which flourish and prosper luxuriantly throughout our music life. It is difficult to believe, in view of all these impulses and purposeful activities, that ultimately a solution should not be found.

[Pg 98]


We have attempted to show that the business mentality that directs so many of our musical institutions fosters an economy of scarcity as regards talent and repertory. We have tried to show how it tends drastically to restrict opportunities for young artists and their careers and to limit repertory. The aim of a cautious policy, as we have stated, is to satisfy the immediate wishes of the greatest possible number of listeners. To maintain prices, as well as the prevalent[Pg 99] values, as high as possible, the tendency is, among other things, to restrict the number of goods for “sale.”

Curiously enough, the effect of this business point of view in radio and with respect to phonograph and recordings is quite different. No doubt the business mentality is as predominant here as it is in the concert and opera business. In radio and recordings, however, it fosters an economy of abundance. One may guess why it works that way. Fewer, not more recordings would be sold if the output were restricted to performances by celebrities, even if they were more highly priced. In view of the nature of the product, the policy must be to sell as many recordings as possible. To that end, policy will always center on variety of both performances and works performed. In the service of an economy which favors expansiveness and flexibility, it is also[Pg 100] necessary to maintain an even higher degree of technical perfection. The result is that there is already available a large and representative selection of recordings of music from every period, including our own. This repertory is steadily growing larger.

Similar conditions prevail in radio, though in a less striking and more sporadic manner, since American radio is largely supported by commercial sponsors. Competition plays so great a role that giving programs a conspicuously individual character is every sponsor’s aim, and since many radio programs consist of concerts of recorded music, the tenor is abundance rather than scarcity.

A discussion of music education in the United States must consider the educational impact of both recordings and radio performances during the past twenty-five years. Anyone interested in music[Pg 101] has a range of musical experiences previously unheard-of at his disposal; and it is the rule that a young person wishing to undertake serious study of music already has acquired an appreciable knowledge of music literature, a rather experienced sense for interpretation, and even a certain musical judgment—sometimes surprisingly good—before he embarks upon such study.

There is a negative side. The knowledge acquired is not necessarily intimate nor profound. It is knowledge different from that resulting from studying scores and reading them, in some manner, at the piano. Teachers are aware of the deceptive familiarity of American students with music of all periods and nations and of their frequent glibness which astonishes one until he discovers that all is based on a facile and superficial experience with little to back it up. This is a problem of[Pg 102] education, and a state of affairs which our teachers are trying to correct.

In this connection a leitmotif which frequently comes up in a discussion of music in America is: what can and should music mean to us? Is it an article we buy for whatever effortless enjoyment we can derive from it, or is it a valid medium of expression worth knowing intimately, through real participation, even on a modest level? In other words, are we to be content with superficial acquaintance, or do we want genuine experience, and the criteria derived only from the latter?

Such alternatives are often not clearly formulated, and that fact alone is both the result of, and a contributing factor to causing a confusion of ends often observed in our situation. The confusion derives from the fact that until a relatively short time ago music was for us predominantly an article de luxe which was to be enjoyed[Pg 103] without the obligation of intimate knowledge. As pointed out, at times we even doubted whether we were, by birthright, entitled to, or capable of fulfilling such an obligation, and the growing impulse toward vital musical experiences developed from this basis. Gradually the ideas of education, at least on the elementary or nonprofessional level, obtained. A result of the schism even today is the wide divergence between instruction considered adequate for the layman and that required by the professional musician—a divergence which, as far as this author knows, has no parallel in any other field of education.

We are accustomed to justify such divergence, or at least some of its results, in terms of a somewhat pragmatic philosophy; this author disagrees with that philosophy. Present criticism concerns, however, but the effect of this[Pg 104] confusion on our musical development. It must be admitted that much of the musical or quasi-musical instruction given in our elementary and high schools has little or no value whatever from this point of view. This is said with due reserve; conditions vary not only because of individual and local differences, but because the organization and even the underlying concepts of education vary from state to state. However, instruction at those levels is limited too often to lessons in “sight singing,” a kind of primitive solfeggio, to a small degree of facility on instruments designed to equip players for the school orchestra, and finally to the “appreciation” course. While the results are varied, in certain localities energetic teachers or groups have accomplished impressive feats and sometimes, in the cases of gifted students, have reached an almost professional level.[Pg 105] Too often, however, the prevailing idea behind the teaching has little to do with truly musical achievement, and the gifted youngster may well find himself quite lost in truly artistic surroundings. If he wishes to work seriously, he must have recourse to the conservatory or to private instruction; and he must pursue his studies outside of, and in addition to the school curriculum.

The above picture, of course, is generalized, even though it is doubtlessly accurate. Aside from exceptions, the system is less rigid than a brief summary could demonstrate. Again, our culture is fluid and development rapid. One recalls the establishment, nearly two decades ago, of the High School of Music and Art in New York, and similar establishments come to mind, but such practical institutions scarcely answer the problem of fares suitable for[Pg 106] both amateurs and professionals.

In the universities the picture is different and the development impressive, though not devoid of problems. To understand what is going on, let us consider the role which the university plays in our culture. In our universities the most independent forces of American culture seem to gather—influences free from political or commercial pressures; the universities, more than any other institutions, sustain their role as strongholds of independent and liberal thought, and, with a few regrettable exceptions, they are jealously committed to the conservation of that independence. They shelter the cultural activities which have difficulty acclimatizing themselves to the excesses of commercialism, and they provide means for the independent existence of worthy activities within their own walls.

[Pg 107]

The policy is general, even though it is not everywhere equally pronounced, and but few of the larger universities are in a position to carry it out on a broad scale. This endeavor is organized in various ways. Some universities such as Yale, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois possess Schools of Music which are genuine professional schools similar to our medical and law schools. Others such as California, Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton have music departments which, though integrated in the Colleges of Liberal Arts, include in their curricula not only composition courses frankly professional in standard and aim, but also generally high-quality courses in the performance of choral, orchestral, and chamber music and, frequently, in opera. Some universities support “Quartets in Residence,” generally established ensembles which are under contract to[Pg 108] contribute their services during a certain portion of each year for campus concerts and instruction as well. The Pro Arte Quartet at Wisconsin, the Griller Quartet at the University of California at Berkeley, and the Walden Quartet at the University of Illinois are examples.

In some respects, this program constitutes a radical departure from the traditional role of the university as established in Europe. It is the result of a long and frequently complex evolution. Some academicians, even in departments of music, deplore this departure, while others feel that it should be limited. No doubt the idea has brought about new problems including that concerning the relationship of scholarship and creative production, a problem existing already on the elementary technical level, and one that cannot as yet be solved. All of these problems involve various aspects[Pg 109] of academic life and undeniably are difficult in the extreme. The greatest pitfall, as far as the production of music is concerned, is the danger of confused mentalities. What are the ultimate obligations of the practical musician as compared to those of the scholar? There is a tendency in some quarters to train the former in terms appropriate to the latter, inculcating in him criteria which are taken from music history and aesthetic theory rather than from music as a direct experience. Often an exaggerated reverence for music theory as a source for valid artistic criteria can be observed. However, contact of scholars with practical musicians often is fruitful: one can give the other something valid by way of sharpened insight into his own task.

The divergence between what is proper for the layman and essential for[Pg 110] the professional is a problem for both scholar and musician. Many a university music curriculum still bears traces of such divergence, and the history of university music in the United States could easily be covered from this point of view. What is involved here as elsewhere is the shift from a frankly amateurish—in the best sense—approach, however enlightened in premise, to one based on a serious and eventually professional outlook. The transformation has been anything but facile. The situation is still in process.

In the older curriculum, courses were offered in harmony and counterpoint, to be sure, and sometimes also in fugue, instrumentation, and composition proper. It was scarcely envisaged, however, that the student would aim at serious accomplishment in such courses, and those who taught them for the most part had learned[Pg 111] to accept the conditions prevailing in our music life, conditions which gave scant encouragement to those nourishing illusory ambitions. The instruction given aimed, therefore, at theoretical knowledge of traditional concepts; as has been pointed out, there was little inclination to examine either the premises or to delve into the ultimate effects of traditional theory. The demands of the general curriculum in fact would make it difficult genuinely to attack the problems of adequate technical training. The student was obliged to be satisfied to learn “rules” or “principles” without adequate opportunity, through continual practice, to master them; and since our music life at the time was what it was, he had no opportunity to become aware of what genuine mastery involved. The result is quite obvious: either he gave up the idea of serious achievement, or he resigned[Pg 112] himself, often painfully no doubt, to the necessity of lowering his sights.

In the field of scholarship similar conditions prevailed: generally the curriculum was limited to superficial courses in music history or literature or, at best, to scarcely less superficial studies of selected composers. Most characteristic was the course in “appreciation.” The term itself is used today mainly in a deprecatory manner since—even if the term is retained—both the idea and the content of such courses have long become outmoded and relegated to secondary schools or a few provincial colleges. The appreciation course usually consisted of propaganda for “serious” music, and it can be stated frankly that its true aim was often to attract as many students as possible to the music department in order to win the graces of the university administration, which in the old days[Pg 113] frequently retained a degree of skepticism regarding the legitimate place of music in the university. In spite of their superficiality and irrelevancies, however, such courses unquestionably helped to prepare the public for the later developments on our music scene. As has been observed before in connection with Community Concerts, genuine, decisive results sometimes spring from unpromising sources.

Such efforts are not needed today, for it is no longer necessary to entice a public to accept, through radio and recordings, what is available every day. Courses for amateurs still exist but more and more become good introductory courses to music to which instructors dedicate serious thought and effort, and in which they try to lay a basis from which the student, if he wishes, may develop a real knowledge of music and train himself to[Pg 114] listen to it with greater awareness. The aims, too, of such courses have become more dignified; and while music can be approached from many angles and while many kinds of introductory courses are possible, the effort at least is made to solve a problem thoughtfully.

The courses in music history and literature today are on a level quite different from former days and are frankly conceived as a valid means of preparation for scholarly accomplishment. Attention is given to musicology in nearly every major university; names of distinguished scholars may be found on the faculties and opportunities for all kinds of research are offered. Little by little, the universities are building up valuable collections of microfilms in order to bring to the United States whatever European libraries and collections have to offer. As in other fields of[Pg 115] scholarly research, an effort is made to establish highest standards and rigorous demands.

As regards musical composition, perhaps the most striking fact is that the important recent developments have taken place in the universities, at least as much as in the conservatories. There are reasons for this emphasis. The universities, due to their independence, seem more ready to experiment and are therefore less bound by tradition. They are more willing to adapt themselves to changing conditions. Since they are in no way bound to the exigencies of the large-scale music business, they are, as a rule, aware of the character of contemporary culture and especially of its creative aspects. It is significant that the universities were able to offer asylum to eminent composers among the European refugees, and, as well, positions to[Pg 116] American composers. Of Europeans, Schönberg taught at the University of Southern California and later at the University of California at Los Angeles, Hindemith at Yale, Krenek at Vassar and at Hamline College, Milhaud at Mills, and Martinu at Princeton. As regards native American composers, one finds more or less distinguished names on university faculties all over the country, and of the young native composers a characteristically great number are university graduates.

That fact alone has had a strong influence on university curricula, and also has given rise to new problems. It has added an importance, and in fact a different character, to preparatory studies. It has thrown into conspicuous relief the necessity of reconciling the requirements of the all-important and indispensable basic technical training of[Pg 117] the composer with those of general education. No one would claim that the problem has been solved in a satisfactory manner; and the composer who teaches composition in a university or elsewhere often faces problems which arise from the great disparity not only between the requirements of the craft and that which institutions can offer in this respect, but also between the degrees of preparation offered in various institutions. Perhaps the greatest of these problems is the cleavage between the age and general musical sophistication of students (who in the United States begin their music studies relatively late) and the elementary studies with which they must begin if they are to build a technique on a firm basis. In the last analysis, standards are often far too low; yet we must underline that there are also serious curricular problems which await solution. Some[Pg 118] results shown in universities furnish convincing proof that these problems, on the whole, are soluble.

It may be asked why in this discussion of music education the music schools, the conservatories, have been left to the very end. There has been no thought of disparaging or underestimating what our conservatories have contributed to musical development. What they have accomplished, in the main, is precisely what one would expect. With exceptions such as a new (still problematical) approach to the teaching of theory at Juilliard, they have developed along normal lines. Instrumental and vocal instruction is often first class, they feed excellent players to our orchestras, and produce—as has been noted—an overabundance of young singers and instrumental performers. At Juilliard, the opera department deserves highest[Pg 119] praise. For many years its productions have served as a model for those now almost the rule rather than the exception in music schools and music departments throughout the country; and in recent years it has given New York several of its relatively few experiences of contemporary opera. Equally impressive have been the achievements of the Juilliard School orchestra, which on repeated occasions has proved adequate to the demands of most difficult contemporary music.

We cannot terminate this discussion without some lively praise for the American student of today. It seems that in these postwar years a new generation of students has entered upon the scene—a generation which, in the purposefulness and the courage with which its representatives undertake most exacting tasks, and in the devotion and the maturity[Pg 120] with which they seek out the real challenges music can present, is sufficient proof that we have moved forward. They, above all, give us the liveliest, most unqualified sense of musical vitality, and the certainty that it will continue to develop.

[Pg 121]


Throughout this discussion we meet recurrent motives which should be remembered if we are to understand what “goes on” in our music life. These motives will continue to come to mind in connection with specific and concrete instances. It may be useful, therefore, to mention some of them as a point of departure for the discussion of music criticism, or better, musical opinion in the United States.

[Pg 122]

We have repeatedly referred to the characteristic fluidity of culture in the United States, to the fact that it is in a constant state of rapid development and under the lash of incessant self-criticism. It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of these facts which runs through the whole of our cultural life; but while it is easy to understand that one of their effects has been the extraordinary musical development of the past forty or fifty years, it must also be noted that they bring with them the danger of attitudes not entirely favorable to genuine artistic achievement. There is the easily and occasionally noted lack of spontaneity, not only in artistic judgment, but in relation to music itself. In a drive toward maturity, one can lose sight of the necessity for a full and rich musical experience. The danger lies, then, in a search for shortcuts to maturity, while[Pg 123] actually maturity can be the result only of experience: in striving, as we sometimes do, to arrive at judgments in advance of genuine experience, which can be acquired only through love, that is, through an immediate and elementary response to music. The American public may gradually learn to surmount this danger as American listeners acquire more and more experience. However, the musical public is in constant growth, and we can scarcely be astounded that that public, being in part musically inexperienced, has not as yet learned to have confidence in its judgments. Newspaper criticism, therefore, wields far greater power here than it does in other countries; and a marked predilection for abstraction in musical ideas may be noted. We readily embrace or reject causes or personalities, and readily form our judgment with relation to them, rather[Pg 124] than to individual works of art. While this is a tendency characteristic of the period in which we live, it seems to be carried to a greater extreme here than elsewhere.

Another principal motive in our discussion is the conflict between the idea of music as an imported European commodity and the indigenous impulse toward musical expression. Obviously, in music criticism this conflict is clearly visible; for in the beginnings of our musical development we imported not only music but musical opinion as well. In the period before World War I, the task of American criticism was precisely that of imparting some knowledge of the music to which one listened in the concert halls and opera houses; to introduce the public to the criteria, controversies, and, above all, to the then current ideas relating to music; to inform it on[Pg 125] composers and their backgrounds, musical or spiritual, and on the backgrounds from which music had sprung. The critics of that time were often men of genuine, and even deep culture, and with cosmopolitan experience; but their criticism was neither bold nor original. Like the composers of the period, American critics remained circumspect and cautious in their judgments of contemporary music. They did not wish to be considered unorthodox. How could they have done otherwise? They knew perfectly well that decisive judgments were not made in the United States, and that intellectual boldness would fall on deaf ears when few people were in a position to understand what they conceivably had to say. At most, they could allow themselves an occasional word of encouragement to the efforts of some American composer, who understood well that it amounted to[Pg 126] no more than a friendly gesture. In the case of young composers, such gestures, almost always benign, were often coupled with an express warning not to take themselves too seriously. But even such judgments were not problematical, since there was virtually nothing in the American music which offered a challenge to accepted ideas. In the United States of 1913, the Fourth Symphony of Sibelius was regarded with suspicion; the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales of Ravel were controversial; Strauss’s Elektra seemed a shrewdly calculated shocker which the composer himself had repudiated in a much touted and likewise suspect volte-face in Der Rosenkavalier. Stravinsky was but a name; and as for Schönberg, his First Quartet seemed quite obscure and the Five Orchestral Pieces wholly incoherent.

The third of the recurrent principal[Pg 127] motives to be recalled here is the divergence between professional instruction and instruction designed for laymen. As has been pointed out, this divergence is found in no field other than music, and this author has tried to show that it is related to the idea that music—valid music, at least—is an imported article. He has tried to demonstrate, too, that it led, as far as music education is concerned, to a confusion of aims, creating problems for both teachers and gifted young men and women whose aims were serious. These problems still survive. A similar divergence is reflected in music criticism in a somewhat different form. It is evident that the principal task of the critic, certainly of the exacting critic, is that which has a bearing on the musical production of the time and place in which he lives. The music which comes from abroad or from the past calls for a serious[Pg 128] attitude, to be sure, but it is not comparable to the critic’s responsibilities toward the culture of his own land and epoch. It does not inevitably imply a motive for attacking the real problems of either music or culture. Even research in regard to it is gratuitous to a point, for the very impulse toward research derives from a curiosity which, like the creative impulse, is a symptom of vitality or at least of restlessness in the general atmosphere of the time. It is an indication of an already highly developed music life.

Generally speaking, music criticism in the United States remained amateurish for a long time; but if such a state of affairs adequately served conditions in the years before World War I, it was insufficient in the twenties, when young composers were beginning to take both themselves and their musical aims seriously. The[Pg 129] influence of the critics was as powerful in those days as it remains to this day, up to a certain point; but the criteria which criticism furnished had little or nothing to give young composers. There was little understanding for either the needs or the demands of these young creators or for that which they wished to accomplish.

We think of a well-known and extremely important personality of that period: Paul Rosenfeld. He was very friendly to young creative musicians, and a sympathetic promoter of everything they wished to accomplish. He was a passionate amateur, especially of music that was new, and above all of the music of the young Americans he knew. In this respect he stood virtually alone; he dared to write with great passion and enthusiasm of everything in the “new” music that interested him—of Schönberg,[Pg 130] Stravinsky, Bártòk, Scriabine, and Sibelius—and he conducted a bold propaganda for new music in a period when the attitude of other critics, and certainly of the public, was at best cautious and hesitant. He was also a personal friend of Ernest Bloch, from the moment the composer, a completely unknown figure in the United States, arrived here in 1916; Rosenfeld worked tirelessly for the recognition of Bloch’s music and personality. It is impossible to overestimate Rosenfeld’s contributions as a writer and as an enthusiastic propagandist for the contemporary music of his period, and for the development of music in this country. It is not surprising that this contribution is still remembered.

True, Rosenfeld had little understanding for the real and characteristic tendencies of the period between the two[Pg 131] wars, and his ideas remained au fond those of postromanticism, with a strong admixture of American nationalism. There is no doubt, however, that he played a significant role in the formation of the musical generation of the twenties. The present author belongs to that generation; Rosenfeld was not in complete sympathy with him, but Rosenfeld’s interest and his willingness to discuss issues were of the greatest possible value to all who came in contact with him. One found in him, as in few others of that time, a genuine awareness of the issues, and a desire to understand the motivating forces behind them.

The foregoing notwithstanding, Rosenfeld was in no sense of the word a music critic. It may seem paradoxical to say that he possessed neither authentic musical knowledge nor, very probably, strong musical instinct. Not only did he[Pg 132] shy away from acquiring technical knowledge which he considered an obstacle to feeling and intuition; he even refused to speak of music in concrete terms. If he made casual reference to facts, as occasionally happened, he often was in error; in speaking of the instrumentation of the Sinfonia Domestica of Strauss, for example, he referred to the use of the viola d’amore instead of the oboe—likewise d’amore, but hardly to be confused with the viola! His relation to music remained that of a litterateur to whom music furnished a stimulus for ideas, sentiments, and attitudes, and, in consequence, for words.

In spite of his association with mature musicians such as Bloch, Rosenfeld never learned to regard music as something other than a means of evocation, an art completely self-sufficient as a mode of expression, completely developed, an art[Pg 133] which demands of its devotees all their resources of craft and personality. He was therefore not in a position to help young composers as a connoisseur, to give them a sense of the demands of their craft or of the essence of musical expression. He did succeed, to be sure, in giving them something much needed at that time: a lively sense of belonging to the whole cultural movement of the period. Other critics gave them not even that feeling. Confined to the limits of their profession and the premises discussed, they reported, more or less competently, events and the faits divers of the daily music life. They concerned themselves little, and only incidentally, with contemporary music. The composers were growing and developing independently; and when, as toward the end of the decade, they found performers like Koussevitzky who took an interest in their music, the critics were[Pg 134] neither conspicuously hostile nor conspicuously friendly, but remained indifferent to the prospects of a development of music in the United States. They were also reluctant seriously to consider either the issues involved or the influences which would have favored such a development. The critics contented themselves by “going along,” at least tentatively, with Koussevitzky and others of established reputation showing interest in this music.

We state these facts without malicious intent. We can understand why in such a situation the critics, confronted with something new, failed. The appearance on the music scene of an entire group of young American composers who, so to speak, thought for themselves and were searching for their individual attitudes and modes of musical speech, forced the critics of the time to face a series of[Pg 135] unaccustomed challenges. It demanded, for the first time in the United States, that they come to terms, repeatedly, with music of serious intent, music which had arrived fresh and free of previous critical judgments. At the same time, the development of a number of these native composers may well have been a threat to the status quo and vested interests, which included the supremacy of the critic in all that concerned the formation of public taste. There is no evidence, as far as we know, that any critic actually thought in such terms, and it is not a question of accusation. Such considerations seem natural at least as subconscious forces and would adequately explain the reserve which the music journalists of twenty-five years ago displayed, not toward this or that young composer, but toward American composers as such; their reluctance to admit American music to[Pg 136] the category of things to be discussed seriously, either for its own sake or for its significance in relation to the music culture of the country as a whole, was apparent. Certainly they were aware of the names of some of these creators and had thought about them, possibly in a stereotyped concept of their musical physiognomies, and certainly they did not ignore them when their music appeared on important programs, yet clearly they made no effort to study such music closely, to seek out and discover young or unknown personalities, or to interest themselves in events which took place off the beaten path. In short, what they lacked was genuine sympathy for what was happening.

Such sympathy, actually, was reserved for another generation of critics, which arose toward the end of the thirties. No doubt, the most influential of recent years[Pg 137] have been Virgil Thomson, who retired two years ago from the New York Herald-Tribune, and Alfred Frankenstein, still of the San Francisco Chronicle. Both served modest apprenticeships before arriving at positions of power. Above all, both are notable for their close relationship to contemporary, and especially American music, as well as for their experience and knowledge of the life and the repertory of concert and opera. Thomson is known also as a composer; as a critic, he is a lively and often brilliant observer of the contemporary music scene. He makes his readers constantly aware of his own predilections (he has every right to do so as a composer) and his predilections are for the French music of the twenties. One must give him credit also for the efforts made to understand music of other types. Above all, one must admire his consistent and tireless[Pg 138] emphasis on the work of younger composers, and the energy with which he reported on interesting and vital events, however distant they might have been from Fifty-seventh Street or Times Square.

Frankenstein, for at least twenty-five years, has battled for the cause of music in the United States. He gave careful attention to the state of music here, and there is probably no one more qualified to speak of it authoritatively. He became personally acquainted with the principal composers who live in our country, but, better still, he familiarized himself with their music. Possessing an unusual degree of knowledge of music history, he combines it with an equally rich knowledge of, and carefully considered judgment on, the problems of contemporary music. Like Thomson, he brings to his task a deep sense of responsibility for[Pg 139] everything in our music life. One need not always agree with Thomson and Frankenstein, but it is difficult not to recognize their sincerity.

It is evident that our discussion of music criticism in the United States has dealt primarily with its relation to the general subject of our musical development. The music itself and the composers and their ideas remain to be discussed.

[Pg 140]


The principal concern of music in the twenties was the idea of a national or “typically American” school or style and, eventually, a tradition which would draw to a focus the musical energies of our country which, as Rosenfeld once said to Aaron Copland and the author, would “affirm America.” The concern was not limited to composers, and in fact it was sometimes used as a weapon against individual composers by those whose preconceived ideas of what[Pg 141] “American” music should be did not square with the music in question. In spite of the abstract and a priori nature of this concern, it was a natural one in view of the historical circumstances.

Actually the nationalist current in our music dates back to a period considerably earlier than the twenties. Its underlying motives are as curiously varied as are its manifestations. Cultural nationalism has special aspects which, since they derive from our colonial past, may be considered as reflex actions, so to speak, of American history. American musical nationalism, too, is complex. In its earlier phases it developed gradually on the basis of a music culture which came to us from abroad. It consisted, as it were, of a deliberate search for particular picturesque elements derived for the most part from impressions received from ritual chants of the Indians or from characteristic[Pg 142] songs of the colored people in the South; equally, it included efforts, such as MacDowell’s, to evoke impressions of the American landscape. These and similar elements strongly contributed to the renown of this sympathetic figure, and MacDowell’s name for many years was virtually identical with American music.

A different feature was furnished by a Protestant culture which in the beginning came from England, but developed a character all of its own in the English colonies, especially in New England. Against this background grew our “classic” writers and thinkers, and the character found expression in music and painting, though in the latter it is admittedly less important. Next to MacDowell the most significant figure in the American music of that time was undoubtedly Horatio Parker, who, especially[Pg 143] in certain religious works, displayed not only a mature technique, but also a musical nature and profile which were well defined, even though they were not wholly original.

These men, however, did not represent a genuinely nationalist trend, but rather idioms which, in much more aggressive and consistent form, contributed to a nationalist current that was to become strong in the twenties. The figure and the influence of Paul Rosenfeld again comes to mind, yet the question was not so much that of an individual per se as that of a personality embodying a whole complex of reactions deriving from a new awareness of our national power, of the disillusionment of the post-War period, and of a recrudescent consciousness of Europe and European influence on the United States and the world in general.

We know the political effects of these[Pg 144] reactions and their consequences for the world. As far as the cultural results are concerned, they led to a wave of emigration which took many of our gifted young writers, artists, and musicians to Europe, especially to Paris. It was a revulsion against the cultural situation of the United States of those years. The same reactions also produced a wave of revulsion against Europe, however, as far as music was concerned, against the domination of our music life by European musicians and European ideas, against the mentioned wave of emigration which seemed to have carried away, if but temporarily, so many young talents and therefore so much cultural energy, a revulsion, finally, against the whole complex world of Europe itself. That European world seemed exigent, disturbing. It was a world from which we had freed ourselves a century and a half[Pg 145] earlier, but which for so many years thereafter had constituted an implicit threat to American independence, and which presented itself to American imagination as a mass of quasi-tyrannical involvements from which our ancestors had fled in order to build a new country on unsullied soil. The most pointedly American manifestations were sought for, not always in the most discriminating spirit or with the most penetrating insight as to value; and the effort was made to call forth hidden qualities from sources hitherto regarded with contempt.

The situation indicates an extremely complex movement, partly constructive and based not just on reflex impulses, and has left traces which persist in our culture. As a primary motive, it has long since been left behind; for, though it was an inevitable phase, the time arrived when it no longer satisfied our cultural[Pg 146] needs. One may, in fact, observe the manner in which (more obvious here than in Europe since our country is so vast and the distances so great) such a movement tends to shift, also geographically, and finally to die in the provinces where it had survived for a certain period after losing its force in the cultural centers.

From such a background of reflex and impulse the facets of American musical nationalism grew. Let us distinguish three, though perhaps they are overdefined. One is the “folklorist” tendency characteristic of a group of composers of differing types, from Charles Wakefield Cadman to Charles Ives. Folklore in the United States is something different from European or Russian folklore. Here it does not involve a popular culture of ancient or legendary origin, which for centuries grew among the people and remained, as it were, anonymous; here it[Pg 147] is something recent, less naive, and, let us say, highly specialized. It consists largely of popular songs originally bound to precise historical situations and the popularity of which, in fact, derived from their power to evoke the memory or vision of these situations—the Civil War, the life of the slaves in the South, or that of cowboys or lumberjacks in the now virtually extinct Old West—only nostalgia remained. Though these songs are in no sense lacking in character, they fail to embody a clear style; and it is difficult to see how, with their origins in a relatively sophisticated musical vocabulary, they could conceivably form the basis of a “national” style. Not only a musical, but also a sociological and psychological basis for such a style is missing. Therefore, apart from jazz—which is something else, but equally complex—folklorism in the United[Pg 148] States has remained on a relatively superficial level, not so much for lack of attraction, but for lack of the elements necessary for expansion into a genuine style or at least into a “manner.”

Certain composers such as Henry Gilbert, Douglas Moore, and William Grant Still have made use of folklorism with success. However, even in the music of these composers the element is evocative rather than organic; and the success of their efforts seems commensurable with the degree to which the whole remains on the frankly “popular” level. The extraordinary figure of Charles Ives might be considered an exception. He certainly is one of the significant men in American music, and at the same time one of the most complex and problematical. But among the various elements of which his music consists—music which sometimes reaches almost the level of[Pg 149] genius, but which, at other times, is banal and amateurish—the folklorist is the most problematic, the least characteristic.

Another aspect of our musical nationalism is just that evocative tendency. It makes reference to a quasi-literary type in the theater, in texts of songs and other vocal works, or to “programs” in symphonic poems. Many Americans have made use of such reference in a self-conscious manner. However, the term is used here also to refer to an effort to achieve a musical vocabulary or “style” apt, in some manner, to evoke this or that aspect of American landscape or character. Howard Hanson, for instance, in his postromantic and somewhat conventional music, has tried to establish an evocative relationship with the American past as well as with the Nordic past of his Scandinavian ancestors.

[Pg 150]

More ambitious and possibly more interesting was the effort of Roy Harris to achieve a style that could be called “national” in a less external sense. His point of departure was the evocation of American history or American landscape; but from these beginnings he goes on to technical and aesthetic concepts aimed toward defining the basis of a new American music. It cannot be denied that Harris accomplished some results. For a time during the years just preceding World War II, his music attracted the attention of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic and achieved considerable success. His ideas and concepts, however, must be considered quite by themselves; music and technical concepts belong to different categories: it would be an error to judge either in terms of the other. Harris’s ideas of technique often have little or nothing to do with specifically[Pg 151] American motivation, but to a large extent consist of a strange brew composed of anti-European revulsion, personal prejudice, and the projection of this or that problem, or a solution with which he has become acquainted. What is lacking, as in the entire nationalist movement in our music, is awareness of the fact that genuine national character comes from within and must develop and grow of itself, that it cannot be imposed from without, and that, in the last analysis, it is a by-product, not an aim, of artistic expression.

A third type of American musical nationalism may be dubbed “primitivist,” a term implying something different from the primitivism which for a time was current in European culture. Reference here is not necessarily to an interest in the culture of the Indians, whether the primitive of North America or the more[Pg 152] highly developed of Central and South America. Primitivism of this variety is related to frank rebellion against European culture and is a vague and overstrained yearning for a type of quasi-music that is to be completely new, and in which one could find refuge from the demands, conflicts, and problems of contemporary culture manifesting itself everywhere. It is expressed in superficial experimentalism, not to be confused, in its basic concepts, with experimentalism concerned with the problems of contemporary music and culture. Actually, as happens frequently in matters of contemporary art, the two types of experimentalism are sometimes found in association, in a rather strange admixture. It would require special analysis—one which has no bearing on the present discussion—to dissociate them. One cannot entirely ignore this trend,[Pg 153] however, a current always existing in one form or the other, though never achieving importance.

One might possibly add one more brand of nationalism to the folklorist, evocative, and primitivist—the attempt to base a national style on jazz. Such classification is of course artificial and of purely practical value. While folklorism, the evocation of American images, and the type of primitivism we have been discussing, are related exclusively to American backgrounds, jazz, on the other hand, though it originated in this country and is considered a product of our culture, has had an influence on music outside the United States. It has taken root in[Pg 154] Europe and developed European modes on European soil, not as an exotic product, but as a phenomenon which is modern rather than exclusively American.

This author will never forget an occasion at a little restaurant in Assisi, in the shadow of the church of St. Francis, when he had to ask that the radio, blaring forth genuine jazz, be lowered so he might talk quietly with his colleague Dallapiccola; or another occasion in an Austrian village hotel, where jazz—also genuine though not of the highest quality—was constantly heard, either from a local dance band or on the radio: it was craved more by the young German, Dutch or Danish guests than by the Americans there. Jazz—unless one insists on an esoteric definition—has become, or is about to become, an international phenomenon like other[Pg 155] mass-produced goods which, originally manufactured in the United States, lose their association with it and are assimilated elsewhere.

This is not to minimize the fact that jazz developed via American popular music, and that it contains a strong primitive ingredient from this source. However, other elements were added, as it were, by accretion, elements which derive from a predominantly rhythmic vitality and are supposedly inherited from the African past of the negroes. Long before the name jazz was given to this type of music, its rhythmical and colorist, and to a degree its melodic elements had attracted the attention of European musicians. Beginning as early as Debussy’s Golliwogg’s Cake Walk, one remembers a series of works by Stravinsky, Casella, Milhaud, Weill, and others. The influence remained active for[Pg 156] a short time, and by the end of the thirties it had virtually disappeared.

Similar things happened in the United States, yet with far-reaching implications. Certain composers had hoped to find in jazz the basis for an “American” style and their efforts may be considered the most serious of all ever made to create an American music with “popular style” as its foundation (even though jazz can really not be called folk music in the accepted sense of the word). These composers in jazz saw characteristic elements which they believed rich enough to allow development into a musical vocabulary, one of definite character, though limited to certain emotive characteristics in turn believed to be typically American. Aaron Copland in his Music for the Theatre and his Piano Concerto (written in 1926) showed his audience novel points of departure such as had[Pg 157] been suggested by Europeans; other Americans felt capable of carrying these beginnings still farther and discovered idiomatic features not only in the musical vocabulary, but in the American personality as well.

Copland, of these composers, undoubtedly was the most successful. However, he dropped the experiment after two or three works of this type, which can be counted among his best, in order to write, over a period of several years, music of a different kind, characterized by certain lean and harsh dissonances, angular, sharp, and at moments melancholy and which no longer had a connection with jazz. There is much more to say about this composer, whose music has passed also through other phases. It may be asked, however, why he decided to abandon the idiom chosen at the outset of his career, one based on jazz.[Pg 158] Probably he saw the limitations of nationalist ideas as such and, like the European composers mentioned, came to the realization that by its very nature jazz is limited not only as material, but emotionally as well. Jazz may be considered a genre or a type, yet one discovers quickly that, passing beyond certain formulas, certain stereotyped emotive gestures, one enters the sphere of other music, and the concept of jazz no longer seems sensible. The character of jazz is inseparably bound to certain harmonic and rhythmic formulas—not only to that of syncopation but, if incessant syncopation is to make its full effect, to the squarest kind of phrase structure, and to a harmony based on most primitive tonal scheme. While immobility of these bases makes a play of rhythmic detail and of melodic figuration possible, this always is a question of lively detail rather[Pg 159] than of extended organic development. The result is exactly what might have been expected: for the last twenty years, leaving aside occasional instances where jazz was frankly and bodily “taken over” for special purposes, it has ceased to exert a strong influence on contemporary music. On the contrary, it has borrowed incessantly from “serious” music, generally after a certain interval of time.

Though different from Copland, the equally gifted George Gershwin travelled in the opposite direction; from popular music he came to the extended forms of “serious” music. He remained a composer of “popular” and “light” music, nevertheless, for they were native to him. If his jazz is always successful and unproblematical even in his large works, like the Rhapsody in Blue and the opera Porgy and Bess, it is because in its original and popular sense jazz is his[Pg 160] natural idiom, and Gershwin never felt the need for overstepping its limits, musical or emotive. True, he wanted to write works of large design, but herein he never succeeded. He never understood the problem and the requirements of extended form, and remained, so to speak, innocent of them. But since his music was frankly popular in character and conception, it developed without constraint within the limits of jazz; and since he was enormously gifted, it could achieve a quality transcending the limits of jazz convention.

In other words, Gershwin’s music is in the first place music, and secondarily jazz. Those who may be considered his successors in the relationship to “serious” or, let us say, ambitious music, set out from premises no longer derived from nationalism. There is no longer the question of, in Rosenfeld’s words, “affirming[Pg 161] America,” but of gaining and holding the favor of the public. This was the concern of American composers during the thirties. Perhaps above all, American composers for the first time had won the attention of an American public; and it is natural that they wished to win and to enjoy the response of this public, and that some felt a challenge in the situation not altogether banal. For the American composer any vital relationship with a public was a new experience, one which seemed to open new perspectives. He felt for the first time the sensation of being supported by a strong propaganda for native music—something quite new in American music, though not without unexpected effects. Since the propaganda was in behalf of American composers as such, since it was always stated in terms of these composers, since their right to be heard[Pg 162] and their problems rather than the satisfactions which the public would derive from them were stressed, or the participation which that public would gain from listening to American music, the effect soon was that of giving nationality as such a value in and for itself. Quality and intention of the music soon seemed nonexistent; performers satisfied the demands of Americanism, presenting whatever music they found most convenient, and often whatever was shortest or made the least demand on performer and listener. It seems as if our music was obliged to pay in terms of loss of dignity for what it gained in terms of, at least, theoretical acceptance.

Many composers during those years were attracted by ideas derived from the quasi-Marxist concept of mass appeal. Their ideas of a cultural democracy drove[Pg 163] them toward a type of music which consciously aimed at pleasure for the greatest number. Such ideas suited the aims of the music business, which, with the help of business ideologies, encouraged these endeavors.

The music produced, however, bore no longer a specific relationship to jazz, which latter continued to develop along the lines normal to any product that has become an article of mass consumption, a variable product excluding neither imagination nor musical talent, but always remaining a genre and, by reason of its inherent restriction, never becoming a style. The features which once attracted attention by now had been absorbed into the contemporary musical vocabulary to which jazz could make no further contributions. Jazz, on the other hand, takes the materials of contemporary music, adopts those of its technical[Pg 164] methods it can absorb and transforms them for its own uses. Infinitely more than even in the case of “serious” music, the composition and performance of popular music are controlled by commercial interests representing millions of dollars; in the economy of music business this fact constitutes a chapter in itself.

The “serious” composers during the thirties were attracted by the two tendencies which years before had dominated the European musical scene: the neoclassic tendency, and that which is roughly summarized as Gebrauchsmusik, literally utility music. In Europe, these tendencies were closely allied since one term implies an aesthetic, the other a practical purpose, and since they have the impulse toward new simplicity and a new relationship with the public as a common basis. As a result, neoclassicism, aiming at a clear and accessible profile[Pg 165] and derived from more or less self-conscious evocations of music of the past, efficiently served as an idiomatic medium appropriate to the purposes of utility music. In the United States, explicit “returns” to this or that style or composer were few, and the neoclassic tendency was by no means always connected with a drive toward better relations with the public. Widely adopted, however, was a radical diatonicism, in the last analysis derived from the neoclassic phase of Stravinsky and adapted to utilitarian ends (as in music for film or ballet by Aaron Copland or Virgil Thomson), to fantastic and parodistic purposes (as in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein), or to “absolute” music as in certain sonatas and symphonies of Aaron Copland.

The name Copland is always present when one speaks of the differing[Pg 166] tendencies within the development of the past forty years. A large share of the various phases through which our music has passed during these decades is summed up in his work. He not only passed through them himself, but guided many young composers as friend and mentor. Notwithstanding his manifold transformations—and it is altogether possible that there are more to come—he has remained a strong and well-defined personality, easily recognizable in the differing profiles his music has assumed.

This final section, while of necessity dealing with the author of this book, will not engage in a polemic against the ideas outlined on the preceding pages. The bases and motives of these ideas have[Pg 167] constituted part also of this author’s experience, and he has tested them, as the Germans say, am eigenen Leib, and has tried to present them in such a manner as to demonstrate that they were inevitable phases of American culture.

But there is more. If we nourish the hope of surmounting the dangerous crisis through which western culture is presently passing, we must make clear distinctions, and if we wish to surmount the particular, so to speak, accessory crisis of American musical maturity, we must not lose sight of the difference between ideas of an aesthetic or sociological nature on the one hand, and, on the other, the individual works of art which supposedly embody them. The valid works and personalities are infinitely more complex than the ideas which constitute merely one of many components.

At the same time, ideas influence not[Pg 168] only the conscious efforts of composers, not only the criteria and the judgments of critics, but they influence, in the United States far more than in Europe, education and the general tenor of music life. Repeated mention has been made of a predilection, in the American mode of thought, for abstraction. This tendency derives from the necessity of building, fast, a foundation where a strong, complex influence of ancient tradition is lacking. Other peoples are inclined toward abstraction, too, but in comparison at least with Europe, here the ascendancy of certain concepts, ideas, and personalities is, at least on the surface, nearly uncontested. Equally striking is the finality, at times not as real as it may seem, with which the same concept, idea or personality can be superseded.

These processes may be observed in many aspects of American life; and the[Pg 169] concern with which they are viewed by those following the currents of opinion, is well known. However, countercurrents exist, frequently lost from view even when they are strongest. With the full glare of publicity concentrated on whatever is momentarily in the ascendance, countercurrents easily grow in quasi-silence and emerge at the appointed moment with a strength disconcerting to those not acquainted with the processes of American life (which often seems to run from one extreme to the other): therefore it is good to remain aware of the strength, real or potential, of opposition.

What we term countercurrents to the manifold tendencies heretofore discussed, may already in part have superseded former attitudes, and in part may become dominant at the present time. Countercurrents continually attract a large number of gifted and intelligent young[Pg 170] musicians who regard cultural nationalism with irony, as a formula too facile to constitute a definitive solution of our musical problems. They look with irony at the quest for audience appeal, which to them lacks musical conviction, even though occasionally it may be motivated by certain social beliefs. They are restive under the older attitudes aimed at helping the American composer as a matter of principle. They feel that such aims do not imply necessity, real desire, respect for, or interest in, the music Americans are writing, and to which they give all the resources they possess.

This segment of our young people has observed that musical nationalism, whatever its special orientation, by this time has lost the freshness of a new approach and has acquired the character of a provincial manifestation. This segment sees quite clearly that jazz remains a[Pg 171] particular genre admirably suited to its own aims, but in no sense capable of becoming a style, since style, if it is to be real, must cover all visible musical possibilities and be responsive to all vital, musical, and expressive impulses. These young musicians are wholly able to enjoy jazz and even to become adepts, without pretensions and illusions. They are conscious, however, of the manner in which certain composers, who within their memories were once considered “esoteric,” have achieved almost classic status, are regularly if not frequently performed, and often harvest great success. Bártòk, and to some extent Alban Berg, come to their minds, and they have noticed the manner in which these composers have achieved what practically no one expected.

The influence of European musicians who found refuge here during the thirties[Pg 172] and the early years of World War II, the most distinguished as well as the most modest, can scarcely be overestimated. It is unnecessary to speak of the important role they have played, since that is well known; looking back at the situation as it presented itself at the time, one can be impressed both by the cordiality with which they were nearly always received and by the spirit in which, with few exceptions, they embraced the entirely new conditions history had thrust upon them. These facts are in the best American tradition, as is the immense contribution they have made, partly through their activities as musicians, partly through the successes achieved through their understanding of a unique cultural situation.

We are dealing, in other words, with a concept of American music differing sharply from that heretofore discussed:[Pg 173] one which views the United States basically as a new embodiment of the occidental spirit, finding in that spirit not only the premises but the basic directives which have given our national development its authentic character. Such a view assumes the cultural independence of the United States both as a fact and as a natural goal; this matter requires no discussion, even though unfortunately it is still necessary, on occasion, to insist on it. The same view also recognizes that real independence is an intimate and inherent quality which is acquired through maturity, and not a device with which one can emblazon one’s self by adopting slogans or programs of action. “American character” in music, therefore, is bound to come only from within, a quality to be discovered in any genuine and mature music written by an American, is a by-product of such music,[Pg 174] to be recognized, no doubt, after the fact, but not to be sought out beforehand and on the basis of preconceived ideas. Only when the ideas are no longer preconceived, when, in other words, a large body of music of all kinds will have brought a secure tradition into being, then the American musical profile will emerge and the question of American style or character assume meaning.

In the meantime, it is necessary to maintain an independent attitude toward “foreign influences” without being afraid of them. Furthermore, it will be better to remember how traditions, in the history of culture, invariably have crossed frontiers and served to nourish new thoughts, the new impulses toward new forms and new styles: just as Dutch music nourished Italian in the sixteenth century, Italian music nourished German some hundred and fifty years later. The[Pg 175] real task of the American composer is basically simple: it is that of winning for himself the means of bringing to life the music to which he listens within himself. This is identical with the task that has confronted all composers at all times, and in our age it involves, everywhere and in like manner, facing in our own way the problems of American music with single-mindedness and genuine dedication. Naturally, it obligates us to absorb the music culture not just of this or that country, but to seek large horizons and to explore indefatigably from a point of vantage.

In order to arrive at an American music, we must, above all, aim at a genuine music. Similarly, we cannot hope to achieve a valid relationship with the public by means of shortcuts—neither by flattering the listener through concessions (however well concealed) to the[Pg 176] taste of the majority, nor by seeking to limit the musical vocabulary to what is easily understood. Agreed: we live in a difficult, a transitional and hence a dangerous period, in which the individual frequently finds himself in an isolated position, in which society seems to become increasingly uncohesive, more unwieldy, and therefore prone to seek common ground on the most facile and oversimplified level. The fact remains that what the public really wants from music, in the last analysis, is neither the mirrored image of itself nor fare chosen for easy digestibility, but vital and relevant experience. The composer can furnish such experience by writing from the plenitude of complete conviction, and without constraint. One cannot hope ever to convince anyone unless one has convinced one’s self; and this is the composer’s sole means of contact with[Pg 177] any public whatever. He has no choice other than to be completely himself: the only alternative for an artist is not to be one.

This opinion is no offer of an alternative solution to the American musical problem: it does not exclude musical nationalism or any other movement of that type; it does not exclude any kind of music whatever. It establishes premises which allow the free development of any music composers feel impelled to furnish. Music life today is infinitely varied, and there are all kinds of music, for every purpose and every occasion. This variety has developed as a natural consequence of modern life, and in fact is a part of it. An exclusive, dogmatic concept which would aim to limit this variety, or which would deny the validity of this or that type of music, is ridiculous. However, we must insist on distinctions and on[Pg 178] the criteria that go with distinctions. It is not to the music or the concept of music—folklorist, evocative, popular, choose an adjective at will—that one should object, but to the exclusivity of a system of values which pretends to furnish criteria relevant to the development of music. Certainly the adjectives have meaning, but in a different sphere.

The “great line of western tradition” provides the most fertile source of nourishment also for American music. This is now being recognized almost universally throughout the United States: and the recognition appears as the premise for our music education, criticism, and, in fact, for the responsible agencies of our entire music life. Today one hears very little of musical nationalism. It has been relegated to the provinces. The eternal quarrel between what is “esoteric” and what “popular”[Pg 179] has evolved into a quite urbane, almost friendly argument between diatonicism and chromaticism, the tonalists and the atonalists, or with overtones resounding from a very recent past, between neoclassicism and the twelve-tone music. We are probably in a period of calm before new storms, and such periods are not always the happiest either for artists or for art. Those sensitive to shifting currents will have an idea of the nature of the next big argument.

Before giving some hint as to the possible nature of this argument, as a concluding gesture, it seems relevant to comment on two more points (unrelated though they are to one another) by no means unimportant in our general picture. First: though the study of the classics is all but universal in the United States, and is often on a level equal to anything found elsewhere, traditionalism[Pg 180] in the European sense simply does not exist here, and we understand why this is so. In the absence of an indigenous tradition expressing itself in our criticism, our music education, and our practice of music, there is no group of composers which would or could identify itself with a conservative traditionalism, nor is there a means of opposition to new music on that level. Opposition is abundant, as has been indicated in the preceding pages; but, generally speaking, it is based on different grounds, and at most there are remnants of this or that European tradition: German, Italian French, Viennese, and sometimes even British. However, the word “tradition” here assumes the most dynamic of its senses: that which implies continuity rather than that which fosters domination by the past.

Second—and one may regard this[Pg 181] point as controversial: the influence Arnold Schönberg exerted during his lifetime in the United States, that is, for nearly twenty years, is most noteworthy. Like many refugees from Europe, he became a passionately enthusiastic citizen of our country and here composed some of his most important works, possibly the most important: the Fourth Quartet, the Violin Concerto, the String Trio, and others. Though his career as such may not be relevant to our present discussion, it is appropriate to stress the influence of this great personality on American music life—an influence which has been deeper than is generally assumed. It has always been in the direction of intensified awareness of that “great line” to which reference was made, and in the sense of that great line. From his pupils in this country, as from those he had had previously in Europe,[Pg 182] he demanded, first and above all, striving toward such awareness. Though he discovered the twelve-tone method, he was far greater than this or any other method, and he tried to inculcate upon his students and disciples an awareness of the primacy of music itself: thus he refused to teach the method to his students, insisting that they must come to it naturally and as a result of their own creative requirements, or not at all.

The twelve-tone music has flourished here as elsewhere, and is no longer problematical. This author, often identified with the twelve-tone or dodecaphonic tendency, recently read an article, as yet unpublished, on his music in which it was pointed out that several of his colleagues, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland, actually experimented with the method before he himself used it in any literal sense, and[Pg 183] this in spite of the fact that these colleagues are considered as belonging to a different camp.

The fact is one more proof that the “system” no longer is an issue. The issue, rather, is one of the resources of a composer, while the system is available for use by any individual and in any way he sees fit. The arguments which loom ahead and already have begun to resound in Europe, are most likely those between composers who commit themselves to the “system” as conceived by them, the “system” as a value in itself, and those who regard it as a tool to be used in the forging of music valid on quite different and perennially vital grounds. The attitude of Schönberg, and for that matter and in equal measure of his followers Alban Berg and Anton Webern, is appropriately summarized in a sentence Schönberg once quoted in a letter to this[Pg 184] author, and which is drawn from one of his early lectures. “A Chinese philosopher,” Schönberg wrote, “speaks Chinese, of course; but the important thing is: what does he say?”

Let us conclude with this beautiful word from one of the truly great figures of our time. With a slight change of emphasis we can take it as a challenge to American music, and to any music from any source. American musical maturity, or if one prefers, the drive toward that cultural maturity, coincides with one of the most formidable crises through which human imagination has passed, and one which demands maturity, urgently, from every possible source. We have reason to hope that we American musicians may learn to meet the challenge implied in Schönberg’s words, the eternal challenge of art itself, in a worthy manner which does full justice to the situation.

Transcriber’s Notes

The cover image was created by the transcriber from the title page and is placed in the public domain.

As all other foreign words were in italics in the original, d’amore has been italicized for consistency.