Music from the New and Old WorldsBy Stefan Drees
While American culture developed primarily in conformity with European standards during the 19th century, native elements began to receive attention in Europe beginning in the early 20th.
The old and new worlds became two cultural poles which – despite the fact that many artists openly played one off against the other – have always been linked. There is the German composer, Kurt Weill, who emigrated to the United States after suffering under the National Socialist regime. Following European tradition, Weill composed songs to the poetry of Walt Whitman. Another composer, the American Aaron Copland, went to Europe to investigate his own cultural roots. The lives and careers of two others have a number of similarities: Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who composed in the European tradition to express his opposition to a violent and repressive world order, and Charles Ives, whose work was influenced by the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and founded upon a profoundly American identity.
Aaron Copland, born to Lithuanian Polish immigrants in 1900, began to study piano and composition at an early age. He grew up in Brooklyn, attended a local high school and then studied harmony and counterpoint under Rubin Goldmark, a competent though conventional teacher. The American facet of Copland’s artistic personality appeared while he was studying in France in the 1920s. His teacher, Nadia Boulanger, encouraged him to follow his own musical path. It was in Paris that he came into contact with jazz and incorporated this new style in his own work.
In the years from 1935 to 1955 in particular, Copland was one of the most important musical innovators in the United States. Some of the works he composed during this period were based on “borrowed melodies” – from folk music and hymnody – examples being “EI salon Mexico” (1933 1936) and the well-known ballets “Billy the Kid” (1938), “Rodeo” (1942), and “Appalachian Spring” (1943/44). In the fifties, Copland abandoned this source of inspiration to concentrate increasingly on 12-tone music.
At the time of the Second World War, Copland briefly turned to creating patriotic orchestral works. In 1942, he composed “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a short and memorable piece for brass and percussion which he later used to introduce the finale of his Third Symphony (1944-1946). The festive character and expansive fanfares of this miniature provide a concise and striking example of how Copland wrote popular music in his thoroughly modern musical grammar. “Fanfare for the Common Man” became wildly popular, peaking when it was chosen as the theme of the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal.
“Old American Songs,” two series of five songs each, which Copland composed between 1950 and 1952 and first published in a version for voice and piano, stand out among his folk-music inspired works. The songs are rearrangements of 19th-century American folk tunes. Many of them have naive melodies and sentimental, humorous or religious texts, and they possess an originality and genuineness, making them important elements of independent American culture. In 1957, Copland successfully arranged the piano part of his songs for orchestra. In each, the instruments are subordinated to the lyrics, and the sparing though clever use of various timbres serves to enhance the texts.
Kurt Weil! composed his “Four Songs of Walt Whitman” (1942) in a historical context quite different from Copland’s. Weill, who gained international renown in the late twenties as the composer of “The Threepenny Opera,” was one of the best-known German victims of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and was termed a “cultural Bolshevist.” In March of 1933, he escaped the clutches of the Gestapo by fleeing to France and then moved to New York in 1935. Several of his Broadway productions were successful, and Weill devoted his artistic talents entirely to the development of an independently American musical theater.
In 1942, a few weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Weill set to music three works by the great American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Five years later, he completed the series by adding a fourth song. Originally for voice and piano, they were later adapted for voice and orchestra by Carlos Surinach and the team of Weill and Irving Schlein. The carefully fashioned piano part of the originals and the fine sensibility with which Weill transformed the poetry’s complex structures into music provide obvious evidence of his training in the European song tradition. At the same time, he employed a decidedly American idiom at certain points.
The choice of Whitman’s poetry was not entirely coincidental. Originally written during the Civil War, the material gained topicality on the eve of America’s entry into the Second World War. After Japan’s attack, the call to join a “lust war” seemed to make sense again. The cyclic structure of this series of songs begins with a call to battle the composer wrapped in an aggressive, march-like tone reminiscent of the polemical style of his last years in Germany. But the martial drums and horns anticipate the victims to come. They appear in the concluding “Dirge for Two Veterans,” a bitter lament for the death of two soldiers. The call for drums and horns at the end of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” is turned around here: These instruments of war are used in a funeral march which offers comfort at the loss of human life.
The two middle songs in this series also deal with mourning. While the nation’s fallen leaders are lamented in “O Captain! My Captain!,” “Come Up from the Fields Father” juxtaposes contrasting images of fall and the harvest in Ohio’s farmland and a mother’s grief at learning of her son’s death, making her a victim of war as well. Once again, the trumpets of battle can be heard from the distance and through the musical idyll of the beginning. While Weill may well have chosen Whitman’s poetry to show his support for the fight against fascism, the “Whitman Songs” cannot be considered pro-war propaganda. On the contrary, they are thoughtful, alternating between recognition of the necessity and mourning, and at the same time they contain Weill’s personal response to the war between his old and new homes.
While Weill’s songs examine war and its consequences through the eyes of a poet, the events of the day were reflected in a quite different manner by a symphonic work composed in Germany at almost the same time. Surrounded by the war’s turbulence after Hitler’s attacks on Poland, France and the Benelux countries, Karl Amadeus Hartmann wrote his “Sinfonia tragica” in the summer and fall of 1940. “Sinfonia tragica” is one work in a series of musical reactions to the brutality of the Nazi regime composed between 1933 and 1945. “[In 1933], I realized it was necessary to make a statement, not out of desperation and fear of the powers that be, but as a counteraction.” This quote taken from an autobiographical sketch illustrates the composer’s personal position: In spite of his membership in the Reichsmusikkammer, the government-sanctioned musicians organization, which entitled him to work and have his compositions performed, he rejected the regime and as a political protest responded only to commissions from abroad. Hartmann remained in this “inner emigration” and penned a number of works sharply critical of the state of the nation. Using veiled terms, he employed the rhetorical style of a lawyer by referring to historical analogies, events, texts or music – and used quotations to create an “aesthetic of resistance” which is always, although usually subtly, in evidence. Most of Hartmann’s musical quotations were taken from the works of composers described as “degenerate” in National Socialist cultural propaganda. “Sinfonia tragica,” which comprises two movements of nearly the same length, contains brief references to works by Berg, Mahler, Hindemith, Webern, and Bartók. The excitement conjured up by the music is equaled by that of the work’s history: The second movement was lost for some time. In 1973, a copy of the original score was found in the archives of the Belgian Radio, and the work was performed for the first time in Munich in 1989.
It was around 1950 that the unconventional works of Charles Ives began to be noticed by a relatively wide audience. The successful insurance executive composed in his spare time, and after experiencing serious health problems, he virtually stopped by 1918 and turned to revising his older compositions. The late date at which his work began to achieve some recognition was certainly due in part to the fundamental changes taking place in the world of music at that time. The reasons for the enthusiastic, if belated, reception of Ives’s works in America were obvious: With the nonchalance of an autodidact, he anticipated a number of compositional techniques by overlaying various levels of rhythm, meter and tonality; exploring the border areas of dynamics, register and timbre; employing quartertones and tone clusters; varying the spatial disposition of orchestral groups; and with his collage techniques, improvisational elements and static fields of sound. The liberation of these techniques formed the foundation of the European postwar avant-garde’s identity.
The music of Charles Ives, who was born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874, was influenced primarily by his bandmaster father, whose liberal ideas concerning the nature of music were accompanied by an unbridled love of experimentation. The 19-year-old Charles was already creating rather unconventional music to the texts of Psalms, particularly as regards the use of polytonal techniques. But after completing his musical studies at Yale (chiefly under Horatio Parker), he began a career selling insurance, with composing relegated to the status of a weekend hobby. His numerous early works show a high degree of originality and demonstrate unorthodox compositional methods.
“Three Places in New England,” composed between 1908 and 1914, was first heard in 1931 in New York, with Nicolas Slonimsky conducting. An homage to the composer’s native New England, “Three Places” plays a central role in Ives’s oeuvre. Each of the three musical scenes uses unique musical devices to represent both a certain place and a specific historical and social context. The first movement, “The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common (Col. Show and his Colored Regiment),” deals with the monument by the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens in Boston. Ives was making a reference to an episode in the American War of Independence in which Colonel Shaw and his regiment, comprised of black soldiers exclusively, played an important role. The composer brought this event to life with a collage of quotes from songs of that period, embedding melodies he had collected over many years in a slowly evolving background played by the strings.
In the second movement, “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut,” three different time periods have been layered and marked with specific musical themes. The similarity to military music is another allusion to the Revolutionary War, more specifically General Putnam’s winter camp in 1778/79 and an uprising of soldiers which was still celebrated when Ives was a boy in Connecticut. The musical portrait of this historical event, influenced by a boy’s daydream at a Fourth of July picnic, is distinguished by its joyful character with quickstep and ragtime elements and a fragmentary quote of the national anthem. The introspective third layer, with its quiet string chords, is the composer’s reflection on this event. Here, three musical layers have been juxtaposed yet maintain their distinct musical idioms. At the same time, the perspective changes constantly: Events of the distant past come closer while other, more current elements are pushed to the periphery of our perception. As Ives commented on his piece, “the image of the Goddess of liberty” forms in the boy’s dream, and her worried expression admonishes the soldiers not to forget the goal of freedom.
The third movement, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” refers to a poem by Robert Underwood Johnson. According to the composer, this section was inspired by a Sunday-morning stroll near Stockbridge, Massachusetts, taken by yes and his wife in the summer after their wedding: “The mists had not entirely left the river, and the colors, the running water, the banks and trees were something one would always remember.” In a similar way, the music coalesces gradually from an amorphous mist of tones to form the contours of a musical structure.
Translated and adapted by Steve Wilder and Herbert Glass English notes are provided by the Edgar Foster Daniels Foundation.