Song of America: Diary of a Nation

So many poems and pieces of music have been inspired as our poets and composers struggled to create a narrative of an emerging nation founded on the promise of “…Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The exploration of poetry and song in America invites one into the psyche of the New World as do few other disciplines. In this sense “Song of America” becomes a diary of the American experience.

This “pursuit” began with Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who is credited with composing the first American art song, “My days have been so wondrous free,” dated 1759. Hopkinson recognized his unique place in American music when in a volume of keyboard works and songs, he wrote in his dedication to General George Washington: “However small the Reputation may be that I shall derive from this Work, I cannot, I believe, be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition.” He continues, prophetically: “If this attempt should not be too severely treated, others may be encouraged to venture in a path, yet untrodden in America, and the Arts in succession will take root and flourish amongst us.”

Between the War of 1812 and the start of the Civil War, American song began to shed its English pretensions and to assimilate genres and indigenous influences that evolved into a recognizably “American” style. Stephen Foster, born on the Fourth of July in 1826, stands out as the most remarkable composer of this era. By 1855 Foster’s songs were on the lips of virtually every American. The seeds of American popular song, jazz, and the roots of the American sentimental ballad that became a staple in American home life are evident in his catalog of over 200 works.

The crosscurrent of European and American exchange reached its watershed between 1830 and 1860, a tremendously fertile period for poetry, literature, painting, philosophy, and social experimentation. This is the “Birth of the Modern,” as the historian Paul Johnson so aptly describes the age ushered in by Beaumarchais, Wordsworth, Byron, Heine, and Baudelaire that found a resonance of personal determination in the distant American voices of William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville.

It was the great philosopher, poet, and orator Emerson, challenging our poets to imagine the body as the “circumference of the soul,” who inspired Walt Whitman to burst forth in a new and vibrant and fiercely egalitarian voice as never heard before. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” he wrote, echoing Emerson. “…Presidents shall not be their common referees so much as poets.” For Whitman, it is the poets who will absorb the traditions of the past (of all the pasts of all the peoples), and turn them into something new and distinctly native. This period of American Renaissance represented the nation’s coming of age in terms of its cultural identity. At last American artists felt self-reliant enough to accept what they pleased from their European forebears and reject–or rather reshape–what they wished. After a century of cultural insecurity, Americans began to enjoy the fusion of so-called “high art” and “folk art” that inevitably shaped American thought and musical style.

With the increased influence of German culture in the middle of the 19th century, American composers became more ambitious in song composition and went to Europe to study. They returned with new ideas gleaned from the German Lied and the French mélodie that produced the first indications of a separation between what was “popular song” and “art song.” Thus the late 19th century spawned unique American composers such as Edward MacDowell, George W. Chadwick, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, James H. Rogers, Ethelbert Nevin, Sidney Homer, Arthur Farwell, and Henry F. Gilbert. Whether schooled at home or abroad, notable in this group is the high level of personality and workmanship starting to differentiate American and European song models.

With the end of World War I, America freed itself from the bonds of European musical culture and took on the challenge of Dvořák to “go after our folk music.” The works of Harry T. Burleigh, some of them arrangements of spirituals he himself performed for Dvořák, received international attention. Arthur Farwell, who founded the Wa-Wan Press in 1902 to publish music of Americans, began with the serious study of music of the American Indian as well as ragtime and “Negro” music. His far-reaching interests also encompassed songs of France, Germany, and Russia. Charles Wakefield Cadman wrote over 300 songs, several of which, derived from Indian tribal melodies, were sung extensively and recorded. Influences from abroad did not disappear; French Impressionism was felt during the first two decades of the 20th century in the work of many Americans, including John Alden Carpenter, Charles Loeffler, and Charles Tomlinson Griffes.

What no one–and certainly not Dvořák–could have anticipated was Charles Ives. The first American “original” in music, Ives was the first American composer to enjoy international attention. His music is so singular that it cannot be forced into the boundaries implied by the word “style.” His was a completely autonomous musical world, but rooted in his New England origins.

During the period between the World Wars, American music firmly established its own identity as a vital cultural force. Development of the phonograph and radio after 1920 brought performances of serious music by the greatest singers of the day into millions of American households, and earned American music significant exposure abroad. Americans who composed notable art songs during this time include the masters Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, as well as Richard Hageman, Henry Hadley, Louis Campbell-Tipton, John Alden Carpenter, Elinor Remick Warren, and William Grant Still.

William Treat Upton writes in his seminal book, Art Song in America, of a significant evolution in development of the American art song at this period in its history: “…it is coming to be more and more recognized that modern song can no longer be regarded as merely text plus music or music plus text; it is rather text multiplied by music, music multiplied by text, text so reacting upon music, music so reacting upon text, that the two elements become indissolubly merged into one another, the one really incomplete without the other. In fact, it seems to me that this might well be our test of the modern song.”

Here we also find the American composer relying less on European texts in favor of native voices. There is a fascination with the spiritual idealism of the Transcendentalist poets, with the raw emotion of the “Harlem Renaissance,” and with the American bard, Walt Whitman, whose dynamic and bold democratic speech and innate musical rhythms translated readily into song, both here and abroad.

Following World War II, new directions in American poetry that had been established earlier by such poets as E. E. Cummings and Gertrude Stein further solidified the concept of the poet as equal partner with the composer in the creative process. Composers such as Virgil Thomson, John Duke, Marc Blitzstein, Ernst Bacon, Theodore Chanler, and Celius Dougherty benefited from this unique flowering of “new” poetry. Directions emerged in the world of music that deeply affected the American art song: some composers continued within the realm of tonality, and others concerned themselves with a new world of exploratory tonality based on serial techniques developed by Schoenberg and Webern. Postwar composers in the tonal tradition such as Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, Paul Bowles, and Leonard Bernstein wrote works that ranged over a spectrum of subjects, rivaling Ives. Composers who chose to follow the virginal paths of the avant-garde include John Cage, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Milton Babbitt, Wallingford Riegger, and George Rochberg.

The contemporary diary of our now maturing American experiment embraces and emboldens our eclecticism and individuality in the musical dialogues of Michael Tilson Thomas, Richard Danielpour, William Bolcom, John Musto, Stephen Paulus, John Corigilano, Libby Larsen, and Jake Heggie with poets like Theodore Roethke, Emily Dickinson, Vachel Lindsay, Ted Kooser, and Toni Morrison.

And these are only a very few of our bards who, at the outset of the 21st century, provide America’s art song literature the means of communicating, through the fusion of word and music, the truths of a nation born of an ideology whose language celebrates the individual. In our songs, the language of heart and mind, freedom and purpose, resonates from and reflects the culture that created it.