Monday, December 28, 2015

Kyle Gann riff on Orchestrating a Nation (a book), an accounting of the double bind American critics and concert organizers used to sideline American symphonic music

Two books I’ve read recently had a notable impact on me. One was Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise (Oxford) by Douglas Shadle, who’s at Vanderbilt. It’s a history of the relationships among 19th-century American composers, critics and conductors, and particularly of the Europhile bias American composers had to face at every step. Music critics were enamored of what came to be called The Beethoven Problem: a composer of symphonies had to both imitate and expand on the Master’s principles. They developed a set of binary goalposts that could be relocated to frustrate any American contender: If your music was too similar to Beethoven’s, it was derivative; if not similar enough, it failed to build on eternal principles. If it followed the Mendelssohn-Schumann line it was timid; if it veered toward Liszt and Wagner, it was damned for being mere program music. If it used American source material, it lacked “symphonic dignity”; if not, it represented inauthentic European wannabe-ism. If audiences loved it though the critics didn’t, then it merely appealed to the superficial; and even if critics liked it and audiences didn’t, then it may be intellectual but will never appeal to the common man. [emphasis added] Meanwhile, Europeans as minor as Jan Kalliwoda were enthusiastically welcomed into the repertoire. As Shadle puts it, “critics relegated the music of nineteenth-century American composers to the dustbin of history while applying mutable standards of criticism to each new crop [p. 263]”. And so each new American symphonist – Anthony Philip Heinrich, William Henry Fry, George Frederick Bristow – would create a frisson of public excitement only to be forgotten and dismissed in short order, creating a mistaken impression that no history of American symphonic music existed.

Critics had more power back then than they do now, but Shadle makes clear that star conductors like Theodore Thomas nurtured similar sets of shifting criteria to save themselves the trouble of performing American works. The book’s arch-villain, though, is famous Boston music John Sullivan Dwight. For decades I’ve tried to find something to admire about the guy because of his connection to the Transcendentalists, but he was the worst of the worst of those who thought the Europeans had said it all and so Americans shouldn’t bother trying, and Shadle hangs him with his own hypocritical words again and again. (I’d like to think his type of critic died out with the late Andrew Porter.)


More than anything else, Orchestrating the Nation illuminates the origins and myriad strategies of the classical music world’s eternal animus against American composers. As I teach every week among student composers who can’t be bothered with Ashley or Nancarrow but sing the praises of Kurtag and Lachenmann, Saariaho and Haas, I feel like little has changed. If it takes a hundred points to achieve parity with Beethoven, you get fifty free points just for being born in Europe. Shadle shows how long that’s been going on. [emphasis added]

Interesting observation about the endless double bind with movable goalposts there.

Taruskin's polemic has been that the whole idea of art for the sake of art, art as an autonomous thing from daily life, could be the core problem.  He's been proposing the reason classical music is ignored in favor of pop music is that pop music has not forsaken a self-understanding, so to speak, of music having some social or communal function.

To say that  art has no end other than itself is to basically say it's useless except as ... maybe on object of veneration?  For some art essentially is their religion and they would rather more officially religious people not heretically interfere in whatever they define as art.  For those of us who are actually religious, though, art gets to be subordinate.  It "can" be a beautiful thing appreciated on aesthetic grounds, but life is more than art.  As a certain Jewish teacher once put it, the Sabbath was given for man not man for the Sabbath.  It can be said to be so with the arts.  Art should bring us some pleasure and edification in different degrees rather than we being the ones who must somehow please or placate ideals about art. 

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