Monday, September 16, 2019

at The American Scholar Joseph Horowitz has a piece on Dvorak's prophecy that American art music would be founded upon African American and Native American music and ... why didn't that happen?


In 1934, Leopold Stokowski and his incomparable Philadelphia Orchestra premiered a new work by a black composer : the Negro Folk Symphony of William Levi Dawson. Four days later, Stokowski conducted the symphony at Carnegie Hall, a performance that was nationally broadcast and widely reviewed. “Hope in the Night,” the second movement, ignited an ovation—the orchestra had to stand. At the close, Dawson was repeatedly called to the stage. Pitts Sanborn of The New York World-Telegram wrote that “the immediate success of the symphony [did not] give rise to doubts as to its enduring qualities. One is eager to hear it again and yet again.” Leonard Liebling of the New York American (like Sanborn, a critic of consequence) went the full distance; he called Dawson’s symphony “the most distinctive and promising American symphonic proclamation which has so far been achieved.” Yet the Negro Folk Symphony would soon be forgotten.

Around the same time, two other notable symphonies by African Americans were prominently premiered: William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, performed by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931, and Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor, played by the Chicago Symphony in 1933. And yet, writes the music historian Gwynne Kuhner Brown (in her 2012 article “Whatever Happened to William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony?  ”), “the tumultuous approbation [Dawson’s symphony] received from critics and audiences alike set it apart—not only from contemporaneous works by African Americans, but also from most new classical music of the period.”

In 1934, Stokowski told audiences for the Negro Folk Symphony that “a wonderful development is taking place in American music.” In 1963, he returned to the work and recorded it with his American Symphony Orchestra—a reading of seething intensity and irresistible panache. You don’t have to go looking for this recording. It’s hiding in plain sight on YouTube. So is a brilliantly played (if less deeply felt) 1994 Detroit Symphony recording. Nevertheless, the Negro Folk Symphony retains its veil of obscurity. When a rare performance (of the first movement only) was given last February by the orchestra of the State University of New York at Purchase, a prevalent response among the student musicians was shame


That's from early in the article.  Skipping ahead, Horowitz pointed out how W. E. B. Du Bois set hope in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor:


Dvořák’s enthusiasm for appropriated “negro melodies” was equally embraced by W. E. B. Du Bois. Like Dvořák, Du Bois was a devotee of Richard Wagner. As a graduate student in Berlin, he absorbed The Ring of the Nibelung. In the tradition of Wagner, Johann Gottfried von Herder, and other German theorists of race, Du Bois linked collective purpose and moral instruction to “folk” wisdom: the soul of a people. To him it was obvious that America’s sorrow songs—slave songs of the cotton field and campground—constituted a usable past that, subjected to evolutionary development, would yield a desired native concert language. Formal training and performance, for Du Bois, did not impugn the authenticity of folk sources; rather, a reconciliation of authority and cosmopolitan finesse would result. Concomitantly, ragtime, the blues, and jazz threatened Du Bois’s cultural-political agenda. A child of the Gilded Age, born in tolerant Massachusetts in 1868, he endorsed uplift.

Du Bois focused his hopes on the one extant black concert composer of high consequence: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, born in London in 1875 to a white British mother and an African father. Coleridge-Taylor in turn found inspiration in Dvořák, whose influence is readily discernible in his 1898 cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast—a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Coleridge-Taylor met Du Bois at the First Pan-African Congress in London in 1900. He had previously encountered Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poems and stories notably mined the black vernacular. They and others pointed Coleridge-Taylor toward African-American roots. 
And so in 1905, a year after his first visit to the United States, Coleridge-Taylor published a set of Twenty-Four Negro Melodies for solo piano. The 10th of these was a setting of “Deep River,” the sorrow song he most admired. Coleridge-Taylor’s “Deep River” was taken up by Maud Powell, the leading American concert violinist of the day; she became the first white American to record a black spiritual. His subsequent output increasingly explored the uses of “negro melodies.” But in truth, Coleridge-Taylor did not live up to Du Bois’s high expectations; the decorum of the Victorian parlor is never remote from such pleasant orchestral excursions as The Bamboula and Keep Me from Sinkin’ Down (with solo violin).
For some background on this from Horowitz' writing elsewhere:
It is little remembered that, like Dvorak, Du Bois was a Wagnerite. As a graduate student in Berlin, he came to know and embrace The Ring of the Nibelung. In the tradition of Wagner, Herder, and other German theorists of race, he linked collective purpose and moral instruction to “folk” wisdom: the soul of a people.  To Du Bois it was merely obvious that for black Americans the sorrow songs comprised a usable past that, subjected to evolutionary development, would yield a desired native concert idiom — the same trajectory anticipated by Dvorak and Burleigh. Formal training and performance, for Du Bois, did not impugn the authenticity of folk sources; rather, a dialectical reconciliation of authority and cosmopolitan finesse would result. Concomitantly, ragtime, the blues, and jazz threatened Du Bois’s cultural/political agenda. A child of the Gilded Age, born in tolerant Massachusetts in 1868, he endorsed uplift.

Alain Locke, sole offspring of a well-to-do Philadelphia family in 1885, was like Du Bois a distinguished black Harvard graduate. His philosophy of the “New Negro,” a signature of the Harlem Renaissance, aligned with Du Bois’s high-cultural predilections. “Negro spirituals,” Locke wrote in 1925, could undergo “intimate and original development in directions already the line of advance in modernistic music. . . . Negro folk song is not midway in its artistic career yet, and while the preservation of the original folk forms is for the moment the most pressing necessity, an inevitable art development awaits them, as in the past it has awaited all other great folk music.” Like Du Bois, Locke championed the tenor Roland Hayes, who succeeded Burleigh as the pre-eminent exponent of the spiritual in concert. Like Du Bois, he mistrusted the popular musical marketplace in favor of elite realms of art.

The opposing camp included Harlem’s loudest white cheerleader: Carl Van Vechten, who deplored Hayes’ refinements in favor of Paul Robeson’s “traditional, evangelical renderings” of the Burleigh arrangements. This – and Van Vechten’s celebration of the blues and jazz – ignited a furious rebuttal from Du Bois, who discerned a decadent voyeur in love with black exoticism. But Van Vechten’s revisionism was supported by the black writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Many of Hughes’s poems key on the dialect and structure of the blues. He heard in jazz “the eternal tom-tom beating of the Negro soul.” He deplored the “race toward whiteness” in the uses of black music. Hurston deplored a “flight from blackness.” She heard concert spirituals “squeezing all of the rich black juice out of the songs,” a “sort of musical octoroon.” If to Hurston the sorrowful spirituals Du Bois espoused sounded submissive, to Locke the blues sounded “dominated” by “self-pity.” Pitting authenticity against assimilation, the debate identified conflicting vernacular resources, old and new, rural and urban.
It can be surprising how powerfully discussions about what constitutes black music or musical blackness can reflect paradoxically Wagnerian or Herderian ideals.  The paradox is that if American musicologists regard the legacy of German Idealism and post-Wagnerian iterations of Herderian sentiment as white supremacist in connection to a canon of Western European concert music does that ideological stew stop being racist if used as the basis for defining what is considered authentically black music?  It probably depends on how the case gets made.  If Americans argue that Coleridge-Taylor is a less than ideal early exponent for American musical styles because as an African British citizen he made adaptations of American songs that were too "refined" there could be  a musical case to be made for that based on ideas regarding technique and aesthetics ... or someone could argue that the fantasy Indianism of the Song of Hiawatha doesn't hold up because Coleridge-Taylor dedicated his efforts to a musical fantasy about the most famous fictional American Indian in popular American (at one point) literature.
Horowitz has pointed out that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's music was so refined and Victorian in aesthetic it has been marginal compared to African American composers (though Coleridge-Taylor haing been an African British composer may be more than an incidental element to his marginal status on the American side of the Atlantic).  Du Bois' hopes for Coleridge-Taylor were arguably dashed by the composer's relatively young death but also, at length, by the composer's music being too Victorian English in learning to translate into the newly emerging aesthetics and practices of what became the jazz era.  The thing is, the Hiawatha's Wedding Feast cantata is a lot of fun.  The other two cantatas are solid but not quite as striking to me, personally, but in an era of intersectional concerns in academics the Coleridge-Taylor work has some obstacles to overcome by way of being music written celebrating a fictional Native American using basically late Victorian English conceptions of musical refinement.  What I'm getting at, though, is that these obstacles to American reception may reflect prejudices on the part of what constitutes being really "black" music by Americanist standards, standards which are not really fair to assessing Coleridge-Taylor's work in its British cultural context.  
But as Horowitz and others have noted Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston were never musicians.  Actual musicians can approach the work of Burleigh or Coleridge-Taylor without some commitment to an idea espoused by a Hughes or Hurston as to whether or not this or that musical work is in some way "black enough".   Hurston could argue that Harry Burleigh's arrangements of spirituals constituted a "flight from blackness" but that she wasn't a musician can't be completely ignored.  To put this another way, I've read enough about the messiness of music composition during the years of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union that a verdict like Hurston's reminds me not only of Wagnerian and Herderian conceptions of "the Folk" but also, in the ways in which non-musicians with political theories have made a point of telling musicians what is or isn't "legit" have worked to define the range of discussion.  
The more I read about the polemics about the arts on either side of the Iron Curtain the less I believe there's a plausible case to be made that the United States and the Soviet Union were as different from each other on a variety of crucial artistic concerns than Cold War era polemics made them out to be.  This is not to say I think communism "worked" or wasn't brutally repressive, I'm saying that the Cold War was full of propaganda from the two power blocs that labored to intensify the perceived and real differences between the groups as a way to agitate and integrate the base in both contexts.  

Horowitz' article continues and he mentions critical responses to works by Ives and Gershwin on the part of the more "official" American composers Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson who, let me get this out of the way, I regard both composers as marginal and only marginally interesting:
Ives reveled in unadulterated “mud.” No less was this the case with George Gershwin, who thought nothing of implanting tunes in popular idioms—southern, Yankee, Cuban—in a concerto or tone poem. Gershwin, too, was mainly disdained by Copland and Thomson. This mattered, and matters still, because Ives and Gershwin, however “unused” by their American contemporaries, may plausibly be regarded as the two great creative talents in the history of American classical music (ask a European). Neither figured on Copland’s various lists of leading American composers. In 1941, by which time Ives’s Concord Sonata—possibly the summit of American keyboard music—had been belatedly premiered to wide notice, Copland wrote that Ives “could not organize his material, particularly in his larger works, so that we come away with a unified impression.” Asked in 1937 how he would compare his own music “to Mr. Gershwin’s jazz,” Copland replied, “Gershwin is serious up to a point. My idea was to intensify it. Not what you get in the dance hall, but to use it cubistically—to make it more exciting than ordinary jazz.” Comparably, Thomson, as late as 1972, positioned Ives as a “homespun Yankee tinkerer” rather than a full professional; his prediction that Edward MacDowell (a paragon American composer a century ago) “may well survive” Ives has proved risible. As for Porgy and Bess, it was Thomson’s 1935 view that Gershwin “does not even know what an opera is.”
Interrupting for a moment, Gershwin's approach to musical drama could be considered more in the vein of musical theater or the Broadway music or operetta rather than the more opera seria approach, perhaps. In other words, Gershwin would fail to pull off a serious opera on the basis of that opera seria approach while creating a lasting work in terms of other musical theater traditions.  Gershwin has been found wanting by highbrows ever since Gershwin had a career.  This is not "just" because Gershwin has been found wanting for mastery of large-scale developmental forms but that probably is a key reason for Gershwin being seen as less serious than Copland even if there's little doubt that Gershwin wrote the more memorable tunes for many American audiences.
If any single piece of music heralded American modernism, it was Copland’s Piano Variations of 1930. A clarion wake-up call for come-of-age compatriots, it declaims a kind of pastlessness. Though its skittish rhythms sublimate jazz, the main affect is one of skyscraper music of steel and concrete, vibrating with the nervous energy of the city. Roots in the soil are eschewed. Afterward, this clean “American” sound acquired a folkloric social conscience spurred by the Depression and World War II. The dissection and recombination of cowboy and dance hall tunes, jostled by complexly shifting meters, became Copland’s solution to what he considered a “formal problem”—that “[m]ost composers have found that there is little that can be done with such material except repeat it.” Copland’s vernacular borrowing in such signature works as El Salón México and Billy the Kid, scrupulously compacted, scrubbed clean of Emersonian mud and scum—not to mention American self-contradiction and racial travail—can seem antiseptic. Compared with Ives or Gershwin, he is ever a synthetic populist.
Not that it's necessarily bad to be synthetic or a populist but the implication seems to be that Copland being a synthetic populist has meant that it is his work rather than Gershwin's which has proven more marginal to American musical imagination.   Which is ... probably ... basically true.  
Around the same time that Copland assessed the limitations of jazz, Thomson endorsed the writings of George Pullen Jackson, who in the 1930s and ’40s influentially maintained that American folk music was fundamentally Anglo and “white.” According to both Jackson and Thomson, black spirituals arose from white spirituals. “The ethnic integrity of American folk music will be surprising news to many who have long held to the melting-pot theory of American life,” Thomson informed readers of the New York Herald-Tribune in 1944, when the collection and study of rural American music—yet another quest for a usable past—marginalized the sorrow songs and jazz as contaminated transformations.
Was Dvořák’s prophecy musically naïve? Not if you agree with the rest of the world that Porgy and Bess is the highest achievement in American classical music. Shostakovich likened Gershwin’s opera—itself a song of sorrow and redemption—to Mussorgsky. Its other transatlantic admirers were as various as Khachaturian, Gian Francesco Malipiero, and Francis Poulenc. But the reigning paradigm for a modernist “American school” had no more use for sorrow songs than for Gershwin or Ives, not to mention the “black” symphonies of Still, Price, or Dawson.
The same fate would have befallen the most popular, most iconic American concert work—Rhapsody in Blue—if Paul Rosenfeld had held sway. Writing in The New Republic, the high priest of American musical modernism detected in Gershwin the Russian Jew a “weakness of spirit, possibly as a consequence of the circumstance that the new world attracted the less stable types.” Rosenfeld vastly preferred the ersatz piano concerto that Copland produced two years after Gershwin’s “hash derivative” Rhapsody. Elevated by Copland, jazz had at last “borne music.”
Copland himself was neither a snob nor a racist. His politics migrated far to the left; he even addressed a 1934 Communist Party picnic in Minnesota. His modernism was genuinely catalytic. His collegial instincts, if sometimes parochial, were generous. But, picnics notwithstanding, he remained an outsider to the quotidian. In New Haven, Ives banged out ragtime at local clubs and hurled his fastball for Yale’s baseball team. Gershwin shouted alongside transported Gullah congregants in a Carolina island church. For all its friendly brio, Copland’s was a whitewashed America.
Today, the high judgments that once diminished Ives and Gershwin are no longer tenable. Modernism has run its course, and the musical schism it once exacerbated—a bifurcation of white and black, “classical” and “popular,” more pronounced here than abroad—has lost its cutting edge. The new opportunities at hand include opportunities for posthumous reclamation—not least for Dawson and his Negro Folk Symphony.


Now I was planning to write more but ... since decades ago I read Thomson's take on Gershwin I am inclined to agree with Gavin Borchert's objection to Horowitz' presentation of Thomson-on-Gershwin.  Borchert.  Now in the interest of full disclosure I'm not even really a Virgil Thomson fan.  His music leaves me indifferent and I find his criticism readable but not always memorable.  Sometimes memorable is bad, I can remember some passages from Adorno because I found what Adorno said so detestable but let me mention some of Borchert's response.

Thomson exemplified "mistrust of the vernacular musical past"? Practically every piece Thomson ever wrote evokes enthusiastically the vernacular musical past. Also, everyone should read his entire review of Porgy and Bess, not just these eight words quoted out of context. His attitude toward Gershwin, not untainted by envy, is far more complex than is implied here.

Thomson did some arrangements of traditional American hymns that were not exactly awe-inspiring to me but that were based on beautiful, well-chosen traditional hymns.  If you've never read Wenatchee The Hatchet before let me just point out that anyone who could point out that Mark Driscoll was, even in his supposedly Calvinist/Reformed days, Amyraldian on the issue of soteriology and sang in a choir or two at churches ... might be in a position to point out that Thomson was not mistrustful of the vernacular musical past.  

Now there's some more by Borchert I think is worth referencing.

Composer/critic Virgil Thomson was probably the first to pinpoint a reason that George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is even today problematic for some. “Fake folklore,” he called it in a thinkpiece written a month after the opera’s 1935 premiere; “a libretto that should never have been accepted on a subject that should never have been chosen.” He objected, as many still do, to a white composer and a white librettist—DuBose Heyward, who adapted it from his own 1925 novel—telling a story about people of color: “Folklore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the the folk in question is unable to speak for itself, which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935.” Was it? (Thomson’s evaluation of P&B, which both enthralled and troubled him, is not untinged with envy and a hint of hypocrisy, considering his own Four Saints in Three Acts, the previous year’s operatic cause célèbre, had used an all-black cast for eyebrow-raisingly paternalistic and essentialist reasons. Then there’s his wince-making wisecrack about the Jewish Gershwin’s “gefiltefish orchestration,” by which he seems to have meant slick and Hollywoody.)


Thomson minded that he regarded Gershwin as a lightweight composer who, in attempting to be a more serious composer, landed between two stools, as the critic put it.  Gershwin didn't manage to be either Offenbach or Bach, to just go with an easy pair of "light" and "serious" composers that have had their labels pretty well fixed by academics and journalists for generations.  Even Charles Rosen wrote that nobody can or should begrudge an Offenbach wanting to write pleasing, pleasant music.  But then Rosen also wrote that the same lack of ill-will should be extended to Gershwin for not being "serious".  If the popular/populist composer finds their audience, Rosen proposed, they shouldn't be sniffed at because they actually attained their aim.  

The twenty-first century seems to have as part of its course in "Western" cultures a reappraisal of what was "serious" and "light".  Some of this involves going back to music that was dismissed as light or insubstantial and reassessing that music in light of contemporary concerns. Now whether or not Dawson's symphony will win a place in the symphonic repertoire I don't know.  I'm a guitarist, after all, and though I love a lot of symphonic music I wouldn't claim to be some kind of expert on symphonies.  My own listening, for what it's worth, suggests to me that Florence Price has better odds winning a larger audience after generations of neglect because she writes solid melodies and develops them in clear, concise and audible ways.  The Dawson symphony is rambunctious and full of gorgeous orchestral timbres and "Hope in the Night", the central slow movement, is a wonderful movement but the outer movements ... they feel like they have a surfeit of ideas.  Haydn once wrote that he heard composers who had too many good ideas, good though they were, and that this meant there was little left in the memory after the concert was over.  My personal sense of Dawson's symphony is that the middle movement is great and the outer movements fall short of the clarity and focus of the central slow movement but I'm still listening through the symphony and may think and feel differently about it as I go.  

Maybe Horowitz has a point in saying "modernism has run its course" but the actual case for that declaration seems to have not been made.  If I go over to The Guardian and look at that list of the allegedly most important works of the twenty-first century so far I would get the sense that high modernism of the twentieth century style has by no means "run its course" and that The Guardian is chock full of music journalism that seems pretty committed to whatever "modernism" is.

I actually enjoy string quatets by Haba, Xenakis, Lutoslawski and Ligeti and the Bartok quartets are sublime.  But I never got on the Babbitt or Carter trains, or the Boulez-as-composer train.  Stockhausen has not kept my interest for the most part.  I like tunes and I like interesting rhythmic grooves.  So Bulgarian based chamber music for guitar ... one of my favorite sub-genres of classical guitar music.  When a CD of the Atanas Ourkouzounov guitar sonatas gets released I am so buying that.  There are all sorts of ways to have tunes in 9/8 and 7/8 and 13/8 and all kinds of ways to develop musically organized phrasing thinking in those kinds of meters and playing them like they're second-nature.  A lot of the reasons I find Romantic era music boring is that it's two four-on-the-floor and working in fairly simple duple and triple meter patterns.  There's rarely anything like Reicha's quintuple meter fugue, for instance, in the nineteenth century musical world.   Fortunately that changed ... but it can seem as though contemporary music advocacy can forget that Martin Luther's famous hymn has much weirder rhythmic phrases and more metrical vitality than you'd ever guess from the isometric settings that developed in the figured bass era.  The Baroque era being an era of a range of dances flattened out some sixteenth century era musical works ... but I digress ... again.

That I find Copland boring doesn't mean I'm sure I agree with Horowitz about Copland's being a whitewashed America.  Although Copland was white there's an aspect about white and black as musical categories in American musicology I'm a little cautious about, partly because of being half Native American and half white in my lineage with no interest in racial purity of any kind, and partly because I'm not sure it's entirely fair to Copland to say his is a "whitewashed America".  

At the risk of coming up with another way of describing how and why Copland seems less compelling than a Gershwin or an Ellington is Copland's relationship to what Ethan Iverson has described as "folklore" is much more distant.  Copland always sounds like he's aspiring to highbrow art and in that sense Horowitz might be right to say that Copland wasn't into the quotidian or, perhaps I could modify the idea and suggest that Copland was not the kind of composer who might draw out the possibilities of the quotidian.  But then I can hardly forget Bubber Miley quoting Chopin's funeral march from that well-known piano sonata at the end of one of Ellington's more famous works.  That may help me get a clearer sense of what it is about Copland in relationship to lowbrow that makes him seem less important as a musical touchstone than Gershwin or Ellington, these latter composers showed refinement but their refinement didn't refine out the folklore/lowbrow elements or the "roots" element.  Copland's technique might represent the hypertrophy of technique.  Thomson could grant Gershwin could write some great tunes but an effective musical drama is more than just a grab bag of great tunes.  Copland had the technique to write The Tender Land but Copland didn't ultimately have the tunes, at least for me.  "The Promise of Living" is going to lose to "Summertime" every time, every time.

But then the further we get from the age of the symphony in chronological terms the more we might be able to reassess musicians whose legacy is mainly through song.  I can get why Schubert was such a big deal when I hear his songs. When I hear his symphonies and piano sonatas, eh, whatever.  They don't usually grab me but this guitarist and sometime choral singer can get how and why the art of song has to be assessed through a different set of criteria than "autonomous" music.  I'll take Innversions over any Schubert symphony and I'm not saying it's bad to listen to either Stevie Wonder or Schubert, even if I like Wonder and find Schubert a bit boring outside lieder.

Maybe another way to veer into this Copland alleyway is to say that Copland's technique keeps any possible "rootsiness" of his inspirational materials at such arm's length it shows.  

But then I'm thinking about the Dawson symphony and how hard it is to remember specific themes compared to the E minor Florence Price symphony.  There is a point at which I think we need to drop appeals to "essential" musical "substance" and explore the realities of the limitations of our ability to cognitively process what's going on.  There are composers who make works that, however big and grand they are, have some kind of balance between craft and idea and development where you can keep track of what's going on.  There can be complex dance music in which the simple pounding rhythm seems monotonous if "that" is all you're listening for but if you listen for the ways in which a set of rhythmic/melodic cells shift from one timbre to another the music is far more interesting than the relentless beat, listened to as if it were the point of the music itself, might suggest.  

American classical music stayed white for what might be reasons too obvious to point out ... and yet even a lot of white American composers ended up being relegated to the dustbin of journalists-didn't-feel-it-was-worth-it-to-write-about-this-American-symphony.  There was, as Douglas Shadle put it, the "Beethoven problem" which became the "Wagner problem" and yet we know Scott Joplin admired Tannhauser when he heard it.  American musical history is full of highbrow aspirations to be taken seriously on the terms delineated by the reception history of European highbrow art, while to go by responses from European musicians they are more drawn to the musical lowbrow as the lifeblood of American music that American highbrows seem ... intellectually and constitutionally unable or unwilling to assimilate into their collective sensibilities about what is "serious".  

The Dawson symphony is worth listening to, by the way.  I found the Horowitz article interesting reading and in light of the recent situation connected to Eastman's music there might be other things at play in our era that could paradoxically sideline the work of some African American and African British composers if their works have controversial titles or if, on the other hand, their work is too steeped in Victorian musical conventions to seem convincing to American audiences, which is a sense I'm getting about American musicologists reacting to the work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, for instance.

I think I"m getting a sense why Dawson's symphony, as much as there is that I like about it, might not have as big a moment for a revival as Florence Price's symphonies could have, which I've already briefly discussed.  So,having come full circle, I'll just wrap this up.  My own conviction, as a guitarist, is that American composers who find the symphony is too full of warhorses and canonical standards to have any room for them might want to just forget the symphony and write for what you have.  As a professor once counseled me, write for the musical resources you actually do have, not the ones you wish you had.  African Americans revolutionized popular music by taking that route.  I think it was in an interview with Ethan Iverson Henry Threadgill outlined how so much of African American music emerged from the band traditions rather than the symphonic traditions because of what instruments were easiest to get in the wake of the American Civil War.  My personal conviction is that whatever a "great" American "sonata" may be, a guitarist seems more likely to write it drawing inspiration from Blind Willie Johnson and Hank Williams Sr. than in trying to match the German symphonists on their own turf.  In the history of the Western literate musical traditions the symphony is a fragment of a thousand-year whole that doesn't have to be the touchstone for all of the ways we think about musical creativity. 

No comments: