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The Outsider in American Sound

August 17, 2011

Dvořák, Burleigh & Copland in the creation of a national music

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Collective Voice, Vol. 6 in September 2009, in anticipation of VOX 3 Collective’s season three opener: “folk/art” at Bethany United Church of Christ and the Skokie Public Library.  The concert traced the transformation of folk-tunes from different cultures into art music by Western composers.

Whether you believe the United States is a melting pot or a salad bowl, there is no denying that this giant land is full of many pockets of subcultures.  The Midwest has its casseroles at Lake Wobegone, the South has its bottomless glasses of sweet tea served with special hospitality, and New England has its clam chowder served with a side of liberal politics.  And then, of course, Hollywood is an isolated culture unto itself, with dramatic explosions onscreen and off, yielding enough gossip to keep magazines and blogs constantly chattering.  With all these patches of peculiarity, it can be hard to discern a unified national character.  But sometimes it takes the mirror of an outsider to reveal those elements that uniquely define our country. 

In the hotbed of ideas that was the United States of America at the close of the nineteenth century, Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) strove to be the voice for a national music in the new world.  Brought to Americaby socialite Jeanette Thurber in order to advance the shoddy state of art music in the nation, Dvořák taught composition, conducted, and wrote several important works during his stay.  He took several trips to hear spirituals and Native American music performed in small communities in the Midwest; he consequently published a series of articles in Harper’s opining that Americans had not yet taken advantage of the immense resources at their disposal. 

“The two American traits which must impress the foreign observer, I find, are the unbounded patriotism and capacity for enthusiasm of most Americans,” wrote the composer in February 1895.  “Nothing better pleases the average American…than to be able to say that this or that… is the finest or the grandest in the world.”  And yet, he contended, in spite of Americans’ love for good, new things, the state of musical training and performance remained abysmal.  Instrumentalists had poor practice hygiene.  Singers wanted the limelight without working for it.  Composers were stuck in the shadow of their European counterparts, studying and mimicking their technique without adding anything of their own.  Most importantly, in a “land of public generosity,” there was a marked lack of funding for concert halls and conservatories of quality.  But, because of the American desire to be the best, because of that unique trait he called “American push,” Dvořák believed it possible.[1]

Czech Composer Antonín Dvořák began a trend in which outsiders shaped the character of American art music.

Dvořák’s hope for a national music depended on using spirituals and Native American tunes as a well-spring of raw material upon which an exciting body of national music could be founded.  This prompted a bit of controversy in the musical world, as composers like Amy Beach argued that tribal chants and slave songs had no connection to their own heritage.  Instead, they adopted European themes in their American symphonies and quartets, and the resultant works sounded, unsurprisingly, like those from the Old World.  But when the Bohemian Dvořák wrote the famous “Largo” from his New World Symphony, he modeled the melody on the simplicity of spiritual tunes—and signaled the style that would later be adopted as the model of “American” music.

Instrumental in this achievement was Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866–1949), who went on to become the first prominent African-American composer.  Admitted to the National Conservatory of Music in 1892 with the financial support of Frances MacDowell, he studied voice and played double bass in the school orchestra.  He also spent a good deal of time with Dvořák outside of classes; Burleigh acquainted the Czech master with the spiritual repertoire and gained insight into the compositional process by serving as his copyist.  During this time, despite prejudice from the congregation, he won a paid job as the baritone soloist for St. George Episcopal Church in New York—a position he held for 52 years.  Buoyed by his successes as a singer, he began publishing spirituals and original art songs in 1898.  In the early twentieth century, Burleigh’s arrangements came to some degree of prominence on recital programs by artists such as Lucrezia Bori and Ernestine Schumann-Heink.  Burleigh’s success became an inspiration to pioneering black singers like Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, beginning to break down the color barrier in the arts and pave the way for later generations.  But further, his legacy of song remains a staple of the repertoire, bringing a Deep River of folk inspiration into the concert hall.

And yet the final stamp of the quintessential American sound would come from another interaction between citizen and foreigner.  Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979) schooled a generation of American composers in a neo-classical style in her Parisflat beginning in the 1920s.  She exposed young musicians to the works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Les Six, and further encouraged them to consider experimenting with jazz as a medium.  The bustle of the twenties created classical works filled with blue notes and jazzy rhythms by many in Boulanger’s roster. [2] But in the aftermath of the Great Depression, and various New Deal-sponsored arts initiatives, Boulanger pupils Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson forged a definitive American style, the likes of which are still heard at patriotic celebrations today.   They both wrote art songs in a simple style, echoing the folk material of their predecessors, with Copland even arranging two volumes of Old American Songs.  Their real achievement, however, came in larger, more ambitious forms.  Expansive and dreamily pastoral, the open orchestration and folk tune references of Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Thomson’s film score for The Plow that Broke the Plans evoked the wide-open spaces of a young country.  Coupled with the muscular brass and thumping percussion of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, these contrasts of free idealism and unbridled power have come to define America. 

[1] Antonin Dvorak, “Music in America,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine (Feb 1895), 429-34.

[2] HowardPollack, Aaron Copland: The Life andWork of an Uncommon Man (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,1999), 45–50.

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