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American Music

( Originally Published 1920 )


THE increasing frequency with which the subject of American music is brought to our attention by writers in many parts of the country indicates a general national awakening to native musical possibilities which is of more than passing interest. That the subject is continually nibbled at and not dealt with fundamentally is due to the fact that most commentators are sectional and not broadly American in their sympathies. In their search for pre-mature artistic requirements they overlook the rough but vital native musical elements that must be hewn into shape before even the foundations of our musical art will be thoroughly established. The foundations of our technic are already laid by the composers whose names are too well known to need mentioning. But with an East affording a technical appreciation coupled with a thwarting indifference to national artistic influences outside of itself, and a North, a South, and a West rich with an inexhaustible supply of raw material but without the means of adequately refining it, we are well-nigh at a deadlock. Not that the East, within itself, is not developing a notable musical art, but such an art, however highly it be developed, is foredoomed to a Europeanization that must always tend to alienate it from the American people as a whole, and to prevent it from representing in music what America, as a whole, represents in human development.

That we stand in a significant and critical moment in our musical development there can be no doubt. But there is nothing difficult, complicated, nor mysterious in our solution of this crisis if we will but take a sufficiently broad view of the situation. In fact, it is being solved for us, day by day, and needs but a large sympathetic understanding on our part, and a slight initiative to remove all obstacles to the broadest musical development of which America is capable.

Of fundamental importance is it to recognize that now is the moment of breaking away from that in the past which is thwarting to present growth, from the special styles and forms of music that have expressed the individuality of other lands, to forms that shall express the individuality of our own. Undoubtedly the magnitude, the largeness of spirit, the seriousness of the great works of the past are to be retained, but not their outgrown meaning for the race, nor their outgrown technical system. 1t will no longer be a virtue that an American musical work shall tally the outlines and colors of the works of the German or of the Russian or French masters. We have passed the Imitative stage and have entered upon the Creative, when our musical works must stand by the possession of qualities not shared by works of any other time or place. For, failing this, individuality fails, and failing individuality, we can have no significant nor dynamic musical art. For it is the establishment of an appropriate and vitalized individuality that insures universal significance in any art. Excellence in imitation, however great, cannot lead us out of the Egypt of lifeless provincialism into the promised land of creative art.

Every country that has had the will to do anything in music has had first to face our problem, which, rightly looked at, is no problem at all, but a normal step in growth. We know that Thespis succeeded in the overripe lyrical atmosphere of Athens with his development of the Hellenic Wild West show, the Dionysus chorus-but we no longer take into account, in our reckonings, the discussions, the oppositions, the organizations, the public and private argumentations which must have occurred in the process of the Athenian broadening, which made possible the greatest art work of Greece. It is the very virtue of the past that its ugliness dies in favor of its beauty. We are no longer conscious of the wrenchings and twistings with which early German music must have broken away from the enthralment of the Italians. The developments inaugurated by Beethoven and carried on by the later German romanticists, inevitable as they were, did not prevail easily or without multitudinous organization and action in their behalf. The creator himself may keep out of the fray, as did Beethoven, or enter it, as did Schumann and Wagner. But human action there must be always, on the part of some one or some group, in the carrying of progressive ideas.

Russia is a noteworthy example of the result of concerted action, both toward the development of individuality in its musical art, and toward gaining recognition for that individuality. The Germanic tradition threatened Russia's musical existence, and Russia's musical will to live carried its national musical art through the crisis, not to that unthinkable "universality" that is being asked for on some hands in American music, but to a normal national individuality, which has made it an intimate present factor in modern musical civilization. From Gade to Grieg in Norway, and from Smetana to Dvorak in Bohemia, are examples, dangerously trite to be sure, of the manner in which nations step out of a feeble or a respectable provincialism into a national art of universal interest and significance. Modern French music, looked up to by so many as the highest point attained in modern music, possesses above all other things a distinctive individuality, an individuality which is certainly not German, nor Russian, nor Chinese, and which we must probably be compelled to recognize as French.

The solution of the situation in America lies in work, not alone on the part of the composer,-he has already been at work long enough to keep the rest of us busy for some time,-but, as well, on the part of every individual man or woman who cares. First of all, theory as to what American music will be or should be, will have to be put wholly aside, for it interferes fatally with an understanding of what American music is. American music is, and will be, just what the composers of America make it; it cannot by any possibility or , chance be anything else. Therefore we must watch, react upon and encourage the composer as he is, if we wish him to become constantly better. But as to the subjects and themes which stimulate him, there we must allow him the completest liberty, knowing that the artist will work out his self-development most swiftly and surely, in proportion as he works on themes of his own choice, which will make his brain work better and his heart beat faster than any themes of our choosing to which we may try to hold him.

Every corner of America to-day has its appropriate musical expression, and it matters little whether that expression be in a primitive or in a more highly developed condition. It is enough that these forces are alive, growing, and characteristic. If we will live the whole musical life of our country, sympathizing with and enjoying its every aspect, rougher and more refined, wherever beauty and truth of expression are found, we must realize that a musical democratization of our natures alone will enable us to do so. There must be a willingness on our part to be, in our imaginations or our sympathies, at a moment's notice, a cowboy ranging the plains, a Southern planter taking his leisure or his slave at work, an Omaha chief watching the approach of the Thunder god; or with equal readiness we are to share the idealizations of these motives through the tonal medium of our more immediate fellow man, the composer,-or still other motives, nameless, innumerable, expressible only in tone, revealing the peculiar sense of beauty or of spiritual aspiration of our time.

In short, our national musical individuality is, paradoxically, various, as it should be, and comes to us through two channels, through direct new inventions of the American composer, and through American folk-song of all kinds. The only difference between our development of a characteristic musical art and that of the European nations, is that we are organized as a nation at a time when musical evolution is in full swing, and secondly, that we gain our characteristic folk-song through the sympathetic contact of a democratic civilization instead of through direct racial inheritance. This situation leads to two dangers, imitation and scorn of native resources; but it presents also two signal advantages, a working-system of technic already developed, and an inexhaustible mine of new material. The true nature of this situation cannot be taken too deeply to heart if we are to share in the upbuilding of American musical art as a whole.

Of direct new invention by American composers there is a greater quantity than we imagine. The significant American composer is beginning to lift his head in Illinois, in Missouri, in California.

Evanston (Illinois), not to mention Chicago, is producing its own string quartettes, quintettes, its choruses and cantatas, with full knowledge of the highest modern standards. San Francisco has its annual native music-drama of Wagnerian proportions, produced every summer at Guerneville in the open of the redwood grove of the Bohemian Club. The shelves of our composers everywhere are filled with manuscripts which should be aired and relegated to oblivion, or placed where they belong in the activities of our musical life. Much of true inventive value has been incorporated in works in small forms by our composers, largely because such forms offer less discouragement to the composer in bringing them to a hearing. A type of such work, a "Verlaine Mood," by Henry F. Gilbert, was heard in a piano recital by Felix Fox, in Boston, and it was of interest to note the readiness of the critics to give it serious consideration beyond other works on the programme. This should happen more frequently, and especially with works in larger forms. It is stultifying and distorting to all art growth that the artist should pile up unknown and unheard works on his shelves while proceeding to the creation of new ones. A free channel between artist and public should be maintained along the margin of progress as well as in the field of past and present achievement.

Of American folk-song there is a quantity so vast, and of so poetic and appealing a quality, that it is safe to say that its possibilities of development will endure as long as there remain possibilities of development in American civilization. By reason of the composite nature of America's humanity, all the world's folk-song might be regarded as legitimate material for development by native composers. But among the many branches of folk-song that thrive in different parts of the land, owing to the various nationalities of our pioneers, certain varieties predominate in quantity and in the extent of their absorption into and influence upon American life. But first we must consider our indisputable native folk-song, the popular street music, "ragtime." Antonin Dvorak said that no nation in the world has such interesting street music as ourselves. "Rag-time" prevails in every city and town of the United States to-day. It is not only the musical utterance of the uncultured, it is the determining factor in the musical life of almost the entire nation of educated American youth to-day. Look on the pianos of a thousand American homes, chosen at random, of the rich and the poor, the cultured and the ignorant, wherever there are young people-you will find always the sonatas of Beethoven, placed there by the music teacher, and a goodly assortment of ragtime, placed there by the pupil, who plays the Beethoven laboriously or indifferently, and the rhythmic intricacies of the ragtime with incredible ease and unbounded spirit. Whatever this phenomenon may signify, it is at least to be reckoned with. Ragtime has vital and sparkling rhythms, wholesome and invigorating melodies, and lacks only seriousness of treatment as folk-song capable of being artistically developed, to let its freshness stand forth shorn of its present insignificant and trivial setting. Nor are our composers wholly unaware of this. Several "Ragtime Studies," by Harvey W. Loomis, while too surprising to be grasped at once in their true significance, offer a fascinating and not too easy task to the trained musical perception.

Of the other departments of American folk-song, the Indian, the Negro, and the Spanish-American occupy perhaps the largest spheres. Beyond these are the folk-songs of the cowboys, the Tennessee mountaineers, the Maine woodsmen, the sailors, the Creoles, and still others. As the Indian has stamped his romance upon every State in the Union, his folk-lore has the broadest claim to general national interest. Of his folk-songs, probably ten thousand are now accessible in written or phonographic records, and many times that number could probably be obtained by research among the existing tribes. The dignity and poetic breadth of the Indian melodies qualify them most naturally for orchestral treatment, and it is likely to be in this form that they will find their most significant use.

It would be difficult at this day to express the life and spirit of the South in music without, unconsciously at least, having recourse to the Negro melody or its type. It is already an ineradicable factor in American musical life, and its serious study and development have already begun.

The Spanish-American folk-song, with its distinct sub-species, the Spanish-Indian song, is inseparable from the romance of the South-west, and in quantity and quality affords a surprise to the one who is rash enough to begin a study of it. There is an embarrassment of thematic riches awaiting the future California symphonist. The first practical application of this inexhaustible material, so far as is known, was made by the writer in preparing the incidental music for a dramatic performance of "Ramona," which took place in Los Angeles.

The cowboy folk-song is less known, but presents the hitherto unsuspected existence of a purely American folk-song of the plains, of which we will know more in time.

Viewing these many possibilities it seems as if there never was a time so providentially favorable to the creation of a diverse yet characteristic musical art of unlimited potency. But not until now has the moment been ripe for the birth of a definite movement which shall take advantage of this situation, and make a constructive use of its latent forces. The organization of a society for this purpose, the study and development of American music as a whole, recently effected in Boston, is timely in the extreme, and will give American composers, music lovers, and students an impulse and an opportunity not afforded by any other city.

In all work for national progress we must be true to the immediate needs and forces of our own time. Ends are not gained by seizing the ideal at once, but by approaching it normally. And may it not be that the greatest, the most vital need of the moment is that we should take the most all-embracing, the most liberal and democratic view of the situation? Perhaps on no other ground can we foster a growth broad enough for the requirements of the American spirit.

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