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What is "american music"?

“What is American music?” This question has been asked for decades, well before many of the composers regarded as definitively “American” were composing. It was the title of an article printed in the January 4, 1924th edition of the New York Tribune: a small question for which a broader answer was needed – in fact, an entire concert was dedicated to it. The program was a series of commissions from various composers and was –almost one hundred years ago—an attempt to define the influences of the modern melting-pot of America.

Titled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” this performance was held a month following the published Tribune article, on February 12th in midtown Manhattan’s Aeolian Hall, a building which still stands to this day. The most popular piece? A self-defined ‘piano fantasy’ of sorts heard second-to-last on the program, which became an instant hit.

Originally titled, “American Rhapsody,” the popular composer George Gershwin was the featured soloist in the debut of his Rhapsody in Blue. The success of this venture may have only begun to answer the question of what makes music “American,” however, it also inspires another question: how did composers of “American music” reach the public audiences who came to widely embrace it as such?

As you might expect, the answer begins with exploring the original America folk music following the First World War: jazz.

Was Gershwin's music truly jazz? Impossible – for now the music was notated rather than improvised, and the culture and lifestyle associated with “speakeasy” venues had been changed to a symphonic hall. However, audiences responded positively to Gershwin’s singable themes, dance-like rhythms, bluesy harmonies, and emotional appeal: all of which combined created an atmosphere of reminiscence. Even today, hardly three measures are heard before we recognize captivating tunes such as “Summertime” or “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

It’s no secret Paris caught wind of jazz in the Roaring Twenties. Many may recall the time when Gershwin met French composer Maurice Ravel, during a party in New York City, with hopes to study composition with him. When Ravel discovered how much Gershwin earned, he simply expressed perhaps it was he who should study with Gershwin! Ravel wrote to legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, to inquire into the possibility of her teaching George, without harming his natural-born talent. For better or worse, she declined. However, she did accept many American pupils who would become the next generation of composers in the U.S.A. Her most famous pupil was Aaron Copland.

Copland wisely recognized the importance of reaching new audiences beyond traditional concert attendees. He wrote:

“Composers during the past ten years have gradually begun to realize that an entirely new public is listening to music. This is not a concert-going public but a public that gets its music through the radio, the phonograph, or even the movies. "

Copland practiced what he preached. He had a natural gift for composing themes which catch a listener’s attention and imagination. These musical themes are easy to digest and process, even while they are being played. For example, these opening bars are recognizable from coast to coast, and identified by many as containing the character of the American spirit and one of fortitude.

If expanding the American canon of repertoire with ballets wasn’t enough, Copland reached a massive audience when he composed film scores: The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men, both based on the novels by John Steinbeck; Our Town, based on the play by Thornton Wilder; and The Heiress, for which he received an Academy Award.

Inspired by Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book written by Walker Evans with depression-era photographs by James Agee, Copland composed his opera masterpiece, The Tender Land. The opera was commissioned by NBC to premiere on television, however it was sadly dropped by the producers.

With such incredible mediums for captivating the heart of every home, would there be opportunity for a successfully broadcasted opera brought to America’s doorstep? Enter Gian Carlo Menotti, the most performed American opera composer.

Menotti’s first major success was his opera, Amelia Goes to the Ball, premiered in the Academy of Music with the Curtis Institute in 1937. Due to its immense popularity, CBS Radio aired excerpts later that year, and NBC Radio commissioned the opera The Old Maid and the Thief. Here is an “appiteaser” displaying the lyricism, playfulness, and drama of the work:

To close, this discussion would be incomplete without mentioning someone who further extended this universal appeal, and became a bulwark in the Twentieth Century American classical music scene. This someone was nonother than multi-talented composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. As musical genres gradually expanded over the decades, Bernstein joined fellow composers by writing not only symphonic works, but also operas, musicals, and a film score.

Each musician and composer mentioned today were aware of connecting with their audiences, in faith that the art they presented would be felt, and enrich lives. They composed in many genres, at times employed jazz and blues-influenced styles, and embraced new technology to invite as many listeners as possible into a world created for artistic expression and enjoyment.

*Full essay originally submitted as "Innovative Ways 20th Century American Composers Reached Their Audiences" for Lecture - Recital by Daniel Peterson as a candidate for Doctorate of Musical Arts in Orchestral Conducting.

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