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January 11, 2008

A Significant Symphonic Heritage

If you look at the concert programs of virtually any orchestra in, let us say, Sweden, you will find a meaningful number of works in each season of music by Swedish composers of whom most of us have never heard (or, perhaps, have encountered very occasionally) in America. Franz Berwald, Johann Roman, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Hugo Alfvén, Kurt Atterberg, these names would be just the tip of the iceberg. The same thing would happen in almost any other country. Belgium, France, Hungary, The Czech Republic, Brazil, Russia, Finland, all of these keep in the repertoire some reasonable representation of their own native musical history. This makes a great deal of sense - and not merely because of nationalistic hubris. The music of any country is meaningfully related to its language...

Try to imagine a Frenchman composing the symphonies of Bruckner, or a German writing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The rhythms and accent patterns of a language are among the first sounds a person hears after their birth, and that affects every aspect of their view of sound, and certainly the music they write. Therefore, the music of any country is also going to have a particular connection with the audiences of that country. They will, without being consciously aware of it, relate to the internal rhythm of their "native" music.

And yet in our country our musical heritage is largely ignored. Not completely, of course; there have been some conductors who have devoted considerable energy to the American musical heritage. Michael Tilson Thomas, Leonard Slatkin, and Gerard Schwarz have been leaders in this area, and they are not alone. But they are in the minority, and I fear it isn't a particularly large minority. The mid-20th-century American symphonists such as Piston, Harris, Hanson, Schuman, Barber, and Diamond, as well as their predecessors like Chadwick and Parker, remain rarities in America's concert halls. Ives is the only one of that generation treated with greater respect. A recent production at the New York City Opera of Samuel Barber's Vanessa jolted me into an awareness of what a strong opera it is. The experience also stimulated thinking about the strengths of many of Barber's orchestral works - some of which have indeed entered the repertoire, like the Violin Concerto, but many of which are not in the bloodstream of our musical culture.

If an uncomfortable image has been established of the symphony orchestra in the United States as a European transplant, this surely is one of the reasons. Not the only one, to be sure, but in my view a significant one. This country has, in fact, a significant symphonic heritage going back to the 19th century and the symphonies of John Knowles Paine (German-sounding though they are). We should treat it with more respect, and invest it with more vitality, than we do. Doing so might just be a factor in helping to strengthen the connections that our people feel with our symphony orchestras.

Posted by hfogel at January 11, 2008 10:04 AM

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I couldn't agree more, and would submit that American orchestras have perhaps an even greater treasure trove of works from which to draw than most of the countries you've mentioned. Especially if you were to include emigre composers who wrote a lot their music in America (Schonberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, Korngold, Rozsa, Weill, Varese, Dahl, etc.)

I think the fundamental problem we now have - and one which affects more than just programming of American music - is the "I like what I know" approach to programming. Orchestras don't seem willing to program even works that people are likely to enjoy, so great seems to be their fear of playing something people don't already know. And not without justification; in recent years NY Times reviews have noted audiences walking out ahead of such pieces as Goldmark's Rustic Wedding Symphony or Nielsen's 4th - neither a piece that should cause the listener any distress. Or several years ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra proudly announced that they would perform a season of all 20th-century works (not all that adventurous when you think about who was alive and composing in 1901); but the announcement of it provoked, as I recall, a rather negative backlash from their subscribers worried about missing their Beethoven and Brahms and visions of all-Schonberg programs dancing in their heads.

But I think many orchestras do a poor selling job. A few years ago the NY Philharmonic did a multi-year "American Classics" program. A great idea by an orchestra with an admirable legacy in this area. But aside from an occasionally adventurous piece like Lukas Foss' "Time Cycle," most of their programs sandwiched something relatively safe like Barber's Knoxville Summer of 1915 with a Beethoven symphony and some warhorse concerto. All of which just sent a message that the featured "American Classic" work was something to be feared or tolerated, rather than welcomed.

Posted by: Marko Velikonja at January 11, 2008 10:21 PM

Along with language, i believe there is much in the way a land vibrates. I know how intangible this is.
It is something i have 'experienced' and might in turn effect the language.
Music sounds best in it origins. Some German music made so much more sense to me there.
In Australia, the orchestras are required to play a certain amount of Australian works. I guess if one can not get the funds to play something, one must blackmail to take away funds in general.
Possibly American Orchestral music needs such a system of blackmail.

Posted by: Kraig Grady at January 13, 2008 4:51 AM

Also,when Neeme Jarvi
was music director
with the Detroit
symphony,he championed and recorded American music by the likes of Chadwick etc,and even
championed music by
African-American composers such as William
Grant Still.No doubt
Leonard Slatkin will
continue to champion
American music there.
And with all the new music being performed
by our own composers,
American music is not exactly languishing
in America.

Posted by: robert berger at January 15, 2008 9:35 AM

Just want to call your attention to the American Composers Festival in Orange County California. The Pacific Symphony is working hard to put American Composers on the map with an orchestral festival devoted to the music of this nation. This is largely the doing of Carl St.Clair and his passion for American Music AND a community that seeks to explore. I am a volunteer with this festival and believe in its existence even though I may not always like the music. I love the fact that we do this every year and I am only disappointed that more people don't know about it. I hope you will add Pacific to your list of champions of the music and the orchestras that keep it in our ears!

Posted by: Kate Peters at January 24, 2008 6:23 PM