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.
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