Agnus Dei, op 11a Let Down the Bars, O Death, op 8/2 The Virgin Martyrs, op 8/1
Two Choruses from Antony & Cleopatra, op 40 - On the Death of Antony - On the Death of Cleopatra
Essay Before a Concert of American Music
The simultaneous hundredth-anniversary years of two of the United States’ outstanding 20th-century composers – Samuel Barber and William Schuman – provide a welcome opportunity to explore, as much as can be achieved in a single program, the remarkable range of American choral music.
If this were a concert of German music, or French or English or Swedish or Chinese, it might be possible to assemble a coherent program that would provide a reasonable overview of the country’s choral literature. Venerable nations have homogeneous cultures founded on national myths which, perhaps more importantly than shared history, language and religious traditions, are what mystically unite the peoples that generate them. A civilization’s arts follow naturally from those myths. As with Europe, Asia and Africa, so with the still-young and developing culture of the United States. But “America” is an idea continuously renewed by an influx of immigrants whose eventual absorption into the mainstream, preserving an evolving version of traditions brought over from the Old Country, adds new elements to a kaleidoscopically shifting picture of a society in never-ending flux. The scope of American music is far too varied for representation within a single program, despite its civilization’s relative youth. All we can do is offer a taste of that variety. So: An American Song – not (perhaps never) The American Song.
The American myth grows directly from the nature of the nation’s growth. The people and its myths were created by the descendents of families that, singly and in groups, abandoned the collective security of age-old homelands (even if their individual lives were far from secure) to seek new beginnings in uncharted territory. Until fairly recently, that territory seemed limitless: the fantasy of an ever-present frontier calling out for discovery and settlement runs deep within a culture focused on constant re-invention, upward mobility and development unencumbered by entrenched European tradition. A world-view directed toward the new – toward the perfectible future – will necessarily be optimistic, even Romantic (Dionysian); a messianic streak pervades America’s concept of its own exceptionalism. And that insistent autonomy drives the do-it-yourself rugged individualism central to the American myth. While the founding fathers – wealthy, aristocratic landowners or bourgeois professionals – were adherents of rationalism and the Enlightenment and mostly believers in a centralized – Anglo-Saxon and Protestant – establishment (Apollonian, as it were), the land became more and more populated by individual stakeholders who, above all, were self-reliant and driven by a deep-seated opposition to any perceived control from above or from outside. Even those Americans who don’t otherwise share Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalist philosophy respond to his insistence that “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”
Of the composers in our program, this insistence on individuality and difference – and on their music being American music – runs most strongly in the works of William Billings, Charles Ives and William Schuman; it is easy to draw a single line that connects all three. And, of course, the Spiritual is a wholly American synthesis of African and European influences. Samuel Barber, David Francis Urrows and Philip Glass, though, represent the cosmopolitan side of the American experience, open to the world, American mainly in its refusal to follow foreign trends or be easily typed.
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Several thematic streams flow among the various works on this evening’s program. One has to do with what “America” means. William Billings, the earliest known professional composer in North America, held that “since Nature is the only true dictator every man must be ‘his own carver;’” no rules arising from precedent or outside authority were worthy of that New Englander’s respect. This view seems quintessentially American, and can be traced down to the present day and Billings’ spiritual descendents’ refusal to adopt the metric system, for example. Yet in his last collection of hymns and anthems Billings wrote that he had been “fool enough to commence author [sic] before I really understood either tune, time, or concord.” By this he didn’t mean that he had lacked the training which in his day could only have been acquired abroad; what had been missing in his armory was simply sufficient time in which to master his craft through empirical practice. Billings was preaching self-reliance fifty years before Emerson.
Billings wrote melodies that might as well have been folk tunes, so filled were they with vernacular-sounding phrases and shapes. Some were taken up widely by his contemporaries, making their way into the shape-note hymnals that became popular in the South and West and enabled people who were otherwise illiterate musically (and perhaps in other ways, too) to participate in communal singing. Charles Ives, another crusty New Englander who lived a century later, built a compositional system on the liberal quotation of hymns, dance tunes, patriotic melodies, sentimental ballads – some from the folk tradition, others by popular composer such as Stephen Foster – thrown together seemingly at random within the well-established formal structures and sophisticated contrapuntal patterns that he’d learned from his conservative establishment teachers at Yale. Yet Ives had been trained by his bandmaster father to rejoice in the sort of clashes that arise naturally when competing town bands march simultaneously during a parade. Such dissonance Ives found “manly” in contrast to the sissified consonance of European art music (though he prized Beethoven for his straightforward assertiveness). So concerned was Ives about his status as a pioneer experimenter with techniques that were to become mainstays of 20th-century modernism that when he came to revise what is now his most popular work – The Unanswered Question – he peppered the composition with additional dissonances in order not to be left behind by the advancing, Johnny-come-lately Europeans. We might imagine Billings’ and Ives’ insistence on the priority of the individual American transferred to any number of realms not only in New England but out on the distant and seemingly endless frontier, the land of (Paul) Bunyanesque heroism, where people even today refuse to wear the seat belts that could save their lives simply because they see the laws that require them as unwarranted intrusions on individual rights.
William Schuman, as a man and a composer, was far more urbane than either Billings or Ives. Though a New Yorker from a thoroughly assimilated middle-class Jewish family, whose earliest interests had been baseball and jazz – he was named for the U.S. president in office at the time of his birth, William Howard Taft, as a youth played string bass in a wedding and bar-mitzvah band and later wrote an opera dramatizing the baseball poem Casey at the Bat – Schuman, like Ives (who made a fortune in the life-insurance business), at first treated music as an avocation, studying business and working in the advertising industry. Later, after study with the log-cabin-born Oklahoman Roy Harris, Schuman gravitated toward American subjects in his program music and memorialized Billings and Ives in his two best-known works: New England Triptych, a three-movement fantasy on tunes by Billings, and his orchestration of Ives’ Variations on ‘America’ for organ. Unlike his two heroes, though, Schuman evolved into an establishment mainstay, becoming president of the Juilliard School (where he founded the Juilliard String Quartet) and of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
So much for what we might call the “America First” school of composition, a school that looks inward, toward the heartland of the continent (what many now think of as “flyover territory”). But a parallel strain of music runs equally strongly through American culture, one more attuned to developments in the rest of the world, both West and East.
In contrast to Billings, Ives and even Schuman, Samuel Barber was the sophisticated cosmopolitan professional American composer par excellence. Many of his American contemporaries studied abroad – often, following Aaron Copland’s example, with the famous teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Barber’s orientation, however, was toward Italy rather than France, toward Romanticism rather than neo-Classicism. He was a nonconformist only in his refusal to fit himself into the burgeoning strain of Americana typified by Copland and the rediscovery of Ives; he remained a philo-European, whose idols were Bach and – unusually for an American composer – Brahms. His one overtly American large-scale work (Symphony No. 2, written to honor the US Army Air Corps during the Second World War) he later withdrew.
Key works in Barber’s catalogue are the three Essays for orchestra and the vocal tone poem Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which sets a short elegiac prose piece by James Agee. Most composers are oriented toward poetry, but in these works Barber seems to declare his allegiance to prose. If William Schuman’s compositions and interests remind us of Walt Whitman, Barber’s analogue might be John Updike, both of them Pennsylvanians in origin, products of the small-town middle class; both meticulous craftsmen, both nostalgically memorializing the small-scale heroism of ordinary people. Updike wrote that he sought to “give the mundane its beautiful due… I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” This could easily stand as a description of Barber, who, like Updike, was at his best in small forms and whose finest works are intransigently ambiguous in meaning.
Though born in Hawai’i, David Francis Urrows grew up and was educated on the East Coast, and breathed the same atmosphere of the New England Transcendentalists as Ives did. Following Emerson, as a composer he goes his own way, a tonal composer when atonality was still fashionable, a lyricist in the manner of Barber, with a rigor reminiscent of Schuman. It is that resolute nonconformity that marks him as an American composer despite the absence of overtly American themes in his work. His compositions are marked by a rational, classical aesthetic and a deeply melodic orientation much as Barber’s are. The distinguished American composer Arthur Berger identified the main features of Urrows’ creative style when he wrote that “Urrows quite consciously and deliberately eschews the current trends used by his fellows – non-tonalism, serialism, aleatory – and quite courageously veers to a neo-classic path somewhat in the manner of young composers in the 1930s.” “Urrows,” concluded Berger, long-time music critic of the New York Herald Tribune, “is an original.” And nowhere is originality prized as it is in the United States.
The musical style that came to be called “minimalism” originated in the U.S., and Philip Glass is – along with Steve Reich, Terry Riley and LaMonte Young – one of its “fourfathers.” But there is little that can be pointed to as characteristically American in the minimalism of the late-1960s and early ’70s (the style’s “classical” period); it arose in opposition to the prevailing academic strain of arcane modernism in favor during the period rather than as an expression of cultural identity.
Glass’ background is unusual in that, though thoroughly trained in academic music from a young age (in stereotypically American fashion, including a stint in Paris with Boulanger following studies at Juilliard), his aesthetic push came from the direction of film, theater and bohemian life in general rather than from the music he was taught. He also worked with the Indian classical musicians Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha; his earliest music that he still acknowledges was heavily influenced by their complex additive rhythms and by Samuel Beckett’s open-ended, repetitive structures – a much wider range of influences than most composers are able to point to. Typically, Glass’ tribute to his teacher Boulanger was contrarian: Music in Fifths, which celebrates contrapuntal procedures normally forbidden in the classical forms he studied with her.
As a composer, Glass is a natural man of the theater. In keeping with the impulses that motivated him from the beginning, many of his most successful works are collaborations with film or the stage: operas and film scores, such as Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten on one hand, and The Thin Blue Line, Kundun and The Hours on the other. Those genres do not lend themselves to aloofness, and since the 1980s Glass’s music has become more readily communicative, transcending the strict procedures of minimalism, with symphonies based on albums by David Bowie and Brian Eno and collaborations with Leonard Cohen. In turn, he has been an important influence on bands such as Talking Heads and Tangerine Dream.
The spiritual is a uniquely American contribution to music, as jazz is. It originated in the slave world of the pre-Civil War south, in chants used to accompany the drudgery of stoop labor and in religious songs sung by African-Americans to whom literacy was denied by their owners and on whom Christianity was imposed as a pacifying agent, in preference to languages and religions brought from Africa. The spiritual therefore, is the indigenous expression of an oppressed minority, whose imagery combines intense religious conviction with the hope for physical redemption into freedom.
We don’t really know, however, how spirituals were performed during slave times. Our practical experience of the spiritual begins in 1871, when students at Fisk University, a Black institution in Nashville, Tennessee, formed a choir to undertake a fund-raising tour. The Fisk Jubilee Singers began by performing popular songs, but were heard by Reverend Alexander Reid, the superintendent of a Choctaw Indian academy, who in the 1850s had observed two slaves he’d hired from the Choctaws – “Uncle” Wallace and “Aunt” Minerva Willis – singing songs that they had apparently created. Among them were Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Steal Away, and Roll, Jordan, Roll. Reid convinced the Fisk singers to adopt these spirituals. At first they seem to have retained a traditional performing tradition: Mark Twain, who had grown up among slaves, found that the Jubilee Singers performed “in the genuine old way” he remembered. But by 1881 he was writing that “they have lost the wild rhythms, the barbarity, the passion.” And in 1938 Zora Neale Hurston commented that the Fisk Singers, and the choirs of other Black colleges such as the Tuskegee and Hampton institutes, sang in “glee club” style rather than authentically.
Many of the spirituals that have become standards were first arranged by Harry Thacker Burleigh, the grandson of a slave, who was a student of Antonín Dvořák at the Institute of Musical Art in New York City during the 1890s (and who inspired his teacher with his singing of them during the period when Dvořák was composing his New World symphony). It seems that both the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Thacker may have taken songs that were first performed at relatively quick tempos, accompanied by clapping and foot stamping, and slowed them down while harmonizing them in European fashion, in order to help them appear more dignified to white audiences. It is possible that classic Delta Blues artists such as Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House et al. preserved something of the spiritual’s authentic flavor better than those “educated” arrangements do, though they’re the only way these songs have come down to us.
A second theme that runs through our program is Love, in both its sacred and secular guises, and as both friendship and eroticism. Sometimes these merge, as in Billings’ I am the Rose of Sharon, a setting of verses from the biblical Song of Songs. And though not apparent in the original poem, Urrows’ Psalm of Francis Thompson has a connection to love (and to Hong Kong, for that matter) through its climactic line, which became the title of the popular 1950s book and movie Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.
In myth, literature and art, the subject of Love if often inextricably intertwined with Death, our final theme – as it is in several of the works in our program. As an idea, Death, after all, has been a preeminent object of contemplation for philosophers and poets since the beginning of recorded time. That it is so for composers as well should come as no surprise. What is interesting, though, is the myriad ways in which death is considered by Barber, Schuman, Ives and Glass, sometimes in apparent conformity to the text and sometimes seemingly in opposition to it. Take, for example, Barber’s paired choruses Let Down the Bars, O Death and The Virgin Martyrs. The first sets a poem by Emily Dickinson in which death is gently welcomed as a release, as if at the end of the day. But Barber’s music sounds implacable, suggesting a subtext of opposition and denial. In The Virgin Martyrs – setting an English adaptation of a medieval text – the music is lighter and more forgiving, despite having as its subject young women slaughtered for adherence to their faith.
Barber’s Agnus Dei, though, is not about Death; if anything, it is about Love. The text, of course, is a prayer for peace – as Beethoven would have it, “inner and outer peace.” The composer’s 1967 arrangement is simply a choral reworking of his popular Adagio for Strings. In either guise the work is accepted today as a cathartic lament (first used as such in conjunction with the radio announcement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, later at the funerals of Albert Einstein and Princess Grace of Monaco and at the Last Night of the Proms in 2001, to memorialize the dead of 9/11). But as originally written in 1936 – as the second movement of a string quartet composed while Barber was spending the summer in Italy with his partner Gian Carlo Menotti – it was inspired by Virgil’s Georgics, which, while mainly concerned with agriculture, also praises Italy and spring (the season of beginnings, not endings), champions country life over the hurly-burly of cities, describes the furor induced in all animals by sexual desire, and retells the story of Orpheus and Euridice, one of the greatest of mythical love stories. Heard with that in mind, the work’s successive waves of rising intensity, avoiding resolution, suggest a passionate orientation toward life rather than death.
Which brings us full-circle back to the American myth: assertive, optimistic, and pointing always toward a lively future. Who knows what the next chapter will bring?
- Jerome Hoberman -