Wednesday, January 15, 2014

American music

Harvey Bordowitz was the conductor of the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra for 31 years. Now retired he shares his knowledge and enthusiasm for music in lectures. The first of his presentations in his current series at Netanya AACI was on "American music."

The first well-known American composer was George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931), who like all his American contemporaries went to Europe to learn musical composition. Thus his works cannot be distinguished from other European music. Stephen Foster (1826-64) was known as the "father of American music" for his most famous songs, "Oh, Susannah," "Camptown races," "I dream of Jeanie with the light-brown hair," and many more. He was the first truly popular song composer. Another popular composer was Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), who was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and whose father was Jewish, who composed many piano pieces and was known as a piano virtuoso who toured Europe as well as America.

The first really American music derived from the Black African community, including jazz (that originally meant sex) and ragtime. The name ragtime derived from the fact that the music was not smooth like European music but had a syncopated "ragged time." The most famous exponent of ragtime was Scott Joplin (1867-1917), a Black composer from Texas whose compositions became famous after the 1970s move "The Sting" featured his music.

Two classical American composers were Charles Ives (1874-1954) and Samuel Barber (1910-1981), both of whom injected American themes into their music. Ives was considered a modernist composer who incorporated expermental approaches in his music that foreshadowed the music of the 20th century, one of his famous compositions involves two bands playing different music passing each other. Samuel Barber's most famous moving composition is his "Adagio for strings" that is often played at funerals. After them the most prominent was Aaron Copland (1900-1990), born in Brooklyn, whose compositions, including "Fanfare for the Common Man", "Appalachian Spring" and "Rodeo" are considered some of the most evocative American music.

Perhaps the most famous American composer of the early 20th century was George Gershwin (1898-1937), who learnt to play the piano as a song-plugger on Tin-pan Alley, the center for sheet music publication in New York in the early 1900s. George was a composer in a true American idiom and his ":Rhapsody in Blue" is a masterpiece of its kind. It was written in 1924 with only 5 weeks notice for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and had valuable input from the arranger Ferdie Grofe, who introduced the famous initial clarinet theme that is so reminiscent of that age. Gershwin also wrote the famous "American in Paris" (1928) and the unique American Opera "Porgy and Bess" (1935). Most of Gershwin's lyrics were written by his brother Ira, including "Fascinating rhythm" and "Lady be good" and many more.

His musical successor was Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), who took the format of the American Musical to greater heights. The American Musical can be considered the equivalent of the Italian Opera in the modern age. Its chief exponents were Richard Rodgers (who was Jewish), Oscar Hammerstein (who was not), Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Lerner and Loewe, and the most popular examples were "Oklahoma" and "Carousel." But, it was Bernstein's "West Side Story," with its tribute to "America" that topped them all. In these musicals the singing, dancing, entertaining performers rose to new heights that were then translated into memorable movies.

The master of the American popular song was Irving Berlin (1888-1989; changed from Isidore Beilin) who wrote more American popular songs than anyone else ever. Among the great jazz composers were Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington, whose band in the Cotton Club in Harlem was very influential.

Although at the outset American composers went to Europe for training, by the middle of the 20th century European composers went to America for inspiration. Some European composers who went to the USA were Antonin Dvorak, whose "Symphony from the New World" is a popular classical piece, and Frederick Delius, who incorporated Black spirituals into his music. Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Bela Bartok were among those who went to the USA to escape WWII. In modern classical music, Phillip Glass can be considered a major influence.

It should be noted that a large proportion of the music that is called American was produced by Jews, many of whom were native Americans, such as Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein. We can consider America as a free society in which the Jewish musical genius was able to flower and to realize its full potential.


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