Monday, December 19, 2005

The spirit that characterizes the American Man

Purely national music has no place in art. What negro melodies have to do with Americanism still remains a mystery to me. Why cover a beautiful thought with the badge of slavery rather than with the stern but at least manly and free rudeness of the North American Indian?.... Masquerading in the so-called nationalism of Negro clothes cut in Bohemia will not help us. What we must arrive at is the youthful optimistic vitality and the undaunted tenacity of spirit that characterizes the American Man.

An interesting quote by Edward MacDowell, presumably emanating from around the 1890s, that is reproduced in the liner notes to the Naxos CD of MacDowell's two Orchestral Suites (Naxos 8.559075). MacDowell has a reputation of being the most "Europeanized" of American composers active at this time, and consequently has been marginalized as most distinctive American composers, Ives, Griffes, even Gottschalk, came into critical favor. Certainly MacDowell's music comes solidly out of the European, mostly Central European, late-Romantic tradition and even his conscious nods to an American identity - e.g. the Orchestral Suite No. 2, the "Indian" - could just as easily been composed by a European composer as an American.

Pushing this aside though, and simply considering MacDowell's music as music, it is very attractive. If an unabashedly Romantic composer such as the Englishman Arnold Bax can be resurrected and appreciated today, so equally can Edward MacDowell. The suites are prime examples of mythologically-informed tone painting, rich and harmonically lush. The assumed Indian melodies that inform the 2nd Suite are treated solidly within the European Romantic tradition, losing any cultural otherworldliness in the process, but generating entirely satisfactory music. On its own terms these are very convincing works and deserve to be heard again.

But back to the quote. MacDowell is clearly entirely a man of his time. He has absorbed the prevailing wisdom and prefers not to question it. The implicit racism and white supremacy contained within even this fairly innocuous statement were very much contemporary sentiments. Perhaps this lack of questioning is at the core of his failure to stamp an American identity on music. The more visionary American composers of the time, although not necessarily any more culturally or racially enlightened than MacDowell, give a sense of attempting to look deeper into the roots of their thinking that suggests an unease with the assumptions that govern their status in American society. They show a willingness to look beyond the obvious and the acceptable. At least in today's values, this is much more the spirit that charactizes the best of the American Man.


CGHill said...

But give MacDowell some credit here: he was reacting to a rather startling suggestion by Dvorak, just installed at the National Conservatory in New York, to the effect that "American music" might properly be derived from New World sources. Dvorak, of course, went on to put his money where his mouth was, though not everyone who followed his lead was entirely successful. (Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2, for instance, managed to spend decades in the composer's desk before its belated premiere in the early 1950s.)

Musickna said...

I'm sure that if McDowell was startled, it was because he had forgotten - as many composers less enlightened than Dvorak were wont to do - that European classical music owes its very existance to indigenous folk musics. Ironically, it was the reinfusion of these elements, albeit through the sheen of Romantic harmonization, that allowed nationalistic music to flourish at this time. But in many this was a secondary and much more artificial process than the primary amalgamation that occured from the Middle Ages onward. I think it is fair to say that much of the music of the 20th century represents an attempt to reconcile these two folk-streams, or at least recapture something of the essence of the first great infusion.

Thank you for your comment; it was informed and interesting.