And one more thing...

There might be some personal nonsense in here, too...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

American Classical Music at the time of Poe = Polar Bear in a Snowstorm

No nation as young as America can be expected to become immediately a power in the arts.

The tall order I've placed for myself is a work of contemporary music with a side of B-movie film score, and a dressing of instruments and "classical" musical references of which Poe might have been familiar, had he been an aficionado (all signs say he wasn't).  And I've been hoping to draw from a more American flavor in this regard.  To that end I've been researching American serious music of the early 19th Century, something I didn't hear much about in school.
 Poe published The Fall of the House of Usher in 1839.  In musical Europe, the late 1830s is the time of Chopin and Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Schumann, Donizetti and Cherubini; the beginnings of Verdi and Wagner; the ends of Rossini and Hummel.  Russia finds the origins of its European-inspired orchestral greatness in Glinka.  Brazil boasts Gomes and da Silva.  And in America we have ... er, uhm...
 For one thing we have Jim Crow and the growing popularity of minstrelsy.
 WTF, white people.  I mean, and literally I mean for Christ's sake, WTF.  Usher is the same year as Monsieur Dumas' sophomore publication, Le Capitaine Pamphile, but over here we preferred "black" antics by the likes of Thomas Dartmouth Rice?  Really?

(Begin rant.....NOW!

It didn't stop with the 1800's, people.  A few weeks ago I saw my nephew in an all South Jersey elementary school chorus, where the paper program proudly cited the inclusion of Dance, Boatman, Dance, and noting it correctly as a minstrel song.  I was ashamed and outraged that a racially diverse mix of kids was being taught this song with absolutely no context, no history, no apologies.  And that lack of education is a certainty; the chorus directors simply sent the music to the kids to learn and practice independently at home — there were no classes, no group rehearsals, no discussion of what a "minstrel song" really is.  In a later conversation about this, with white people, I was stunned to hear that they [the white people] thought this was okay.  You know, because it's "historical", and they grew up with it themselves.  I don't f***ing care if Copland set it, it's still a sh*tty minstrel song and has no place in the casual and uninformed repertoire of 6th graders.
 If you too are outraged at the glossing over of racism in the so-called "music education" of kids, please write to all the people involved in:

...who are mostly white folk themselves, and tell them how you feel.  And run, do not walk, away from South Jersey.  Hey, don't look now, but here are two more white guys singing it!  Don't they look happy?


1830s America was yet a young country with a lot on our plate, but...  Alright, I don't want this to degenerate into an op-ed piece 175 years late.  To sum up, there are a number of reasons America's classical music culture hadn't come around, including: the disparate provincial heritage and independence-mindedness of the states delayed a cohesive national artistic identity; higher music education and performance options were limited in number, location, and accessibility; the remains of Puritanism still shaped the taste, use, and permissiveness of some artistic expression; and the arts in general remained a concern secondary to commercial, political, and military enterprise and expansion.
 American art would evolve in the coming decades, but in Poe's lifetime the pickings were mightily slim.  Until 1820 or so, even the most important American composers were amateurs, dilettantes, limited to choral work, and/or of distinctly European musical sensibility, like those of the First New England School.
 Worse yet, while American serious music was still finding its legs, non-American imports also lagged.  The only music specified by Poe in Usher is the incorrectly attributed Last Waltz of von Weber; Weber died in 1826, thirteen years before the story was published.  New Orleans boasted the first opera performed in America in 1796, but such were rare.  In fact, PBS claims that the first fully-staged opera was in New York City in 1826 — Rossini's The Barber of Seville.  The fact that opera was such a novelty says quite a bit about the sophistication and state of music appreciation in the young U.S., even among the wealthy and educated classes.  It's no wonder there's so little to go on for Usher.
 I did come across one bright spot in Anthony Philip Heinrich, the foremost American composer of his day (though born and raised in Belgium, his entire musical career was here), and perhaps the first to include Native American themes in his work.  I gather that being self-taught contributed to what is apparently a distinctively non-traditional approach to harmony and scoring.  I've not heard his music, but I'll be making a point of finding it.  To the point about a dearth of European imports, Heinrich is also credited with conducting the mere 2nd performance of ANY Beethoven symphony in the United States, in 1817: the First Symphony, which had been published in Europe in 1801.  Imagine a 19th Century classical music world where the Beethoven heard is 7 symphonies and two musical styles behind the times!

So, I seem to have come up almost empty-handed.  It's unlikely that Poe — somewhat itinerant, usually poor, always busy and troubled — paid much attention to the "serious" music of the day.  Any he may have enjoyed seems similar enough to European classical music of his childhood that I could and probably will be looking toward composers of the 1820s for instrumentation and scoring inspiration.

Bring on the basset horn and ophicleide!