This is an outline for a lecture given on the following program of music. The title of the concert “I Hear America Singing,” was chosen by the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director, Adam Stern, to supplement the all American program.
1931 Of Thee I Sing Overture George and Ira Gershwin
1937 Suite for Orchestra Oscar Levant
1938 Billy the Kid Aaron Copland
1973 Night Songs Richard Peaslee
Walt Whitman published his anthology Leaves of Grass, with his own money, in 1855. As he revised the collection over the next forty years, Whitman essayed quite deliberately, and sometimes heavy handedly, to create an American Epic with his poetry. As a departure from the Homeric epics of a time gone by, Whitman hoped to fill his own story with voices of the common individual. His was a reflection of reality, rather than the creation of a mythos.
In the poem “I Hear America Singing”, part of Leaves of Grass, Whitman evokes imagery of the many voices in America. The mechanic, carpenter, mason, sewer, all “singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.” The poem’s strong optimism and nationalism are detracted only by the historical note that America fell into civil war six years later.
Today’s program is a synthesis of four unique and undeniably American voices. Each makes a statement about the world and each adds to the incredible polyphony of American culture.
In 1931, George Gershwin and his brother Ira were asked to write music for a new script from George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. The First World War had ended over a decade before, but the United States was in the middle of an unfathomable economic depression and the New Deal was still two years away. The play, Of Thee I Sing (after the lyric in “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” - but having little do do with that anthem), was a sharp political satire in the tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan. So pointed and effective was the commentary of Kaufman and Ryskind, in fact, that the play won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 (the first musical ever to do so).
By the 1930s, Gershwin had created a musical style that was undeniably American. Built from the roots of Jazz and polished by allegiances with American bands like Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, Gershwin was an international voice for both popular and classical music from the United States. Yet as American as the Gershwin sound is, the delicious truth is that Gershwin’s music was majorly influenced by the music from other nations and composers of the time. Maurice Ravel, Darius Milhaud, Dmitri Shostakovich and Arnold Schoenberg all had dramatic impact on the way that Gershwin crafted music. And he had an effect on many of them as well. It is said that when Gershwin asked to study under Ravel, the french composer told him, “Why be a second-rate Ravel, when you are a first-rate Gershwin?”
Gershwin’s insatiable curiosity and reverence for many forms and styles in music are perhaps the truest part of his American voice. His music represents a growing America, bold in its own style, but aware of its many roots in European culture. A musical melting pot with a truly American result.
Gershwin’s influence on the popular culture in 1920s and 30s America should not be underestimated and his marks on Hollywood and Broadway were profound, and it was through the connection of show business that George Gershwin and Oscar Levant first met.
Levant had also been bridging the gap between the classical and popular worlds for some time. Figuratively, he was playing piano for Broadway by night and moving in classical circles by day. When he moved to LA in 1928 to pursue film, he quickly met George Gershwin, and the two became close friends.
Gershwin’s music had a major impact on Levant, but perhaps the most important influence on Levant’s own composition came from Gershwin’s introduction of Levant to Joseph Schillinger and subsequently to Arnold Schoenberg, who was teaching in Los Angeles by the mid 1930s.
Schoenberg had been developing a music style, now called the twelve-tone system, that was beginning to have a major impact on new classical music. He thought of his style as highly evolved, leaving behind the tradition of key based music that had existed previously.
The beginning of the twentieth century had seen a revolution in science, philosophy and art. In 1900, Sigmund Freud’s publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, had rocked the foundations of psychology and popular understanding of the mind. Max Planck’s quantum theory (published in the same year) likewise revolutionized the worlds of Physics and Mathmatics. Art was not far behind, and with the first non-represenatational paintings by Kandinsky and his contemporaries, the definitions of what made art were fundamentally altered. Schoeberg’s own twelve-tone system had its way paved by these new expressionistic and deeply analytical developments. Before, the purpose of art had been largely in keeping with Shakespeare’s idiom “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.” Now, the mirror was being held up to nature’s most finite detail, the atom in the case of science, and the human mind in art and culture.
Schoenberg’s invention of the Twelve-tone system, some of the first truly a-tonal music, is often correlated with dissonance, but it is an improper association. In fact, Schoenberg himself thought of the twelve-tone system as the “emancipation of the dissonance.” Each composition in the twelve-tone system makes use of every pitch in the chromatic western scale, but does so without repeating any notes. This creates a “tone row,” upon which certain variations can be made. The lack of a root pitch, or “tonic” makes the music “a-tonal” and without any home key. Thus, music using the twelve-tone system can have very harsh sounds and also very beautiful sounds, but lacks the characteristic of a key signature requisite for a literal interpretation of dissonance.
The twelve-tone system is employed quite expertly in Levant’s Suite for Orchestra. The music is very different in character from that of Arnold Shoenberg, but the listener will notice a distinct lack of tonality in the music. The middle movement of this piece “Dirge,” was dedicated “In Memory of George Gershwin,” who had died, a young man, one year earlier. Just as his teacher, Schoenberg, had been influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud and the subsequent expressionistic movement in Art, this music seems to turn the mirror inward, and probe the depths of grief and the human psyche.
Levant’s music gives us a strong American voice. Always calculating, but often brash and exuberant, it is representative not only of Levant’s own personality, but of the modern and forward looking character of a country that was struggling to dig itself out of the Great Depression while simultaneously emerging as an important part of international cultural and politics.
It was perhaps this character that caught the attention of Aaron Copland, who asked Levant to premier his Sonatina for Piano at Copland’s Contemporary American Music Festival in 1932.
Aaron Copland had studied in France with Nadia Boulanger in the early 1920s and returned to America with a wide understanding of both historical and modern musical forms. His greatest interest was in new music, which he both created himself and encouraged others to do. Composing, as he was, during the Depression, Copland also sought new, profit oriented, venues for his music, and began composing for theatre and dance. One of his most successful scores for ballet, Billy the Kid, was heralded as a new masterpiece in American music. Copland’s blend of earlier American folk melodies and modern musical techniques combined to create a unique American statement. Billy the Kid paints a vivid portrait of the expansive landscape characteristic in the American west. It is rich in nostalgia, but also expressionistic and insightful. Frequently, the music takes on the characteristics of Billy’s own damaged psyche. Marred by violence in his early childhood, Billy’s perception of the world is skewed. So too is Copland’s music, which uses polytonal tricks to turn well known melodies into masterfully off-kilter motifs.
Richard Peaslee, another student of Nadia Boulanger, and with a rich career in music for theatre and dance, composed his piece Night Songs in the early 1970s as a commission for Harold Lieberman. Peaslee had risen to a well deserved fame after writing music for Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Marat/Sade. He subsequently wrote for Brook’s infamous productions of US and Oedipus and for a number of Martha Clarke’s dance productions.
Like Gershwin, Levant and Copland, Peaslee’s musical influences are vast, as is his body of work. Night Songs itself is a good example of musical eclecticism, borrowing from the jazz tradition in many of its harmonies and syncopated rhythms, but also occasionally making use of the twelve-tone system and unconventional scales. The soloist’s music is scored for flugelhorn and trumpet, giving us a rare listen to what Peaslee calls the “dark lyric” qualities of the former instrument.
This is the most modern American voice on the program. A voice of growing cultural history, slightly rebellious and often cunning. A bold addition to the American song.
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