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On Being Discovered

Music in a New Found Land: Themes and Developments in the History of American Music

by Wilfrid Mellers
Knopf, 543 pp., $5.95

America’s art music has not heretofore aroused much enthusiasm among Europeans. Our ragtime was parodied lovingly, if not enviously, by Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky. And jazz, though harder to make grow, did flower in the fugal finale of Milhaud’s La Création du monde, of 1924. It also stimulated, beginning in the 1920s, serious historical studies by Robert Goffin and Hugues Panassié, more recently by André Hodeir. The examination of our Appalachian folklore had been started around 1915 by Cecil Sharp, an Englishman. And our commercial popular music had already, after World War I, replaced the Viennese for worldwide export. George Gershwin had even been successful in both kinds of production, since his Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra and his opera Porgy and Bess had become, by the mid-1950s, as familiar to everybody everywhere as his songs.

But the Gershwin experience remains unique and not clearly a witness for America’s art-music tradition. Everywhere our jazz and pop are respected, but not so our symphonic and opera creations, our chamber music and our lieder. How comes it, then, that a European musicologist devotes a whole book to them? The answer is simple; he has fallen in love with us. Not with all of America, perhaps, but certainly, as is clear on every page, with our music. He has felt the energy and the violence behind it and come to penetrate its surfaces, whether these be rough or glassy, arriving through a composer’s understanding—for Wilfrid Mellers is also a creative artist—at acceptance (and with joy) of the fact that American music is at its best when least entangled with Europe.

Though his title, Music in a New Found Land, suggests that Professor Mellers (now of York University) has only recently discovered us (perhaps through his two years’ tenure as Mellon Professor at the University of Pittsburgh), this is not exactly the case. As early as 1950, in his book Music and Society, he was treating the transatlantic theme as American Music and an Industrial Community. This essay seems to be the fruit of his wartime friendship in England with the late Marc Blitzstein, through whom he had got to know not only the latter’s social-consciousness operas but also the music of Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. In fact, it is almost exclusively out of these three composers that a view-point, or aussicht, was erected, somewhat after the Marxian plan, for interpreting the “good” strain in American music as ethical, objective, didactic, and mainly of the theater.

The present book, dedicated to Aaron Copland and to the memory of Marc Blitzstein, enlarges that view to include almost everybody, naturally reducing somewhat the salience of these two, but not removing from the central position Charles Ives, whom he considers “the first authentic American composer and…still the closest America has come to a great composer, parallel to her nineteenth-century literary giants.” Blitzstein has even been demoted from this high intellectual company to a place in “sincere” show business, somewhere between Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. And Copland has been flanked, in Edgar Varése, Elliott Carter, and John Cage, with figures seemingly of his size, and hieratically extended, through Roy Harris, Roger Sessions, Samuel Barber, and myself, by secondary figures occupying, at least in this book, comparable space.

All such re-arrangements of official history are easy for a foreigner to do. And Mellers has long been adept, as in François Couperin and the French Classical Tradition and in his earlier studies of Erik Satie, at seeing around corners. For his mind is fast and sure-footed like a squirrel, storing up nuts for a long feast in the hollow of any tree. But the tree had to be there.

His tree, though another might have done as well, is a set of ideas about American literary history that have been standing available for some years now, ideas about the influence on American art of the Puritan Tradition and of the Genteel Tradition, about how Americans are dominated by dreams of purity (hence of childhood) and a yearning for the absolute (hence utter tranquility, outer space, or death), and about how every artist is at heart either a country boy or a city boy. All these ideas, once serviceable, are a little tired by now, better for hanging out journalistic light wash than for housing nourishment. Which is not to call them wholly valueless, though through overuse they have indeed lost meaning. And none of them is specific to America, anyway. The Puritan Tradition is stronger in Spain, the Genteel more terrifying in Soviet Russia, the preoccupation with death more prevalent in Germany; and as for identification with childhood, it is a solid literary tradition in both England and France.

It would be a pleasure to credit the patent excellence of Meller’s judgements to some intellectual method better suited to either deriving them or defending them, but I can find no such reasoning. I see rather an intuitive recognition of quality, good guesses, and a brilliantly improvisatory literary style. In whatever he says Mellers tends to carry you with him. And the amazing rightness of his estimates, which may well remain for a decade or two 90 per cent definitive, are all the more impressive from the fact that they are not very different from the estimates confidentially circulated now among the members of music’s in-group. Their surprisingness comes partly from their being so suddenly gathered together in one package, and partly from the blinding brightness of their expression. Mellers, as a scholar, could easily be convicted on points, for his book contains many errors and omissions. But no writer on the subject has before described our music so faithfully or handled it with so much love.

Ives’s integrity, we read, “is synonymous with his experimental audacity”; and this in turn springs from, first, “the pioneer’s courage: his desire to hack a way through the forest since he has, indeed, no alternative,” and second, “the radical innocence of spirit without which—as we have seen in the literary figures—the pioneer could hardly embark on so perilous an adventure.” The core of Ives’s work is “acceptance of life-as-it-is in all its apparent chaos and contradiction,” every kind of musical material and technique being usable “as experience dictates, and often simultaneously, since all experience is related and indivisible.” The search for unity within such a chaos is, moreover, “a transcendental act” and his view of the sonata “an attempt to impose the unity of the Will on the chaos of experience,” as he believed Beethoven to have done. But having behind him only “the American wilderness, not Viennese civilization and a long musical history,” he cannot travel so far and consequently merely “glimpses, but does not enter, his paradise.”

In Carl Ruggles’s music “the surging spring of the lines, the persistent tension of the dissonance, is like the pain of birth; nothing is preordained, all is a growing.” And comparing him to Arnold Schoenberg, he says:

both were amateur painters who, in their visual work, sought the expressionistic moment of vision. Both…found that the disintegrated fragments of the psyche could be reintegrated only by a mystical act. Schoenberg, as a Viennese Jew, had an ancient religion and the spirit of Beethoven to help him; Ruggles had only the American wilderness and the austerities of Puritan New England. For this reason he sought freedom—from tonal bondage, from the harmonic straight-jacket, from conventionalized repetitions, from anything that sullied the immediacy and purity of experience—even more remorselessly than Schoenberg.

But “his dedication to the sublime also means that he has to be inspired to carry it off.” Hence the very small production.

Roy Harris is for Mellers a “primitive” and his music “fundamentally a religious affirmation,” where often, toward the end of any work, “the religious lyricism has been metamorphosed into the American violence.”

In Aaron Copland’s case, complete artistic realization has been achieved, but only by a “severe limitation of [expressive] range,” for the “quintessential Copland” is “a wistful urban loneliness.” The Piano Variations of 1930, his “first masterpiece,” is “bare and hard,” “almost skeletal,” differing from European music and from most of that by Ives. Ruggles, or Harris in its “lack of lyrical growth.” As a construction it is “steely and monumental, yet at the same time a profoundly human expression of courage.” The Piano Fantasy of twenty-five years later—“the third of Copland’s major piano works—is also the greatest: for it fuses the stark energy of the Variations with the still serenity of the Sonata’s last movement.” He considers Copland “not a ‘great’ composer” but “a very important composer in twentieth-century history, for he is the first artist to define precisely, in sound, an aspect of our urban experience.”

In Elliott Carter, “the values represented by Ives and Copland come to terms,” which is to say that the polymorphous spontaneity of Ives has been transformed, through Copland’s constructivist influence, into controlled composition, with no loss to expressivity. Ives’s realistic depiction, however, (of country fairs and such) has been abandoned, as in Beethoven’s last quartets, for transcendental unity-in-multiplicity and for seeking at the end a break-through into the beatific.

A similar dream of salvation through the procedures of monumentality Mr. Mellers posits as the drama of Roger Sessions. In fact, it seems to him the essential drama of all the New England composers. And he identifies it with the soul-struggle of Beethoven, in one chapter praising such an aspiration to power and integrity, in another finding it profitless to seek repetition of Beethoven’s experience.

Certainly the more novel and “progressive” of our composers—from Griffes and Varèse to Harry Partch and John Cage—have “taken off” not from Beethoven’s achievement but from Debussy’s, from his isolation of individual sounds as sensuous experience and the recomposing of these into contiguities of continuous delight with no care for either monumentality or personal salvation. Cage himself has indeed, rather more effectively, I suspect, than today’s painters and poets, carried the post-Impressionist, post-Cubist Dada tradition into our time and become, through a willed Will-lessness that prays to, and moves toward, silence, “a beatnik saint whose disciples proliferate.”

Whether Samuel Barber’s music is mainly an evocation of adolescence, like Tchaikowsky’s and Rachmanin-off’s anyone can argue. Certainly, for all its sweetness and fine workmanship, it is no part just now of our intellectual life. And I should be the last to know whether there is justice in the oft-drawn parallel between Satie and myself. Mellers says that “both the technical methods and the cultivated naivety are the same.” But when he essays to identify the disciplines of spontaneity as “inconsequential” and “childish” regressions (in both my case and Gertrude Stein’s) he misses the fact that simplifications, abstractions, radical compactions, and restored-to-beauty commonplaces, no less than Debussy’s and Cage’s “liberation of the individual sound,” are inherent to all our century’s radical art, and especially to that Paris-centered modernism which from Picasso in painting to Robbe-Grillet in writing has served as norm and mainstream for artists working West of the Rhine. Even music’s Vienna School, though it tampered little with Romanticism’s meaning-clichés, early strove to neutralize and to pulverize music’s materials.

With Copland, the author’s city-dweller premise still allows him to admire the landscape music, provided it is from a lonesome landscape. With Carter, his determination to find everywhere a search for transcendental experience leads him to suspect in the Double Concerto, where he finds no lyric line, a denial of “man’s humanity,” which is “his first offering to God.” And with me he has a hard time making his “adult child” hypothesis fit the Mass for the Dead, while before A Solemn Music he simply gives up and admits “unexpected emotional depth.” The Violin Sonata and string quartets he wisely avoids to review.

One of the great joys of Mellers as a musical analyst is the ease with which he throws away his instruments of meaning-detection for an instantaneous, instinctive, on-the-spot, straight-to-the- heart-of-the-matter interpretation of anything and everything. And if this practical spontaneity leads him to understand, through his composer’s empathy, virtually everything but schooled spontaneity, it gives his musical heart permission to love whatever sounds in a fresh way, or speaks from another heart. So that one scarcely feels a need to argue with him. It may be just as well, all the same, to remark that an increasing number of persons are writing about twentieth-century modernism who were never connected with it. Also that England, even more than America, occupies in that movement a provincial situation. So that when an English musical mind (one, moreover, quite free of ties to the British Establishment and also one remarkably informed regarding France) turns its illuminating scrutiny on to the American musical mind, there is the possibility, as happened when Ernest Newman discovered Sibelius in Finland, of undue gratitude being shown for survivals from the gamut of feeling of another century.

But since Mellers is the only European so far to look us over with any completeness, and since his view, however hasty, is wildly favorable, it is perhaps ungracious to cavil. Just the same, for all its pellucid penetration and warmth of love, his examination of American art music does seem a bit casual, when compared to the best European studies of jazz.

His treatment of popular music in the book’s second half, though many of its descriptions of disk performances may be as spontaneous in thought as in phrase, profits from the existence of a dozen other histories. Its justification is that pops and jazz are needed to make a whole picture of America. For jazz is the most astounding spontaneous musical event to take place anywhere since the Reformation. And pop music here has come so near giving birth to top music—in Gershwin, Blitzstein, and, just maybe, Bernstein—that a Marxian philosopher could not resist opening the question of its relation to musical authenticity.

The three cases are not identical, obviously. Gershwin came from Tin Pan Alley, by way of the Lisztian rhapsody, to giving a Broadway play operatic status. And although the theme of that is a white-man’s view of Negro life (and phony throughout), its translation into melody is a lovely one because Gershwin was a pure heart.

Blitzstein was an intellectual musician, a pupil of Schoenberg and Boulanger, also a passionate Marxist, who found in the operas of Kurt Weill out of Brecht a populist formula capable of being used for passionate propaganda. In so using it, he revealed himself as a natural theater composer and a master of characterization through the parody of musical styles. Copland, in films or ballet, never went so far.

Leonard Bernstein is an even more elaborately trained classical musician—by Harvard, the Curtis Institute, Fritz Reiner, and Koussevitzky. But he also spent certain youthful years in Tin Pan Alley working for the Warner Brothers. His symphonic works are coated with Broadway, and his Broadway shows are braided throughout with Tanglewood. Successfully to court a mass audience in the language of Stravinsky and Milhaud proves the musical sophistication of that audience to be far greater than that of any mass audience in Europe. But it does not make Bernstein an operetta composer like his earlier French counterpart, André Messager, who was a no less fine classical conductor.

Blitzstein, in ‘purifying the dialect of the tribe,’ ” to quote again, “creates works which are related to musical comedy but could not be mistaken for it; Bernstein, in writing a musical comedy, cannot entirely avoid capitulation to commercial values.” In other words, Gershwin and Blitzstein have in different ways fulfilled their talents. Bernstein, perhaps because of their stultifying abundance, has not yet fulfilled his.

Here endeth the second lesson from Wilfrid Mellers, the first having been a 1950 sketch for this, now extended and improved. Further extension and improvement may come or not: but American music will be better off for what he has told us already about ourselves. Professor Mellers has other preoccupations too, notably, I believe, a history of English words-and-music from medieval times. Everything he writes is full of enlightenment; I should not care to limit him, or to miss one essay. But seeing ourselves as others see us is as good as having your fortune told. And Mellers has given us not only the joy of being looked at, but the satisfaction of being voted for as well.

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