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.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.