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Why do we sing "The Star Spangled Banner?" Which signer of the Declaration of Independence was also a composer? And did "Yankee Doodle" originate as an attempt to make fun of Americans, not celebrate the American Revolution?
These are not just questions about musical trivia. America has a rich and significant musical history. If you are a parent or grandparent, you are faced with a clear challenge and opportunity in an age of cultural confusion. America's musical heritage is not just a collection of patriotic melodies or lyrics. It is a vast cornucopia of many genres of music, including concert works, jazz, musical theater, and motion picture scores. Its story is one of musical pioneers, explorers, teachers, innovators, and leaders. But this is a story that your children and grandchildren will not be taught. Your challenge is confront this reality; your opportunity is to see that they are introduced to the real story of American music and the achievements of remarkable men and women who created our greatest art form.
You may assume that you need not be concerned because your children or grandchildren play musical instruments or take classes in school on "music." But today's ubiquitous pop culture has taken hold in schools throughout the land. Students are likely to have their attention focused upon rock, rap, and pop; they are far more influenced by peer pressure from their friends and trends on social media than guidance from their teachers. Nor should you assume that their teachers are familiar with America's musical story. This problem has been growing for generations. What precisely are they missing?
From the earliest days of the country, music played an important role. Settlers who came to the colonies to find religious freedom brought hymns to sing in their churches. Francis Hopkinson is often considered America's first composer. He was also among our Founding Fathers: he had signed the Declaration of Independence and helped design an early American flag. Hopkinson wasn't an important musical figure, but he wrote a group of songs that brought tears to the eyes of the daughter of his friend Thomas Jefferson and was inspired by the inauguration of another good friend, George Washington, as the first President of the United States.
Each of our patriotic songs has its own story. The original lyrics for "Yankee Doodle" lampooned the slogans of the colonists and were written by John Vardill, a loyalist who supported the British monarchy and wanted to ridicule the patriotic "Sons of Liberty." But rebels against the government of King George III proudly assumed the nickname "Yankees" and took it as a badge of honor.
During the War of 1812, the bombardment of Ft. McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and poet, to write the words for "The Star Spangled Banner." The melody came from an old English drinking song. The often maligned lyric about the "rockets' red glare" was a tribute to the flag and the American spirit and desire for freedom that survived "the bombs bursting in air." Its message was about American liberty surviving in the face of adversity and reminds us that if America had not been the home of the brave, it would today not be the home of the free.
Good music, then as now, had to struggle to be heard. In 1837, when he offered to work without pay, Lowell Mason, the composer of hundreds of hymns, was finally able to persuade the authorities in Boston to let him teach music in the public schools. This was the beginning of public school music education in the United States. Theodore Thomas became America's first real symphony conductor and devoted his life to bringing the music of such composers as Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms to audiences that had never heard such music before. Americans were stirred by the music of concert bands led by Patrick Gilmore and John Philip Sousa.
Gilmore had an arrangement of an old camp meeting song made for his band; the melody eventually became "John Brown's Body" and with a new lyric by Julia Ward Howe, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the anthem of those who fought to abolish slavery during the Civil War. Sousa, who composed our national march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," lived well into the 20th century and was unimpressed by the sound quality of recorded music. He wrote that "Canned music is as incongruous by a campfire as canned salmon by a trout stream." An effort to change Sousa's mind by arranging a meeting with recording pioneer inventor Thomas Edison failed. The two got into an argument and the meeting didn't end well. Sousa helped found ASCAP, an organization devoted to advancing the rights of composers. (An aside note: he liked to visit Pinehurst, NC, to pursue his love of skeet shooting.)
Composer John Knowles Paine became America's (and Harvard's) first music professor in 1870. He did not receive a warm welcome from colleagues at Harvard, who did not consider music a legitimate discipline and demanded that he not be paid. (This is a curious phenomenon in music, past and present. Someone always insists that one way to solve problems is to not pay musicians.) The noted historian Francis Parkman greeted Paine's appointment at Harvard with the declaration "Musica delenda est," or Latin for "Music must be destroyed."
What is an American composer? During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many fine composers followed European models, especially those from Germany. But this changed as a group of American composers began exploring new ways to express a uniquely American voice. Included were such figures as Charles Ives, who told his copyists, "The wrong notes are right," Aaron Copland, Roy Harris (one of my own teachers, born in a log cabin on Lincoln's Birthday in Lincoln County, Oklahoma), Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions,* Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, and Samuel Barber, to mention only a few.
America also attracted many of the world's greatest composers, more than a few of whom settled here. The émigrés included celebrated composers and master teachers, among them Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (who was my teacher, characterized by another of his pupils, André Previn, as "the man who knew everything"), Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernest Bloch, and Ernst Toch.
Jazz has been called "America's classical music." It requires two special elements, improvisation and swing, and emanated from the black community, which combined African rhythms with a host of new melodic and harmonic influences. From its origins inspired by Scott Joplin in the Ragtime Era and the pioneering musicians in New Orleans, notably Louis Armstrong, and in Chicago during the 1920s, jazz depended on simultaneous composition and performance.
The Swing Era was a time of legendary big bands, including Benny Goodman, The King of Swing, who broke the color barrier for black musicians when he invited pianist Teddy Wilson to join his ensemble, his rival Artie Shaw, the famed Dorsey Brothers, Tommy and Jimmy, and Glenn Miller, most admired leader of a "sweet band." Miller's theme was "Moonlight Serenade." Members of the World War II generation danced and fell in love listening to its romantic melody without realizing that it was originally not inspired by moonlight. Miller wrote it as an exercise in musical mathematics while exploring the composition techniques of his teacher, Joseph Schillinger.
Jazz had its own royalty, the Duke (Edward Kennedy Ellington) and the Count (William Basie) whose ensembles left a lasting jazz legacy. Art Tatum, a pianist who could barely see the keyboard, came from Toledo, Ohio, to dazzle listeners and other pianists to such an extent that he remains a legend to this day. After the Big Band period came the Bop Era, filled with such rebels and explorers as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell, who turned the harmonic and melodic structures of jazz upside down. In the 1950s, the temperature changed as hot jazz gave way to cool jazz. Jazz, a unique American creation, went around the world, into the college classroom, and became a worldwide phenomenon. Today every student should recognize the names of such historic figures as Lester Young ("The President of the Saxophone") and Canada's Oscar Peterson ("The Maharajah of the Piano.")
Musical theater, or musical comedy, as it was once known, is also a genre with unique origins in the American melting pot. The American musical began as an accident of history, In 1866, a producer named William Wheatley was preparing to present a minor melodrama when he was approached by two impresarios, Henry C. Jarrett and Harry Palmer, who had imported an ensemble of French ballet dancers to the U.S. only to have their theater burn down. Wheatley added the troupe of pretty French dancing girls to a previously unmusical play by Charles Barras, and the rest was history.
Musicals in the early years of the 20th century by such composers as Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml, and Sigmund Romberg, were influenced by European light opera. They were followed by the shows and songs created figures from Tin Pan Alley such as Irving Berlin. (Jerome Kern once famously said that Berlin didn't have a place in American music, he IS American music.) Berlin, in addition to his shows, wrote countless popular songs including the three most identified with American holidays, "Easter Parade", "White Christmas," and "God Bless America," the latter sung by everyone on Independence Day. Berlin's daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, told me that Berlin wrote "God Bless America" as his way of saying "thank you" to the country that had welcomed him as an immigrant and had given him the freedom to enjoy liberty and achieve the American dream.
The American musical was born of Viennese operetta, British musical hall tunes, immigrants from Ireland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Russia, the rhythms of jazz, the folksongs and spirituals of African Americans, and the traditions of Italian opera. The American stage musical didn't begin just recently with rock musicals or rap musicals. The best musicals reflect a sophistication and literacy that transcend and surpass the popular song. Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, brothers George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers (with his two lyricists, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II), Kurt Weill, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and others, were far more than tunesmiths. Much of their musical and lyrical output became part of what we call today, "The Great American Songbook."
Having grown up in the music department of a major Hollywood movie studio and having Irvin Talbot, music director of the Paramount studio orchestra for forty-five years, as my mentor, I always considered motion picture music to be a genre of America's musical tradition that should be taken seriously. In the silent film era, music was provided by a single pianist or organist to drown out the noise of early film projectors. Eventually, silent films were shown in huge theaters called "movie palaces," with music provided by full orchestras that also accompanied a full vaudeville show featuring performers who often later became major movie stars. The switch from silent to sound films opened new opportunities for film composers. Hollywood welcomed such noted European composers as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Bronislaw Kaper, Dimitri Tiomkin, and their American counterparts Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin, Hugo Friedhofer, Jerome Moross, Alex North, and Elmer Bernstein, to mention only a few. A new genre, the movie musical, featured background music moving to the foreground with dazzling dances and lyrical songs; it might be adapted from a Broadway hit or an original screenplay never produced on the stage.
Composers in Hollywood provided an essential element of any film. Bernard Herrmann said that with few exceptions, motion pictures could not truly express their message without music. The score, he explained, could often provide a link between emotions or characters on the screen and the audience in a way that actors could not. Such composers had to do this while surmounting the interference of egotistical executives, domineering directors, and temperamental producers, best characterized by composer Vernon Duke as "The Dollaristocrats."
Ronald Reagan famously said that freedom is not passed along in the bloodstream; it is but a generation away from extinction. The same is true of great music. "The child who discovers a beautiful string quartet, hears a great jazz solo, attends a brilliant performance of musical theater, or learns the difference between good and bad film music may be taking the first step in life that may preserve, protect, and defend our musical heritage and move it forward." I wrote these words at the conclusion of one of my own books, Our Musical Heritage, in the hope that it would inspire parents and grandparents to take this message to heart.
In today's high-tech era, you can easily find examples of all the music discussed here online. We have an abundance of resources, including the web site of an organization I founded, www.culturalconservation.org. America's musical heritage will not survive by itself. Apathy, ignorance, political correctness, and a desire to follow fashions and fads present a real threat to its survival. Will future generations understand and follow the wise words of the distinguished composer Miklós Rózsa? He once declared, "I have no time for any music which does not reflect pleasure in life, and more importantly, pride in life." We must each do our part to see that this happens. Time is running out, and it is a commitment we must make if we want to see the grand musical legacy of our nation survive.
© 2020 by Dr. Mark Evans
*The Sessions Society is admininstered by CVNC critic Barry Salwen.