American Classics--Why do critics and audiences dismiss popular American composers as second rate?
Thursday, October 1, 1998
In playing George Gershwin on his centenary last Saturday at Watsonville''s Mello Center, the Santa Cruz County Symphony restated American classical music''s most nagging question: If Gershwin is so popular, can he really be good?
The question would be laughable if it didn''t in fact underscore the prejudices of America''s classical institutions: In a word, if it''s popular, it can''t be taken seriously. American classical music has nursed this identity crisis since the 19th century, back when America''s conservatories were being founded, in the days when European classical and romantic models were holy writ.
On the occasion of Gershwin''s 100th birthday, a large audience filled the Mello Center to the rafters. The assembled gave admiring applause to Debussy''s Afternoon of a Faun and Liszt''s Piano Concerto in E flat, but uncorked its bubbliest for Gershwin''s Piano Concerto in F and An American in Paris.
It''s just such a situation that spins off the sense and nonsense of American music. Why does Gershwin usually show up on pops concerts? Why are pops concerts set off by themselves? Why have French concert audiences and composers embraced Gershwin and American jazz more than American concert audiences? What does it benefit America''s conservatories to look down their noses at American vernacular music? And how about this one: Why do American concert audiences complain as much about music that challenges them as about music based on popular styles?
The answer to all these questions, and countless more, was examined compellingly--if inconclusively--by Leonard Bernstein in his Norton Chair of Poetry lecture series, "The Unanswered Question," given at Harvard in 1973. Bernstein reminded us that music is language, and is understood by its hearers for all the syntax, semantics and rhetorical significance of any language, even if its literal meaning from moment to moment remains abstract.
Suddenly, music, like speech, falls into the poetic, the literary and the vernacular. The composer who would use forms and practices associated with poetry to express the vernacular, for example, may attract some listeners and repel others. Some listeners will wonder--and too quickly judge--if this vernacular-based music is pretending to take the high road of poetry, or if the classical construction is a parody of high-flown conventions? (Paul Schoenfield''s brilliant Vaudeville, heard at the Monterey County Symphony a couple of seasons back, was just such a piece.)
Listened to this way, one soon discovers that most music from most eras carries elements of both. A formal Haydn minuet contains an unbuttoned lndler as its trio. A Mahler scherzo may be weirdly grotesque but still disclose an Austrian folkdance as its point of departure and return. But American composers who have drawn on American vernacular music are in the minority. Concert works by Ives, Gershwin, Copland (some of the time), Bernstein, Gould and, lately, Schoenfield and Daugherty, for example, have obscured many major talents who spent their careers at the avant-garde or trying to adhere to some European ideal. Whatever happened to Becker, Ruggles, Sessions, Thompson, Piston, Thomson, Del Tredici, Wuorinen, Antheil, Rorem, Powell, Cowell, Moore, Gruenberg, Barber, Harris, Schuman, Riegger, Schuller, Crumb, Still, Rochberg and Cage?
Every piece of classical music--of any music really--is based stylistically and rhetorically on a focal point. Expecting Gershwin''s Piano Concerto in F to express the angst of the ''30s is as nonsensical as expecting Barber''s Adagio for Strings to equal the yearning fatalism of Mozart''s Symphony in G Minor. To give any work its due is to place it accurately within its rhetorical context, its own focal point. Does Gershwin fit with Mozart or Beethoven? Yes, where improvisation is the crossroads, as in the piano concertos. Does Gershwin make sense with Tchaikovsky? Yes, when Tchaikovsky is waxing folkloric, as in the Third Symphony. Should American concert audiences be proud of Gershwin? Only when they can be as proud as Austrians are of Mozart.
Last Week''s QuizWhat two facts of life did 18th-century French composer Jean-Marie Leclair share with 20th-century Canadian composer Claude Vivier? Answer: Both murdered, in Paris.
This Week''s Quiz: Who composed the opera Vincent and a symphony nicknamed "Vincentiana," both inspired by Van Gogh?
Pianist Janina Fialkowska Sunday, 4pm. Canadian artist performs benefit for Carmel Bach Festival. Sunset Center, San Carlos Avenue at 9th Street, Carmel. $16/general, $14/students & seniors. 624-2046.
Dunsmuir Piano Quartet Wednesday, 8pm. Chamber Music Monterey Bay hosts S.F. Bay Area ensemble in piano quartets by Johannes Brahms, Robert Helps, music by Haydn. Sunset Center, San Carlos Street at 9th Avenue, Carmel. $18 general. $7 students with ID. 625-2212.