88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, several composers created music which showed that Americans should—and perhaps ought to—work not only with the Teutonic hegemony they were being taught in school.

Born into a German-American community in Wisconsin, Edgar Stillman Kelley was inspired by images from Washington Irving‘s tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to make his piano piece The Headless Horseman, Op. 2, No. 3 (1891). Kelley later employed ancient Greek modes in his incidental music for Ben Hur (1899), worked bird call melodies, Native American songs and Puritan hymnody into his New England Symphony (1912), and made innovative use of the instrumental sounds he had sought out in San Francisco’s Chinatown, imitating them in his orchestral suite Aladdin (1915).

Harvey Worthington Loomis was one of the first European-Americans to use authentic Native American tunes and rhythms in his (unfortunately titled) piano suite Lyrics of the Red Man, Op. 76, (1903) which deals with ceremonial and spiritual aspects of several native cultures.

“(American music) must be recognizably American as Russian music is Russian and French music, French,” declared composer Arthur Farwell, who, although he had studied in Berlin and Paris, championed the cause of a truly indigenous music. To this end, in 1901 he founded the Wa-Wan Press in Newton Center, Massachusetts, which published the music of some 37 composers. In his many essays and articles, he encouraged national musical diversity and the inclusion of “ragtime, Negro songs, Indian songs, Cowboy songs, and, of the utmost importance, new and daring expressions of our own composers, sound-speech previously unheard.”

Farwell’s first piano pieces aim toward a realization of these ideals: Owasco Memories, Op. 8 (1899), American Indian Melodies, Op. 11 (1900), From Mesa and Plain, Op. 20 (1905), Impressions of the Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas, Op. 21 (1905). He respectfully faced the musical and cultural problem of employing folk themes in Western settings head on: “Inketunga’s Thunder Song”, he said, “would sound ridiculous interpreted after the style of a nocturne, moment musical, impromptu, or any purely musical form with which we are familiar, but gains an exalted and beautiful significance the moment we bring to its interpretation the knowledge that it stands for the direct communication of a human soul with its god, and a deeply-felt assurance, to its fellow man, of that communication.” Farwell’s compositions themselves employ beautiful modal harmonizations, for the most part in parallel motion, with the melody in the manner of many Native American singing groups in our time. Farwell studied the music of the Southwestern nations while on lecture tours and collected folk songs of Spanish California.

One of the composers published by Wa-Wan was Carlos Troyer, a German immigrant with a deep interest in Native American music (who also collected over 400 native songs while in Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia). In 1888 he was living among the Zuñi and later incorporated their songs, which he personally transcribed, into his Ghost Dance of the Zuñis (1904). The texture of the piece is hauntingly spare and non-European (except for the fact that it is played on the piano); timbral changes and modulated articulations are the predominant musical motivation for the piece. Troyer gives a running account of the re-vitalizing Ghost Dance ceremony throughout: “Imitation of wild animals”, “Appeals and responses”, “Assurance of the spirits that they will soon appear”, “Happy anticipation and great anxiety, rising to the highest point of expectancy”, and the Finale, characterized as “Echoes of the dance, as the spectral forms pass away and the fires are gradually dying out.”

Composers who would employ Native American themes and imagery in later years include Eastwood Lake (whose music had a profound effect on jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke in the 1920s), and 21st-century contemporaries Peter Garland, Peter Gordon, Kyle Gann, and others.

Though the tide seemed to be turning away from European influences, one form that was still welcomed on—and easily adapted to—the American stage was the operetta, roots of today’s Broadway musical, and by the end of the 19th century there was one outstanding composer working in that form: Victor Herbert. Born in Dublin, Ireland, he came to the U.S. in 1886, working as a cellist and eventually as a conductor. By 1900, he had become the most famous composer in America because of his operettas, almost 40 in total, and his songs. His charming and sparkling piano pieces offer brief impressionistic descriptions and musical portraiture: for example, “The Mountain Brook” (1900) and “La Coquette” (1900).

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.