Is There Really No Place Like Home?: American Composers Abroad

Is There Really No Place Like Home?: American Composers Abroad

“… a little sensuality, a little longing, a little gourmandise… We remember the liqueurs on the café tables, the melancholy of the waterworks at Versailles, and the crispness of the pommes soufflés at the restaurant Laperouse. Suddenly, we recollect that liners sail almost daily [from New York] for Cherbourg. Within ten days, one might be on the rue de Rivoli! What price transportation?”

Is this rhapsody from a travel brochure? No! This is straight from a 1921 music review by the influential critic and champion of contemporary music, Paul Rosenfeld. And he was one of the proponents of American music. The American media was fixated on the bohemian lifestyle of Paris (and occasionally London or Vienna) in the 1910s and ’20s. No wonder American musicians had to go there: it was an essential rite of passage and the center of European culture.

The media did much to hype the ‘Lure of Europe.’ Fashion magazines and major American newspapers (all of whom had Paris bureaus through the ’50s) wrote breathless articles, especially after the turn of the century, on Parisian culture, music, fashion, and art. Correspondents waxed rhapsodic, coverage was intense. Writing under the pseudonym ‘Genêt’ for The New Yorker, Janet Flanner was the best-known salon and high society reviewer, with a remarkable eye for music and an ear for innovation.

Despite the mystique, Americans rarely became popular abroad; even more rarely did they integrate themselves seamlessly into the local culture. George Antheil lived it up in Berlin in 1922, speaking fluent German and spending hard cash; and Ned Rorem, who spoke impeccable French, was equally at home in Paris in the ’50s. But language was a barrier to most others, as were inherent cultural differences between the new world and the old. Part of this had to do with European intolerance of foreigners and particularly immigrants. Becoming a citizen was virtually impossible for first-generation arrivals in Europe. In France, Hollywood movies enjoyed, and enjoy, dominance of the market, but American art was considered somewhat suspect (as if we’d stolen all our good ideas from them while they weren’t looking). Other countries, notably Germany and Holland, adopted much of the American avant-garde as their own, eagerly embracing composers–from Antheil to Zappa–who remained obscure in the States.

From Germany to Italy, ‘Expat’ remains a dirty word. Virgil Thomson said in his autobiography, “The matter of living abroad was discussed a good deal in those days, and every so often some New York journalist would throw at you the term expatriate… As Russell Hitchcock put it, none were so upset by our spending all twelve months there as those who went abroad each year for six.” Nowadays it’s hardly different. Not a single composer interviewed for this article was eager to be called an expatriate artist, even those who have lived abroad for upwards of 30 years. Microtonal flutist and composer Ned McGowan says jestingly, “There’s very little good to come out of patriotism or ex-patriotism.” Most musicians here keep in the back of their mind that they might go back one day, and many are reluctant to sever their roots with what seems a flawed but vibrant homeland.

And of course we can go back: Americans are fortunate to have never been refugees. Those who ‘escaped’ did so mostly for political or moral reasons: Conlon Nancarrow and Frederic Rzewski were out of political sync with America; Paul Bowles and Louis Moreau Gottschalk were out of sync with America’s sexual mores. Certain freedoms seemed possible away from puritanical America, especially before the 1960s. Many sought a less repressed lifestyle or were escaping prohibition, racism, or homophobia. Amsterdam offers a far more open gay community than even New York does. Not to mention legal use of soft drugs…which has had its own effect on the New Dutch Swing.

The financial attraction is not insignificant either: Europe was cheap for Americans after both world wars. A high dollar kept many composers in an enviable (or at least bohemian) lifestyle. But economic crises and more recent wars had the opposite effect, raising prices, and taking some of the romance out of bohemia.

For those who could afford the lifestyle, the lively and dedicated public commitment to the arts remained a heady attraction. American artists living here can easily become accustomed to large, enthusiastic audiences, generous state subsidies, and a healthy respect for contemporary music. Successful musicians in Europe have the instant status available only in the U.S. to television personalities and sports figures. As Antheil said, it sure beats staying in Trenton!

From Is There Really No Place Like Home? A HyperHistory of American Composers Abroad
By Guy Livingston
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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