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

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

“Paris Was Our Mistress”

Samuel Putnam‘s famous title, Paris Was Our Mistress, summed it up for generations of foreign artists. Of all the cities in Europe, Paris has held the most intense fascination for American artists (not to mention Russians, Peruvians, Czechs, etc.).

During the 19th century, Germany and Austria held full command of American composers’ hearts and pens. Paris was an essential stop on the grand tour, but more for her general culture than for her musical tradition. This changed, (but not overnight), with the Paris Exposition of 1889, one of the grandest of all time. Ravel and Debussy were profoundly influenced by the Asian musicians they heard at the exposition. Their ideas fell on fertile ground. Although the influence of such arch-conservatives as D’Indy was still overpowering within the French conservatories, Les Six were about to make a big impact, and France was about to take the cultural lead over the Germans.

With Satie and Les Six both poor and famous by the teens of the new century, Parisians had come to favor the avant-garde. And this in marked contrast to the rest of Europe. By the 1920s Paris was the place to be for young and restless Americans eager to hear these composers and to see Sergey Dyagilev‘s Ballets Russes, who played an inestimable role in popularizing cubism and new music. And there were other key foreigners in Paris: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Martinu, and Koussevitzky were just the tip of the musical iceberg. Paris, festooned with cafés, and unscathed by the war, glittered with chic, art, and prosperity. And so the Americans came to stay.

The Legendary Twenties

Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, George Antheil: all lived within a few blocks of the Latin Quarter, among a talented and cosmopolitan group of authors, poets, composers, and painters. Lavish spending on the part of patrons and subsidies from universities back home kept everyone afloat. Parties were grand and the notorious balls more extravagant every year. The wealthy Natalie Barney, besides hosting salons and premieres of (for example) Antheil’s First String Quartet, was even more famous for her party at which Mata Hari appeared on a white horse in the nude (Mata, not the horse) impersonating Lady Godiva. The wine was good, the dollar was high, and small-town America was easily forgotten.

However, romanticizing these times is a little too easy. Even Antheil, whose French successes were astonishing, was unable to make a living and unable to permanently integrate himself into Parisian musical politics, much as he would have liked to. By and large, all these mentioned artists spoke French rather poorly, if at all. It was too easy to surround oneself with Americans and other anglophones, and then (as now) the French maintained a reserved formality. Although Paris has always had more American expatriates (even now there are over 50,000) than any other European city, very few of them have been able to develop French careers.

One of the best ironies in the history of American composers abroad is that so many key figures of the 20th century learned to write “American Music” from Nadia Boulanger, who could not have been more quintessentially French. Boulanger, known to all and sundry as “Mademoiselle,” was the center of the universe for two, maybe three generations of American students in Paris. As a composer, she received the 2nd Prix de Rome in 1908 for La Sirène. She began teaching at the Conservatoire Américain in Fontainebleau in 1921 and was later to become director. In 1937, she was the first woman to conduct a symphony concert in London. Among her impressive accomplishments she presided over a general revival of Monteverdi‘s music, and gave performances and organized concerts of madrigals. Leaving Paris during W.W.II, she taught at Radcliffe, Juilliard, and Wellesley College.

Her notable students over the years read like a Who’s Who of American Music: Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Marc Blitzstein, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, Louise Talma, Arthur Berger, Easley Blackwood, Virgil Thomson… As a teacher, she was a holy terror and not to be trifled with. Copland remembers, “Boulanger’s insistence on discipline and reliance on traditional formulae was not right for everyone.” Roy Harris said that “except for the strongest musicians it was dangerous to study with Boulanger, because her own personality and talents were so strong.” Students were never late to class, did their work as if it were a religious duty, and became masters at counterpoint and to a lesser extent orchestration. She wanted above all to lead students to find their own voice.

By the 1950s, Nadia Boulanger was justifiably famous, and Rorem refers to her as “the most remarkable pedagogue of our century, and perhaps (who knows) of all time. She accomplishes … by fortifying the myth of technique. Hers is the search for a true spark among those crackling in her synthetic electricity … she has become a countess.”

Her influence on American composers and American music cannot be underestimated: as strict as she was, she nonetheless did help hundreds of composers to find their personal style. Virgil Thomson described her teaching attitude, “What endeared her most to Americans was her conception that American music was about to ‘take off’ just as Russian music had done eighty years before. Here she differed from other French musicians, who though friendly enough towards Americans (we were popular then), lacked faith in us as artists.” By the end of her life, she had taught so many, that Thomson could joke, “Every town in America can boast a Nadia Boulanger student.”

Aaron Copland was one of her first American students, and one of the first to venture out to the new program in Fontainebleau (just outside of Paris). Copland had studied in New York with Rubin Goldmark, the nephew of an important Austro-Hungarian composer, who, though born in America, had studied in Vienna himself. Naturally he encouraged Copland to study abroad.

“Arriving at twenty on French soil, my expectations were dangerously high, but I was not to be disappointed. Paris was filled with cosmopolitan artists from all over the world, many of whom had settled there as expatriates…” Copland also studied French piano music with Ricardo Viñes. He moved back to the States after a few years, but made further trips to Europe in 1926, 1927, and the summer of 1929. Although his music is squarely American, his European training had the most important impact on his composition, and he continued to pay homage to Boulanger’s teaching throughout his life.

Another early arrival, Virgil Thomson, went to Paris for the first time in 1921: “I came in my Harvard years to identify with France virtually all of music’s recent glorious past, most of its acceptable present, and a large part of its future.” Seeing Europe on a typical Grand Tour with the Harvard Glee Club, he knew in advance that he would study with Nadia Boulanger.

Thomson installed himself in a cheap room in a boarding house for prostitutes: “Nadia’s mother… delighted in my compromising address. I valued its freedom to make music at night, when my neighbors were out…” Eventually Thomson moved to a well-located apartment overlooking the Seine that he was to keep into the early years of the Great Depression. Said Thomson, “I had not gone to France to save French music, but merely to improve my own.” Throughout his life, he was associated with Europe and European musicians, and came to know Rome as well as Paris during several years at the American Academy.

His writings had perhaps more of an impact over the years than his compositions. As a critic in Paris, then New York, he was able to play a major role in the American acceptance of American music, discovering many new artists and styles in advance of the mainstream press. He was particularly associated in the ’20s and ’30s with the magazine Modern Music, which also had a large influence on American music at home and abroad.

Modern Music, published in New York by Minna Lederman, consisted during the twenties predominantly of articles about Europe, largely written by Americans residing in Europe. Antheil, Copland, and Thomson (and later Cage and Sessions), wrote articles, and though the circulation was small, the impact was significant.

Virgil Thomson provides insight: “Minna Lederman was a first-class editor. She never changed my copy; but she questioned many a time my angle of judgment, made me aware that in so partisan a paper…I must keep before my mind the differences between New York musical politics and Parisian.”

Copland himself had been tempted to come to Europe by a magazine article: “I had read in…Musical America of a plan by the French government to establish a summer school for American musicians in the Palace of Fontainebleau, a short distance from Paris. My parents were less than enthusiastic, but it was known that any well-educated musician had to have the European experience. In the past, that had meant Germany, but since the war, the focus for the arts had shifted to France.”

The publishing world was closely linked to the musical world in both directions: Behind the scenes in 1920s Paris, Ezra Pound and Jean Cocteau were working hard to arrange patrons, reviews, concerts, and housing for their favorites among the young Americans. Like Satie, these two author-promoters were catalysts in the literary and musical communities in Paris, and saw to it that many composers got their first hearing. Pound would attach himself with great zeal to new ‘talent,’ with results that varied from brilliant to disastrous. The manager Martin H. Hanson, based in New York, was on the lookout for talent of a more marketable sort, and seized on the modernist Leo Ornstein and later the even more modernist George Antheil as commercially viable for introduction to Europe.

Pound and Cocteau in particular had a stranglehold on many of the French newspapers in the ’20s and ’30s, and were able to make or break young artists by arranging the right sort of publicity (or not). The Norwegian journalist Bravig Imbs was able to plant articles about his friends in many papers. These were men whose connections could open doors, and who were eagerly courted by young artists.

George Antheil arrived in Paris in 1923, overconfident and looking for trouble. Fresh from success and scandal in Berlin, he was adopted instantly by both Pound and Cocteau. Overnight, he became an instant sensation, due to a volatile combination of hype, substance, and charm. Until 1926, he wrote futuristic music (Ballet mécanique, the Airplane Sonata) and attracted scandalized sell-out crowds. Although his French was not good, and although he made enemies at every turn, he was adopted by the French, Americans, and Russians: everyone in turn was fascinated by ‘angel-faced’ Antheil. He spent the twenties living with his fiancée Böski Markus upstairs from the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, composing late nights, organizing concerts with Virgil Thomson for rich society ladies, presenting splendid and raucous music of his own at the leading Parisian theaters, writing manifestos, and occasionally basking in the radiance of his tremendous success.

But his fame translated poorly to New York, and the disastrous Carnegie Hall premiere of Ballet Mécanique in 1927 dampened his career as a serious composer. After New York, he started an opera project with James Joyce (the lost Cyclops score) and finished an opera called Glare that was produced to rave reviews in Germany as Transatlantic. With the Depression affecting his livelihood in France, and Fascism cutting off his work in Germany, Antheil returned to the States, along with most other Americans of the ‘lost generation.’ But Antheil is a rarity: To this day, many Parisians refer to Antheil as “Georges,” assuming that he could only have been French. Many more famous Americans have lived in Europe, but few have enjoyed European fame to this extent.

Born two years before the turn of the century, and the son of a farmer, Roy Harris had a typical American boyhood similar to George Antheil’s: baseball, piano lessons, and his own “bachelor’s club” of neighborhood kids. After mostly private music study, he attended UC Berkeley. Moving to Paris (he had two Guggenheim fellowships) in 1927, he was encouraged by Copland to study with ‘Mademoiselle.’ Boulanger called him her “autodidact.”

His music was described as “modal, stark, primitive…” with “a literary parallel in the works of Whitman and Melville.” In 1927 and 1928 he completed a piano sonata and the Concerto for Piano, String Quartet and Clarinet. The latter was premiered on May 8th by the Roth Quartet, with Boulanger at the piano, and Cahuzac on clarinet, at the Societé Nationale de Musique. Paul Rosenfeld referred to the “cowboy aspect” in his music, and Donald Cobb described it as the “sweep of the American landscape.” All of which the strong-minded Harris seems to have learned at the hands of the most French of French teachers!

George Gershwin probably counts for less in terms of his Parisian involvement than other composers mentioned here. Nonetheless he made his mark on the city and also crafted a romanticized image for the benefit of the folks back at home. He went to Europe (and above all Paris) to party, to complete the score to An American in Paris, to find a teacher (though in fact he didn’t look very hard), to talk with London publishers, to seek inspiration, and to attend various performances in Paris and London. His stories of being rebuffed by potential teachers are legendary: Ravel, Boulanger, and Stravinsky all turned him down for various reasons. Supposedly Stravinsky asked him how much he earned, and hearing the astonishing amount, suggested that he (Stravinsky) could instead take lessons from Gershwin. [However, Ravel told the same story about Stravinsky.] Be that as it may, An American in Paris had a profound impact on middle-America’s romantic perception of Paris, and even to this day the score remains a driving force for the travel industry: During the late ’80s, for example, United Airlines used it as their theme music (you could memorize it when they put you on hold).

What did Gershwin get from Paris? Well, car horns for example: “Mabel took him to the Grande Armée, where she knew there were several automotive part shops. They didn’t miss one, as Mabel translated and George squeezed until he found the ‘honk’ or ‘squawk’ that suited his purpose; some were wonderfully off-key. They then took several back to the Majestic.”

John Cage, not yet as interested in traffic noise as he would be later, dropped out of college in 1930 to go to Europe, living successively in Berlin, Paris, and Madrid. In Paris he worked as an architect, at a small firm in rue de la Cité Universitaire, drawing Gothic arches and buttresses but after two months was summarily fired.

Years later, in 1958, and by then world-famous, he left New York briefly to teach at Darmstadt and was afterwards invited to Milan as a guest of Berio. There he worked at the local RAI studios creating Fontana Mix. His reputation having preceded him, he was asked to appear on the Italian quiz show Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Nothing) as a performer and mushroom expert. Pitted against Italy’s best mycologists, he won large sums of money and performed new compositions weekly on Italian television for a vast audience. (Water Walk and Sounds of Venice were written for the show.) During that time he hung out in Venice with Peggy Guggenheim, issued the famous dictum, “I can drink without eating, but I can’t eat without drinking,” and enjoyed the humor and chaos of Italian life. In any case, Cage’s foreign influences were much more from the East than from the West. Furthermore he himself would be one of the first American composers to influence (and to a considerable degree) European music.


Meanwhile, someone had to pay for all this travel, all this exotic living, and the money (except for Gershwin) was not coming in from concert receipts or royalties—emphatically not. The Parisian salon was a favored venue for presenting new talent, and many of the rich entertained lavishly. Natalie Barney ran one of the most notorious salons, mostly literary. Pound and Antheil were frequent guests, mingling with diplomats and theatrical stars. The equally eccentric Nancy Cunard (daughter of the Cunard shipping fortune) also supported various projects, artistic and musical. And a patroness of Gertrude Stein paid for part of Virgil Thomson’s costs during the scoring of Four Saints in Three Acts.

Thomson also had the patronage of his long-time friend Louise Langlois. In the short term, his illustrious patrons included Mrs. Chester Whitin Lasell and Mrs. Christian Gross, the sugar millionairess. Mrs. Gross, recently arrived in Paris and looking for social status and prestige, hired the Antheil-Thomson duo (they were both in their early twenties) to make her reputation as a patron of the arts. Unbelievably, they were successful, and the noisy concerts they held at her house brought her into high society, helped by considerable investments in champagne (and eight grand pianos in her living room!).

Antheil himself was supported generously by Mary Louise Curtis Bok over many decades. She was a major American patron, founding the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and still funding Antheil long after she had made it clear that she disapproved of his music. Another patron, “professional hostess Elsa Maxwell, had settled in Paris where she subsisted by engineering elaborate, very social parties.” Guests included the Gershwins, her “dear friend Cole Porter,” famous politicians, and others. Roy Harris was assisted financially by Alma Wertheim during his studies with Boulanger in Paris. Later on, after the war, when wealth had become far less ostentatious, the Vicomtesse Marie Laure de Noailles was to be Rorem’s patroness and confidante.

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

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