Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music

Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music

NBC Orchestra Awards for 1932
  First Prize of $5000 to Philip James for “Station WGZBX”
  Second Prize of $2500 to Max Wald for The Dancer Dead
  Third Prize of $1250 to Carl Eppert for Traffic
  Fourth Prize of $750 to Florence Grandland Galajikian for Symphonic Intermezzo
  Fifth Prize of $500 to Nicolai Berezowsky for Sinfonietta
CBS Commissions for 1936-37
  Aaron Copland, Music for Radio: A Saga of the Prairie
  Louis Gruenberg, Green Mansions (opera)
  Howard Hanson, Third Symphony
  Roy Harris, Time Suite for Radio
  Walter Piston, Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra
  William Grant Still, Lenox Avenue
CBS Commissions for 1937-38
  Robert Russell Bennett, Eight Etudes for Orchestra
  Nathaniel Dett, American Sampler
  Vittorio Giannini, Beauty and the Beast (opera)
  Jerome Moross, Tall Story
  Quincy Porter, Dance in Four-Time and Dance in Five-Time
  Leo Sowerby, Theme in Yellow

NBC started underwriting composition contests in 1931. The NBC Orchestra Prize of 1932 is an example of the network’s use of a composition contest to project an image of generosity and prestige. The generosity was tangible: NBC awarded a total of ten thousand dollars in prize money. In addition, it appears that the network helped three of the finalists secure performances of their pieces outside of New York. Five hundred and seventy-three scores were submitted to the first round of the competition. NBC executives appointed an elite panel of five men, one of whom was the network’s own Walter Damrosch, to choose the five finalists, but not to rank them. Then the NBC Symphony played the pieces on the air. In the true spirit of a sporting event, a new panel, composed of one hundred fifty “outstanding musicians,” listened along with the rest of America, and ranked the compositions. The following Sunday, the pieces were played again, this time in the order of their award. Philip James won the five thousand dollar first prize, with a piece called Station WGZBX.

CBS, apparently “trying to outdo NBC in terms of prestige,” jumped on the target=”_blank”commissioning bandwagon in 1936. CBS went the extra mile, devoting a regular series to the broadcast premieres of works by American composers. This was “Everybody’s Music,” a thirty-minute program on Sunday afternoon, hosted by Henry Neely, with Howard Barlow conducting the CBS Orchestra. It first aired in May of 1936, and it ran until October of 1937. The closing program of this first run was a special two-hour concert of six works newly commissioned by CBS.

The process leading up to the October broadcast began with the Columbia Compositions Commission, headed by Deems Taylor. This esteemed group had the job of selecting the six composers to be commissioned. Then the public was primed. This meant a Columbia Workshop Hour devoted to “instructing” the recently-commissioned composers on how to write for radio, and even a write-in contest to elicit a title for Aaron Copland’s new piece. Copland’s piece was first heard on July 25, 1937, and elicited a great number of potential titles, from which A Saga of the Prarie was chosen. The winner, Ruth Leonhardt, of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, won an autographed copy of the score. (This piece, however, has come to be known merely as Music for Radio).

The October 17th broadcast, which featured all six new works, was by all accounts a success. CBS received thousands of letters, and the majority of the letter-writers demanded more American music. Besides the Copland, listeners also heard the first performances of Howard Hanson’s Third Symphony, Walter Piston‘s Concertino for piano and chamber orchestra, William Grant Still‘s Lenox Avenue, Roy HarrisTime Suite for Radio, and Louis Gruenberg‘s opera Green Mansions.

The show then enjoyed a brief hiatus that lasted until May of 1938. The 1938 season also ended in October with the presentation of five of the six commissioned pieces. I found less information about the reception of the 1938 premieres, although it appears that a lukewarm response may have been part of what prompted CBS to cancel “Everybody’s Music” at the end of the season. The commission yielded new compositions from Quincy Porter, Robert Russell Bennett, R. Nathaniel Dett, Leo Sowerby, Jerome Moross, and Vittorio Giannini.

Both networks sponsored additional contests and commissions throughout the decade. NBC held a competition for American chamber works. They also commissioned a radio opera from Gian Carlo Menotti, The Old Maid and the Thief, which was premiered on April 22, 1939.

CBS made commissioning part of two weekly programs besides “Everybody’s Music.” “American School of the Air” was meant to appeal to a high school audience. The show featured American folk music, and the network asked composers to write additional music based on folk tunes. Composers who wrote for the show included Roy Harris, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Ross Lee Finney. “Columbia Workshop Hour” was ordinarily a spoken drama program, but on two occasions it featured newly-commissioned music dramas. The first of these was Marc Blitzstein‘s I Have a Tune, in 1937. The second, two years later, was another Vittorio Giannini opera, Blennerhasset.

The contests and commissions resulted in a body of work that could serve as empirical proof not only of the networks’ efforts to maintain high culture, but also of the ability of their technology to improve upon it. A “Columbia Workshop Hour” devoted to publicizing the 1937 commissions for “Everybody’s Music” underlined the notion that radio (and by implication the networks) was going to provide composers with a whole new compositional resource.

The program was purportedly designed to advise the six composers on how to adjust their compositional styles in order to take full advantage of radio’s vast acoustical possibilities. Howard Barlow and the CBS Orchestra began their demonstration of radio’s potential by playing conventional orchestrations of two piano pieces, plus an orchestral excerpt. These arrangements were then contrasted with new ones composed specifically for the radio by one of CBS’s staff musicians. The new versions were filled with effects that would have been, according to Taylor, inaudible in a large concert hall. A trumpet glissando, for instance, was the type of effect that “an old-time orchestra player would [have] never dream[ed] possible.” In fact, the arrangements were so filled with glissandi on every imaginable instrument, slap-tonguing, flutter-tonguing, and wah-wah mutes, that at the end of the broadcast Taylor felt compelled to remind his listeners that for this particular hour the studio was a “lab, not a concert hall.”

It is significant to note that Aaron Copland, one of the composers who sat silently in the studio throughout this broadcast, did not feel that the program was demeaning or condescending in any way. At the time of the 1937 commission, in fact, he “welcomed the chance to compose music that would lend itself to the unique opportunities of radio performance.” He even incorporated some of the new sound effects introduced during the above broadcast in his new piece, Music for Radio (later subtitled A Saga of the Prarie). More important than these acoustical innovations, however, is the way in which radio apparently affected Copland’s entire approach to composition. In Copland’s own words, radio was worth exploring because it opened up the possibility of “reaching so many people with a single performance.” He set out to tailor his new piece to the needs of this vast audience. He intentionally composed “in a style designed to bridge the gap between modern composition and the need for a wider public.”

From Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music
by Jennifer Undercofler
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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