A Tribute to Charles Hamm—Composer, Historian, Educator

A Tribute to Charles Hamm—Composer, Historian, Educator

[From Chapter 18 “The Second Wave and Its Impact on American Composition” pp. 548-555, reprinted from Music in the New World by Charles Hamm. Copyright © 1983 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.]

Music in the New World

A new generation of American composers, emerging in the late 1920s, put aside the notion of writing “American” music and began cultivating an international style. This change in attitude corresponded with the arrival of a second wave of European composers, who visited and in many cases settled in the United States, and it is impossible to separate this new direction in American music from the story of the visitors and immigrants who helped bring it about.

The first wave of European composers, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was made up of competent, versatile musicians of no great distinction in the musical world they left behind. America welcomed Raynor Taylor, Alexander Reinagle, Jean Gehot—but Haydn, Mozart, Cherubini, and Beethoven never set foot in the New World.

The first European composer of international fame to spend time in America was Frederick Delius (1863-1934), at the beginning of his musical career. Sent by his father to manage an orange plantation in Florida in March of 1884, Delius attached himself to Thomas F. Ward, organist of a Catholic church in Jacksonville. By the time he left America in 1886, he was teaching music to the daughters of tobacco growers in Danville, Virginia, and sketching his first compositions. He enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1886, and spent the remainder of his life in Europe. Delius and his music had virtually no impact on the musical life of America. Florida, an orchestral suite written shortly after his return from the United States, was not given its first performance in the United States until 1923, when it was played by the Detroit Symphony, and Appalachia, based in part on traditional slave songs, was given its American premiere only in 1937, by the New York Philharmonic, under a British music director.

By contrast, Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was a major composer by the time he arrived in New York in 1904, and many of his pieces had already been played by American orchestras. On March 21 of that year he conducted the Wetzler Symphony Orchestra in a program at Carnegie Hall that included Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, and the world premiere of Symphonia domestica, completed only several months before his arrival. But his stay in America was brief, and his impact on the musical life of the country came chiefly from his compositions, not his presence.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) made his debut as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera on January 1, 1908 with Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. He was appointed conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1909, holding the post until poor health forced him to retire after the concert of February 21, 1911, his last public appearance on the podium. He was better known in this country—before his arrival—as a conductor than composer. Only two of his symphonies, the fourth and fifth, had ever been heard in America, but his presence sparked a rash of performances. The New York Philharmonic, under his direction, did Symphony No. 1 (1909) and No. 4 (1910), as well as songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Damrosch led the New York Symphony in the American premiere of Symphony No. 2 in 1908; and the publicity surrounding his stay in New York undoubtedly prompted the first American performances of Symphony No. 3 (Cincinnati, 1913), Symphony No. 8 (Philadelphia, 1915), and Das Lied von der Erde (Philadelphia, 1916).

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) had more prolonged contact with the United States. His first public appearance in America was a piano recital at Smith College on November 4, 1909, and on November 28 he premiered his Piano Concerto No. 3 (written in Moscow between June and October of that year) with Walter Damrosch’s New York Symphony. After the revolution in Russia, he divided his time between Switzerland and the United States. The last fifteen years of his life were spent in this country, first in New York and then Los Angeles. The thirtieth anniversary of his first American appearance was celebrated by the New York Philharmonic with a cycle of three concerts featuring him in the triple role of composer, pianist, and conductor. His last American tour was in the winter and spring of 1940 and, shortly before his death in 1943, he became a citizen of the United States.

Thus a significant shift was taking place in the classical music life in America during the first decades of the twentieth century. Performing proficiency was becoming high enough to attract European composers here for performances of their works. American audiences and critics were becoming sophisticated enough to respond intelligently, even to first performances of major compositions by established European composers. And in Ernest Bloch we see a European born and trained musician of considerable talent and reputation choosing a life in America in preference to Europe.

Born in Geneva in 1880, Bloch came to the United States for the first time in 1916, then returned the following year to present a program for the New York Society of the Friends of Music on May 3, 1917 that included two movements of his Israel Symphony, Three Jewish Poems, Three Psalms for solo voices and orchestra, and the first performance of Schelomo for cello and orchestra. He stayed in New York, teaching privately and at the Mannes School of Music. In 1920 he became director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, taking American citizenship in 1924. He was later director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, then taught at the University of California at Berkeley. Except for professional and personal visits back to Europe, the remainder of his life, until his death in 1959, was spent in America. He was active and visible as a composer, teacher, lecturer. He was the first “American” composer to win the New York Music Critics Award in two different categories, orchestral composition (for his Concerto Grosso No. 2) and chamber music (for his Third String Quartet).

The first wave of musician-composers to settle in America are discussed in virtually every history of American music. It is assumed that their residency here, the fact that many of their compositions were written after they arrived in the New World, and their impact on American-born composers all qualify them for inclusion in a discussion of American music.

The same things can be said about Bloch. Should he therefore be included in a history of American music?

Bloch was much concerned with his Jewish heritage. His most widely played composition is Schelomo, a “Jewish Rhapsody” for cello and orchestra. Other works include Baal Shem for violin and orchestra (1941), titled after the Polish founder of the Hassids; a Sacred Service for the Reformed Synagogue (1934); a Suite Hebraïque for viola and orchestra (1953); A Voice in the Wilderness (1937), a symphonic poem; and choral settings of various psalms. Only once did he undertake a piece that deliberately makes musical and programmatic reference to the New World; his America, an “epic rhapsody” for orchestra, was the winning work in a competition sponsored by Musical America for a new symphonic work “glorifying the ideals of the United States.” The piece, which quotes musical material ranging from Indian melodies through popular songs of the nineteenth century, was premiered by the New York Philharmonic on December 20, 1928, then performed in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Minneapolis within the next week.

But for the most part, he wrote in a style that borrows melodic ideas from traditional Hebrew music and casts these in the formal and sonic patterns of western European classical music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Jewish Americans are just as much a part of the United States as Irish Americans, black Americans, Italian Americans, native Americans, or Americans whose ancestry traces back to the British Isles; and in fact a great deal of the credit for the expansion and improvement of classical music in this country in the early twentieth century must be laid to the influx of talented and dedicated Jewish performers, teachers, composers, critics, and listeners at just this critical time. In writing music that drew on and celebrated his Jewish heritage, Bloch was writing music that spoke to millions of his fellow American citizens. Its reference was to a new America, one coming into existence only in the twentieth century.

Bloch should surely be considered an American composer, but by addressing himself to a specific segment of American culture, he limited the appeal of his music. His attitudes and his career make a fascinating contrast with those of, say, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Aaron Copland, other composers of Jewish ancestry who absorbed elements of older and more broad-based American cultures into their music and who consequently attracted a larger and more varied audience.

The next distinguished European composer to come to the New World, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), arrived in New York on September 18, 1918, fleeing the “intolerable conditions of famine and civil disorder”1 that raged in his homeland during and immediately after the Russian Revolution. Two months later he offered a program of his own piano compositions in New York, and in the next few years several major new compositions were premiered in this country, most notably his Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1921 (by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Prokofiev as soloist) and his opera Love for Three Oranges by the Chicago Opera Company later the same month. But he was only passing through America; as soon as conditions stabilized in Russia, he returned.

The French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) came to America for the first time in 1922 for lectures at Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia universities. In 1940, fleeing the invading German armies, he came to New York, then took a teaching position at Mills College in California. Though he returned to France in 1947, he visited the United States almost annually as a conductor and teacher. Like Bloch, he was an established composer with an established compositional style before he came to these shores. Some rhythmic and instrumental flavoring of American jazz permeates some of his early pieces, such as the ballet Le Boeuf sur le toit (1920), but these elements had already entered his musical style before he came here. Many of his compositions were commissioned by American orchestras and were given English titles (Kentuckiana, 1949, commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra; Music for Indiana, 1966, written for the sesquicentennial of the State of Indiana; West Point Suite, 1952, for the sesquicentennial of the United States Military Academy), but neither Milhaud nor music critics ever suggested that his residence in this country brought about any change in his way of writing music, and his position is best summed up by the title of one of his compositions, A Frenchman in New York, a symphonic suite first performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1963.

An even more impressive figure came to America for the first time in 1925: Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), widely accepted as one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century.

This position had already been established before his arrival here, with such pieces as The Firebird, Le Sacre du printemps, Petrushka, Les Noces, and L’Histoire du soldat. American audiences had known his music for a decade, first through performances of Petrushka by the Diaghilev Ballet Troupe during its American tour,2 then through performances of his ballet scores and other orchestral works by American orchestras. The Firebird had been performed in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Rochester, St. Louis, San Francisco, before Stravinsky’s first visit to America.

Stravinsky conducted the New York Philharmonic on January 8, 1925 and appeared as soloist with the Boston Symphony in a performance of his new Piano Concerto on January 23. Subsequent visits to the United States were frequent, and many of his major works were first performed here: Apollon musagète (1928), commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation and first performed at the Library of Congress; Symphonie de psaumes (1930), commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary; Dumbarton Oaks (1938), commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss and named after their estate in Washington, D.C., where it was first performed. He considered Paris his home, and assumed French citizenship in 1934. But his ties with America became closer and, with the outbreak of World War II, he came to this country as the Charles Eliot Norton lecturer at Harvard University for 1939-40. He settled in Los Angeles in 1940 and became a citizen of the United States on December 28, 1945.

Like Milhaud, Stravinsky had heard American syncopated dance music in Paris and had skimmed off features of it in Piano Rag Music (1919), Ragtime for eleven instruments (1918), and sections of L’Histoire du soldat (1918). It is possible to hear rhythmic and melodic fragments in his later works that probably would not have been there had he not listened to American popular music (he was quoted in Time magazine in January of 1941 as saying, “I love swings. It is to Harlem I go. It is so sympathetic to watch the Negro boys and girls dancing . . .”); one can hear in his Symphony in Three Movements (1946) rhythmic patterns that must have been suggested by bebop. One could make a case that he was an international composer who responded to musical stimuli from several different cultures, that he went through an “American period,” and that space should be made for at least this part of his output in histories of American music.

One would be tempted to do just this had matters turned out differently, had his involvement in American life and culture intensified in the last two decades of his life, spent mostly in America. But this was not the case. In the 1950s and ’60s he turned sharply away from involvement with things American, musical or otherwise. Stravinsky’s musical interests turned to the music of Machaut, Gesualdo, Schoenberg, Webern. He experimented with serialism in Movements for piano and orchestra (1948-59), Canticum sacrum (1956), and Threni (1958). There is nothing in these pieces that points to the music, or the ways of thinking about music, that characterize American as opposed to European culture.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) came to America in the fall of 1933, to teach a master class at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston. Like most other European composers who settled in the United States in this decade, his decision to leave Europe was based on the increasingly menacing Nazi presence. Though his name was familiar to other composers, theorists, students of theory and composition-as well as those who read journals devoted to musical happenings in Europe—American audiences were largely unfamiliar with his work. There had been only a scattering of performances of such early compositions as Chamber Symphony No. 1, Five Pieces for Orchestra, and Pelleas und Melisande by American orchestras before his arrival in America, and his chamber and piano works were no better known.

The American League of Composers sponsored a program of his chamber music in New York on November 11, 1933, and the following March he made his debut as a conductor, leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Pelleas und Melisande. Schoenberg moved to southern California in the fall of 1934, to a colony of other European expatriates. He joined the faculty of the University of Southern California in 1935, then took a position at the University of California in Los Angeles. His first composition written in the New World was a Suite for Strings (1934); all of his pieces after Opus 35 were written here, including the Violin Concerto (1936), String Quartet No. 4 (1937), Piano Concerto (1942), A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), and Fantasy for violin and piano (1949). Most of these pieces made use of serial techniques, in a style, forged by Schoenberg long before his arrival in America. The United States was a haven for him, where he could continue writing the sort of music he had written before coming here, a place where he could teach younger Americans the traditions of the European classical style that absorbed his entire musical life. He embraced and enjoyed some aspects of life in America, but not its music.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945), the greatest composer of eastern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, first came to America in December of 1927 on a concert tour, playing his Piano Concerto No. 1. He returned in 1940 for the brief remainder of his life. He toured with his wife, offering performances of his Sonata for Two Pianofortes and Percussion, then settled in New York, dividing his time between composition (his most notable “American” work was Concerto for Orchestra [1943-44] premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on December 1, 1944) and continuing his study of Serbo-Croatian folk music.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) came from Germany in 1937, making his first American appearance at the Library of Congress on April to, 1937, with his Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin. After several years of lecturing at colleges and universities and appearing in a number of cities as conductor and performer, he took a teaching position at the University of Buffalo for the spring term of 1940. In the fall he moved to Yale University, where he lectured, taught composition, served as head of the music department, formed and directed a Collegium Musicum. He became an American citizen in 1946, and even though he returned to postwar Europe, he made frequent visits to America in the last two years of his life.

Thus, at one point—the second half of the 1940s-—our of the most celebrated European composers of the twentieth century—Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, and Hindemith—were in the United States. And there were many others of only slightly lesser talent and accomplishments, including Ernst Toch, Bohuslav Martinu, Erich Korngold, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Bloch, Milhaud, and Rachmaninoff. The presence of these men had a considerable impact on the musical life of the country. Their compositions were more often played and their mere presence prompted a greater interest in contemporary music; they were celebrities who were interviewed, photographed, quoted, and talked about. Perhaps most important, many of them—Hindemith, Milhaud, Schoenberg, Bloch, Martinu—were active and dedicated teachers of theory and composition, willing and eager to pass on to younger Americans their knowledge of the techniques and aesthetics of European classical music.

1Nicolas Slonimsky, Music Since 1900 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), p. 301.

2Charles Hamm, ed., Petrushka, A Norton Critical Score (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1967), pp. 13-18, for a discussion of American audiences’ first contact with the music of Stravinsky.

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