Generation of ’38 (Part 1): Sounding Together While Sounding Apart

Generation of ’38 (Part 1): Sounding Together While Sounding Apart

[Ed. Note: Over the course of this week, NewMusicBox is proud to be republishing this three-part essay1 which was commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center for the 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, John Harbison, director, and was originally printed in the festival’s program book. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and the Tanglewood Festival. – FJO]


“Over the years I noticed 1938 as a curious phenomenon.”
“Why this year, try 1610.”
“We have been aware of this coincidence for the longest time.”
“I know only some of these people on this list.”
“I know most of the people on this list.”
“We are wildly different people.”
“People born at the same time have things that they share, instilling across the board empathy.”
“We may share the same musical moment but the musical veins we have tapped are very divergent.”
“The fact that so many important composers came out of this generation is not an accident.”

So here we have a group who does not necessarily think of (or want to think of) itself as a group whose music is being programmed as if it were a group which perhaps it is: a set of American composers born in 1938 (more or less). The comments above, which come from informal telephone interviews done in the last few months, have influenced the perspective of this overview. Taking its title from a phrase coined in 1930 by the musicologist Charles Seeger (Pete’s father, who used it in his theories about modern music), this essay asks what it means to “share the same musical moment.” Since it would take a book to answer this question, we will focus on just a few aspects of their shared experiences.

To be born in 1938 meant straddling the two crises of the mid twentieth century—the Great Depression of the 1930s and the oncoming Second World War of the 1940s. Most of these composers were too young in the War years to remember much about this era. Still, the fact that Paul Chihara learned popular music at the Minidoka Relocation Center in southern Idaho (a Japanese-American internment camp), singing “Blues in the Night” at the Saturday Night Canteen when he was four years old, reminds us of Home Front anxieties and fears. Music as part of “expressive culture”—a term which takes in everything from classical concerts, pop, and swing, to movies, radio shows and dance competitions—fended off fear with tradition and pizzazz, transmitting the value of American optimism which Aaron Copland would later define as an essential national characteristic.

The belief in progress through science and engineering also marked this moment. The 1939 World’s Fair, with its still vaguely familiar slogan “Building the World of Tomorrow,” promised revolutionary progress which the future delivered for this generation. Within ten years of the Fair, LPs and stereo had replaced 78s; television came along in another five. Recordings democratized access—you didn’t have to live in a city to hear The Rite of Spring or Billy the Kid. Frederic Rzewski:

The LPs had just come out. You could take a record into the little booth and listen to it. I heard the Shostakovich Ninth Symphony right there in the store, in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1948. “Do you have something by Schoen berg?” “Yes, this just came in.” It was A Survivor from Warsaw. It knocked my socks off. It was the first thing I ever heard of Schoenberg’s. I was ten years old.

To be born in 1938 meant growing up with stage two of Dvorák’s idea that folk music supplied the materials for a national style, or what Aaron Copland’s generation called “an American vernacular.” (At stage one in the 1890s, when Dvorák lived in the United States, controversy swirled around his suggested candidates of African-American and Native American folk songs.) In May 1939, when the King and Queen of England paid a state visit to Roosevelt’s White House, at the official concert they heard the Coon Creek Girls and Alan Lomax along with the classical singers Marian Anderson and Lawrence Tibbetts. Composer William Bolcom remembers how “everybody used to sing [from] Norman Lloyd’s The Fireside Book of Folk Songs when they were kids. Similar fare in September 1939 was offered up to attendees of the first International Congress of the American Musicological Society in New York City, who heard Sacred Harp hymns and watched the “Swing of Harlem” team do the lindy.

The International Congress symbolizes another aspect of the historical moment—an exodus which produced a changing cultural demographic. Some of the European attendees were stranded here because Hitler had invaded Poland just one week before the Conference. Others already in exile or on their way by 1945 included Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Krenek, Weill, Milhaud, Eisler, Bukofzer, and Adorno. Rzewski says, “The United States was the center of classical music in the 1940s. It was full of European musicians. It was full of these musicians who toured all over the place all of the time.”

In a way this was a “da capo” moment in American music history because the influx of European musicians in the 1940s and 50s parallels the earlier influx of European immigrants to the United States in the 1850s and 60s. Back then German musicians came in such numbers that they jumpstarted American symphonic orchestras and spread Romantic music into the hinterlands; in New York famous Italian opera coaches ran studios teaching American girls how to sing Verdi. A hundred years later David Del Tredici credits his piano teacher Bernhard Abramowitsch (another German Jewish refugee) for teaching him composition through performance: “Large form is a felt, experiential thing, not an intellectual thing… Abramowitsch taught me how to project the large tonal form in the big sprawling pieces which were the things I liked best, like the Schumann Fantasie or the Chopin Polonaise-Fantaisie, or late Beethoven long slow movements.”

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Ellen Zwilich (who met the Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi at Florida State University in Tallahassee) draws out the implications of such contact:

The fact that so many important composers came out of this generation is not an accident. It rests on a foundation of education that no longer exists. It was a uniquely American education leavened by European influence, not from afar, but in the bloodstream. As it happens, our generation had the best of both worlds. The cream of the crop moved to this country. They were our teachers, or our teachers’ teachers.

The teaching took place within the foundation of solid music education for some of the FCM composers. Many recall their high school years filled with ample opportunities for active substantive music-making. David Chaitkin said ruefully, “the schools [then as opposed to now] were in very good shape.” John Heiss recalled a production of Carmen in the tenth grade at his public high school in Bronxville, New York. Charles Fussell grew up as a Moravian-American, belonging to a historically rich community of German-speaking immigrants who came to the Colonies in the late 18th century, settling in Pennsylvania and North Carolina in particular. Famous for their music, Moravian-Americans built their social life around it, and Fussell recalls the high quality of his education and the prestige his high school music teachers enjoyed in his town of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

At Midwood High School in Brooklyn, John Corigliano found Bella Tillis, who started SING!, a citywide competitive program for that classic adolescent experience—the high-school musical. Julius Hemphill (and his cousin Ornette Coleman) went to a public high school in Forth Worth, Texas, where the distinguished jazz clarinetist John Carter taught music. Similarly, at the segregated Sumner High School in St. Louis—founded in 1877 as the first African-American high school established west of the Mississippi—Olly Wilson also fared very well. When Eileen Southern, the pioneering historian of African-American music, interviewed Wilson in 1974, she exclaimed “Sumner High! That school has produced a lot of musicians.” (Its alumni include Chuck Berry and opera singers Grace Bumbry and Robert McFerrin.) Ellen Taaffe Zwilich describes her particularly rich environment in a white suburb of Miami:

Coral Gables High School had what amounted to a conservatory in the high school. It had a music building with two wings, two choruses, two bands besides the marching band, an amphitheater for concerts, and the symphonic band was practically a professional organization. We played all the new stuff, Persichetti, Paul Creston, lots of adaptations. The school owned instruments, the practice rooms had intercoms, there were two offices for instrumental teachers. [One of the band directors] Paul Cremashi, would say “Taaffe, come conduct. Taaffe, go write an arrangement,” and the student with demerits had to copy out the parts.

Coming of age in the ’40s and early ’50s meant that for some of these composers the notion of “separate spheres” in music did not correspond to their musical experiences. They walked the “middle of the road”—to borrow President Eisenhower’s Republican euphemism for “liberal.” David Borden recalls, “As I was growing up, both classical and popular music were enjoyed equally and I was encouraged to learn both in my piano lessons.” Most learned the repertory now called the “Great American Song Book,” a mixture of Broadway and film songs as well as commercial pop. They went with their parents or friends to see blockbuster movie musicals in Technicolor, sharing what John Corigliano calls “a sense of beauty that was popularly loved.” They were raised on the sophisticated chord progressions of pop standards. As Heiss remarks, “I still am trying to figure out [Jerome Kern’s] “All the Things You Are.”

The importance of jazz deserves some special comment. Many FCM composers (Harbison, Heiss, Curran, Milburn, Zwilich, Wilson, Hemphill) were “jazzers.” At the professional Performing Arts High School in New York, Stanley Silverman played guitar (acoustic and electric) and joined the high school jazz band. Few immersed themselves in the professional world of jazz quite so early as William McKinley, who gigged so much as a kid that he joined the Musicians Union when he was twelve. Many FCM composers reel off the names of their idols from the ’40s and ’50s, seamlessly moving from swing into bop.

Olly Wilson

This is not to deny the different social contexts for racialized musical expression. These were the years of battles over segregated schools, and the Supreme Court decision desegregating them (“Brown vs. the Board of Education”) happened in 1954 when this generation was in high school. Therefore, jazz has different meanings for white and black musicians. For Olly Wilson, Duke Ellington promised a better future:

Ellington was of course a consummate musician. He was also a cultural hero when I was growing up. His career in the big band tradition clearly suggested that it could give musicians a career at a certain level of class…it represented people of class. He embodied that more than anybody else, he did represent a cultural icon. To me he gave me an understanding of a level of performance that was clearly a high standard, and also his style and development clearly changed, there was a quest for continual growth, a question for continual expansion.2

And for Julius Hemphill, jazz embodied what the critic Albert Murray calls the American “vernacular imperative”— the need “to stylize the idiomatic particulars of everyday life” into sophisticated enduring art.

I grew up in the “Hot End” of Fort Worth. The Hot End is where people came for entertainment, such as it was, and to drink and carry on. It was musically rich. I could hear Hank Williams coming out of the jukebox at Bunker’s, the white bar. And Louis Jordan, Son House, and Earl Bostic from the box at Ethel’s, the black bar across the street. Texas gets hot, you know. Winter is an afterthought. We had all the windows raised. So right across the street, these two jukeboxes were blaring. I had a great childhood. I mean, I was right down there with the action. It helped formulate some ideas, you know what I mean.3

Alvin Curran’s comments from an interview in 2001 underscore the ambiguities of experience as a white boy playing jazz.

It was a racist world. I mean racist not only in the color lines that existed then so strongly, but also in the elitist traditions which were carried on and maintained between the great European tradition and then the dubious but nevertheless unavoidably, recognizably great traditions of American popular music, especially in its black origins. So these things were very clear to us as kids. We didn’t know what they meant, but, as I say, the experience was one of “excitement, joy”—in whatever expression, whether I was playing in a local Dixieland band or a dance band that was run largely by a group of Italo-American kids in high school or I was playing in the high school band or the Brown band or the local symphony orchestra or whatever.4

Not all FCM composers profess much interest in pop music or jazz. It mattered only somewhat to Bolcom, and very little to Del Tredici, Rzewski, Joan Tower, or Charles Wuorinen. “I was a wild thing from South America,” Tower says, who landed at a fancy prep school in Massachusetts when she was a teenager and had no important musical awakenings, so to speak, through its curriculum. But overall, many of the FCM generation experienced popular music and classical music as different dialects of the same tonal language.

As the FCM generation sorted themselves out and readied themselves for college, which they all attended, they carried their musical upbringings with them in ways they could not understand at the time and would prove significant for them at many stages of their creative development. This moment is crucial. In 1984, at a mid-career moment, giving talks to Tanglewood composers, John Harbison summed it up:

Here is how it went for me: in adolescence Mozart string quintets and Bach Cantatas, Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. With jazz groups: Kern and Gershwin songs. Oscar Peterson, later Horace Silver. And I freely admit the Four Freshmen, Nat King Cole. This is the most impressionable time. Everything from these years is indelible. If we really cared about teaching music we’d do it then, and before, and then leave people alone.5



1The author would especially like to thank Vivian Perlis and the staff of Oral History American Music [OHAM], Yale University, with help in preparing this essay.

2Eileen Southern, “Conversation with Olly Wilson. The Education of a Composer,” The Black Perspective in Music 5/1 (spring 1977):93.

3Marty Ehrlich, ed. “Julius Hemphill (in his own words),” includes this quotation from the Smithsonian Institution Jazz Oral History Project. Interview by Katea Stitt. 1994.

4Alvin Curran with Ingram Marshall, New York, N.Y. October 6, 2000. Interview for OHAM.

5John Harbison, “Six Tanglewood Talks (1, 2, 3),” Perspectives of New Music 23/2 (Spring/Summer, 1985): 14.


Judith Tick
Judith Tick

Judith Tick, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Music at Northeastern University in Boston, specializes in American 20th-century music and Women’s Studies in music. As the author of articles and books about Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, she has won two ASCAP Deems Taylor awards and two awards for outstanding scholarship from the Society for American Music. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003 and serves on the editorial board of Musical Quarterly. Her forthcoming book, Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion, with Paul Beaudoin as Assistant Editor, is due out from Oxford University Press in 2008. She was recently appointed to the Board of Advisors for the revision of The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. She served as Consulting Scholar and Guest Speaker for the 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music.

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