Society and American Music

AMERICA, with the present generation, has fairly launched her native musical life. Just when the conditions have seemed most unpromising, in the midst of a commercial civilization, in the midst of so much of brutality and hurry in American life, the composer, the creator of an ideal world of tone, appears in our midst. Orpheus, in Hades, in some respects, could have found scarcely less congenial surroundings. There may be those who regard this impulse in our national life as untimely and misguided. Evolution, however, seldom produces unnecessary species, and may not the appearance of this one be providential, its purpose regenerative, and its existence to be cherished by every means in our power ? Certainly, if we were to have no use for the American composer he would not have been given to us; if the time for his labor were not ripe, he would not be here. And certainly, while there are any of us left who regard art as something more than an elegant amusement imported from Europe for a wealthy few, — who see the deep need of art, in the broad and simple sense used by William Morris, as an inseparable beautifying element in the daily life of each of us, as maker or user, — we can ill afford to let slip the present opportunity of helping to birth in our own land an art which, if cherished, is unsurpassed in its power to lift our lives above the sordidness and routine into which so many conditions of the time would draw them.

Even the severest critic of American music — and most of the critics vie with one another for this title — cannot deny the presence of an extraordinary and ever-increasing creative impulse in American musical art. While, for reasons to be considered, no American works in large forms come to general public performance, and but few to an occasional hearing, every year witnesses a notable increase of orchestral works, chamber music, piano and vocal works, and other compositions by American composers. Of smaller piano compositions and songs, the seasons bring forth an appalling quantity, and too often, it is true, an appalling quality as well; yet in the midst of this saturnalia appear many works of true distinction, of breadth and beauty, works infinitely in advance of those usually chosen to represent American music on artists’ programmes. And from time to time an American opera rises from the composer’s consciousness to completion — never to performance — and sinks again into a mysterious obscurity, oblivion, or temporary neglect, we are fain to know which.

It is not the purpose of this inquiry to seek to appraise this musical output. Musical students and musicians of high standing, who make it their especial task to follow every development and apprehend every musical revelation of modern Europe, and who are familiar with every advance of American music, know that our composers have produced many works surpassing a great amount of the current European music which fills our programmes in the United States.

These programmes by no means consist wholly of the works of the great epochmakers of musical history. If they did there would be nothing to say, for scarcely any American composer, however indispensable and vital to our national musical evolution, could successfully lay claim to having produced a major deflection in the course of the world’s musical history. It is very probable, however, that musical tendencies already manifest in this country will eventually produce such a deflection. Our programmes, it is plain to see, are not made up from the few great masters who have hewn out the main channel of music’s progress. Society would not tolerate such a diet. They contain a vastly greater proportion of lesser works. Some of these are obvious and charming, and introduced merely as a foil to weightier works. Others are more pretentious and represent the general effort of contemporary Europe for musical advancement, an effort offering examples often no whit better than those which represent American progress, and in many cases not so good. For oftentimes mere virtuoso tricks are proffered upon the artist’s programme, and it is well known that we are not without genuine thinkers among our foremost composers.

Now it is precisely this general effort toward musical advancement which is the soil that finally produces the powerful master. When it becomes easy and common to do well, there suddenly arises one who can do infinitely better, and who would never have existed except for the general culture and effort. The universal nourishment of this culture is essential to the production of masters. Of many bards, one becomes a Homer. After generations of effort, when the technical equipment was insufficient and the national spirit too unawakened artistically to admit of the development of a preeminent individual, our nation is at last paralleling the general status of European musical culture. The conditions for powerful individual development are no longer lacking, and in fact we now see one after another of our composers striking high above the international average.

To this question, then, does the matter at last resolve itself. Why do not the more excellent American compositions find a generous and adequate, nay, even a just, or, at the least, an appreciable representation upon American programmes ? Why does not American society, in the broad sense of the term, support American music ? Is it neglect on the part of society, or is it unworthiness on the part of the composer ? But for my belief that we are about to witness a great and farreaching revolution in this matter, the question would not have been broached. But there is at present every indication of such a revolution. The subsoil for this movement was prepared long since, when our popular music came into its own. More recently the discussion of a “national American music” and of “American” folksongs has arisen, and if no conclusions have been reached, a most important circumstance has resulted, namely, the stirring up of the rank and file of the American people to the study of the works of American composers. Individuals and clubs in all parts of the United States are taking up the study of American music, and there remains but one more step, — and that one sure to be taken, — its general acceptance by American society. Yet there still remain formidable obstacles, the nature of which must be more generally recognized before the final establishment of American music in American musical life can be brought about. We must glance at the causes of the present condition.

The time was when we had nowhere to look but to Europe for our musical art. We accepted European music as a starting-point, as naturally as we accepted European civilization generally as the starting-point for ours. The love of our forefathers for the European lands of their birth but foreshadowed the depth of our love for America; and their love for the great old-world masterworks, a passion which we inherit, is the measure of the intensity of the love which we shall one day bear to our own masterworks. The eastern ports of entry, especially Boston and New York, became the authoritative centres of European music, and therefore, at that time, of all music, in the United States. There the great symphonies and operas could be heard. About this serious work for musical progress grew up a life of musical fashion, a reflex of the life of social fashion, which, while it served indeed to support the performance of the masterworks, fostered also many European developments of lesser significance. In this life the appearance of a great European artist would rival in glamour the visit of an Athenian to a Grecian province. Coming from the source of all music, his authority would be nothing less than apostolic.

Gradually, as western cities aspired to a similar culture, both of art and of fashion, a “circuit” was developed. The artist from across the water could now carry his authority to St. Louis, or even as far as San Francisco. Finally other cities, Cincinnati, Chicago, Denver, were added. The peculiar commercial and artistic conditions of the United States, reinforced by the profound European ignorance of American geography, gave rise to the necessity for able management for these visiting artists. The seat of this managerial activity could be only in New York, which had finally become the point from which each virtuoso in turn started upon his triumphal American tour. A great and profitable business thus arose, and we are to recognize that by far the greatest asset of this business became not primarily the command of artistic ability, — although this was manifestly present, — but the command of fashion. For one listener whose object was to learn from the artist the authoritative interpretation of the works which he performed, or for one who sought him out for sheer artistic enjoyment, twenty would go because he came from Europe and represented the summit of the musical fashion of the day, and the fashionable world could not afford to be absent.

So long as the musical fashion coincided at every point with the true development of musical art in the United States, this condition presented no disadvantage, and caused no harm. But that this fashion and art, although coincident at first, could remain so in a new land sure to rear up arts of its own, was an absolute impossibility; and at the moment when American musical art became of intrinsic worth, and the musical fashion remained fixedly European, musical fashion and musical art in America parted company. To-day the true interests of musical development in the United States have little or nothing to do with the fashionable musical life of our great cities. The facts of our creative musical development are one thing, the events of our social musical life another. Society is not aware of this. It has so long been compelled to import musical art if it wished to have any, that it cannot believe that there is any other source of this art than Europe. Society is not yet prepared to tolerate any interference with this belief, and the purveyors of its musical art are the last to initiate any such interference. Indeed, to do so would be to lose financial support; and therein lies the crux of the situation. The managers of musical enterprises care nothing for our national artistic development; their one concern is to keep secure the patronage of society.

This general condition of affairs in the eastern cities is nothing less than the model and the cue for the social musical life of the entire United States. As it is in New York, so must it be in Butte, Montana, or Pueblo, Colorado. Sane, beautiful, advanced musical art may be growing up about these western cities and towns, but it has not been the occasion of the social musical flurry of the great metropolis, and they must have “Salome,” or something of Debussy. I learned recently that more modern French music is being sold west of the Mississippi than east of it.

What is the immediate universal result of this artificial condition ? It means simply that good American singers, pianists, and other artists — to say nothing of foreign — may place upon their programmes only that which is sanctioned by New York, and that is — European music. Not to do so means to incur the displeasure and lose the support of society. And these same artists, who know good and bad in music as society does not know it, are often ardent admirers of much in American music, but they must admire in private. An orchestral conductor in a secondary capacity, and for the time being in a place where he could do what he pleased, gave a number of performances of the scores of a certain American composer, with great success, and expressed himself very enthusiastically, personally, concerning them, assuring the composer of the pleasure he would have in conducting them in a primary capacity on a more important occasion, when the opportunity should come. The opportunity arrived, and with it the unexpected knowledge that to do as he had promised, under these circumstances, would jeopardize the social support of the orchestra. The composer received a polite note, stating that at some future time he, the composer, would probably do work more satisfactory to himself, by which he would rather become known, and that then it would be time to consider the performance of it. Such instances could be infinitely multiplied on a smaller scale, and would form a voluminous and amusing anthology of episodes of artistic and moral trepidation.

There are, on the other hand, artists of commanding powers and moral courage, who have succeeded in making some headway against the social dictum, but they are the exceptions which prove the rule. The subconscious common sense of society has immediately applauded such artists and greatly exalted them, not, of course, for this particular action, but for the greatness which made such impudent action safely possible.

First and last, many American compositions come to performance on American programmes. Society has always sanctioned the trivial American work as a foil to the serious European; but never the more significant American work for its own sake. Composers and their friends are able to force hearings here and there, so that the composer will not be wholly without knowledge of the effect of his work upon an audience, or for that matter, upon himself, both to a certain extent necessary things, for only in practice can art and the art-nature grow. Again, certain obviously good and appealing works, not requiring any effort of the understanding, have quickly found their way into public favor, and are safe for an artist to use. But this insistent fact remains, — that upon our concert and recital programmes generally, those works which best represent the brains and ideals of our American composers to-day are conspicuous by their absence. The army of persons whose fortune, or whose very sustenance, is assured by the maintenance of our exclusively European musical system, is kept busy explaining to society that if Americans could produce sufficiently good music, artists would place it upon their programmes. This explanation may satisfy the unthinking, but it can no longer satisfy those who see that since the artist will not be paid for performing American compositions requiring real study and work, he cannot afford to stop to master them, even if he be prompted by admiration of the compositions or friendship for the composer. If society, to-day, should turn and support liberally the production of works by our own composers, if it should, by some whimsical turn of the wheel, announce that it would not support foreign and native artists unless they would give us a good share of the works of our own composers, we would witness a zeal in the world-wide study of American music that would startle the nation. Moreover, we would be no less startled by the intense and varied interest, the high poetic worth, and the magnitude of the achievement of American composers.

If the composer have too much spirit, too great a devotion to his country’s growth in musical art, to accept a pittance for his teaching and neglect for his and his brother’s art, what shall he do in this situation? At first he might leave composition for a time and look deeply enough into his country’s sociology and economics to learn the true nature of the conditions in the midst of which he exists. He will then learn that his own salvation depends upon the salvation of all. As a next step he might waive all endeavor to exploit his own compositions, and through a study of the works of his brother composers, learn the exact nature and strength of his country’s musical art. Then, leaving the society of artists, who cannot help him, he might take his newly gained knowledge to the leaders of society, — not the hopelessly lost of the great eastern cities, but the misguided and redeemable throughout the land; and, disinterested himself, win their disinterested help for the sake of a national cause. They are more ready for him than he suspects. Whatever the depth of their regard for the masterpieces of music, their allegiance to mere musical fashions is not of the heart, and they will welcome the opportunity to withdraw their social power from an artificial situation, which can hold for them but little of real life and attainment, and devote it to the satisfying of a living national need.