Behind the Scenes: MADE IN AMERICA Program Notes
American music—like American society and culture—is an ever- changing and evolving experiment of identity, vision, and voice. The language of this European art form in this so-called New World has been complex and, at times, confounding.
We can trace this history as far back as the late nineteenth century when Jeannette Thurber hired the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák to travel to New York City to serve as the Director of the National Conservatory of Music. This move was an e ort to legitimize the teaching of classical music in the United States but is perhaps best known now for the in uence this trip had on Dvořák; while here in the United States Dvořák studied African-American spirituals that he learned from his students and incorporated those ideas into is compositions.
Generations later, in the twentieth century, young American composers—including Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and Virgil Thomson—traveled to Paris in droves to study with the famed composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Paris Conservatory. Their time with Boulanger may have formed the basis of their musical technique, but each composer gained his own individual understanding of the relationship between the American culture of his upbringing and this newly acquired European training. This blending of traditions led to an explosion of diverse and distinct musical styles— on both sides of the Atlantic—that we think of as “American” music today. Just as Dvořák influenced the teaching of music in the United States and incorporated American ideas into his own music, the current of influence always travels along the circuit in both directions: who is to say that Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto replete with jazz influences is any more or less American than Copland’s modernist quartal harmonies made to represent a glowing sunset over American west?
What does it mean to be “Made in America”? Joan Tower’s Made in America (2005) represents her nuanced relationship to her own national identity. She wrote in her program note for the work: “I crossed a fairly big bridge at the age of nine when my family moved to South America (La Paz, Bolivia), where we stayed for nine years. I had to learn a new language, a new culture, and how to live at 13,000 feet! It was a lively culture with many saints’ days celebrated through music and dance, but the large Inca population in Bolivia was generally poor and there was little chance of moving up in class or work position. When I returned to the United States, I was proud to have free choices, upward mobility, and the chance to try to become who I wanted to be.”
Tower uses the melodic and rhythmic motives that make up the tune “America the Beautiful” as the building blocks of this symphonic poem: we hear both the dotted rhythmic figure of “America” and the rising scale of “amber waves of grain” broken down into its primary musical parts and reconstituted in numerous ways.
The Symphony No. 31 in D Major (1778) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart also represents a composer’s visit abroad, this time to France from his home in Vienna. Much like his American counterparts nearly 200 years later, Mozart went to Paris searching for work and experience. A youthful Mozart wrote this boisterous work for a large orchestra that includes both trumpets and clarinets because he enjoyed the possibilities of the expanded ensembles he found in Paris. The symphony is set in the traditional three-movement structure of the time: a rambunctious Allegro assai opening movement, followed by more contemplative Andante and lively Allegro to round out this musical excursion.
We think of Ravel as a master orchestrator, especially with his hypnotic orchestral work, Boléro, or his reworking of fellow composers’ works, in the case of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. In his Piano Concerto in G Major (1931), French composer Maurice Ravel brings together his creativity of musical sound and color with his fascination with American jazz in order to build a provocative and dramatic work for piano and orchestra. The work emerged from Ravel’s travels to the United States on a performance tour in 1928 where he got to experience the hustle and bustle of American life first hand.
In this concerto, it is impossible, however, not to hear hints of George Gershwin’s musical in infuence: Gershwin’s 1928 An American in Paris artfully blended his American upbringing with the modernist music he enjoyed while studying with Boulanger in Paris (in fact, Gershwin had written to Ravel to request lessons but Ravel had declined). Ravel’s rowdy outer movements bookend the touching Adagio assai which sits at the emotional center of this dynamic work, forming what we might be light- heartedly think of as Ravel’s musical response to a composer of similar—if perhaps inverted—mindset: A Parisian in America.
We think of Copland’s oeuvre as being dominated by “American” works like Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man, but his compositional output included much more modernist tendencies as well, including the 1930 Piano Variations and, in 1962, the 12- tone Connotations. Aaron Copland’s southwestern cowboy ballet Rodeo (1942) was written in collaboration with the American dancer and choreographer Agnes De Mille, who would stage the premiere production at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City featuring the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. De Mille saw herself as the character of the cowgirl, a woman in a man’s world, out of step with the expectations that were placed upon her. Copland used tunes from the book “Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads” by John and Alan Lomax, who compiled an extensive collection of American folk tunes first published in 1934. Copland uses “If he’d be a Buckaroo” and the railroad tune “Sis Joe” as thematic material for musical development in Buckaroo Holiday. The Saturday Night Waltz features the tune “Houlihan,” commonly set to the text of “I ride an old paint...”
The final dance Hoe-Down is perhaps now best known for its inclusion in the “Beef... It’s What’s for Dinner” commercials of the 1990s, but Copland based the dance on two fiddle tunes from the Lomaxes’ book: “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and “Miss Mcleod’s Reel.” While Copland was undoubtedly working hard to include musical elements of his American identity in form of these folk tunes, it is also worth noting the traditional European structure of what he created.
This suite of four orchestral dances mimics the structure of a traditional classical symphony quite explicitly: the extended, heavily-wrought opening movement, a slow and contemplative second movement, a dance-inspired triple meter third movement, and then a quick rambunctious finale to bring the party to a close. Like the other pieces on the program tonight, Copland’s Rodeo shows us that music made in America entails encounters with forms, figures, and cultures beyond our geographic borders, and celebrates those interactions as essential for growth in the unending quest to understand better ourselves and those with whom we share this world.