If one were to define American citizens in a general way, one would say they are a generous and industrious folk, clever as well as optimistic, sentimental and with a love of mystery.
How to find these same qualities manifested in the arts?
I vouch that the relationship between American classical music and its literature flows back and forth with these same qualities. The writer Whitman and the musician Copland both reflect American openness and expansiveness. Cleverness is seen in the poetry of Dickinson and Parker and in music like John Adams’ Harmonielehre. Warm feelings can be roused by Samuel Barber and Mary Oliver alike. Love of spirituality is found in Emerson and Hailstork. And industriousness can be viewed in the many works of Henry James and Hovhaness and Cowell. And optimism in Gershwin and Billy Collins.
Reading and listening to these writers and composers of classical music have been principal pleasures in life. Music must surely be the favorite art of our better angels.
For me, the French horns did not sound early. In high school, my total commitment to music blew through Benny Goodman’s clarinet, Harry James’ trumpet, Tommy Dorsey’s and Glenn Miller’s trombones and Swing—the latter enhanced by suburban train rides to wartime Broadway at age thirteen. (Yes. The lines around the Paramount for Sinatra were regimental size). Classical melodies began floating into my dorm room as a freshman in college during the late 1940’s when I started listening to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. Having no idea what I was listening to, I only knew that in that year of my brain’s awakening, I gauged that opera was one additional way of opening the clogged passages of my jazz-jumping and confused mind.
Later as an upperclassman, I took three Music Appreciation courses from one of the best teachers I ever had. Later still, when I was fifty or so, I took six piano lessons and discovered I was both inept and too busy to continue. But I had begun buying LP’s when they were first introduced onto the market in the late Forties and have carried many of them through multiple moves for seventy years. My favorites turned out to be Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler.
As someone more tuned into literature than music, I have enjoyed relating American writers to the works of native composers. The more I listened, the more connections I found, so the impetus for the listings I published in a recent book – U.S Composers and Poets – is basically an attempt to help tie the two – American music and literature – together. I think I first noticed the many musical references to the poetry of Walt Whitman in the American musical catalog. Because all artists are involved with matters of the heart, there is a synchronism to be found in these tunes and stanzas.
By 1950, I was a confirmed classical music fan, seeking a rise in spirituality through music’s uplifting loft. Many of my life’s happiest memories revolve around music. There was, for instance, the May Festival in Ann Arbor. Each spring the Philadelphia Orchestra would come to town and play about ten concerts in a week’s time. I would buy tickets for as many of the programs as my parsimonious budget allowed and listened to Ormandy conduct his silver strings. I can still hear in my head the flute solo played by William Kincaid at the end of Brahms First—an ending I have always associated with the voice of God.
Like most, I have always preferred live music. My early experiences coincided with the rise of young Lenny Bernstein when I would attend matinee concerts at Carnegie Hall. There were some performances when only a half-dozen of us occupied the entire upper balcony. In those years, the anti-art trend in America was on the cusp of turning the country into a culturally-aware nation. The postwar G.I. Bill and a European travel rush, encouraged by a favorable currency rate, inspired globe-trotting voyagers. Once home, these travelers insisted on elevating the quality and quantity of art and music in museums and concert halls all across the land.
Serving in the Army during the Korean War, I spent two years at Fort Bragg. Most off-hours were passed in the basement of the Post Library where I would listen for half-days on end to the great works of the repertoire, rejoicing at all those beautiful sounds. Later, working in New York, summer weekends were spent with friends in the cool mountain air of the Berkshires where we lounged on the grass listening to the Boston Orchestra at Tanglewood, my favorite place on the face of the earth. Those had been the years of Copland, Bernstein and Foss, under Koussevitzky, and the flowering of our national music.
I have followed the careers of several musical personalities, Bernstein for instance. A distinct memory is seeing young Bernstein, snappily dressed and full of confidence. I saw him go from a trim handsome lad to a white-haired, chubby guy in stress. The last time I saw him, I believe, was when he made a pre-curtain apology for some awkward scenes in the Broadway run-up for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I remember listening to his Young Persons broadcast on TV with my kids and enjoying a trip with them to hear a session with other parents. His exuberance and podium dances were a delight to behold. We owe him a great deal for his education program and for bringing Mahler into our lives, and broadening our interest in original American music. He said that all his work was about the struggle of the 20th Century and the crisis of faith. He was sometimes a bit distracting from his podium show while he conducted. But you said to yourself, “That’s OK. That’s Lenny.” Such energy! I would see him sometimes walking on 57th Street wielding a stick, parading along like the Duke of Dandy. Or see him giving classes in one of the little sheds in Tanglewood.
My oddest remembrance revolves around an incident when Sir Thomas Beecham was conducting. Unlike most visits to Carnegie Hall, my gorgeous blond girlfriend and I sat upscale in the first row of the orchestra. Girlfriend had a bad habit of chewing gum. Sir Thomas, noticing her on entrance, glowered at her when he walked onstage as he took to the podium. She continued chewing. The music began but Sir Thomas became agitated and every few minutes he would look over his shoulder and with smoldering looks, send fiery reprimands our way. Unconcerned girlfriend continued to chew through the program, ruining Sir Thomas’ concentration.
I recall seeing Pierre Monteux conduct. For me, a ballet maniac, to hear the old walrus-mustache conductor brought me in touch with the early century when he led the orchestra for Diaghilev in Paris. He was conducting the night that Modernism exploded onto the world in 1910 with Stravinsky’s Firebird. Listening to Monteux was like associating with the positive aspects of the early century, avoiding the negative part – WW1 responsible for ruining the rest of the century
I also enjoyed the annual Christmas lectures of Professor Schickele under the guise of PDQ Bach, with pleasure.
And I remember Artur Rubinstein, erect with a shock of white hair, one of the most distinguished men I have ever seen.
And Bernstein’s Mahler offerings when the hall seemed to explode.
Memories about Carnegie and the Russian Tea Room next door linger. I remember watching the European-born Philharmonic players coming in for borscht after a concert, and the fun it was to watch the bass player trying to stow his instrument with the hatcheck girl.
When I retired in 1995, I finally had time to write the novels that I had stored up during a lifetime of overwork. After studying the history and genealogy of my tribe, I decided to write a series of seven novels—The Columbiad—about one family, my own, traversing the Twentieth Century. The centennial timeline was chosen for, among other reasons, my particular and probably eccentric view of America. I believe firmly in the middle class and unions and remember a time when the nation was unified during WWII—when neighbors helped one another and communities shared and struggled together. That older America was once illustrated by Columbia, who represented the United States, the bountiful goddess with the passions of her female generosity, when Hail Columbia was once the national anthem. Until the time of the Spanish-America War and the Industrial Revolution, Columbia ruled. Then along came warlike Uncle Sam, bringing his imperialistic hubris to bear upon the national mold.
When I began writing the novels, I knew it would be a twenty-year effort and I hoped this time would allow me simultaneously to study a new subject or one that I had understudied. I chose American classical music, a choice that has come to mean a great deal to me. But fair warning, I have preferences outlined in my U.S. Composers and Poets. For one thing, a streak of Americana runs through me. As an additional warning, I’m always looking for literary references in these musical works, like the dozens or more native musical pieces that reflect Dickinson’s poetry. And, a rationalization is offered. I feel that if musicians can borrow from works of literature, writers should have the right to comment on music.
Though I am advancing toward 94 years of age, and because my heart and I will probably never see the completion of the partial listing offered in U.S Composers and Poets, I have to admit that some of the selections were hastily chosen. But I proceeded anyway. But because I was moving fast, they’re might be a little smoke left behind in the driveway.
Have I heard all the music listed in the book? The answer is: Not by a long shot. And I don’t trust my memory either, so beware. All that I know is what I’ve heard. And sometimes I follow form.
What I’m looking for is music that literary minds might appreciate. Often a piece is listed for no other reason than its unusual title.
Melody is still key for those Romantics among us still standing, after the post-modern crushing. We still feel that emotion, not logic, will secure personal pleasure.
In total, I’ve always thought that musicians knew something I didn’t.
Gerald F. Sweeney is an army vet and a graduate of Michigan. A retired New York magazine executive, he writes literary fiction. His seven-book fictional series is called The Columbiad. The series follows four generations of one family through the 20th Century.