When, in 1994, I retired from the University of Pittsburgh, I asked my good friend John Craig, the editor the the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, whether I could do an op ed for them now and then. John was a good friend but even better editor, so he asked me, in reply, to show him some non-academic writing of mine. I complied and he signaled to me and his staff: nihil obstat, though that’s not the way it was put. Since then I wrote 49 op eds for that paper, but left Pittsburgh before managing to push it up to an even 50. I have also abandoned the idea of collecting them all in a book that nowbody will buy.
But that does not mean that I should refrain from rebroadcasting some of my favorites. Quite a few of those are still in my computer, though by no means the whole bunch. So, while I don’t intend to turn this blog into an account of the past, I will now and then insert an oldie into the stream.
Starting with one of my favorites:
American Music Really Is American
Rudolph H. Weingartner
I’ve been listening to music for most of my life—actually listening, not just hearing. And sometimes I even think about what I heard. That’s how not all that long ago I made some observations about American music I think are worth sharing. I am talking about the decades that began around the first World War, when it became meaningful to speak of distinctively American music.
Of course the music that was then written built on what had gone before and on its European forebears. But the changes that were then introduced were so powerful that they dominated American music for quite some time. More correctly, I should say American musics, in the plural, since there is hardly a single strain. Leaving aside jazz for the moment, let me identify three genres. Going from the bottom up—speaking as a snooty member of the cultural elite—there are what are most simply called popular songs; then there are the musicals of Broadway, and, finally, the kind of music played by symphony orchestras, recitalists, and ensembles in the likes of Carnegie Hall, all known by the misleading term of “classical music.”
Thinking about these, I made a mildly startling discovery. Three giants who dominated these territories were Jews from Eastern Europe, one actually born there, the other two in Brooklyn not long after their parents’ passage through Ellis Island. Starting at the “bottom,” it is hard to trump the name of Irving Berlin. Except that was not the name he was born with, in 1888, in the town of Tyumen, just east of the Ural Mountains (though other sources name different towns), arriving here when he was five. The son of a cantor, he was then Israel Isadore Baline (that last name an immigration official’s transcription of Beilin), the youngest of a large Yiddish-speaking family. While I found no record just when Israel became Irving, the move to Berlin came about through a mistake. In 1906, the eighteen-year-old wrote the lyrics for Marie of Sunny Italy to a melody by a fellow entertainer at the Pelham Café in Chinatown. But when the song was published, the printer put “I. Berlin” on the cover. It would have brought bad luck to the author not to keep the name that gave him his first broader recognition.
Most of us know much of the greater accomplishments that would follow. What we might not know is that at the beginning of his long career, Irving Berlin succeeded as a wordsmith, and only when he was prodded did he compose the melody of his next song. That prod lasted. From Alexander’s Ragtime Rag, Berlin’s first big-time success to, randomly, Always, Anything You Can Do I can Do Better to How Deep is the Ocean and White Christmas (and many, many more), Irving Berlin wrote both words and music. It is often noted that Berlin never learned to read notes and that a special piano was built for him that could sound in keys different from the only one he knew to play. But it is also worth observing that the lyrics and melodies he wrote could not be more distant from the Yiddish he spoke as a child and the cantorial and Eastern European tunes on which he was brought up.
For me, the highlight is Berlin’s hymn-like God Bless America. I empathize with those who want to make that song our national anthem, as more singable and less belligerent than our current one. Were that ever to happen, it would be the zenith of the story of Israel Isadore Beilin, begun somewhere in Russia or Belarus.
Our second innovator who influenced the course of American music managed to steer an unprecedented course between pops and “classical” music and between musical and opera. Jacob Gershowitz, was born in 1898 in Brooklyn, but his father, who had emigrated from St. Petersburg, soon changed his name to Gershwin; the transformation of Jacob into George somehow followed. Like Berlin, George Gershwin got an early start, writing a commercially successful song when he was nineteen and made his first big hit with Swannee when he was twenty-one. The words were by his brother Ira—who came to write the words to much of George’s lyrical output—and the song’s success benefited greatly from being sung by superstar Al Jolson (born in Lithuania as Asa Yoelson).
Gershwin, who died at thirty-eight, was prolific, with a large output of works for the stage and the concert hall. As exemplified by the work everyone knows, Rhapsody in Blue (of 1924), Gershwin was the first to combine—perhaps interweave is better—classical compositional techniques with jazz and pop. Again, no trace of an Eastern European heritage in that unique Gershwin mix. An anecdote is told both about Ravel and Schoenberg, whom Gershwin was said to have asked for lessons in composition. “I would only make you a second-rate Schoenberg/Ravel, and you are such a good Gershwin already" was the reply by whomever.
It is worth mentioning that the jazz—perhaps the most American of musics—on which Gershwin leaned had also been changing, in that it became a much freer, improvisatorial, and solistic than it had been when had still remained closer to the band music, ragtime, spirituals and religious music from which it had sprung. The three musicians perhaps most responsible for this transformation were also not exactly scions of a WASP elite: Jelly Roll Morton, born in 1890 to a New Orleans Creole couple (the last name probably his stepfather’s name, Mouton, anglicized) and the African-Americans, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (born 1901 in New Orleans) and Earl “Fatha” Hines (in 1903 in our neighborhood, Duquesne).
That Gershwin was able to elevate the musical to new heights is exemplified in two quite different ways. Of Thee I Sing, reviewed by Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times as "a taut and lethal satire . . . funnier than the government, and not nearly so dangerous," was, in 1932, the very first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize for best American play. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when the august Columbia University Pulitzer board debated whether or not to take this radical step toward popular taste.
But Porgy and Bess is Gershwin’s crowning achievement. It is the only opera by an American composer that has received world-wide aclaim. That is not a trivial distinction: a “selected” list of operas by American composers posted on the US Opera website comes to 359, if I counted correctly. Nor is Porgy and Bess a standard opera, whatever that might be. Gershwin called it a Folk Opera. It makes copious use of jazzy passages; its cast of characters, almost entirely African-American, consists of ordinary people and not larger than life operatic heroes. American verismo. The plot moves briskly and the hit tunes tumble one after the other; if they were sung in Italian, they would be called arias. An international group of collectors of recordings of Summertime claims to know of at least 20,142 public performances of that song of which 13,842 are said to have been recorded.
A young man, Morris (probably né Moishe) Kaplan was in England, on the way from Lithuania to America, when he anglicized his name to Copland. Some years later, in 1900, his fifth child, Aaron, was born in Brooklyn and came to grow up to become the most American of American composers, a goal he aimed at almost self-consciously. His music is American, not simply because he incorporated into it both jazz and blues, making use, as well, of older American tunes—though he did all that. Nor is his music American because so much of it is devoted to American themes: Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, the opera Tender Land. But even though Copland also wrote many works that derive from European sources, even including atonal music, the core of his output evinces a tonal world that became a kind of paradigm of American “classical” music, strongly influencing a subsequent generation.
Numerous technical amalyses have been put forward of this Copland—American style. I will not attempt to insert any of them here, but will confine myself to a few general characteristics. The themes or melodies Copland invents are relatively simple and concise and when they are more extensive, they are likely to be made up of smaller units. Copland’s rhythms are often distinctly declamatory and predominantly unhurried. Perhaps most notably, Copland’s harmony is derived from French rather than German music, most probably by virtue of the fact that he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, the first American composer to do so. And finally, Copland makes a self-conscious effort to orchestrate with great clarity, letting each voice be heard with little or no doubling, making for a more open, less “sophisticated” but also less fuzzy texture.
Arguably, Copland’s Third Symphony is the greatest American work in that genre. The first movement makes copious use of themes of the popular Fanfare for the Common Man and throughout its course, it steadfastly maintains its ability to keep the listener fastened to the orchestral progression. The symphony is only one of a great many of Copland’s works—from chamber music to ballet to operas to scores for Hollywood films—but it serves as good evidence for the claim that Aaron Copland was the greatest American composer of the last century—a century he spanned, since he died in 1990.
What is the moral of this story about the modern “origin” of American music? Early on I said that I was mildly surprised that a most important trio consisted of three Eastern European Jews. Surprised, because that’s not what you expect when it’s American music that you are looking at. But only mildly surprised, because, after all, it is a fundamental truth of American history—and one that is in danger of being forgotten—that our open society has liberated the newly arrived and first generation Americans to enable them to harness their native talents and energies to advance the themes and tasks of their new homeland. A recent study, What Happened to the Children Who Fled Nazi Persecution, for whom I also filled out a questionnaire, makes that point. But it is sufficient to read the obituary pages of The New York Times, to peruse the list of American recipients of the Nobel Prize, or just listen to the accents of the professors who teach the science courses in our universities or to those of the physicians that treat our ailments to be reminded of what the United States can accomplish when it is the land of the free.
Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of September 23, 2007