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American Music

The colonial roots of American music are English. The first book printed in the English colonies was the Bay Psalm Book. Its ninth edition (1698) contained 13 psalm tunes, all of them from Europe; some, including “Old Hundred,” are still sung. After 1750 native-born composers in New England established a distinctive religious music. Spread through “singing schools” (informal courses of musical instruction), Yankee hymnody—with its angular melodies and open-fifth chords—was unconventional by European standards. A favorite form was the fuguing tune, a four-part piece that began like a hymn and ended like a round. The most famous of the New England “tunesmiths” was William Billings, whose collection The New England Psalm-Singer (1770) marked the appearance of the new style. His colleagues included Oliver Holden (1765–1844) and Daniel Read (1757–1836).

Some religious sects, such as the Ephrata Cloisters Community, the Shakers, and the Moravians, also produced original music, which, however, failed to have lasting influence on American musical styles. One Shaker melody, “'Tis a Gift to Be Simple,” became famous when it was used by the composer Aaron Copland in his ballet Appalachian Spring (1944). The Moravians, who were musically the most prolific and sophisticated of these sects, re-created in their chamber and church music the instrumental music of their Old World German culture. The three string trios written about 1780 by the Moravian composer John Antes (1740–1811) were the first chamber works composed in the colonies.

Political songs, broadsides (one-page song sheets), dance music, and piano music—largely reflecting English models or imported from England—were also published during this era. Among such tunes of English origin are “The Star-Spangled Banner” (1814), with words by the American lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key; “Yankee Doodle” (pub. about 1780); and “America” (1831), with words by the American clergyman and poet Samuel F. Smith (1808–95). The lawyer, author, and politician Francis Hopkinson was one of the first Americans to compose secular music; he is best known for his Seven Songs for the Harpsichord (1788). Professional European-born musicians resided in several of the larger cities; among them were the English-born James Hewitt (1770–1827) in New York City and the German-born Alexander Reinagle (1756–1809), a composer of ballad operas in Philadelphia.

After the American Revolution, European taste reasserted itself in church music. The music of the New England tunesmiths was scorned as “unscientific” by such composers as Thomas Hastings (1784–1872) and William Batchelder Bradbury (1816–68). The dominant figure was Lowell Mason (1792–1872), who had a profound influence on 19th-century musical life in America. Besides introducing music into the Boston schools in 1838, Mason composed more than 1200 hymns and compiled five major collections of church music, the most important and most successful being The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music (1822). Several of Mason's descendants became performers and teachers of music, as well as builders of pianos and organs; his grandson, Daniel Gregory Mason (1873–1953), was a respected composer of impressionistic and romantic music.

Traditional New England religious music migrated to the South, where a new kind of folk hymnody emerged from the camp meetings of the religious revival movement. Close to modern gospel tunes in their repetitious, catchy refrains, the revival hymns and spirituals include such well-known examples as “Amazing Grace” (1789) and “Wayfaring Stranger” (c. 1778). Southern folk hymns were typically printed in “shape notes,” an easy-to-read system of notation in which the notes had different shapes to represent the seven syllables of the scale. The shape-note collection of greatest and most lasting popularity was The Sacred Harp (1844) of Benjamin Franklin White (1800–79) and E. J. King (1821?–44).

American classical music was in its infancy during this period. The most noteworthy classical composer was Bohemian-born Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781–1861), a romantic who wrote several descriptive symphonies and a massive collection of songs and piano pieces, The Dawning of Music in Kentucky (1820).

The presence of African people in America surfaced in popular music in the minstrel show. Its characteristic white, four-man troupe made up in blackface was defined by the Virginia Minstrels in the 1840s, performing on banjo, tambourine, bone castanets, and fiddle (violin). The banjo virtuoso Daniel Decatur Emmett was the outstanding composer of minstrel songs; his best-known work is Dixie (1859). By midcentury the first blacks began to perform in minstrel shows.

Genuine African-American music was already established in oral tradition at the beginning of the 19th century. The first published collection of it, Slave Songs of the United States, appeared in 1867. Among the famous tunes the collection contains are “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” and “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” After the Civil War, the fund-raising concerts of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers made such spirituals the first African-American folk music to reach a national and international audience.

Parlor songs overflowed with sentiment, lavished on the ordinary aspects of domestic life. One example is “The Old Arm Chair” (1840) by the English singer Henry Russell (1812–1900), who barnstormed the U.S. in the 1830s and '40s. Russell's American successors included the Hutchinson family, who espoused in song such causes as abolition and woman suffrage.

The greatest songwriter of the period, and perhaps of the century, was Stephen Collins Foster, who composed songs for the famous Christy Minstrels, such as “Oh! Susanna” (1848) and “Camptown Races” (1850), and parlor songs, such as “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” (1854) and “Beautiful Dreamer” (1864). Foster was immortalized by his folklike melodies and his ability to combine Anglo-Irish and African-American idioms with those of Italian operatic song. Notable composers after Foster were Henry Clay Work (1832–84), George Root (1820–95), and James Bland (1854–1911).

In classical music, Americans favored pianists, and the first great American keyboard virtuoso, the New Orleans-born Louis Moreau Gottschalk, became an international celebrity. The best of his salon music for piano—such as “La Bamboula” (1844–45; the name of a dance) and “Le Banjo” (1855)—blended an exotic mixture of African-Caribbean rhythms, Creole melodies, and romantic pyrotechnics.

The country's first orchestra was the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York (popularly the New York Philharmonic), founded in 1842. Outstanding symphonic and operatic composers during this period were rare. The most prominent was William Henry Fry (1813–64), who composed Leonora, the first opera by an American; it was performed in Philadelphia in 1845. Fry is best remembered, however, for four symphonies written in the 1850s and '60s. George F. Bristow (1825–92) wrote the first opera on an American theme; his Rip Van Winkle was performed in New York City in 1855.

In the decades after the Civil War, classical music came of age in the U.S. Conservatories were founded (Peabody Institute, 1860; Oberlin College, 1865; New England Conservatory, 1867); concert halls were built (Carnegie Hall, 1891); and orchestras were established in more cities, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1891), led by the first American virtuoso conductor, Theodore Thomas (1835–1905).

The music of the German romantics Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms formed the model for most American composers of the late 19th century, of whom the largest number belonged to a New England-based circle known as the Boston Group. Members of the group included John Knowles Paine (1839–1906); Arthur Foote (1853–1937); George Chadwick (1854–1931), known for his Symphonic Sketches (1907) and his opera Judith (1901); Horatio Parker, whose oratorio Hora Novissima (1893) was widely performed; and Amy Cheney Beach (1867–1944), generally referred to as Mrs. H. H. H. Beach, whose Gaelic Symphony (1896) was the first symphony written by an American woman.

The most prominent composer of classical music, however, was not part of this New England school. Edward MacDowell sought his own inspiration in the “new German school” represented by the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and the German composer Richard Wagner. MacDowell's works, written between 1880 and 1902, are mainly for piano. They include 2 piano concertos and 16 collections of character pieces. His single most famous work is “To a Wild Rose,” from Woodland Sketches (1896).

The next generation reacted against the Germanic cast of MacDowell and of the New England school. Some composers used indigenous folk music; among them, Arthur Farwell (1872–1951) drew on Indian music, and Henry F. Gilbert (1868–1928) utilized African-American music. Influences of the French impressionists and of the composers of the Russian School, particularly Aleksandr Scriabin, appeared first in the music of Charles Tomlinson Griffes, in such compositions as Tone-Images (1912) and Four Impressions (1912–15).

The most original and, indeed, the first truly great American classical composer was Charles Ives, whose use of polytonality and dissonance made him a modernist prophet. In such works as Three Places in New England (1903–14), for orchestra, the Second Piano Sonata, (subtitled Concord, Mass., 1840–60; 1909–15), and the choral work General Booth Enters into Heaven (1914), Ives combined quotations of gospel, ragtime, and parlor music with complex symphonic and chamber structures.

The most prominent American musician at the end of the century was John Philip Sousa, the leader of a large concert band, and a world-famous figure. Known as the march king, Sousa composed about 140 marches, including “Semper Fidelis” (1888) and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (1897).

Popular music became big business in the 1890s, especially after Charles K. Harris (1867–1930) wrote “After the Ball” (1892), which sold a million copies. Music publishers clustered in Union Square in New York City, nicknaming it Tin Pan Alley. In the following ten years two African-American styles, ragtime and blues, demonstrated their commercial potential. Ragtime, which evolved from minstrel songs, was a heavily syncopated music; its greatest composer was Scott Joplin, one of whose piano pieces, “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899), started a national craze. Joplin, who had had some training in classical music, later wrote a ragtime opera, Treemonisha (1911). It met with no success, but was revived with great acclaim in 1975. In the first two decades of the 20th century, blues, in the hands of singers such as Bessie Smith and composers such as W. C. Handy, became stabilized as popular rather than folk music.

In the theater, echoes of the Viennese style could be heard on Broadway in the operettas of Victor Herbert. Together with the vaudeville spectaculars of Florenz Ziegfeld, Herbert's operettas were the forerunners of the musical, or musical comedy.

The 1920s marked the realization of a distinctive American modernist movement in classical music. Its pioneers were Henry Cowell, who introduced the tone cluster; Carl Ruggles; Ruth Crawford-Seeger (1901–53); and Edgard Varèse, whose compositions, not dependent on melody or harmony, had great influence on later 20th-century music. Varèse's percussion piece Ionisation (1931) is a landmark.

Often called the jazz age, the 1920s saw the emergence of a distinct style of music, separate from its roots in ragtime and blues. In the hands of its major composer-performers, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington, jazz remained popular through the 1940s. The '20s “roared” with popular song as well, and a number of composers produced small masterpieces within the limits of the 32-bar song form. Among the finest were Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. George Gershwin's style encompassed both popular and classical forms, in such works as the piano concerto Rhapsody in Blue (1924), the Concerto in F (1925), and the opera Porgy and Bess (1935).

The Great Depression of the 1930s stilled the young champions of “new music.” An Americanist trend, a self-conscious search for a musical identity, characterized the classical music of the next two decades. Aaron Copland, the most famous composer of the second quarter of the century, abandoned the acerbic language of his Piano Variations (1930) for an accessible melodic style of clear tonality, permeated by American folk music. His ballet scores Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944) are among his best-known works. Kindred composers included William Grant Still (1895–1978) and Roy Harris, who quoted folk music in their symphonies. Virgil Thomson gave a modern treatment to older styles of music, as in his whimsical opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934; with a libretto by Gertrude Stein).

Other composers rose to prominence with music that was international rather than nationalistic. Some, perhaps inspired by the work of the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky during the 1920s and '30s, were energized by neoclassicism. Among them was Walter Piston, who often used baroque textures and genres. Piston, like Thomson, Harris, and Copland, had studied composition in Paris, the postwar center of music study, with the influential French teacher Nadia Boulanger. Three notable neoromantics were Howard Hanson, Samuel Barber, and Gian-Carlo Menotti, the latter well known for his Christmas fantasy opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951).

After World War II more and more American musicians received their training at home at conservatories such as the Juilliard School in New York City and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and in the music departments of such institutions as Indiana University in Bloomington and Harvard University.

In the 1930s and '40s a number of Europe's leading composers fled from fascist oppression to the U.S. Under their influence, international modernism superseded Americanist tendencies in the late 1940s and '50s. The most influential immigrant was the Austrian-born Arnold Schoenberg, whose twelve-tone system triumphed as the major way of organizing new music. Schoenberg's approach was adopted by many Americans, including Wallingford Riegger, Roger Sessions, Copland, and David Diamond. It was expanded theoretically and artistically by Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt, who developed it into systematic serialism that extended beyond a twelve-tone series of pitches and encompassed other musical elements.

One of the crucial influences of the 1950s was the expansion of the new medium of electronic music, pioneered by Varèse, which allowed composers to achieve unprecedented control over a musical work. The Columbia-Princeton electronic music studio, established in 1952, became a center for such composers as Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen (1938–    ), and Otto Luening (1900–96).

One of the shaping forces of experimental music was John Cage, in whose aleatoric compositions chance helps determine the outcome of a particular performance. Cage's openness to various aesthetic trends foreshadowed the eclecticism of style from the 1960s on. Most characteristic of these decades was a willingness to utilize all kinds of sound—electronic, acoustic, or environmental—as potential musical material. George Crumb's song cycle Ancient Voices of Children (1970), for example, uses a toy piano, a Tibetan prayer stone, and electronically manipulated voices. Other significant eclectic composers are Norman Dello Joio, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Meditations on Ecclesiastes (1956); David Del Tredici (1937–    ), noted for his Scenes and Arias from Alice in Wonderland (1969 ff.); John Corigliano; and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (1939–    ). Zwilich, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for music—for her Symphony No. I: Three Movements for Orchestra (1982)—blends 19th-century harmonic and tonal elements with various features of avant-garde 20th-century classical music.

In the mid-1980s some critics advanced the theory that since about 1968 there had been a swing away from the cool rationality of modern music to more tonal, more immediately accessible forms. The concept of a “new romanticism” was much debated, however. Evidence of the new trend was claimed to exist in such orchestral compositions as Imago Mundi (1973) by George Rochberg (1918–2005), generally a serialist; Baroque Variations (1967) by Lukas Foss; and Windows (1972) by Jacob Druckman (1928–96), who was a professor of electronic music. Del Tredici's eighth Alice piece, “All in the Golden Afternoon” (1983), and the Chromatic Fantasy (1979) for narrator and six instruments by Barbara Kolb (1939–    ) were also cited as examples.

In popular music the postwar period was equally dynamic and expansive. In the 1940s the lyrical-theatrical tradition of the musical was strengthened through the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The standard was maintained with eloquence and energy in West Side Story (1957) by Leonard Bernstein, an acclaimed conductor and composer of classical music. In the 1970s and '80s the music of Stephen Sondheim contributed an urbane sophistication to the form.

The influence of the musical was drastically undercut, however, by the rock-and-roll revolution of the 1950s. The popular “standard” song disappeared, replaced by rhythm and blues and its offspring, rock and roll. Like ragtime, rock music testified to the vitality of African-American music. Despite the hegemony of rock in the 1960s, other new styles of popular music surfaced. The folk-music revival, spread by professional urban folksingers such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan, brought rural blues and ballads to national attention. Country music achieved a national market.

With the profusion of popular styles and the eclecticism of classical and jazz composers, the boundaries separating these three types of music were often blurred. The modal explorations of John Coltrane and the “free” improvisations of Ornette Coleman bring the classical concerns of atonality and nonstandard scales into the realm of jazz. Classical and popular elements overlap in the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, composer of the opera Einstein on the Beach (1976). Tonally stable melodic patterns are manipulated by repetitions and subtle rhythmic shifts. Favored tone colors are those of percussion instruments of all kinds. The meditative effect praised by some critics of this music has given rise to the label “trance music” and indeed evokes the music of the Far East and Indonesia.

The strength of American music continues to be its openness to new influences and the variety of its ethnic and national styles, which interact and alter one another in ever-new syntheses.

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