Inside 20th-century music

American music's "Golden Age"

One of the chief aims of this series is to deal with the problematic gulf that separates the modern composer from performers and audiences. It is no secret that, for all the attention paid him by baton wielders and ticket buyers, even an above-average composer today may as well be living and working on a deserted isle, scribbling down his latest opus just in time to stuff it into a bottle and hurl it tearfully from the shore in the hopes that that distant luxury liner might find it and take an interest.

Will this ever change? Do we have any clues, any examples to follow, of a time when things were different?

The answer to the second question is Yes. We do. There was a time, in the United States, when the gap between contemporary composer and music-loving audience was the closest it has ever been to being closed. I refer to it, for that reason, as the Golden Age of American Music.

I am talking about the period ranging roughly from 1929 to 1955. It was a time when the United States' attentions were, in the beginning, turned homeward and, during the latter part, turned outward in a kind of heady nationalism. But within the period America was taking stock, really for the first time, of its cultural assets, and it can be said that nothing before or after in the country's aesthetic history has exhilarated it to such a degree.

In the late 1920s, several young American composers returned home from study in Europe, of whom, alas, only Aaron Copland is truly a household name today. But he and others, like Roy Harris, came back with very fresh ideas about a ''new'' kind of sound, neither continental nor even Euro-American. What these composers had in mind was a mode of expression in music that was as distinctively American as Ravel or Milhaud was unmistakably French: a sound that gathered up the rich legacy of material just waiting to be tilled from native musical soil.

The realization of this ''sound'' took as many different turns as there were first-class musicians applying themselves toward it. What there is, exactly, about this music that makes it so distinctly native is as tricky to pin down as naming what it is that makes Tchaikovsky sound Russian. Naturally, American rhythmic subtleties, coming from jazz and even before, are indigenous, highly original, and unique in all the musical world. They came into telling, infectious use in the ''American sound,'' and grafted onto staid, European-based rhythmic regularity a new elasticity, bounce, and swing. As 12-tone music across the Atlantic was becoming dense and tangled with notes and dissonances, composers here like Harris, Copland, Howard Hanson, and Robert Ward were showing an ingenious mastery of clear, ''open'' sounds, such as bare fourths and fifths. When used properly, such harmonies have the uncanny ability to evoke the spirit of the vast, rolling heartland of America and of nothing else.

The simple trust in tonality itself (music that resides ''in a key''), and the way it was employed, went a long way toward giving this music a humanity and straightforwardness rarely heard to such a degree in anyone -- or anyplace -- else's music during this century. Whether the composers preferred simpler, bare-bones harmonies, as did Virgil Thomson or Robert Palmer, or went in for the ''stacking up'' of fairly pungent tonal chords, such as with Paul Creston, Quincy Porter, William Schuman, or Vincent Persichetti, no other era of composition in music has seen such a marriage of modernity and approachability by the lay listener.

Indeed, for music, the Golden Age was a time of unparalleled enthusiasm shared among composer, performer, and audience. Music lovers were even rather proud of what they sensed going on around them, which was nothing less than the musical coming-of-age of this nation, as it freed itself from the slavish following of Europe's dictates. And concertgoers actually looked forward (please compare with today) to the premier performance of the next work by, say, Walter Piston.

There is no way, admittedly, of doing full justice to this fertile American period in just a few words. But there are certainly more musicians, besides those I've mentioned already, who were imposing figures in an uncommon era. Composers Marion Bauer and Edward Cone were charter members of the movement to lift the United States out of its musical inferiority complex. Samuel Barber, although all his career a loner and above any frays, certainly remains a towering name when masterly, coherent new music is thought of. Bernard Rogers was, for a great many years, a positive force for American music, as a teacher and prolific composer at the Eastman School in Rochester, which Howard Hanson directed for 40 years.

Exciting and beautifully crafted symphonic scores came (and continue to come) from Peter Mennin and David Diamond. Douglas Moore and Marc Blitzstein will be remembered for their hallmark -- American-based operas -- as is Elie Siegmeister for his ardent tone-painting of the American frontier wilderness, and the prolific Gardner Read for the grace, wit, and orchestral wizardry of works spanning a long career. Certainly the Third String Quartet of William Bergsma is one of the most sensitive chamber works to be found anywhere.

Nothing is as effective as actually hearing some of the best music of this era, not only to give a taste of a decidedly healthy time in music history, but to point up a lot of what we have lost sight of since the postwar years, in terms of some composers' seeming ability to write into their scores the participation of the listener. It is for this reason that I offer the following guide to the reader, of works that are findable either on currently available recordings, or ones that most decent public libraries would own.

* Roy Harris: Third Symphony (1938).

* Howard Hanson: Third or Fourth Symphonies (1938; 1943).

* Aaron Copland: Third Symphony (1946).

* Samuel Barber: the Essays for orchestra; or ''Knoxville: Summer of 1915''.

* William Schuman: Third Symphony (1941).

* Peter Mennin: Fifth Symphony (1951).

* Virgil Thomson: film score, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1939).

* Walter Piston: Fourth Symphony (1950).

* David Diamond: Fourth Symphony (1945).

Why is this music so important, and this ''Golden Age'' era so crucial to music history as it stands today?

For one thing, I think its overall quality goes beyond the political or social ''stances'' taken by much of the American Regionalist movement in painting, which was of the same time, roughly. And that is not simply because music is an inherently more abstract language than pictures or words. There was a purer intent behind the Golden Age's inceptions, and the scope of the composers involved was not at all as narrow as the visual artists whose nationalism remained a lot more chauvinistic than it needed to.

But most important, today, 12-tone serialism in composition has come to the very end of its tether. So has chance music. And the current rage, Minimalism in music, the making of fetishist pieces by repeating and repeating simple rhythms or harmonies (with all the ardor of an 8-year-old just discovering C minor), will go the same route not too long hence, devoid as it is of anything that will engage the listener as a thinking being who lives by his heart and his head. The point is that today's composing scene is a grab bag, with just about everything being tried. That is healthy, far healthier, at least, than the severely dictative atmosphere of 20 years ago. But at some juncture down the road, things are going to have to come together, to coalesce a bit more than they have so far , if art music composition is once again to come into its own as a creative art that seeks out and addresses man's finest qualities. I don't mean experimenting with them, or guessing around as to whether they exist, but dealing with them openly, celebratively, and insisting upon them as the rightful attunements of our inner and outer thoughts.

Music must do this if it is again to vie with theater, books, film, etc., for serious consideration as an art where compelling creative activity is taking place today. (As things stand, the main thrust of new in new music lies in new productions of The Barber of Seville.) When it comes time to stop tinkering and to start affirming, music is going to be looking around a little more earnestly for some answers, some clues, some guidance. The music of America's Golden Age can't be simply repeated, of course. But within it, as opposed to most of what followed in its recession, are many lessons about how man is spoken to with musical coherence. And, as a friend said to me some years ago, nothing much is going to happen to music as a creative art until what's being composed begins again to have something to do with what went on when our mothers sang to us.

That's not an easy goal. But it will be music's next important one.

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