"American classical music is not an old-growth forest," says University of Minnesota Musicology Professor Peter Mercer-Taylor, who shares his thoughts on the many voices that comprise our country's unique classical music tradition.
In Europe to this day, the foundations of classical music seem to lie exposed here and there. The house in which Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro and some of his best-loved concertos; the hall that hosted Beethoven’s first rehearsal of the Eroica Symphony; the study in which Schumann labored through his dazzlingly productive early 30s, to name a few. Rooms that once were homes for the living are now museums to the long-dead. But we can stand in them still, calculating the elapsed years, struggling to imagine the moments the music created there was vibrantly, vitally new. In a sense, it’s not unlike facing the most ancient Sequoias in an American old-growth forest and struggling to imagine the world before they took root. Somehow sacralized by the very passage of years, they have come to stand motionless, outside of time—things that somehow must always have been.
American classical music is not an old-growth forest. There are no ancient Sequoias. The dense musical wood we now roam with joy was a prairie a handful of generations ago, only sparsely dotted by saplings. A sense of vibrant, vital newness still clings to nearly all that has grown there.
To be sure, some of the small-scale musical creations that sprang up in abundance in pre-Civil War America are still with us. But only toward the end of the 19th century did pioneering figures like John Knowles Paine, Amy Beach and Horatio Parker establish a firm footing for Americans working in the large-scale forms of Europe’s most celebrated composers. And only in the early decades of the 20th century—the era of Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber—did it become unequivocally clear the classical music of the United States had found its voice.
Or, rather, its voices.
Haydn and Mozart differed in the stories they had to tell us, but spoke a common tongue; no one who adores the music of one will be mystified by the other. American composition came of age at a moment when any such notion of consensus was a distant memory. A spirit of discovery, a celebration of brave individualism, an understanding that inherited rule books are never more than optional reading—these have marked the world of American classical music from its first maturity. And the kinds of gulfs that early separated, say, Ives’ cacophonous musical collisions from Gershwin’s Tin Pan Alley-infused openhandedness yawned ever wider in the decades after World War II. Placing side-by-side the most extreme reaches of John Cage’s “chance” music, the fastidiously plotted “integral serialism” of Milton Babbitt, and the pulse-pattern minimalism of Steve Reich, it makes little sense to speak of a “world” of American composition at all. It’s more like a solar system.
Being the young, adventurous enterprise that it is, American classical music has always been a hospitable home to young, adventurous composers. And never more so than now.
Today, some of these newer voices can be found joining in conversation with the robust, wide legacy of the concert music that has long sustained symphony orchestras, such as the Minnesota Orchestra, which is showcasing American music throughout its 2018-19 season. Missy Mazzoli’s These Worlds in Us deploys repetitive cells in ways that bring Reich’s minimalism to mind, but laid against a sonic landscape of Debussy-like lushness, the whole tracing its journey through time with a lucidity Mozartian in its sure-footedness (while sounding nothing like Mozart). Sean Shepherd’s Silvery Rills—a kind of love song to his native Nevada—eavesdrops on Dvořák and Copland in its reach toward the sound of America while glittering with an orchestral brilliance that would likely have impressed Rimsky-Korsakov.
But the rising generation also challenges us in ever more energetic ways to question whatever notions we might have of what music belongs in an “orchestra hall.” The walls that might seem to insulate such spaces from others in which American music lives its teeming, variegated lives—cineplexes, dance floors and car radios—grow increasingly porous.
Artistic voices that spoke first through popular song have charted brave inroads into the domain of the “classical.” New Wave icon Elvis Costello collaborated, to beautiful effect, with the Brodsky Quartet to create the 1993 album The Juliet Letters. The brass and string arrangements of guitarist Jonny Greenwood punctuate the albums of his alternative-rock band, Radiohead, but his compositions have also been performed by some of London’s leading contemporary orchestras. And today, Twin Cities rapper-singer-songwriter Dessa—who has brought to hip-hop a creative voice equally striking in its intellectual groundedness and its creative adventurousness—finds welcome on the stage at Orchestra Hall.
At the same time, hearing Michael Giacchino’s bracing score for Star Trek: Into Darkness performed live makes patently clear the artistic relevance of the film score as a dynamic modern orchestral genre, reminding us, too, that movie theater and concert hall have always been on friendly terms. At the middle of the last century, Americans like Copland and Bernard Herrmann passed freely between these domains (even rigorously “programmatic” 19th-century works like Berlioz’s 1830 Symphonie fantastique today sound consummately “cinematic,” if we’re inclined to let them).
When Walter Murphy laid a thumping dance beat behind Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to create the 1976 disco hit “A Fifth of Beethoven,” even fans might have struggled to hear more than a gimmicky novelty. But modern composers like sometime-DJ Mason Bates have abundantly demonstrated that the concert hall has nothing to fear from the throbbing, technologized world of modern Electronic Dance Music, nor from the open physicality of its expressive vocabulary.
Speaking with their vibrant, vital newness, the voices of such young adventurers serve as a constant reminder that the concert hall was never meant to become a museum to the long-dead, however exuberantly their rich legacy is sustained and celebrated there. It has always been, and joyously remains, a home for the living.
Peter Mercer-Taylor is a Professor of Musicology at the University of Minnesota, where he writes and teaches about 19th-century music and rock-era popular song. He has spoken at numerous conferences and symposia and has been interviewed on NPR and BBC Radio 2. He is the author of The Life of Mendelssohn (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn (2004), and is completing a book on the role of tunes culled from European classical music in 19th-century American hymnody.