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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 11 In Search of the “Real” America

European “Jazz”; Gershwin; Copland; The American “Symphonists”

CHAPTER 11 In Search of the “Real” America
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


A new chapter in the history of American concert music—of musical “Americanism”—was opened by the generation of composers who, like Virgil Thomson, received their “finishing” in Paris in the 1920s, so often under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger that their cohort is often called the “Boulangerie,” French for bakery. They formed their musical tastes in the period of anti-Germanic backlash that followed World War I, which made them susceptible to the neoclassical and Dada/surrealist currents that dominated in the French capital. But the Parisian atmosphere in which they were coming of age was already seething with “Americanism,” and it was this Americanized Paris that brought the new generation of American composers their vision of America. It was one of the characteristic ironies of the time that it should have taken a Parisian apprenticeship to create a viable “American school.”

We have already noted the gusto with which the French were then consuming what a shrewd New York journalist, writing in 1925, called “the dance music that the Old World has called American jazz.” A harbinger had been Debussy’s Children’s Corner (1908), a suite for piano dedicated to his little daughter Claude-Emma (Chouchou), which ends with “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” a piece inspired by her little blackface doll. Cakewalks, strutting dances popularized in blackface minstrel shows, had been known in Europe since the turn of the century. Debussy’s is a double parody: of the syncopated blackface dance itself in the outer sections, and of that perennial dartboard, Wagner’s Tristan, in the middle (Ex. 11-1).

Beginning with the Cocteau-Satie Parade, which dates from 1917, the year the United States entered the Great War, a more up-to-date Americanism had begun to infiltrate Parisian concert and theatrical music. It was then that the term “jazz” gradually began showing up in European writings to designate what had formerly been known as ragtime. The etymology of the word and its American origins are obscure: David Schiff sums a complex and thorny matter up when he writes that “the term ‘jazz,’ first applied around 1916 (in New Orleans) to a rough and sexy strain of African-American music, soon became synonymous with any syncopated mass-marketed popular music.”1

In 1918 Stravinsky, the greatest trendsetter of the day, wrote two pieces called “ragtime.” One (already mentioned in chapter 8) was the last in a suite of three dances (after a tango and a waltz) from a wartime traveling show called The Soldier’s Tale (Histoire du soldat), in which a Russian folktale was somewhat surrealistically updated with contemporary popular music played by an imitation village band consisting of two strings (violin and double bass), two winds (clarinet and bassoon), and two brass (trumpet and trombone), plus percussion. The other piece, called Rag-time pour onze instruments (“Ragtime for eleven instruments”), was scored for the same ensemble (minus the bassoon) plus a flute, a horn, a second violin, a viola, and a Hungarian dulcimer or cimbalom. It was finished on 10 November 1918, the very day of the German surrender; the manuscript carries the triumphant notation, Jour de delivrance. Messieurs les Allemands ont capitulé (“Day of deliverance; the esteemed Germans have capitulated”).

Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America

ex. 11-1a Claude Debussy, “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” mm. 1–17

That coincidence neatly symbolized one of the main attractions of American popular genres for the European allies (and also for left-wing “protest music” in Weimar Germany): it was as un-“boche” as music could get. That much was already evident in Debussy’s double parody. But it received an enormous boost during the war, and was further enhanced in the war’s wake by eye- (or ear-) witness contact. The Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, the chef d’orchestre for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and one of Stravinsky’s closest friends, wrote back to the Russian composer from America, where the company was touring in 1916, that whereas the American classical-music establishment was hopelessly dominated by Germans (and, he added regrettably, by Jews), nevertheless

there is at the bottom of this immense country a forgotten or lost soul which has found its way into the incredible music you hear in cafes!! And the absence of traditions has forced this people—in their towns, their bridges, their machines—to improvise splendidly and with genius. These two elements are very close to us; they are precisely what we like, and what your work has revealed in Europe. To free this country from the boche imprint, reveal it to itself, and teach it that it belongs with us—and at the same time to take on this wonderful field of activity—would be a fine dream.2

Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America

ex. 11-1b Claude Debussy, “Golliwogs Cakewalk,” mm. 61–73

Beginning immediately after the war, American popular musicians, many of them African-American, brought their music to Europe and, as Ansermet might have predicted, were lionized in all the allied capitals, but especially by “progressive” musicians in Paris. Some, like the clarinettist Sidney Bechet (1897–1959), came for frequent lucrative tours. Ansermet heard Bechet play in London in 1919 and proclaimed him “an artist of genius.”3 The Swiss conductor’s account of the music Bechet played, with an ensemble called the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, shows, perhaps for the first time (as the jazz historian Robert Walser puts it), “a ‘serious’ musician taking jazz seriously.”4 Ansermet respected what he heard enough to attempt a technical description of it, especially its qualities of rhythm and “modality”:

The desire to give certain syllables a particular emphasis or a prolonged resonance, that is to say preoccupations of an expressive order, seem to have determined in negro singing their anticipation or delay of a fraction of rhythmic unity. This is the birth of syncopation. All the traditional negro songs are strewn with syncopes which issue from the voice while the movement of the body marks regular rhythm….

In the field of melody, although his habituation to our scales has effaced the memory of the African modes, an old instinct pushes the negro to pursue his pleasure outside the orthodox intervals: he performs thirds which are neither major nor minor and false seconds, and falls often by instinct on the natural harmonic sounds of a given note—it is here especially that no written music can give the idea of his playing.5

Other Americans, like the singer Josephine Baker (1906–75), went to Paris to stay. Having originally come over in 1925 to star in a show called La revue nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (the very hall where, a dozen years earlier, The Rite of Spring had had its stormy premiere), she quickly moved over to the Folies-Bergère, the number-one Paris nightspot or “music hall,” became the darling of café society, posed for Picasso, opened her own nightclub, became wealthy, and never went back, becoming a French citizen in 1937. Her success was an inspiration to many African-Americans, and in later life Baker was one of the early icons of the American civil rights movement.

A few Europeans even got acquainted, in the early postwar years, with genuine early American jazz at its source. Milhaud was one. Touring America in 1922, he frequented Harlem nightclubs, and “speakeasies” (illicit clubs where alcoholic beverages were served during Prohibition) in New York and Boston, and caused some consternation when he told reporters that European “serious” music was being influenced by American jazz. His memoirs contain a vivid description of what he heard and its invigorating impact:

Harlem had not yet been discovered by the snobs and aesthetes: we [Milhaud and the singer Yvonne George] were the only white folk there. The music I heard was absolutely different from anything I had ever heard before and was a revelation to me. Against the beat of the drums the melodic lines crisscrossed in a breathless pattern of broken and twisted rhythms. A Negress whose grating voice seemed to come from the depths of the centuries sang in front of the various tables. With despairing pathos and dramatic feeling she sang over and over again, to the point of exhaustion, the same refrain, to which the constantly changing melodic pattern of the orchestra wove a kaleidoscopic background. This authentic music had its roots in the darkest corners of the Negro soul, the vestigial traces of Africa, no doubt. Its effect on me was so overwhelming that I could not tear myself away. From then on I frequented other Negro theaters and dance halls. In some of their shows the singers were accompanied by a flute, a clarinet, two trumpets, a trombone, a complicated percussion section played by one man, a piano, and a string quintet ….

As I never missed the slightest opportunity of visiting Harlem, I persuaded my friends to accompany me, as well as [the Italian composer Alfredo] Casella and [the Dutch conductor Willem] Mengelberg, who were in New York at the time. When I went back to France, I never wearied of playing over and over, on a little portable phonograph shaped like a camera, the Black Swan records I had purchased in a little shop in Harlem. More than ever I was resolved to use jazz for a chamber work.6

What eventually emerged from this experience was not the envisioned chamber work but a ballet, La création du monde (1923), composed to a scenario by Blaise Cendrars, the surrealist writer, who had traveled widely in China and Africa. It was scored for a small orchestra of seventeen soloists, including a piano, an alto saxophone, and “a complicated percussion section played by one man,” like the one Milhaud heard in New York (or, for that matter, like the one Stravinsky employed in The Soldier’s Tale). The action, based (according to Cendrars) on authentic African mythology, showed first a seething mass of weirdly costumed dancers representing the primal soup from which life would gradually erupt. The section sampled in Ex. 11-2 accompanies the beginning of that process: the inchoate living mass boils in a heaving motion—projections appear—trees shoot up, drop leaves that sprout into prehistoric animals—human forms begin to show (a torso, a great leg, etc.).

Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” AmericaChapter 11 In Search of the “Real” AmericaChapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America

ex. 11-2 Darius Milhaud, La création du monde, jazz fugue, beginning

Milhaud’s music takes the form of a fugue on a subject that embodies a stereotyped jazz “riff” or repeated figure reminiscent of Ansermet’s description of “thirds which are neither major nor minor” in its unstable oscillations between F(E♯) and F♯ relative to D as first given out by the bass (later G(Fx) and G♯ relative to E, C(B♯) and C♯ relative to A, etc.) A rapid-fire riff in sixteenth notes first introduced as a countersubject may have been a deliberate quotation from Euday Bowman’s “Twelfth Street Rag” (1916), a dance hall favorite of the day (Ex. 11-3).

Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America

ex. 11-3 Riff figure from Milhaud’s La création du monde compared with 12th Street Rag

Significantly, the prelude that precedes this fugue (played as overture before the curtain is raised), is composed, despite the “jazz band” scoring and occasional syncopated riffs, in a sedately Bachian “chorale-prelude” style. This provides a suitably religious frame for the action to follow, drawing parallels between the African creation myth and the “Western” or biblical one—but also drawing parallels between the new neoprimitivism based on African-American music and other forms of Parisian neoclassicism.

That parallelism was enthusiastically pursued by Maurice Ravel in several of his late works. One was an opera: a fantaisie lyrique called L’enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells, 1925) to a libretto by the French novelist Colette (1873–1954), who had in her youth appeared on the music-hall stage. A few of the magical apparitions of the title, in particular a foxtrot sung and danced by a teapot and teacup, drew on popular-music idioms for surrealistic effect. (A foxtrot was a slow ragtime dance done with a gliding step, introduced by the team of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1914.) Ravel’s most potent jazz stylizations, however, came in generically titled “classical” scores like his two piano concertos (in G, 1929–1931; in D for the left hand alone, 1929–1930) and his three-movement sonata for violin and piano (1923–1927).

Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America

fig. 11-1 Basic harmonic structure of 12-bar blues.

The middle movement from the sonata, subtitled “Blues” and sketched in the summer of 1923, was Ravel’s earliest essay in jazz effects. “Blues” (or “the blues”) is a black-American folk genre that fed into the evolution of jazz around the time of the Great War. The name seems to stem from “the blue devils,” a colloquial expression for melancholy or depression that can be traced as far back as Elizabethan English. As a musical term, “blues” can refer generally to a style of expressive performance as well as specifically to a musical form that seems to have been standardized around the turn of the century. As a form, the blues is a framework for poetic and melodic improvisation. The singer improvises three lines of poetry in which the second is a repetition of the first and the third ends with a word that rhymes with the ending-word of the other two. Each line coincides with a four-bar musical phrase in time. The first is supported by the tonic harmony throughout; the second moves from the subdominant (two bars) to the tonic (two bars), and the third is similarly divided between the dominant and the tonic. As a rule, the rhyming word coincides with the third downbeat of a phrase, the rest of the time being filled out by the instrumental accompaniment, usually on guitar or banjo. Fig. 11-1 shows the harmonic frame of a typical “12-bar blues” (each stroke within the measures representing the strummed beat), and Ex. 11-4 shows the opening stanza of St. Louis Blues (1914) by the African-American trumpeter and bandleader W. C. Handy (1873–1958), the most famous composed and published (i.e., commercial) example of what was a predominantly oral (folk or nonprofessional) genre.

Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America

ex. 11-4 W. C. Handy, St. Louis Blues, first stanza

The unstable third degree described by Ansermet and appropriated by Milhaud is conspicuous in Handy’s melody, both in the opening melodic “scoop” notated (very approximately) by the use of a grace note, and in the B♭s (also notated approximately) that clash with the B-natural of the tonic triad as cross-relations both direct (in line 1) and oblique (in lines 2 and 3). A folk blues singer will sing these notes sharp, so that they lie “in the crack” between the minor and the major third, and will refer to them as “blue notes.” (Also called blue notes are flattened leading tones and fifths, or any note that is “bent out of shape” for expressive purposes.) The characteristic jazz syncopation (also described by Ansermet), in which a long or accented note is made more intensely expressive by placing it ahead of the beat on which it is expected, is also present in Handy’s melody, consistently placed at the end of the first measure in every line. (Again the notation gives an exact appearance—displacement by one eighth-note—to what in actual performance is flexible and diverse.)

Ravel’s blues movement incorporates—or better, refers to—virtually every feature of blues style as just described, beginning with the twanging pizzicato chords that cast the violin as ersatz banjo, plunking out the rhythmic framework against which the melody will be “improvised” (Ex. 11-5a). The chords are the expected I, IV, and V, although the standard blues pattern is merely suggested, not reproduced. But to score-readers (as opposed to listeners), the clash that occurs at the piano’s entrance is implicit from the start in the “bitonal” superimposition of key signatures.

Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” AmericaChapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America

ex. 11-5a Maurice Ravel, Violin Sonata, II (“Blues”), mm. 1–27

The reason for enclosing the technical term in quotes should be evident if one recalls the nature of a “blue note,” poised somewhere between the major and the minor third. The clash of harmonic roots when the piano enters casts the throbbing B-natural at the top of the violin chord simultaneously as major third above G and (in the guise of C♭) as minor third above A♭. The whole G-major triad, transferred at 1 from the violin to the piano, becomes in effect an implicit appoggiatura; never resolving, it is effectively colored “blue.”

Ravel’s sophisticated harmonic pun reverses the normal perspective of a blue note: what is ordinarily pitched outside the tempered scale relative to a stable root is pitched stably relative to two competing (hence destabilized) roots. It is the texture at 1 rather than a cadence that establishes A♭ after all, as the functional tonic. The method whereby a distinctive trait is appropriated from an oral tradition to become a device for achieving the renovation of a literate style is reminiscent of the way in which Stravinsky had employed Russian folk music in his early ballets. When the material so deployed is “native,” the technique is called “neonationalism.” Ravel’s adaptation, by analogy, might well be termed “neo-exoticism.” Once the violinist picks up the bow and reenters as the “melodist” (the key signature having been appropriately adjusted and the mood identified as “nostalgic”), the solo part is fashioned to give the effect of a blues improvisation on the Handy model. The characteristic blues syncopation, with small note-values tied over the beat to longer ones, becomes the rule; harmonic thirds, fifths, and sevenths constantly waver; that wavering is extended to ever wider melodic intervals by explicitly notated portamenti (finger slides) of a kind that was just then going out of style in “classical” playing under the impact of the New Sobriety. (And that might be one of the reasons why Ravel, who grew up with the sliding technique, labeled the portamento-heavy violin solo “nostalgic.”)

As the movement nears its climax (Ex. 11-5b), the violin part reverts to an even more plainly indicated banjoistic style, while the piano takes over the portamento wailing as best it can. In the coda (Ex. 11-5c), the two instruments divide the “vocal” line in a sort of hocket; five measures before the end Ravel comes up with a devilishly clever portamento effect for the pianist (second finger literally sliding from black key to white under a tone sustained by the third finger) that could only be put into effect at this point, where the dynamics were soft and the line unaccompanied. The last chord contains another sort of “blue note” in the form of an unresolving, stable seventh that was the stereotyped “jazz” finishing chord. (Its origin was a tag-line, “Good evening, friends,” that coincided with the first four notes of the equally stereotypical fugue subject in Ex. 11-2, from Milhaud’s Création du monde.) Ravel described his “blues” movement to an American audience during his single visit to the United States, a concert tour of 1928. Speaking at the Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston, Ravel called attention to his “neo-exotic” technique, or what he called “minute stylization in the manipulation” of “popular forms.” The manner in which such stylization is accomplished follows the predilection of the individual composer, Ravel maintained, so that his blues, while based on an American model, “is nevertheless French music, Ravel’s music.” He elaborated the point by reminding his audience that composers of at least four different nationalities—his French compatriot Milhaud, the Russian Stravinsky, the Italian Casella, and the German Hindemith—had all accomplished “minute stylizations”7 of American popular music, “while the styles become as numerous as the composers themselves.” And this is because “the individualities of these composers are stronger than the materials appropriated.”

And yet this did not stop Ravel from turning right around and advising his audience that his neo-exoticist technique, if practiced by Americans, would be ipso facto transformed into a neonationalist one that would at last vouchsafe the emergence of “a veritable school of American music.” Acknowledging (or perhaps insisting) that “Negro music is not of purely American origin” (a fact that many European compositions—notably La création du monde—also implicitly alleged), Ravel closed by reiterating his belief that

it will prove to be an effective factor in the founding of an American school of music. At all events, may this national American music of yours embody a great deal of the rich and diverting rhythm of your jazz, a great deal of the emotional expression of your blues, and a great deal of the sentiment and spirit of your popular melodies and songs, worthily deriving from, and in turn contributing to, a noble national heritage in music.

Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America

ex. 11-5b Maurice Ravel, Violin Sonata, II (“Blues”), mm. 95–100

Ravel’s prescription is reminiscent of Dvořák’s, some thirty years before; and like its predecessor it begs many questions that were of far greater moment to Americans than they were to Europeans, for whom America was an exotic and still somewhat mythical place. Leaving entirely aside for the moment the highly fraught question of its origins, and granting that jazz (or “jazz”) was a distinctively American genre, did that enable it (or entitle it) to represent the diverse population of the United States? Could the music of a minority culture, and an oft-despised one at that, reflect the (often bigoted) majority? Could it even be said that America, as such, had a folk music? And could jazz, a genre that had developed since Dvořák’s time and that had (especially in the forms that Europeans knew) long since been “commodified” and commercialized, qualify as folklore? What surely seemed to Ravel a benign (or in any case an innocuous) suggestion led to endless controversy as soon as Americans began taking it up.

Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America

ex. 11-5c Maurice Ravel, Violin Sonata, II (“Blues”), end

And was Ravel’s suggestion even all that benign? Or did it still reflect the Old World condescension that many had detected in Dvořák’s equally well meaning advice? European enthusiasm for jazz did not entirely efface traditional condescension toward its practitioners. Josephine Baker was surely correct in asserting that black Americans lucky enough to find work there could better escape prejudice and discrimination in Europe than they could at home. (She backed up the point in 1951 when, on a visit to America, she confronted the Stork Club, New York’s most exclusive nightclub, over its racist policies that made it impossible for her, a European celebrity, to obtain service there, even as the club featured many black performers.) And yet her European reputation was won through her willingness to represent herself as an exotic, neoprimitive sex object on terms that might seem degrading now (Fig. 11-2a).

Or consider the illustration that graced the cover of the program book for the “Saison Music-Hall” at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1925, when Baker made her Parisian début. The pit musicians—thick lips smiling, eyes rolling—are depicted in a style that differed little from the demeaning “Sambo” image common in the States (Fig. 11-2b). The French tendency to associate Negro music with Africa, moreover, although it resonates with the “black nationalism” of a later time, had rather different implications in a country that, as of the 1920s, was still a major colonial power.

Even Ernest Ansermet’s rapturous review of Sidney Bechet and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra had a less than judicious side. Having admired jazz melody and rhythm, Ansermet deemed it fitting to temper his remarks with the observation that

Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America

fig. 11-2 (left) Josephine Baker, poster for Casino de Paris. (right) Program for “Saison Music-Hall” at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, 1925.

It is only in the field of harmony that the negro hasn’t yet created his own distinct expression. Even here, he uses a succession of seventh chords, and ambiguous major-minors with a deftness which many Europeans should envy. But, in general, harmony is perhaps a musical element which appears in the scheme of musical evolution only at a stage which the negro art has not yet attained.8

The assumption that the world’s cultures and civilizations were all located on a single evolutionary timetable, with Europe out in front, was of course the principle that undergirded and justified Europe’s colonial expansion and all its attendant cruelties. Ansermet compounds the colonialist impression with a wishful prediction not unlike Ravel’s. Both seem to imply that it will be left to the white Europeans (or the Euro-Americans) to exploit “the negro’s” musical resources to the full; and this puts a somewhat different complexion on the Satiean and Stravinskian appropriations that were already taking place by the time Ansermet made his forecast, and even on Ravel’s wonderful “minute stylization.” Sidney Bechet’s true significance, Ansermet suggests, will ultimately be that of forerunner to the more sophisticated talents of the future:

When one has tried so often to find in the past one of those figures to whom we owe the creation of our art as we know it today—those men of the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, who wrote the expressive works of dance airs which cleared the way for Haydn and Mozart—what a moving thing it is to meet this black, fat boy with white teeth and narrow forehead, who is very glad one likes what he does, but can say nothing of his art, except that he follows his “own way”—and then one considers that perhaps his “own way” is the highway along which the whole world will swing tomorrow.9


(1) David Schiff, Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 83; increasingly accepted among scholars is an etymology relating the term to “jizz,” an African-American slang word for seminal ejaculate.

(2) Quoted in Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882–1934 (New York: Knopf, 1999), p. 264.

(3) Ansermet, “Sur un Orchestre Nègre” (1919); Robert Walser, ed., Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 11.

(4) Walser, Keeping Time, p. 9.

(5) Ansermet, “Sur un Orchestre Négre”; Keeping Time, pp. 10–11.

(6) Darius Milhaud, Notes without Music, trans. Donald Evans (New York: Knopf, 1953), pp. 136–37.

(7) Maurice Ravel, “Contemporary Music,” in The Rice Institute Pamphlets, Vol. XV (1928); P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., pp. 407–8.

(8) Ansermet, “Sur un Orchestre Nègre”; Keeping Time, p. 11.

(9) Ibid.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-011.xml