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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


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

So it might be best not to romanticize the European reception of American popular music after the Great War, or to suppose that it indicates any real change in the Old World’s attitude toward the culture of the New (let alone belief in the equality of races). In any case it was a very temporary fling; by 1927 Milhaud flatly asserted that there was not a single composer in Europe still interested in American jazz. It was only a minor exaggeration.

Within America the incorporation of “jazz” or popular dance idioms into concert genres, although it was not an entirely new idea, actually became newly controversial in the postwar decade. The most prominent previous exponent of the style, Henry F. Gilbert (1868–1928), was an omnivorous purveyor of exotic Americana after Dvořák’s prescription. His Negro Episode for orchestra (1896), Comedy Overture on Negro Themes (1906, to an opera, Uncle Remus, after the ersatz Negro folktales of Joel Chandler Harris), and The Dance in Place Congo, a symphonic poem (1908) that was later adapted as a ballet and performed by the Metropolitan Opera Company (1918), took their place in his work list alongside an orchestral suite called The Intimate Story of Indian Tribal Life; or, The Story of a Vanishing Race and other “Indianist” compositions, and also alongside several suites of incidental music in an Irish style to accompany plays by W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge. As for Charles Ives’s ragtime “stylizations” (see chapter 5), they remained virtually unknown before Ives’s belated “discovery” in the late 1930s.

It was only in the 1920s that jazz or popular idioms became associated with an American music that was overtly “modernist” in style, and thus acquired a challenging or threatening edge that could inspire hostility. The chief culprit was Aaron Copland (1900–90), like Virgil Thomson an early pupil of Nadia Boulanger. Copland was in fact the first American to join the Boulangerie, having noticed a magazine advertisement for a school the French government planned to set up in Fontainebleau, a Paris suburb, for American musicians in the summer of 1921—“a gesture of appreciation to America,” as Copland recalled it, “for its friendship during World War I.”10 Nadia Boulanger was on the staff as a teacher of harmony, not composition. She proved, however, to be the one member of the faculty sympathetic to the modernist music Copland wanted to write; and it was her open-mindedness that gave him the courage to experiment, eventually, with what was then called “symphonic jazz.” Copland himself associated his serious interest in jazz with an experience he had not in America but in Vienna, during a brief vacation in 1923, while he was studying in Paris. “Defamiliarization” by a foreign environment played a part in awakening that new sympathy: “When I heard jazz played in Vienna, it was like hearing it for the first time,” Copland wrote.11 Even more decisive, though, was Copland’s discovery—a discovery that astonished him—that cultured Europeans, unlike their American counterparts, regarded jazz with high respect.


fig. 11-3 Aaron Copland with the composer Irving Fine (1914–1962) at Brandeis University, 1961.

Even before going to Europe, Copland had written one perky little piano piece (called “Jazzy”) in a popular style, but had kept it hidden from his early composition teacher in New York, a former Dvořák pupil named Rubin Goldmark (1872–1936), whose uncle, Karl Goldmark (1830–1915), had been Vienna’s leading opera composer at the turn of the century. Goldmark maintained Dvořák’s advocacy of an “Americanist” idiom for American concert music, had written a Hiawatha overture in 1900, and would even write a Negro Rhapsody in 1923; but the use of popular styles for this purpose was not an option he favored. Dvořák had called for the assimilation of American subject matter to “the beautiful forms of art,” and the notion of “the beautiful” did not extend as far as the popular or the demotic in the social circles that then supported the cultivation of art music in America. In retrospect, of course, nothing is easier than to see in that esthetic distinction a covert class discrimination.

Not that Copland’s amiable little “Jazzy” (Ex. 11-6) would have challenged it. But the music he wrote with Boulanger’s encouragement during his period of study in Paris (1921–24) had taken a defiant turn that reflected European modernist attitudes. A concert by the New York Symphony Orchestra on 11 January 1925 made the young composer notorious. Seeking to placate his audience after the premiere of Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (a work commissioned by Boulanger for her American debut), the conductor, German-born Walter Damrosch (1862–1950), announced from the podium that “if a gifted young man can write a symphony like this at twenty-three [sic], within five years he will be ready to commit murder!”12 Virgil Thomson opened the generational gap wide by calling Copland’s symphony “the voice of America in our generation.”13 So when Copland began incorporating jazz elements into his compositions after the scandalous Symphony—and doing it, he said, precisely so as the more effectively and authentically to embody the generational voice to which Thomson had called attention—they were read not as an entertaining gesture or an attempt to ingratiate his music with his compatriots, but as something nearer the opposite.


ex. 11-6 Aaron Copland, “Jazzy” (1920)

The work that immediately followed the Symphony was a suite for small orchestra called Music for the Theatre, a sort of incidental score to an imaginary play. The ensemble is a typical theatrical (or “pit”) orchestra: eighteen players (at a minimum), including piano. The scoring uses only single winds except for a pair of trumpets that already signals brashness. And indeed, the first movement starts right off (Ex. 11-7a) with a cheeky solo for the first trumpet to which the second adds a Flatterzunge—a “flutter-tongued” note—that was all too easily heard as an insult of a familiar New York variety (a “Bronx cheer,” or “raspberry”). The Molto moderato that follows the introductory fanfares seems to draw in vague and general terms on a “blues” idiom. Its shifting metrical scheme and polytonal harmonic framework—chords “planed” or moved in parallel in two directions (Ex. 11-7b)—refer far more explicitly to the Parisian music (Milhaud, Stravinsky) that made up Copland’s sonic environment during his formative years than to jazz. The most specific reference to blues, perhaps, is the syncopated repetitions in the oboe solo (Ex. 11-7c).


ex. 11-7a Aaron Copland Music for the Theatre, I, trumpet solo

The Subito Allegro molto at 5 reinstates the edgy trumpet fanfare motif as the main theme (first in the E♭ clarinet), a study in shifting accents against an ostinato accompaniment. The climax, Molto meno mosso at 11 (Ex. 11-7d), seems to be a calculated attempt at capturing the visceral impact of a certain device enthusiastically described by Ansermet in his review of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra: “When they indulge in one of their favorite effects, which is to take up the refrain of a dance in a tempo suddenly twice as slow and with redoubled intensity and figuration, a truly gripping thing takes place: it seems as if a great wind is passing over a forest or as if a door is suddenly opened on a wild orgy.”14 The percussion parts here, punctuating the gaps in the melody like hockets, irresistibly evoke a physical response.

The musical content of the high-spirited fourth movement of Copland’s suite, Burlesque, is harder to relate to actual jazz; but the title was as deliberate a provocation as the trumpet’s flutter-tongue. In French, the word (derived from the Italian burla, a joke) simply means comical or grotesque, a meaning that can be extended to encompass the idea of parody or caricature. In American slang, however, the term (often pronounced “burley-cue”) had come by 1925 to refer to lewd theatrical entertainments, especially striptease, and to the low-life establishments that displayed them. From there, the term implicitly encompassed all kinds of behavior and social practices that were illicit in Prohibition-era America, from the consumption of alcoholic beverages in speakeasies to the consumption of sexual favors in “houses of ill-repute.” These images were exactly what “jazz” connoted to the social circles on which high culture in America depended for patronage. The middle section (Ex. 11-8), with its “dirty,” low-lying trumpet solo accompanied by sweaty grunts from all the lowest instruments in the band, evoked the strutting ecdysiast “bumping and grinding” her way around the stage.


fig. 11-4 Entrance to Minsky’s Burlesque (locked and guarded by the police), New York, 1930s.


ex. 11-7b Aaron Copland Music for the Theatre, I, Molto moderato (harmonic “planing”)


ex. 11-7c Aaron Copland, Music for the Theatre, I, oboe solo


ex. 11-7d Aaron Copland, Music for the Theatre, I, Molto meno mosso


ex. 11-8 Aaron Copland, Music for the Theatre, IV (“Burlesque”), mm. 128–147

Copland’s suite could thus be construed as biting the hand that fed him—a calculated answer-in-kind to the insult Walter Damrosch had delivered at the Symphony premiere earlier that year. Performed before a stuffy subscription audience, say, at a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, it could count on a hostile reception. And that is just where it was performed for the first time, on 10 November 1925, between Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It was a typically aggressive modernist bid for public notice, in which Copland was joined by Serge Koussevitzky (1874–1951), the Russian-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to whom Music for the Theatre is dedicated.

Koussevitzky, whose marriage to an heiress had made him financially independent, was (like Stravinsky, Prokofieff, and Rachmaninoff) an émigré from the Russian revolution. From 1917 to 1924 his base was Paris, where he formed his own orchestra and gave concerts at which, thanks to his self-subsidizing, he could afford to program a great deal of contemporary music and turn his series into a major modernist forum where Stravinsky and Prokofieff (composers whose music Koussevitzky actually published for a while), and many of the younger French generation had important premieres. Koussevitzky also befriended Nadia Boulanger and took an interest in her pupils; so that when he moved to America he was poised to launch their careers with aplomb. In this he was playing a role consciously modeled on the activities of the Russian music patron Mitrofan Belyayev (1836–1904), also the heir to an industrial fortune, who had subsidized the performance and publication of the young Russians of the generation before Stravinsky’s.


fig. 11-5 Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky.

Thus the careers of the composers in the postwar American generation who studied in Paris quite directly paralleled those of the Russian “nationalist” composers of the late nineteenth century: they had a principal mentor in Nadia Boulanger, paralleling Rimsky-Korsakov (or, before him, Balakirev) and they had a principal promoter in Koussevitzky, paralleling Belyayev, who worked in active collusion with their mentor. But where Belyayev and Rimsky-Korsakov, with their conservative tastes, had acted as a restraining force on the Russian composers of their day, Boulanger and Koussevitzky were committed modernists who abetted every innovative tendency in American music. Where the older influence and the newer one coincided was in their insistence on pronounced national character in whatever music they supported.

Copland’s “jazz” works fit the bill to perfection. A review of the Boston premiere of Music for the Theatre confirmed the work as an act of mild aggression calculated to win a place for American music as an alternative to the traditional European repertory rather than (as previously) an echo of it. It was, the critic wrote, “a tonal bombshell that left in its wake a mingling of surprise, perplexity, indignation and enthusiasm.”15 After the New York premiere the next week, Olin Downes’s review announced that “we do not care if a long time elapses before we listen again to Music for the Theatre.”16

That sort of reaction was in its way an encouragement to Copland and Koussevitzky, who in a larger sense were echoing Europe after all, envisioning as they did the establishment of an authentic modernist school in America on what was by then the established European model: a maximalist nationalism followed by a chic “classical” counterpart. Copland’s next work, this time directly commissioned by Koussevitzky, was a Piano Concerto that he could take around and perform himself, the model being Stravinsky’s slightly “jazzy” if more overtly “Bachian” Concerto for Piano and Winds, first performed by the composer at one of the last Parisian Koussevitzky concerts, in May of 1924.

Copland’s Piaro Concerto, which had its premiere in Boston in January 1927, aroused all the indignation that Music for the Theatre had evoked, but none of the enthusiasm. Nicolas Slonimsky (1894–1995), a Russian émigré musician who was then acting as Koussevitzky’s secretary, sent Copland a malodorous bouquet of press clippings and irate letters from subscribers that unnerved the composer enough to elicit a show of bravado in response. “How flattering it was to read that the ‘Listener’ can understand Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky—but not poor me,” Copland wrote back to Slonimsky.17 “When the Concerto is played again (O horrid thought!) we must see if we can’t get the police to raid the concert hall to give a little added interest to this ‘horrible’ experiment.” The critics were just as “flattering.” One called the Concerto an “anti-human outrage”18; another characterized it as “barnyard and stable noises.”19 A third, pretending to excuse it, wrote that “some have complained that the work had no spiritual value, only animal excitement; but what else has jazz?”20

This last comment points to an ugly undercurrent that now made itself felt in the reception of Copland’s music. The second time around, his jazz experiments evoked a racial backlash that expressed itself not directly, with slurs against the composer’s musical sources, but in the form of innuendos at Copland’s own “racial” or ethnic origins. A Jewish composer trading in the jazz idiom seemed too direct a challenge to Yankee leadership in American musical culture, and aroused renewed controversy, more vehement than ever, as to just what the Americanness of American music should entail.

Who, in short, could truly represent—that is, had the right to represent—America, a nation of immigrants, in folklore? Here is how the journalist Gilbert Seldes posed the question in 1926, even before Copland’s Piano Concerto had appeared, in the pages of The Dial, a modernist literary magazine: “Can the Negro and the Jew stand in the relation of a folk to a nation? And if not, can the music they create be the national music?”21 Most answers were dismissive, like the one given by a critic named Paul Fritz Laubenstein in an article, “Race Values in Aframerican Music,” published in 1930 in the Musical Quarterly, then America’s most scholarly musical journal. “As for jazz,” he wrote, “the Negro may if he wishes claim the questionable distinction of being its originator.”22 But “the Jewish direption” or exploitation of it made it “a parasitic mannerism preying upon the classics.” From the very beginning of modernism (see chapter 1), its opponents associated it with Jewishness. The urban, the commercial, and the Jewish were conflated by those who regarded them, each and all, as a threat. In postwar America, the most vocal musical antimodernist was Daniel Gregory Mason (1873–1953), who from 1929 to 1942 occupied the MacDowell chair in music at Columbia University, where he taught, all told, for almost forty years. The son, nephew, and grandson of distinguished New England musicians, Mason was the foremost living representative of the Yankee strain in American music. His compositions included a “Lincoln Symphony” and a String Quartet on Negro Themes (that is, spirituals). But he drew the line at jazz, which he associated (in an article of 1920) with “the Jewish menace to our artistic integrity.”23

Ten years later, in a book called Tune In, America: A Study of Our Coming Musical Independence, Mason was ready to elaborate. Jazz based its claim to being a representative American music, Mason insisted, on its association with the myth of “American hustle,” defined as “a group of qualities induced or encouraged by our present business and industrial life, such as haste, practical ‘efficiency,’ good humor of a superficial sort, inventiveness, an extrovert preference of action to thought—in short, all that is suggested by such popular slogans as ‘Step lively” and ‘Keep smiling.’”24 Quoting an earlier writer named Hiram K. Moderwell, Mason linked jazz with “the ‘jerk and rattle’ of the American city, ‘its restless bustle and motion, its multitude of unrelated details, and its underlying progress toward a vague somewhere,’”25 all of which could serve equally as a general definition of “the modern.”

But jazz was a spurious representation of America, Mason claimed, for the reason that it was

not, like the varied types of European folk-song to which it is often misleadingly compared, a spontaneous artistic activity of our people; it is a commercial product, like so many others ‘put over’ upon the people. It does not grow up in simple minds, voicing their feelings; it is manufactured by calculating ones, seeking profit. In a word, it is not an expression at all; it is an exploitation.26

All of this was easily read anti-Semitic code. Mason explained the success of the Jewish exploitation of the unsuspecting public in terms of the “pathological state”27 to which the stresses of modern life have brought the American mind. Jazz, “the product of industrial cities poisoned with nervous fatigue,” reflects

not our health, vitality, and hope, but our restlessness and our despair. It is a symptom of a sick moment in the progress of the human soul: the moment of industrial turmoil, fever, and distress that we can but hope to survive, not to perpetuate. To its tense, false gayety the hearing ear responds never with the joy that comes only in relaxation, but with a sense of depression that may be tinged with tragedy…. Despite its kinship with an undeniable if superficial side of our character, and in spite of its acceptability to Europeans in search rather of new sensations than of living art, the bankruptcy of jazz as a source of serious music is becoming daily more evident.

Surveying the programs of American orchestras during the 1920s for their American content, Mason noted the increasing number of native-born musicians in the latter part of the decade, but noted, too, the increasing prevalence of modernistic styles that rendered the music “a little less representatively American.” Copland’s Piano Concerto is singled out for dismissal, since the participation of its composer, “a cosmopolitan Jew,”28 gave the Boston Symphony program in which he played the work “a more European, exotic flavor” than an American one. The inescapable logic of Mason’s position was that neither a Negro nor a Jew could be truly an American. The “musical independence” to which the subtitle of his book alluded could only be achieved if such influences were excluded.

Copland may have been unnerved by the backlash. Although, as we shall see, he certainly did not give up the aspiration to represent America in his music, he did discard jazz after the Piano Concerto. It was a conscious decision. He told a Los Angeles interviewer about it before performing the piece in 1928, and the interview ran under a headline, “Copland to Abandon Jazz in Future Compositions.”29 Much later he told another interviewer that “I had been observing the scene around me and sensed it was about to change. Moreover, I realized that jazz might have its best treatment from those who had a talent for improvisation. I sensed its limitations, intended to make a change, and made no secret of the fact.”30


(10) Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis, Copland: 1900 through 1942 (New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1984), p. 35.

(11) Quoted in Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (New York: Henry Holt, 1999), p. 113.

(12) Copland and Perlis, Copland: 1900 through 1942, p. 104.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ansermet, “Sur un Orchestre Nègre”; Keeping Time, p. 10.

(15) Warren Storey Smith in The Boston Post, 21 November 1925; Perlis and Copland, Copland: 1900 through 1942, p. 121.

(16) Olin Downes in New York Times, 29 November 1925; Ibid.

(17) Aaron Copland to Nicolas Slonimsky, March 1927; in Letters of Composers, ed. Gertrude Norman and Miriam Lubell Shrifte (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1945), p. 401.

(18) Unsigned editorial, Boston Evening Transcript, 5 February 1927; Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965), p. 87.

(19) Samuel Chotzinoff, New York World, 4 February 1927; Slonimsky, Lexicon, p. 86.

(20) John Tasker Howard, Our Contemporary Composers (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1941), p. 149.

(21) Gilbert Seldes, “The Negro’s Songs,” Dial, March 1926; quoted in Macdonald Smith Moore, Yankee Blues: Musical Culture and American Identity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 144.

(22) Fritz Laubenstein, “Race Values in Aframerican Music”; quoted in Moore, Yankee Blues, p. 143.

(23) Daniel Gregory Mason, “Is American Music Growing Up? Our Emancipation from Alien Influences,” Arts and Decoration, November 1920; quoted in D. G. Mason, Tune In, America: A Study of Our Coming Musical Independence (1931; rpt. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), p. 160.

(24) Mason, Tune In, America, p. 162.

(25) Hiram K. Moderwell, The New Republic, 16 October 1915; quoted in Mason, Tune In, America, p. 163.

(26) Mason, Tune In, America, pp. 163–64.

(27) Ibid., pp. 164–65.

(28) Ibid., p. 28.

(29) Los Angeles News, 20 July 1928; Copland and Perlis, Copland: 1900 through 1942, p. 134.

(30) Copland and Perlis, Copland: 1900 through 1942, p. 134.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011002.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011002.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011002.xml