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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


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

But by the mid-1940s the idea of the All-American (but ethnically unmarked) Symphony as optimum embodiment of the American character had received a powerful challenge from what might be called a resurgent Dvořák faction, yet one colored by contemporary circumstances in a manner that Dvořák never envisioned, and would have surely deprecated. The early 1930s witnessed a renewed interest in American white folklore from the perspective of radical politics, which received a major impetus from the depression, particularly in connection with the labor movement. Folk music, now regarded as the product of the American “proletariat,” was researched and performed as an adjunct to political action. It was adopted (and often radically adapted) as agitation and propaganda on behalf of the farmers and workers who were most sorely affected by the economic downturn.

The folk music revival did not immediately affect the composition of “art” music. At first, composers of leftist persuasion modeled their activity on that of their German counterparts like Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, as described in chapter 9. Marc Blitzstein (1905–64), the most notable example, was a Philadelphia-born composer whose European study tour took him both to Fontainebleau and the Boulangerie and to Berlin, where he worked briefly with Schoenberg and heard Weill and Brecht’s Three Penny Opera in its first production. (It would be in Blitzstein’s translation that the piece became so popular in America in the 1950s.) Encouraged by the exiled Brecht, whom he met in New York in 1935, Blitzstein composed The Cradle Will Rock, a “play in music” (to his own libretto) in ten scenes embodying what the composer called “an allegory about people I hate”68 that would through a combination of entertainment and political harangue persuade its intended middle-class audience to join the class struggle on the side of the proletariat—or as Blitzstein put it, “to shove those into the progressive ranks who stood on the brink.”69

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fig. 11-8 Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock in rehearsal. The composer is squatting at right.

The work focuses a general critique of “prostitution” in all walks of American life on an episode involving labor agitation in a place called Steeltown, U.S.A. A group of “upright citizens,” all of them in thrall to Mr. Mister, the steelmill boss and the cartoon personification of capitalist evil, have been mistakenly arrested as union organizers, along with one actual (that is, literal) prostitute, a streetwalker named Moll, who is of course the play’s only “innocent.” One by one the remaining characters—a minister (Reverend Salvation), a newspaperman (Editor Daily), a college president (President Prexy), a doctor (Dr. Specialist), and so on—reveal their servile hypocrisy. In the end the righteous workers, led by Larry Foreman the union man, gain the inevitable victory over the forces of reaction.

Among the “prostitutes” are Yasha and Dauber, a pair of artists, who depend on the “cultured” Mrs. Mister, the boss’s wife, for patronage. (She summons them with an automobile horn that plays a snatch from Beethoven’s supposedly “revolutionary” Egmont Overture.) They sing a duet called “Art for Art’s Sake” that, in a manner typical of the day, pits ethics against esthetics. A paean to “pure” classical (or neoclassical) art as then trumpeted, above all, by Stravinsky, the duet indicts artists who in their social indifference serve the interests of the exploiting class. The Cradle Will Rock achieved a much greater notoriety than expected owing to the circumstances of its first performance, on 17 June 1937. It had been commissioned through the Federal Theatre Project, an arm of the Works Progress Administration; but on the very eve of the premiere, the government contract was rescinded on account of the adverse publicity the work’s supposedly subversive character was generating, and the theater was locked. The whole cast, along with the audience, walked to another theater a mile away. The actors’ and musicians’ unions, fearing reprisals, forbade their members to appear onstage or in the pit at the new venue, so Blitzstein, with the stage to himself, played the score on the piano, while the singers and actors, scattered throughout the auditorium in street dress, performed their roles from their seats. They made theater history, and established the work’s performance tradition; it is usually presented as it was on its nearly-thwarted opening night. The full score, it seems, has never been performed.

The cast party afterward took place at the Downtown Music School, a community educational facility administered by the Workers Music League, an adjunct of the American Communist Party, and under its discipline. (That discipline, of course, was international; it was channeled through the so-called Comintern, or Third Communist International Organization, which by the 1930s was an agency of the foreign policy of the USSR.) Among the other organizations the League sponsored was the Composers Collective of New York, a club modeled loosely on the Russian Union of Soviet Composers, where creative musicians met to exchange ideas, hear and critique each other’s work, and publish anthologies of labor songs.

Determining its actual membership, or that of any radical political action group in Depression-era America, is difficult now. During the Cold War, when tensions mounted between the United States and Soviet Russia, rival superpowers capable of “mutual assured destruction,” membership or former membership in the American Communist Party (driven underground between 1946 and 1966) or any of its affiliated organizations became cause for suspicion and possible legal persecution. As we shall see later, members and sympathizers of the Composers Collective endured reprisals in the 1950s for their idealistic political sympathies in the 1930s.

Many sought protection in denial, or in the exercise of their constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination; to reveal their participation, and even to assert that it had a direct and historically significant impact on their musical output, would at one time have been a hostile and potentially injurious act. Even now such disclosures are unjustly regarded by many, across the political spectrum, as defamatory. But that makes the irony of the situation—that important features of the American national identity in music originated in circumstances that would later be branded “Un-American”—all the more poignant, and all the more needful of elucidation.

The members of the Composers Collective who can be most conclusively identified are the ones who operated within the organization under cover of Party (“revolutionary”) pseudonyms. They included Charles Seeger (1886–1979), a minor composer but a very distinguished musicologist, who went by the name Carl Sands, and Elie Siegmeister (1909–91), a recent product of the Boulangerie, whose nom de guerre was L. E. Swift. Blitzstein, who boldly used his own name, was listed in official publications as the organization’s secretary. The Collective’s most concrete musical legacy was the Workers’ Songbook, two volumes of “mass songs” (agitation-and-propaganda songs to be sung by amateur choruses in unison or as rounds), issued in 1934 and 1935. The Collective also sponsored concerts devoted largely, but not solely, to the performance of such works.

One such concert, presented in March 1934 at the organization’s New York headquarters, called the Degeyter Club (after Pierre Degeyter, a French woodcarver who in 1888 had composed the music to the Communist hymn “Internationale”), was Aaron Copland’s first “one-man show,” the first full-length program anywhere devoted exclusively to his music. Since his abortive jazz experiments, Copland had been writing in an abstractly modernistic and decidedly “urban” idiom unmarked by any specifically Americanist coloration. The program presented by the Collective included a two-piano arrangement of the jazzy Concerto with Copland as the soloist; an early piano Passacaglia; a pair of pieces (“Nocturne” and “Ukelele Serenade”) for violin and piano; a piano trio (1928) based on a Yiddish theme, called “Vitebsk” after one of the major centers of Eastern European Jewry; and—the most recent composition, as well as the most abstract one—a rigorously worked-out and aggressively dissonant set of Piano Variations (1930; the opening bars or “theme” is given in Ex. 11-17).

Seeger reviewed the concert in the Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper, and hailed Copland’s new sound, equating musical with political militancy as was then the fashion among artists with leftist leanings but elite training. Thanks to its uncompromising dissonance and its use of quarter tones, even the “Vitebsk” trio was seen as politically progressive despite its incorporation of what might otherwise have looked like religious subject matter, normally equated by Communists with reactionary politics. Allowing himself some chronological liberty, Seeger charted Copland’s course as moving steadily and inevitably leftward:

From the “genteel seclusion” of the earlier works, through an intermediate stage of almost religious rage or, better, rage at religion, and of a flirtation with Broadway, he emerged by 1930 as the composer of one of the most undeniably revolutionary pieces of music ever produced here—the Piano Variations. That he was not “conscious” of this at the time he wrote the work is merely to say that in 1930 he had progressed further in musical than in language development.70

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ex. 11-17 Aaron Copland, Piano Variations (theme)

The last comment was a reference to a disclaimer Copland had made before the concert, which, Seeger contended, had been disproved not only by the music but also by an exchange he had in a follow-up discussion period, during which a steelworker had commented that the Piano Variations reminded him of his work environment. Copland replied that, while he had not imagined “riveters and subways” while composing, he did write the piece over the noise of a New York street, and felt that his music was therefore “able to stand up against modern life.” That gave Seeger the grounds for a ringing peroration:

For one of the finest definitions of revolutionary musical content yet made, we hail Aaron Copland’s “Up Against!” And with vigor, too—that is the essence of the Piano Variations. Their chief shortcomings seem to be that they are almost too much “against”—against pretty nearly everything. So some day, Aaron, write us something “for.” You know what for!71

Although it would be rash to offer this one incident as an explanation, it is nevertheless telling that, beginning exactly then, in the spring and summer of 1934, positive political commitment shows up in Copland’s work (and in other public activities as well: during that summer he made speeches on behalf of Communist politicians in Minnesota, and campaigned for the Communist presidential ticket in 1936). In the fall of 1934, he wrote a one-act ballet called Hear Ye! Hear Ye! that in Blitzsteinesque fashion satirizes an obviously corrupt American courtroom at a time when the Communist Party was actively engaged in protesting such miscarriages of justice as the trial of the “Scottsboro boys,” nine black youths in Alabama who had been tried and, with one exception, convicted and condemned on trumped-up charges of rape in 1931. (Their appeals continued until 1937 so that the case was still in the news.) The score, which incorporates an orchestrated version of the “Ukelele Serenade,” begins and ends with a dissonant parody of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

In 1935, Copland completed a set of short symphonic studies called Statements for Orchestra, of which several (“Militant,” “Dogmatic,” “Jingo”) simulated political oratory, and in one case parodied it, thus giving an ideological focus (as Seeger had “demanded”) to Copland’s aggressive modernism. The “Dogmatic” statement actually quotes the theme of the Piano Variations as its middle section, not in self-parody (for Communists, like religious fundamentalists, used the word “dogma” without irony), but as if spelling out the content that Seeger had discerned in it the year before. The parody item is the “Jingo” statement. The word, no longer much in use, was slang for a blustery chauvinist or warmonger; the music (replete with brainless “polytonal” quotations from “The Sidewalks of New York,” a song often appropriated by New York “machine” politicians for campaign purposes) is a send-up of the sort of American patriotic rhetoric—the “Fourth of July” rhetoric Charles Ives nostalgically idealized (see chapter 5)—that was derided by the left in those days as a mask for political reaction.

Copland’s most direct response to his reception at the Degeyter Club, however, was a contribution to the genre that the organization sponsored: a mass song called “Into the Streets, May First!” (Ex. 11-18). It was the winning entry in a contest sponsored by the New Masses, another Communist organ, for the best setting of a poem for May Day, the international workers’ holiday. Copland’s song was performed at an exercise called the “Second Annual American Workers’ Music Olympiad,” published in the paper’s 1 May edition, reprinted that August in Sovetskaya muzïka, the organ of the Union of Soviet Composers, and reissued the next year in the second volume of the Workers’ Songbook, alongside works by “Sands,” “Swift,” Wallingford Riegger (using the pseudonym “J. C. Richards”), the Soviet mass song specialist Alexander Davidenko, and Hanns Eisler, the acknowledged master of the genre (see chapter 9), who had just come to America as a refugee from the Nazi regime and given some seminars on mass songs at the Degeyter Club.

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ex. 11-18 Aaron Copland, “Into the Streets, May First!”

Copland’s song exemplifies the position he had staked out when reviewing the first volume of the Workers’ Songbook in The New Masses, a month after winning the contest. Perhaps responding to some misgivings Seeger had expressed when his rather “difficult” song was picked as the winner, Copland addressed the problem of an appropriate style for proletarian art. He conceded that “to write a fine mass song is a challenge to every composer,” and that for the sake of achieving “a first-line position on the cultural front” some stylistic compromise was both necessary and well compensated, “for every participant in revolutionary activity knows from his own experience that a good mass song is a powerful weapon in the class struggle.”72

And yet he did not hesitate to criticize the songs on “aesthetic” grounds, calling the work of one Collective member “flatfooted and unimaginative,” and that of another “unnecessarily conventional in spirit.” He argued against excessive simplicity or familiarity in style, since (as Seeger himself had claimed) revolutionary content demanded a revolutionary style, even within the limits set by the abilities and experience of amateur performers. He had traditional Communist theory on his side: both folklore (a remnant of “feudalism”) and commercial music (“jazz”) were considered reactionary political expressions by the orthodox. This was the position adopted in the USSR by the radical Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). Within the Collective, Eisler and Blitzstein preached vehemently against employing idioms that were tainted by capitalist exploitation.

In his own song Copland strove to maintain a striking modern idiom, full of unexpected modulations and pungent harmonies, while staying within the capacities of amateur performers. Each phrase of the melody is diatonic and largely conjunct. Motion between phrases (that is, over tonal modulations) is always conjunct until the last eight measures, which remain within the confines of C major. The tune is expertly crafted to produce a steady rise in tessitura, each succeeding phrase hitting a higher climax than the last. It was a fine specimen of its type, at least theoretically, and was chosen unanimously by the Collective membership (including Eisler) to be its standard bearer.

But traditional Communist esthetic theory was just then being subjected to a massive review that would ultimately doom both the Collective and its approved “revolutionary” style. The first inkling of the change was the way in which Michael Gold, a proletarian writer who had a regular column called “Change the World!” in the Daily Worker, reacted to Elie Siegmeister’s setting of his “Strange Funeral in Braddock,” an angry lament for the victim of a horrifying steel mill accident who had to be buried encased in a block of steel that had spilled over him in its molten state. Siegmeister had sought to express the fury of Gold’s poem in a typically modernist way, with dissonant tone-clusters in the piano part and operatic parlando effects in the voice. Performed at a New York concert in December 1935, the song was well received by critics and was soon published in Henry Cowell’s New Music Quarterly, but Gold savagely attacked it in the Daily Worker: “I think a new content often demands a new form, but when the new form gets so far ahead of all of us that we can’t understand its content, it is time to write letters to the press.”73

Gold demanded that workers’ music henceforth adopt rural folk music as its primary model, citing as precedent the activity of Joe Hill (Joseph Hillstrom, 1879–1915), Ella May Wiggins (martyred by a mob in 1929), and Aunt Molly (Mary) Jackson (1880–1960), union organizers who used folk-song parodies and original songs in traditional style—for example, Hill’s popular “Casey Jones,” a call to railway workers—as agitational propaganda. It was hard to argue with Gold’s position from within the movement: Hill and Wiggins, actual victims in the struggle for workers’ and farmers’ rights, were hallowed names on the left. And yet it might have seemed a somewhat paradoxical or quixotic demand, given that most industrial workers were urban and many of them foreign-born. But Gold was not speaking only for himself. He was expressing a new Party line.

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fig. 11-9 Earl Robinson, “Joe Hill,” as it appears in The Fireside Book of Folk Songs, ed. Margaret B. Boni (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1947).


(68) Marc Blitzstein, “City College Presents ‘Cradle Will Rock’ Tonight,” Daily Worker, 29 November 1940; Barbara Zuck, A History of Musical Americanism (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1980), p. 211.

(69) Edith Hale, “Author and Composer Blitzstein,” Daily Worker, 7 December 1938; Ibid.

(70) “Carl Sands” (Charles Seeger), “Copeland’s [sic] Music Recital at Pierre Degeyter Club,” Daily Worker, 22 March 1934; Pollack, Aaron Copland, p. 275.

(71) Ibid.

(72) Aaron Copland, “Workers Sing!” New Masses XI, no. 9 (1934): 28–29.

(73) Quoted in Ronald D. Cohen and Dave Samuelson, Songs for Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs and the American Left (Hambergen: Bear Family Records, 1996), p. 67.

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. 2 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011006.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 2 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011006.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 2 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011006.xml