Americans on American Music

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Americans have been writing about the history of music, and about the history of American music, for almost a hundred years. As we approach the centenary we might well ask ourselves such questions as these: How have American music historians regarded American music? What have they considered its place in the history of Western music in general to be? How have they considered its own history? What have been their attitudes and approaches? In sum, where have we stood, we Americans, vis à vis our own music?


The first American history of music—as opposed to the first history of American music—was the History of Music of the Alsatian, Frédéric Louis Ritter, published between 1870 and 1874. It need not detain us: Ritter, who did not come to America until the age of twenty-seven and who was concerned with instructing the young ladies of Vassar College in the music of Europe's past, did not even mention American music. (He was, however, to publish later the first history of American music.)

Much more startling than Ritter's failure to include American music in his history is the fact that not for seventy years after his book would an American author's general history of music include any discussion of American music. Paul Henry Lang's Music in Western Civilization, published in 1941, is a monumental and masterly account of music in its social and cultural contexts; translated into several European languages, it was America's first significant contribution to international music historiography. In this book of some 1100 pages, covering the giant span of Western civilization from ancient Greece to the twentieth century, Lang does mention American music—just barely, with a total of seventeen pages.

The next full-length American history of music, and the one read almost universally now by American students, was Donald Grout's A History of Western Music (1960), a work of about 750 pages which, like Lang's, begins with the music of ancient Greece. In his last two chapters, Professor Grout includes a few paragraphs on American music: two pages in a discussion of late nineteenth-century nationalist trends; one-half page on jazz; and two and one-half pages on twentieth-century American music.

Statistically speaking Professor Lang devotes 1.5% of his book, Professor Grout 0.67% of his, to American music. Their view of American music—which might be termed "anti-nationalist"—is virtually the opposite of that of other nationals concerning the position of their own music in history. In Italy, a late nineteenth-century Compendio della storia della musica (1866) by Abramo Basevi concluded modestly that "il nostro paese nella scienza e nelle arti sopravenza ogni altri nazioni"; the music history adopted for the city schools of Paris in 1930 (Histoire de la musique, by Alice Gabeaud) remarks that "French music continues to hold her place as éducatrice du monde"; German music histories at least since Hans Joachim Moser's lecture of 1914, "Der Durgedanke als kulturgeschichtliches Problem," have tended to view German music as the "guiding star" of musical development in the Western world (the term appears explicitly in Max Chop's Führer durch die Musikgeschichte of 1922). In contrast to such views, American music historians have tended either to omit entirely any discussion of American music in their histories, to deny that it shared at all in the general development of Western music, or to damn American music with faint praise, commenting on it within the general framework of Western music history only as a kind of reluctant afterthought.

To understand this virtual exclusion of their own country's music from music histories by Americans, one must understand the degree to which Americans of the nineteenth century submitted to domination by romantic and transatlantic ideas about music, and have been subject to them almost until the present.

Early America was basically, of course, a product of British colonization. Early American culture, including early American music, was predominantly British in character. By the nineteenth century, however, a vast change in American musical attitudes had begun to take place. One influential American composer and educator, Thomas Hastings (1784-1872), hinted at this change when he wrote in 1822, in A Dissertation on Musical Taste:

We are the decided admirers of German music. We delight to study and to listen to it. The science, genius, the taste, that everywhere pervade it, are truly captivating to those who have learned to appreciate it: but such, we presume, are not yet the majority of American or English auditors or executants.

Hastings was writing as one of the first spokesmen for a new tradition in American music, one that I have elsewhere1 called the "cultivated tradition," as opposed to an American "vernacular tradition." Terms like "science," "genius," and "taste" bespeak special standards, not for all music but for the art of music; not for music as a utilitarian part of everyday life or a pleasant diversion on the surface of life but as an art whose holy mission it was to edify and uplift. "Appreciation" of such music required cultivation.

With the early nineteenth-century restoration of diplomatic, commercial, social, and cultural relations with western Europe, Americans—particularly those in the old established Atlantic seaboard centers—turned to Europe for cultural models: they sought self-consciously and without self-confidence to cultivate an artistic taste. Western Europe at the time was of course just approaching the climax of the Romantic movement. Romanticism had had its earliest and strongest flourishing in Germany and, although springing initially from poets and novelists, it found its highest expression and made its greatest impact through German music and musicians. Hardly any European nation escaped this impact—nor did the United States. With the crop failures and the revolutions of 1848, moreover, a wave of Germans emigrated to America, further encouraging the Germanicization of America's cultivated tradition of art-music. The American pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk commented in his diary in 1863 that "all the musicians in the United States are Germans." A year earlier, with the same kind of exaggeration but also the same perceptive acknowledgment of an America wholly under Germanic musical influence, Gottschalk had written: "It is remarkable that almost all the Russians in America are counts, just as almost all the musicians who abound in the United States are nephews of Spohr and Mendelssohn."2

This situation affected in at least three ways American ideas about America's place in the "history of music" and about the history of American music itself. First, Americans rejected their musical past, dominated as it had been not only by popular, "unscientific" music but by British backgrounds. (We can observe this rejection as recently as 1963, in an American history of music: in their History of Music and Musical Style (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963), Homer Ulrich and Paul Pisk soberly declare, in a statement that is palpable nonsense, "For two centuries after the first settlements were established on the American continent a tradition of American music did not exist.") In the nineteenth century, America's past music was rejected as a basis for the new "scientific" music of the cultivated tradition. Early America indeed had a musical tradition; but in the nineteenth century that tradition, founded on Anglo-American psalmody and hymnody and on the great reservoir of Anglo-American song, was scorned completely by composers of the cultivated tradition.

Second, Americans rejected the American present as a source of either topical or musical subject-matter. The very aspects of nineteenth-century America and its music that were unique had by definition no models in Europe; they got no celebration in American music. Thus no echo of the fantastic American landscape, or of pioneering (despite its being "the Romantic movement in action," as Lewis Mumford has said3), or of American industry and science was heard in nineteenth-century American music of the cultivated tradition. Similarly, no echo was heard of the many kinds of vernacular-tradition music of the time—folk hymns, Negro music, minstrel-show songs and dances, popular marches, folksongs of many sorts. That composers of genteel, cultivated art-music were actually ashamed of American vernacular-tradition music is suggested by the career of Stephen Foster (1826-1864). Having begun as a composer of genteel "household" songs of sentiment, Foster decided to compose also for the more plebeian, earthy, vernacular medium of the blackface minstrel show. Embarrassed at first to be associated with that medium, Foster sold songs to the minstrel-troupe leader E.P. Christy: thus his most successful song, Old Folks at Home (1851), was originally presented and published as the work of Christy. Ultimately, attracted by the financial gain promised by the publication of minstrel-show songs, Foster wrote to Christy requesting his "name" back and saying with a fine (but defensive) show of resolution, "I have concluded . . . to pursue the Ethiopian business without fear or shame and . . . to establish my name as the best Ethiopian song-writer."4

The third result of the split between vernacular and cultivated American music traditions in the nineteenth century was to throw American cultivated-tradition music into direct competition, so to speak, with the European music it sought to emulate. Needless to say, American music was inferior. A Beethoven, a Schumann, a Wagner emerges as the crest of a wave of musical tradition that has been gathering for virtually centuries; America could hardly throw up such a wave-crest in a few decades.

Viewed in this light, it is perhaps no wonder that American writers on the history of Western music have unanimously neglected American music in their books; no wonder that theirs has been a basically anti-nationalist attitude. So long as they concerned themselves only with the tradition of European fine-art music—with the cultivated tradition—they saw American music, at least of the nineteenth century and earlier, as distinctly second-class: the competition was far, far too keen.


What about specialized studies of isolated aspects of American music? What has been done—and what has not been done? What has been the attitude of the American scholarly community toward American-music studies?

The first great scholar to make detailed studies of any aspect of American music was O.G.T. Sonneck (1873-1928). Chief of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, Sonneck, who was born in America but educated in Germany, published many monographs on American music. His most extensive studies were Early Concert-Life in America (1907) and Early Opera in America (1915). These, along with his monumental Bibliography of Early Secular American Music: 18th Century (1905), provided models of meticulous scholarship and exhaustive detail. Today, a half-century later, they have been neither superseded nor matched, for in general American music has continued to be neglected by American musicologists.

One major reason for this neglect has been the very concept of music history held by American musicologists. This concept, which still predominates among American musical scholars, is based on the principles enunciated by the Viennese musicologist Guido Adler in a famous article of 1885: "Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft" (Vierteljahrsschrift für Musikwissenschaft, I, 1). Adler emphasized analytic and style-critical studies of musical "monuments" as the primary responsibility of musicologists; he minimized the importance of studies of the social or cultural uses of music; he was concerned with masterworks by master composers. American musicologists almost unanimously accepted these principles, as the fledgling discipline began to develop in the United States (we might date it from the first issue of The Musical Quarterly in 1915). Furthermore, confirmed in their European orientation by the arrival in America during the Nazi era of many fine European scholars, American musicologists focused their attention not on American music but on European. It is a remarkable fact that although American scholars have contributed to many Denkmäler, Monumenta, and Gesamtausgaben of music by European composers, there is not yet in print a complete edition of the works of a single American composer, and the closest we have come to a volume of Denkmäler is a single modest historical anthology of American music.5

The attitude toward American-music studies of a majority of American musicologists was expressed trenchantly in a now-notorious colloquialism by Joseph Kerman, in his keynote paper of the 1964 meetings of the American Musicological Society. Suggesting "A Profile for American Musicology," Professor Kerman dismissed studies of American composers' music as a futile exercise: he said we can be interested in the music of, for example, Marenzio or Couperin because their music can be brought to life and made a vital part of our contemporary experience, but as for Francis Hopkinson, Lowell Mason, or Theodore Chanler (and here Professor Kerman pointedly chose one composer from each of the three centuries of American music), "Man, they are dead."

Despite, however, the general lack of interest in American music among the American musicological community, a few scholars have made notable contributions. Sonneck's early models of meticulous scholarship, many of them bibliographical studies, have been followed in such a work as Richard Wolfe's three-volume Secular Music in America 1801-1825 (New York Public Library, 1964). Irving Lowens and Allen Britton, working singly and as a team, have explored especially the late eighteenth-century choral music of New England; Lowens's more numerous contributions have been gathered into a book, Music and Musicians in Early America (New York: W.W. Norton, 1964). Donald McCorkle has written extensively about, and edited music by, the German-speaking communities of Moravian brethren in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America. Robert Stevenson has concentrated on Spanish music in Latin America but has also completed a careful survey of Protestant Church Music in America (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966). Few professional musicologists have concerned themselves with jazz or related music. A composer, Gunther Schuller, has published the first volume of a two-volume work on jazz that is the first serious style-critical study: Early Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968). The most objective and well-documented jazz history remains The Story of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956) by the late Marshall Stearns (a Chaucer specialist!); Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis have surveyed a related music in They All Played Ragtime (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950); Charles Keil has written a splendid account of Urban Blues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).

Few critical biographies of American composers have appeared. Among those that observe high standards of scholarship and are also critically perceptive are Henry and Sidney Cowell's Charles Ives and His Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), John Tasker Howard's Stephen Foster (rev. ed.; New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1962), and Kathleen Hoover and John Cage's Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music (New York: T. Yoseloff, 1959). In a class by itself, a remarkable demonstration of the potential riches for American music history in what I have called our vernacular tradition, is Hans Nathan's study of Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962). Among successful broader studies one might single out John Mueller's sociologically oriented account of The American Symphony Orchestra (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1951) and the portions on America in Arthur Loesser's lively social history, Men, Women and Pianos (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954). By now a number of Ph.D. dissertations on American music have been written; for the most part these have been style-studies, along Adlerian lines, of the works of single composers, and like most American dissertations they remain unpublished and virtually unread. (One of the finest, however, Richard Crawford's "Andrew Law (1749-1821): The Career of an American Musician," is to be published by Northwestern University Press.)

In sum, the list of specialized studies in American music of which we may be proud in a scholarly sense is not only rather short; it is owed only in part to American musicologists. However, the past decade or so has revealed some signs of change. These have arisen, I think, partly from the populist trends of the late 1930's and 1949's, which saw Americans newly interested in their own past; partly from the nationalist sentiments evoked by World War II; and finally from a more liberal view of what historical musicology—especially in a fluid, diverse, and democratic society like that of the United States—could or should concern itself with.

The most eloquent spokesman for this new view of the proper approach for American musicologists to take vis à vis their own culture's music has been Charles Seeger (b. 1886). Seeger has asserted bluntly that "the majority of musicologists are not primarily interested in music, but in the literature of European fine art music, its grammar and syntax (harmony and counterpoint)."6 Pointing out that fine-art music is but one of four main traditional idioms in world culture—primitive, fine-art, folk, and popular—and that in a dynamic, nascent culture like that of the United States the fine-art idiom may well be the weakest or at any rate the least universal or representative of the culture, Seeger has claimed:

It will be readily understood, therefore, that the character of music activity in the Americas up to 1900 compels an approach in many ways different from that conventionally in use by historicomusicology. It must perforce be almost exclusively ethnomusicological, quantitative rather than qualitative, more concerned with tradition than with only the outstanding carriers of tradition, and with all four idioms.7

Seeger's point of view has been that of a pan-cultural historian. Rejecting the older, exclusive concern with only a cultivated tradition, an educated culture, an elite art—the best that has been thought and said by the few in a civilization, as Matthew Arnold once put it—Seeger has argued for a concern also with the vernacular tradition, popular culture, mass art—"the run of what is thought, felt, and liked by the many," as Max Lerner has put it.8 Seeger's ideas have opened the way for a new interest in American music by American music historians, for they offer new standards of scholarly value and invite investigation in areas different from those of the traditional European historical musicology—the Adlerian tradition—in which American music historians have been schooled for so long. Essentially, what Seeger has challenged us to do is to write about the history of music rather than the history of a music, i.e., the history of musical culture in the large rather than the history of a single musical idiom.

Before suggesting how this challenge has been taken up by some scholars, let me briefly outline the history of American-music histories.


The first attempt at a history of American music was by that same Frédéric Ritter I mentioned earlier as the first American author of a general history of music. Ritter's Music in America (1883) was concerned exclusively with the cultivated tradition in American music and measured that music critically and anti-nationalistically by the standards of European fine-art music. Ritter went so far as to claim that "the people's song . . . is not to be found among the American people"—thus relieving himself of any responsibility to discuss the American vernacular tradition. Louis Elson's History of American Music (1904) shared Ritter's orientation.

Oscar Sonneck, whom I have mentioned as a peerless pioneer in American-music scholarship, hinted in a lecture of 1916 titled "The History of Music in America" that perhaps American music historians had been too narrowly restrictive in their viewpoint. "Our books," said Sonneck, "deal more with the history of music and musicians in America than with the history of American musical life." Sonneck himself, however, did not develop this idea into a full-scale history, nor was his hint acted upon by the next historian of American music, John Tasker Howard.

Howard's Our American Music, far more extensive than any earlier survey, was first published in 1931. Within the next fifteen years, reflecting the newly awakened interest of Americans in their own past that was characteristic of the 1930's and '40's, so much new research had been done that Howard had to revise his book twice (1939, 1946). Nevertheless, he did not change his basic viewpoint, which was dominated by European fine-art music ideals and which saw American music as having engaged in a long, arduous struggle to rise to European levels of musical excellence. Howard divided American music history into three periods, and the titles of the three sections of his book reveal his attitude: Part I—1620-1800—Euterpe in the Wilderness; Part II—1800-1860—Euterpe Clears the Forest; Part III—1860 to the present—Euterpe Builds Her American Home.

The next history of American music, and the first to adopt the multilateral, multi-level approach urged by Charles Seeger, was America's Music by Gilbert Chase (New York: McGraw Hill, 1955). Reacting violently against what I have called the anti-nationalism of earlier American-music historians (which we have seen to be really an exclusive orientation to the fine-art idiom of Euro-America), Chase belligerently introduced his book by saying, "My own approach to America's music is not at all respectable—my bête noire is the genteel tradition." He proudly pointed out that "in this book, some fifteen chapters [of thirty-one] deal, in whole or in part, with various phases of American folk, primitive, and popular music."9 And he went so far as to say that in his opinion "important" American music was important only to the degree that it was "different from European music." This sounds suspiciously like an arch-nationalist viewpoint, but rather than viewing him as an ardent nationalist, I view Chase as attempting to redress the balance, in American-music historiography, between concern for the tradition of fine-art music—virtually the only tradition dealt with by earlier writers—and the traditions of primitive, folk, and popular music.10 Chase implicitly urged the idea that in American democratic society, which has lacked the clear-cut cultural stratification of western Europe's older, more autocratic societies, the popular-music idiom especially (or what I prefer to call the vernacular tradition, since it has drawn on various elements of the folk, the popular, and the once-elite idioms) has been extraordinarily important in relation to the other idioms of folk and fine-art music.

Insisting on this point, which, against the background of earlier American-music histories, was somewhat revolutionary, Chase acted like any good revolutionary: he denied any virtues in the old régime; he devalued American fine-art music (at least of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) to the point of bankruptcy, suggesting that a single popular song by Stephen Foster was worth any number of concertos by Edward MacDowell. In short, he shifted the criteria of significance for American music history by about 180 degrees.

Perhaps a middle ground is the ideal. Perhaps we need not be as extremist in a new direction as to denigrate American cultivated-tradition music simply because it aped European music; that is what one segment of our nineteenth-century culture was all about, and as historians we must accept it. On the other hand, thanks to Seeger and Chase perhaps we have found ways to a better-balanced history of American music, including a recognition of the vitality, the honesty, the "American-ness," and indeed the beauty of the vernacular tradition. Hopefully, other American historians will adopt a truly pan-cultural attitude, accepting as the proper concern of music-historical study not solely one idiom, one tradition, one mode of musical expression but all the kinds of music that America has made, used, sung, and played.

1Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.; to be published in April 1969).

2Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Notes of a Pianist, ed. Jeanne Behrend (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 127, 102.

3The Golden Day (2nd ed.; Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), 20.

4The entire text of this interesting letter is given in Gilbert Chase (ed.), The American Composer Speaks (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966), 56-57.

5W. Thomas Marrocco and Harold Gleason (eds.), Music in America . . . 1620-1865 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1964).

6"Oral Tradition in Music," Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend (New York, 1950), 825-29.

7"The Cultivation of Various European Traditions in the Americas," Report of the Eighth Congress of the International Musicological Society, New York 1961, Volume I—Papers (Basel: Bärenreiter-Verlag, 1961), 364-75.

8America as a Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 780.

9America's Music, 1st ed., xvii, xix.

10Chase later admitted (with overt reluctance) that primitive music—e.g., of the American Indian—has had almost no role in the general culture of the United States by eliminating from the second edition of his book (1966) a chapter on Indian music, to make room for a new one on music in the 1960's.

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