What’s American music, again?

“The fact is, of course, that citizens of the United States write music in every known style. From the post-Romantic eclecticism of Howard Hanson and the post-Romantic expressionism of Bernard Rogers through the neoclassicized impressionism of Edward Burlingame Hill and John Alden Carpenter, the strictly Parisian neoclassicism of Walter Piston, the romanticized neoclassicism of Roy Harris and William Schuman, the elegant neo-Romanticism of Samuel Barber, the sentimental neo-Romanticism of David Diamond, the folksy neo-Romaticism of Douglas Moore, Randall Thompson, and Henry Cowell, the Germano-eclectic modernism of Roger Sessions, the neoprimitive polytonalism of Charles Ives, and the ecstatic chromaticism of Carl Ruggles, to the percussive and rhythmic research fellows Edgard Varese and John Cage, we have everything... We have, moreover, a national glory in the form of Aaron Copland, who so skillfully combines, in the Bartok maner, folk feeling with neoclassic techniques that foreigners often fail to recognize his music as American at all.”

The quote dates from 1948, from an article (“On Being American”) by Virgil Thomson. I cite it not only because of its relevance to ongoing discussions here — we’ve been discussing the meaning of American music in this country pretty much since the country’s inception — but also because it shows something pithy about definitions: “American” isn’t the only mutable term in this equation. The quote is a snapshot of a bygone American music scene that looks a lot more American, and a lot less nuanced, at a remove of 60-plus year; and inevitably, many of the players are forgotten, while others have been reduced to blunt outlines. (Aaron Copland, not recognized as American? John Cage, a “rhythmic research fellow”?)

Thomson’s list also notably, and inevitably, omits one composer whose “American-ness” has never been called into question: Thomson himself.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.

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