How American Culture Changed European Music

By Jack Sullivan

Yale. 262 pp. $30

Reviewed by Sudip Bose

We are supposedly nearing the end of an American century, yet the world of American art music is still, as ever, hopelessly European. Why is it that the works of Charles Ives, Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions rarely make it onto concert programs these days, eschewed in favor of old European standbys? Leonard Slatkin and Michael Tilson Thomas notwithstanding, why is there such a scarcity of American maestros beating time for our premier symphony orchestras? It seems to me that we continue to look to Europe, out of habit and compulsion, to legitimize our nation's uncertain musical identity.

Not everyone is of this opinion, of course. In the meticulously researched New World Symphonies, Jack Sullivan, a professor of English at Rider College, claims rather the opposite, that European composers actually owe a greater cultural debt to the New World -- to writers such as Longfellow, Whitman and Poe; to jazz and Negro spirituals; to the chaotic, frenzied rhythms of the American city and to the vast emptiness of the American frontier. Beginning with Antonin Dvorak and Frederick Delius, Sullivan explains, so-called New World Symphonists such as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Olivier Messiaen, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Kurt Weill have "use[d] the New World to rediscover something in themselves, something lost in time or atrophied by convention."

It all began with Dvorak, who famously came to New York City in 1892 and soon pronounced that America's musical soul, and its most distinctive folk traditions, could be traced to the Negro spiritual. In the richly melodic bars of the Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World") and the "American" string quartet, Dvorak sought "to mine [this] folk vernacular and convert it into art that would be both formal and accessible." Delius, too, was captivated by the evocative harmonies and cadences of indigenous black music, which he heard in the 1880s while living at Solano Grove, on the banks of the St. Johns River in northern Florida.

In the 20th century, the most seductive and pervasive influence on continental composers has been jazz, what Sullivan calls "arguably the most potent musical force in the Western world." Sullivan cites jazz-inspired opus numbers from composers such as Stravinsky ("The Soldier's Tale" and the "Ebony Concerto"), Ernst Krenek ("Jonny spielt auf," the first jazz opera), Maurice Ravel (one of the two violin sonatas and the G Major piano concerto) and Dmitri Shostakovich (the jazz suites and the first piano concerto). The same thing that so invigorated Dvorak and Delius appealed to the Europeans appropriating jazz idioms, namely black America. "It all started in Harlem clubs," Sullivan writes.

But did it? Keeping in mind the subtitle of this book, one major question must be asked: In the case of jazz, was it truly America that changed the New World Symphonists, or rather some idea of America that was essentially European? Shostakovich, for example, never visited America, let alone a Harlem nightclub. The "jazz" that did penetrate the Iron Curtain, what directly influenced Shostakovich's jazz suites, was basically cafe music that had little in common with idiomatic American jazz. These tunes, performed by the likes of Leonid Utyosov and his Tea Jazz orchestra of Odessa, was much admired by Shostakovich, and though it was certainly light, hip, witty -- even jazzy -- by no means was it jazz.

Something similar can be said about the "Blues" movement of Ravel's violin sonata, "a serious attempt to project a blues mood onto a chamber work," full of "blues-band sounds" and "banjolike strummings and blue notes," according to Sullivan. But Ravel's elegant sonata is more Parisian coffeehouse than Mississippi Delta. Ravel himself had this to say about the piece while visiting the United States in 1928: "While I adopted this popular form of your music, I venture to say that nevertheless it is French music, Ravel's music, that I have written."

Several other composers never heard a single riff of real American jazz. The Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff may have been "one of the first European composers to consistently use jazz," but he "never traveled to Harlem to hear the real thing." Stravinsky, too, "never heard the music." Instead, "he wrote what he would `like to think' jazz sounded like." Perhaps this is a slight distinction, but it was a much-disguised art form, not the nation that gave birth to the original, that had such an impact on these composers; the nightclubs of Harlem had little to do with their works. Neither Ravel's music nor Shostakovich's sprung from the soul of America, as one could argue Dvorak's "New World" symphony did. I would instead concur with Arnold Schoenberg, who in 1934 wrote: "Beethoven's `Theme Russe,' Mozart's `Turkish March,' Haydn's `Alla Ongarese' and many other pieces are purely German; Dvorak's `New World Symphony' is (to those who know) undoubtedly Czech; Aida is not Egyptian, the Queen of Sheba not Jewish, and in Spain, so Spaniards assure me, there is no folk-music resembling Carmen."

I am, however, grateful for what is -- to me, at least -- the book's greatest felicity: the author's unflagging championing of works seldom heard today. Go out, as I did, and buy a recording of Alexander Zemlinsky's haunting "Symphonic Songs," a stirring setting of texts by poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Listen to Paul Hindemith's setting of Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and be carried away by its epic, polyphonic sweep. Other works that I haven't listened to in quite a while -- such as Delius's lush "Florida Suite" or "The Bells," Serge Rachmaninoff's eerie setting of Poe's poetry, replete with the Dies Irae -- were enhanced by Sullivan's insightful commentary. In the end, I suppose, it matters little whether these works are American or European in spirit. But though it is safe to say that morsels of Americana nourished the scores of several European composers, just to what extent will be the source of continued musicological debate.

Sudip Bose is associate editor of Preservation magazine.

CAPTION: Josephine Baker in Paris, ca. 1920