February 11, 2011 at 10:08 PM
In 1853, American composer William Henry Fry issued a bold call to his fellows and successors: "The American composer should not allow the name of Beethoven or Handel or Mozart to prove an eternal bugbear to him, nor should he pay them reverence; he should only reverence his Art, and strike out manfully and independently into untrodden realms."
Whether or not Fry’s target audience actually shunned the European masters, many American composers did strike out manfully into untrodden American musical realms. Luminaries like George Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, Arthur Farwell, Charles Ives, William Grant Still, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein incorporated elements of African American, Appalachian, and Native American music into their compositions in an attempt to develop a distinctly American strain of classical music.
But the old European bugbear never stopped haunting the American scene. In 1941 – nearly 80 years after Fry’s death – Copland wrote, "Very often I get the impression that audiences seem to think that the endless repetition of a small body of entrenched masterworks is all that is required for a ripe musical culture. Needless to say, I have no quarrel with masterpieces. I think I revere and enjoy them as well as the next fellow. But when they are used, unwittingly perhaps, to stifle contemporary effort in our own country, then I am almost tempted to take the most extreme view and say that we should be better off without them!"
Copland’s concern was with audiences, while Fry’s was with composers. But both men feared the same result: the stifling of contemporary efforts in American composition.
I don’t need to recount the great works American composers have produced. I don’t need to describe the monumental impact they have had on classical, stage, and film music worldwide. But I do need to emphasize that American classical composers never found common cause, largely because too few of them were dedicated enough to harnessing the colors, textures, melodies, and rhythms of this country. A widespread affinity for musical structures and philosophies developed by Europeans, coupled with skepticism of the value of America’s own musical heritage, thwarted the establishment of an American classical idiom.
I also have no quarrel with masterpieces from Europe, but we are not Europe’s musical colony. Our own musical resources are too vast and too rich for so many serious American composers to continue to reject.
Allow me, then, to describe my solution to our identity problem…
The rest of my Manifesto is here, for you to read and/or download for free in PDF form: Mark O'Connor Manifesto.
A magnificent document! This should transform our collective understanding of the role of American music in history, and of the role of the violin within it. Written with immense knowledge, and with passion and eloquence. Should be required reading for all musicians!
Yet another reason why I like you so much, Mark! Well-written, well-thought, and much needed today.
I was just talking about you to one of my students because he stumbled upon a video of you, Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, and Sam Bush playing Freeborn Man. My student, Baruke, is a highly talented young man who needs to have a fire lit under him sometimes and doesn't often practice for lessons. He's practiced at least an hour a day this week after watching that video. It's not that Baruke can't appreciate the European classical masters, but he is more inclined to push music in unexpected, creative directions, and he just needs to see a little more of what can be done with the violin. Thank you for being one of those people that can inspire my students to be the musicians I know they can become.
We have a tendency to cling to what we know and are familiar with. How many of us are guilty of visiting a new town yet stopping for a meal at a chain restaurant?
It takes a conscious effort and guts to step beyond the familiar and reach out to new experiences.
As I read your opus, my mind kept skipping back to my childhood music education- formally, all I received were traditional classics Suzukified. Fortunately, my mother loved to play piano and while she was quite talented and could accompany me all the way through my studies, she loved folk songs, musical show tunes, and movie tunes, so her "background" music made an unconscious contribution to my musical background. I wish I could thank her.
I am quite pleased to read of your efforts to push us beyond our comfort level, beyond classical violin studies, and to bring the violin and uniquely American music traditions to a wider audience and acceptance.
Keep up the good work!
Very interesting stuff-- printing out now for further perusal.
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