The Records of the New York Composers' Forum: The Documentary Motive and Music in the 1930s

By De Graaf, Melissa J. | Notes, June 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Records of the New York Composers' Forum: The Documentary Motive and Music in the 1930s

De Graaf, Melissa J., Notes

The New York City Composers' Forum-Laboratory was created in 1935 as part of the Music Education Division of the Federal Music Project (FMP), under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), funded by Roosevelt's Depression-era New Deal. The Forum was a unique phenomenon in the history of American music. For the first time in American history, the federal government played an active and enthusiastic role in sponsoring and funding the arts. The federally funded Music Project--along with the Federal Writers Project, Federal Theater Project, and Federal Arts Project--was initiated as part of the larger Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Works Projects Administration) in order to get artists and musicians off the streets, out of the breadlines, and into jobs. Yet many people in the musical commu-nitv fervently hoped and believed that it would develop into a permanently funded arts program.

A popular venue for the performances of new music, the Composers' Forum thrived from 1935 to 1940. Weekly--and later, biweekly--concerts introduced an exceptional variety of composers to a newly developing audience. Each Forum featured one or two composers, among them Amy Marcy Beach, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford, Roger Sessions, and Elie Siegmeister. Admission was free. Question-and-answer sessions between composers and audience followed the conceits, prompting discussions on a range of topics: modernism, politics, gender, representations of race, Jewish music, American identity, jazz, and other art forms. A stenographer took careful and thorough transcripts of the discussions, and these survive in the National Archives II, in College Park. Maryland.

The success of the New York City Composers' Forum prompted cities across the country to institute similar programs. Boston and Philadelphia established flourishing forums that met weekly. Forums in Los Angeles and Chicago were only slightly less active, while cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and San Francisco held forums from time to time. Other activities by the New York branch included a collaboration with Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Caravan to present an evening of "All-American" ballets--Virgil Thomson's Filling Station, Robert McBride's Showpiece, and Paul Bowles's Yankee Clipper. A special summer season of concerts, produced in conjunction with the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, was broadcast over WNYC, and a series of the regular concerts was broadcast over WQXR. Under the auspices of the Forum, Roy Harris presented a lecture series entitled Let's Make Music over WNYC, which attracted thousands of active listeners. After 1939, federal support for the Forums ceased and various organizations assumed responsibility for maintaining the Forum, which exists to this day (1)


The careful documenting of Composers' Forum post-concert discussions makes this series particularly valuable for musicological research today. At no other time in American musical history were the reactions and thoughts of the audience documented so extensively and systematically. This emphasis on documentation reflected a wider American phenomenon of the thirties. As William Stott observes,

a documentary motive was at work throughout the culture of the time: in the rhetoric of the New Deal and the WPA arts projects; in painting, dance, fiction, and theater; in the new media of radio and picture magazines; in popular thought, education, and advertising. (2)

The goal of this documentary work was to record the American experience. The America of the 1930s was engaged in a cultural revolution. Not only did America own a cultural identity, it was a culture that needed to be shared with a broad new public. The documentary motive broughtcomposers and listeners face-to-face for the first time, and recorded the result. Audience reactions, thoughts, and attitudes, usually so elusive, are represented in the Forum documents in abundance, providing a compelling testament to the power of reception and to the dynamic relationship between composer and listener.

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