The Music of America

By Scruton, Roger | The American Spectator, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

The Music of America


Scruton, Roger, The American Spectator


Ask the world-there's nothing like it.

A CENTURY AGO COMPOSERS AND MUSICOLOGISTS Set out to collect and preserve the folk music of Europe. Janácek wrote down the songs and dances of Moravia and found in them inspiration for his own brand of speech-melody; Cecil Sharp collected in pubs and fairs the tunes that were to generate the modal harmonies and plangent melodies of the Vaughan Williams symphonies, while beneath the fake dance rhythms and creamy chords of "salon gypsy" music, Kodaly and Bartók discerned polytonal and polyrhythmic structures that miraculously coincided with their own stylistic innovations. All over Europe the music of the people was being discovered by serious composers and used to give a kind of democratic endorsement to their modernist experiments. Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Canteloube, Albeniz, Respighi-composers from every European countryjoined in the rush. It was as though the past of European music was being discovered precisely in order to break with it. For no sooner was our folk music captured on the page, dusted off, and universally admired for its melodic invention than it died. Those performers heard by Janacek, Sharp, and Bartók were already old, and no young person could be prevailed upon to sing with them.

The explanation is simple: Europe had been conquered by America. The musical idiom that had poked its head through a window in Dvorak's New World Symphony had now stormed through the door. Not jazz only, but the entire tradition, from the Negro spiritual, via the blues and the minstrel shows, to the Music Hall and beyond. Europeans had begun to be captivated by that "Great American Songbook" which has recently been so expertly assembled by Terry Teachout in his poignant articles in Commentary. There has never been anything in the world like this-a tradition of song which is open at every point to outside influence, which absorbs every competing idiom into itself so that it is in effect without competition, a great "yeah-saying" to the modern world and everything in it, which is also a day-to-day reminder of the human heart.

It is through music that America has had the farthest-reaching influence on other cultures; it is through music that the country came to self-knowledge and it is still part of the American character to fill every silence with a song. Scholars like Gunther Schuller have devoted many volumes to the mystery of jazz-how this unprecedented idiom emerged from African drum music, from the fusion of the pentatonic and diatonic scales, and from the four-square harmonies of the Baptist hymnal. But the synthesis didn't stop with jazz. One after another the rival musics of the world were absorbed: the Shaker hymns and AfroAmerican field hollers, the marching bands of Central Europe, the fiddles and spoons of the Celtic dances, the Spanish guitar, and the Anglican organ. The classical orchestra too was conscripted, diverted by Hollywood into the great river of popular sentiment and half-aware kitsch. Korngold brought the harmonies of Richard Strauss and the colors of Mailler; Gershwin added Stravinsky while Thelonius Monk and Art Tatum provided touches of Debussy and Ravel.

The influence went rapidly in the opposite direction as well. The Central European cates where Janacek and Bartok had collected folk songs were soon filled with the sound of jazz, and when the voice of the people is heard in the music of Martinu it is not in the style of a Moravian folk song, but in the idiom of New Orleans. The new music of America was democratic and global, able to defeat any rival simply by its refusal to believe in rivalry, happily appropriating every sound that could be reissued as a song. From Ives, through Gershwin and Copland to Bernstein, American music has shown how to mix the idiom of popular music with the large-scale structures of the concert hall.

The great days of American popular music may now be past: rock and roll changed the blues from a lyrical confession to a Dionysian display, and the long-term effects are now being felt, not only in America, but all across the world.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Music of America
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.