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.

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