Dvorák to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America's Music and Its African American Roots

By Key, Susan | Notes, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Dvorák to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America's Music and Its African American Roots


Key, Susan, Notes


Dvorák to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America's Music and Its African American Roots. By Maurice Peress. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. [viii, 254 p. ISBN 0-19-509822-6. $30.] Music examples, illustrations, index, bibliography, discography.

In the afterword to Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America's Music and Its African American Roots, Maurice Peress sums up his point of view: "All the stories in my book are about the transfer of the center of creative power from Europe to America, Dvorak being the prophet and Ellington its fulfillment" (p. 191). This formulation may strike some readers as both overreaching and, in its focus on the importance of African American music, obvious: it is surely no great insight that American music owes much to African and African American sources. Nor that American music has been shaped by crossover styles that have sometimes infuriated the American musical establishment. Nor that Antonin Dvorak inspired a significant cultural dialogue. Yet Peress's book makes a fair claim to originality in the way it exposes the number and strength of the connections between the Bohemian symphonist and the American jazz icon, along the way filling in a number of blanks in both musical and cultural history.

Peress is well situated to write such an account; he is both a conductor and a researcher whose credits include working with Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein as well as reconstructing historical concerts from the early twentieth century. The importance of this role is highlighted in the book's subtitle: "a conductor explores." All the major figures he discusses-Antonin Dvorak, James Reese Europe, George Gershwin, Will Marion Cook, George Antheil, Leonard Bernstein, and Duke Ellington-are ones whose music he worked on, and whose debts to African American musical roots shaped his perspective. His conducting also informs his specific approach: "I was often struck by the conscious search for, and development of, an African American instrumental voice" (p. 199). The process by which African American style was translated into western instrumental ensembles beyond the European symphony orchestra is one that Peress clearly understands from direct experience.

Peress's involvement with the music he discusses yields a book very different from most musicological works, as he also turns to fellow performers-conductors, orchestrators, band members, etc., to enhance his analysis. A particularly effective example is Peress's analysis of a recording of George Gershwin conducting a tryout session of orchestrations for Porgy and Bess (p. 75). Or his insights into Rhapsody in Blue gleaned from reconstructing the original performance (pp. 94-96)-including instrumental timbres and the effect of contemporary sound systems on style. Perhaps his experiences in the musical world are also responsible for Peress's sensitivity to the connections among people-students, copyists, orchestrators, etc., and the sometimes-unintended effects these relationships have for larger trends in music. His work on Dvorak's African American students is intriguing, as is the way he links nineteenthcentury African American minstrel James Bland directly to David Mannes, founder of the Mannes School of Music. There are many more: the plethora of connections Will Marion Cook had in both classical and popular worlds. Or the "nuts and bolts" details of putting together Bernstein's Mass.

Dvorák to Duke Ellington is organized in two parts, both roughly chronological.

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