Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s

Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s

Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s

Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s


New York City witnessed a dazzling burst of creativity in the 1920s. In this pathbreaking study, Carol J. Oja explores this artistic renaissance from the perspective of composers of classical and modern music, who along with writers, painters, and jazz musicians, were at the heart of early modernism in America. She also illustrates how the aesthetic attitudes and institutional structures from the 1920s left a deep imprint on the arts over the 20th century. Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Virgil Thomson, William Grant Still, Edgar Var¿se, Henry Cowell, Leo Ornstein, Marion Bauer, George Antheil-these were the leaders of a talented new generation of American composers whose efforts made New York City the center of new music in the country. They founded composer societies--such as the International Composers' Guild, the League of Composers, the Pan American Association, and the Copland-Sessions Concerts--to promote the performance of their music, and they nimbly negotiated cultural boundaries, aiming for recognition in Western Europe as much as at home. They showed exceptional skill at marketing their work. Drawing on extensive archival material--including interviews, correspondence, popular periodicals, and little-known music manuscripts--Oja provides a new perspective on the period and a compelling collective portrait of the figures, puncturing many longstanding myths. American composers active in New York during the 1920s are explored in relation to the "Machine Age" and American Dada; the impact of spirituality on American dissonance; the crucial, behind-the-scenes role of women as patrons and promoters of modernist music; cross-currents between jazz and concert music; the critical reception of modernist music (especially in the writings of Carl Van Vechten and Paul Rosenfeld); and the international impulse behind neoclassicism. The book also examines the persistent biases of the time, particularly anti-Semitisim, gender stereotyping, and longstanding racial attitudes.


Perhaps the stronger the hold of the past the more violent the need for freedom from it.

—Leo Ornstein

The decade between 1910 and 1920 was the mysterious Paleolithic period of American modernist music. Occasional glints of activity were overshadowed by a near single-minded focus on historic European repertories. Concert-goers were far more likely to hear Schubert than Stravinsky, and they had little chance of encountering music by a forward-looking composer born in America.

In the middle of this hazy, emergent scene, a charismatic keyboard virtuoso and composer named Leo Ornstein dazzled New York with a series of four recitals at the Bandbox Theatre in January and February 1915. This same theater served as home to the Washington Square Players, a group also founded in 1915 to produce modernist drama. Ornstein's concerts “really startled musical New York and even aroused orchestral conductors, in some measure, out of their lethargic method of programme-making,” recalled the critic Carl Van Vechten. They brought New York “a breath of the intentions of modern thought as applied to music,” declared Alfred Stieglitz's daringly avant-garde art magazine, 291. At them, Ornstein performed not only recent music by European composers, such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Scriabin, Maurice Ravel, Isaac Albeniz, Erich Korngold, and Cyril Scott, but also adventurous new works of his own. Until the end of the 1910s, Ornstein remained the touchstone of modernist musical expression in the city—“the high apostle of the new art in America,” as Van Vechten proclaimed. With a flair for flamboyance and self-promotion, Ornstein provided an early model of how a modernist composer might make a career in the United States. He also embodied a classic . . .

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