Musical Nationalism: American Composers' Search for Identity

By Alan Howard Levy | Go to book overview

They resisted not at all Stein's obscure language, adopted it for theirs, conversed in quotations from it. They . . . took on roles without self-consciousness, as if they were the saints they said they were. I often marveled at the miracle whereby slavery (and some cross-breeding) had turned them into Christians of an earlier stamp than ours, not analytical or self-pitying or romantic in the nineteenth-century sense, but robust, outgoing, and even in disaster sustained by inner joy. 59

Today Four Saints is seen as serious opera, though by no means traditional. Stein was interested in creating a landscape in which, as in any landscape, all is stationary. In the opera there is physical, and musical, movement, but not to anywhere or for any purpose that can be analytically ascertained. To enhance this stark contrast between Four Saints and traditional opera, Thomson created a startlingly original stage presentation, using props and costumes of cellophane with very little color, mainly black, white, and gray. It was this desire to contrast the abstract Four Saints with the color and pageantry of traditional opera, and not silliness, which made sensible an all-black cast.

The casting marked another attempt by Thomson to merge Kansas City with avant-garde Paris. John Cage called the opera a joining of "the matter-of-fact and the irrational." Indeed, Thomson saw the vitality these two worlds gave one another. He saw it in himself. Just as Charles Ives felt Debussy needed to plant some corn, Thomson felt that Paris intellectuals needed a little taste of Kansas City, perhaps to protect them from falling for an Antheil. Meanwhile, he and his fellow American musicians and expatriates needed Paris; here they could pursue art for art's sake, and here they could grow.


NOTES
1.
Thomson, Virgil Thomson, p. 82; and Copland, Copland on Music, p. 157.
2.
George Antheil, Bad Boy of Music ( Garden City: Doubleday, Doran, and Co., 1945), pp. 9-10.

-82-

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Musical Nationalism: American Composers' Search for Identity
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • 1 - The German Orthodoxy 3
  • Notes 12
  • 2 - Americanism and French Impressionism 14
  • Notes 28
  • 3 - Paris and Neoclassicism 30
  • Notes 60
  • 4 - Expatriates, Frivolous and Serious: George Antheil and Virgil Thomson 62
  • Notes 82
  • 5 - Roy Harris and Strident Americanism 86
  • Notes 103
  • 6 - A Nice Jewish Boy from Brooklyn 105
  • Notes 125
  • CODA 128
  • Notes 137
  • ESSAY ON SOURCES 139
  • Index 161
  • About the Author 169
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