The first great American symphony?
If there's one date that divides the history of the American symphony into "before" and "after," it would be the 16th of December (Beethoven's birthday!), 1893. That's when conductor Anton Seidl and the New York Philharmonic introduced, to an ecstatic audience at Carnegie Hall, a work that cast a shadow over a generation of American composers, and long served as a model for how to make classical music sound American. What native genius created such a sensation? Actually, not a native at all, but a 52-year old Bohemian (as in from Bohemia, not as in beret and dark glasses) brought to America to, in his words, "show them the way into the Promised Land, the realm of a new, independent art, in short a national style of music!" This was of course Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), and the work his "New World" Symphony. How exactly did Dvořák make a symphony sound American? Not by quoting actually tunes, but by simulating the melodies he heard around him, especially the Native American and African American melodies he came to regard as the true American folk music.
The ethnic origins of the Dvořák "American" style were not lost on its original audiences, especially the New England composers who encountered the "New World" shortly thereafter upon its Boston premiere. Here's the elder statesman of the "Boston School" of the day, composer John Knowles Paine (1839-1906):
The time is past when composers are to be classed according to geographical limits. It is not a question of nationality, but individuality, and individuality of style is not the result of imitation – whether of folk songs, negro melodies, the tunes of the heathen Chinese or Digger indians, but of personal character and inborn originality. . . . It is incomprehensible to me how any thoroughly cultivated musician or musical critic can have such limited and erroneous views of the true functions of American composers.
Heard any of Paine's symphonies lately? Actually, we play them occasionally on WFCR; they're not at all bad in their utterly European way. But you get the point.
Slightly gentler in its dismissiveness was the reaction to the "New World" of another important New England composer, Amy Beach (1867-1944):
Without the slightest desire to question the beauty of the negro melodies of which [Dvořák] speaks so highly, or to disparage them on account of their source, I cannot help feeling justified in the belief that they are not fully typical of our country. The African population of the United States is far too small for its songs to be considered "American."
On the other hand, Beach, whose own subsequent "Gaelic" Symphony (which we happily spin once in a while) is based on Irish folk tunes, quoted or at least evoked Native American melodies and themes in several of her later works.
Then, there's the reaction of the composer now regarded as the best of the Boston School, Lowell, Mass. native George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931):
I am not sufficiently familiar with the real negro melodies to be able to offer any opinion of the subject. Such negro melodies as I have heard, however, I should be sorry to see become the basis of an American school of musical composition.
Defensiveness? Resentment? Racism? Whatever the basis for Chadwick's response, at least he had a track record to back it up. For nine years before the "New World," Chadwick hit his own symphonic stride with a brilliant work whose American-ness, while not explicit, is also not deniable. Tune in to WFCR Tuesday afternoon at 1:00 for Chadwick's Symphony No. 2, and tell me you don't hear foreshadowings of the "New World," as well as a unique and compelling musical voice, from first note to last. If any work might fairly be regarded as the First Great American Symphony, Chadwick's Second is it.