WFMT’s American Salute Seeks Out Neglected Masters

By Wynne Delacoma

There’s something faintly shameful about it. Most of us classical music lovers like to think we know our stuff. We can whistle the melody of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. We probably know that Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, Brahms wrote four, and Shostakovich had serious run-ins with Stalin. But give us a week of virtually non-stop music by American composers and we may feel like we’ve entered an unknown universe.

Leonard Slatkin is a steadfast promoter of mid-20th century American masterworks. (Niko Rodamel)
Leonard Slatkin is loyal to mid-20th-century American masters.
(Niko Rodamel)

For a week culminating on July 4, Chicago’s widely syndicated classical and fine arts station, WFMT-FM, has been playing virtually nothing but American music from early morning through late evening. With an umbrella title of American Music Week, the station’s programming has stretched from familiar favorites by Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Charles Ives, and George Gershwin to works that conductor Leonard Slatkin calls “some of the most neglected American masterpieces.” Slatkin helped WFMT design American Music Week, and his 10-item list includes symphonies by Roger Sessions, William Schuman, and Walter Piston, as well as Jacob Druckman’s Lamia for soprano and orchestra and George Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3.

[Editor’s note: The program can be accessed live online and features a Fourth of July re-broadcast of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, starring Eric Owens as Porgy, Adina Aaron as Bess, Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as Clara and Jermaine Smith as Sportin’ Life. Other holiday highlights include a program of American songs and arias featuring André Previn’s “I Want Magic!” from A Streetcar Named Desire and a rarely heard song from WWII, “Say a Prayer for the Boys Over There” by Jimmy McHugh and Herb Magidson, sung by Deanna Durbin. A live broadcast from the city’s Grant Park Music Festival, beginning at 7:30 p.m. CDT, features pianist Terrence Wilson in Gershwin’s Concerto in F, along with Copland’s Appalachian Spring and other holiday favorites. Throughout the project, listeners have been encouraged to send in their own lists of neglected favorites, and many responded with suggestions you can find here. Submissions are still welcome.]

Ruth Crawford Seeger
Ruth Crawford Seeger

WFMT’s American Music Week raises some thought-provoking issues. On one hand, times are relatively good for American composers. Gifted, young contemporary ensembles are hungry for the music of gifted, young—and not so young—American composers, and they’re playing it in concert halls, churches, and cafés all over the world.  Few self-respecting orchestras can do without a composer-in-residence, and many orchestras make a point of programming works by American composers along with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Shaking off the strictures of European-born, 12-tone dogma in the 1960s, contemporary American composers have found their own, disparate voices, and more adventuresome audiences are willing to listen.

Carl Ruggles
Carl Ruggles

But there’s a lost generation or two or three at the heart of 20th-century American classical music, and that loss feels particularly grievous as July 4, 2015, rolls around. This year we’re a country grappling with profoundly existential issues. A century and a half after the end of the Civil War, we are still dealing with a kind of racism that seems to have seeped into our DNA. At the same time, we have evolved into a nation that generally approves of gay marriage, which became the law of the land last month. A few decades ago, gay people faced police nightsticks and jail time if found in the wrong bar at the wrong time. Who are we as Americans? How did we get here? Where are we going?

Alan Hovhaness
Alan Hovhaness

A century or two of American-produced art – whether highbrow, lowbrow, or somewhere in between – is readily available to help us answer these profoundly important questions.  Screwball comedies from the 1930s, film noir in the 1940s,  and Adam Sandler’s latest sophomoric raunchfest tell us much about the American psyche.  We catch a glimpse of ourselves in Sinclair Lewis’ The Jungle and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Jackson Pollock’s seemingly chaotic canvases and Jeff Koons’ inflatable sculptures offer some clues. So do Arthur Miller’s kitchen-sink dramas and the current Broadway darling, the hip-hop musical Hamilton. Not to mention Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Van Cliburn, the Beach Boys, Lady Gaga, and Tony Bennett.  Or Martha Graham, Laurie Anderson, and Frank Lloyd Wright. If we want to explore our national psyche, we can consult a wide array of relatively familiar names in just about all the arts.  We can look at their lives and their work, get a sense of how they saw the world and what kind of world produced them.  

William Grant Still
William Grant Still

But American classical composers like Carl Ruggles, Ruth Crawford Seeger , Alan Hovhaness,  or William Grant Still? Devoted music lovers may know their names, but do we really know much about the social or musical forces that shaped them? Do we understand their music? Do we have any idea what they and dozens of their counterparts can tell us about what it was like to be an American in the years between 1900 and 1960? With a classical music scene dominated for decades by European masterworks of the past, the voices of several generations of American composers are virtually missing in the national cultural conversation that helps us define who we are as Americans.

Yes, we have Gershwin and Barber, Copland and Ives. But especially if we love a particular art form, we need to hear dozens and dozens of voices, not just a familiar few. Beethoven and Brahms, Mahler and Mozart tell us much about what it means to be human; their music ranks among humanity’s greatest achievements. But at this especially introspective moment for Americans, it’s distressing that the voices of so many American composers well worth hearing are barely audible.

Author James Agee and Barber had it right in Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Barber’s setting of a passage from Agee’s A Death in the Family. Put to bed after a peaceful night on a quilt in the backyard with his family, a small child recalls their beloved, familiar voices. Yet in the final moments, soaring with Barber’s rueful, ecstatic music, he realizes that even those kind voices “will not, not now, nor ever…tell me who I am.”

No one person can tell us who we are as Americans.  So bravo to WFMT, which includes music by composers like these year round, and to the musicians and presenters throughout the country who are working hard to expand the range of American voices we encounter in our daily listening. Like every person on the face of the planet, we need to know our family history. Not because our family is especially important. Not because its achievements deserve a place in the pantheon of the greats. But because it’s ours, because its twists and turns hugely influence who we are.  They help us understand what we value, or deplore, about being American. Now, more than ever, we need a multitude of voices to help us discover who we are as a nation. Let more classical composers be among them.

Wynne Delacoma is a free lance arts writer and lecturer and former classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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