Saturday, October 14, 2017

"What Makes It Great?"

I get pretty exasperated at a lot of what passes for music appreciation talks, but one that impressed me was given at Stanford ten years ago by a traveling lecturer named Rob Kapilow, who gives his talks under the rubric "What Makes It Great?" His topic then was Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which you'd think would be too simple to need analysis, but Kapilow's subject was the tiny, small-scale tricks of composition that make this music as enjoyable as it is, about which he was both learned and lucid.

So he came back to Stanford last week with a program on Dvořák's "American" Quartet, another work that might seem too simple to need discussion. It's not, being built very craftily by an experienced master, as we learned at the talk. I took the opportunity to sign up to review it, and I'm fairly pleased with capturing the themes and principles, not just some fragmentary specifics, of Kapilow's presentation.

My one regret, which I had to leave half-implied because of my own space limitations, is that one tightly-packed hour of technical lessons, which was long enough, left Kapilow no time to discuss what was American about the "American" Quartet. In the first program of a series on American music, it was a frustrating omission.

But it would, as I said, have taken another hour. I'd like to try to make two points here. First, the educational context. Dvořák was so deeply imbued with his own Czech folk culture, employing the rhythms and style of Czech music and even speech as inspiration, not as quoted source material, that he thought American composers should do the same with what he thought were the most distinctive features of its culture, namely ones from Black and American Indian subcultures.

And the composers who came along in his wake tried. But the problem was, Dvořák was Czech; this was natural to him. Most of these American composers were WASPs from Boston and New York; Black spirituals and tribal rituals were no more native to them than they were to Dvořák, and they didn't have his synthesizing genius as an outside observer. As a result, they came up with passingly pleasant but weak-tea pieces like (and this is the best of them) Edward MacDowell's "Indian" Suite. (Dvořák did have one major Black pupil, Harry Burleigh, but he did not write much concert music.)

It wasn't until some 25 years later that American composers hit on different and more effective ways to sound American. New York Jews like Gershwin and Copland wrote jazz-inflected music. Jazz had been invented by Blacks in New Orleans, but it came to New York and became part of the entire urban culture there. And several composers, of whom Copland was just one, figured out a way to convey the open prairie in music, and not just by quoting cowboy songs, but its spirit in their harmonies and phrasing. Some (e.g. Roy Harris) had been raised out in the open countryside; Copland had not, but again, cowboy tales in Wild West shows, dime novels, and, later, movies had seeped into the hindbrains of Americans who'd never been there. But by this time Dvořák was dead, and didn't see how he'd both gotten the point and missed it.

Closer to Dvořák's point would have been the equally later music of composers who were themselves Black, like William Grant Still and Florence Price, both of whom I want to write about later. (Concert composers of Native American Indian ancestry only seem to have come along more recently.)

The other point concerns the Americanness of Dvořák's "American" music. As Kapilow pointed out, Dvořák himself was convinced he was writing music in a different way here than he would at home. But was he, and if so how? This has actually been a matter of contention. Leonard Bernstein, who was the father of the sort of enthused, intelligent music appreciation we had here, once gave a talk on nationalism in music claiming that Dvořák's American music was no less Czech than anything else he wrote, and attempted to prove it by inventing Czech patriotic lyrics (in English) which he sang to the Largo of the Symphony from the New World, a melody so like a Black spiritual that it's since been turned into a Black spiritual.

But Bernstein was being disingenuous, because most Americans wouldn't know what a Czech patriotic song (in English) would sound like. To my ears, there really is a difference in style, and I can easily point it out. Listen to the opening theme of the "American" Quartet (the first 45 seconds will do). Hear the clear-cut two- and four-bar phrases, the repeating motives, the strong and regular rhythms? That's the American aspect, whether it fits with what Bernstein says is American or not. Compare it with a piece of Dvořák's Czech music, the opening theme of his Eighth Symphony (again about 40 seconds). It's freer, rhapsodic, less "regular" in every respect. Not all his Czech music is so unlike the American, but nothing he wrote here sounds like this.

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