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The Great American Symphony

Music, the Depression, and War

Nicholas Tawa

Publication Year: 2009

The years of the Great Depression, World War II, and their aftermath brought a sea change in American music. This period of economic, social, and political adversity can truly be considered a musical golden age. In the realm of classical music, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Howard Hanson, Virgil Thompson, and Leonard Bernstein -- among others -- produced symphonic works of great power and lasting beauty during these troubled years. It was during this critical decade and a half that contemporary writers on American culture began to speculate about "the Great American Symphony" and looked to these composers for music that would embody the spirit of the nation.

In this volume, Nicholas Tawa concludes that they succeeded, at the very least, in producing music that belongs in the cultural memory of every American. Tawa introduces the symphonists and their major works from the romanticism of Barber and the "all-American" Roy Harris through the theatrics of Bernstein and Marc Blitzstein to the broad-shouldered appeal of Thompson and Copland. Tawa's musical descriptions are vivid and personal, and invite music lovers and trained musicians alike to turn again to the marvelous and lasting music of this time.

Published by: Indiana University Press

TItle Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-xi

This study discusses works that I have lived with and enjoyed for years. It is meant to establish the importance of the American symphonists active in the years extending from the mid-thirties to the end of the forties. It holds that they have contributed some of the most vital artistic works of the twentieth century to the world’s culture. Indeed, several respected...

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pp. 1-30

The decade and a half starting around 1935 holds major significance in America’s cultural history. Most composers, artists, and intellectuals would agree with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. when he writes, “The Great Depression and the Second World War showed the desperate necessity of national cohesion within the framework of shared national...

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pp. 31-82

The year 1935 found the United States in the midst of social and economic crisis. The nation was threatening to come apart. Swift action was needed. Newly elected president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his federal administration immediately launched a wholesale attack on the country’s problems, seeing them as involving not just jobs but also lifestyles. He...

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pp. 83-146

It is important to keep in mind a few details of the war years, since they formed a background of critical importance to the creative activities of American composers, regardless of whether the composers acknowledged their influence. The United States plunged into war when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. In early 1942, Japanese...

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pp. 147-199

The twentieth century furthered a global insanity that manifested itself especially in two world wars. At last, the Second World War was over. After living through the mayhem that had gone on for several years, the world was relieved by the end of hostilities. The euphoria over World War II’s conclusion strongly affected the United States in...

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pp. 200-213

Most composers of the thirties and forties had incorporated generally enjoyable, communicative, and intelligible combinations of melody, harmony, and rhythm into their symphonies. They had given a clear overall organization to each movement. Within each movement, the relationship between beginning, middle, and end was meant to be unambiguous. The ...


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pp. 215-225

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 227-231


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pp. 233-237

E-ISBN-13: 9780253002877
E-ISBN-10: 0253002877
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253353054

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2009