5. AMERICAN SYMPHONIES AFTER 1950
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200 5 AMERICAN SYMPHONIES AFTER 1950 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 writing was usually idiomatic to each instrument and exploited its most telling musical range. Along with facilitating understanding, they had wanted their symphonies to present sounds that conveyed the hope that humankind could curb its baser urges and produce a more civilized society . The end result was music that, they anticipated, would bond them to performers and audiences. For a while these symphonies pushed American music into the limelight, winning it worldwide artistic respect and importance. Regrettable to say, a cultural movement leads often to its own downfall , not only because the initial inclinations, however noble, are soon American Symphonies after 1950 · 201 marred by compromise, cliché, and decreased energy, but because of the unforeseen—and in the fifties, the unforeseen was the evolving contention between nations, ethnic groups, and ideologies. Self-centered people grew even more self-centered. To employ reason and remain open to new ideas came under public suspicion. Conformity and superficial ways of life dominated the American scene. A majestic design like Hanson’s or Copland’s Third Symphony would now be seen as an anomaly. Thus, the united world to which the composers of the Roosevelt years had looked forward never materialized after World War II. Instead, nations , societies, and ethnic groups worked to destroy whatever unity there was between and within them, politically, socially, and culturally. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union brought on a division that provoked conflict. The Berlin blockade began. The atomic bomb, and then the hydrogen bomb, possessed by the United States and the Soviet Union, threatened vast populations with annihilation. The Korean War (1950–53) was America’s first bid to stop the spread of communism. (The Vietnam War, coming a decade later, would be the second.) McCarthyism pressed forward the practice of accusing liberalthinking Americans of disloyal, pro-Communist activity based on doubtful or no evidence. Racial conflict, grating youthful lifestyles, and other social disturbances tore the United States apart. To write music extolling the universal human spirit started to seem incongruous. Young artists , though not all, began to close the window on the disturbing outside world and directed their gaze inward at their own private world for inspiration . Trying to reach the general public appeared of no consequence. Most of Europe’s leading composers had come to the United States during the thirties and forties owing to European fascism and World War II. A few of them became permanent residents. They turned into sought-after teachers of the next generation of American composers. Some of them, along with other important European musicians who visited America after the war, cast suspicion on American society, culture , and musical creations. Most of them were indifferent to lending a hand in developing the emerging American symphonism. Unfortunately, America’s adamantly Europhilic cultural leaders dominated symphony boards of trustees. They aided in downplaying the importance of things American in classical music. 202 · The Great American Symphony One or two Americans became quite irritated, as did Paul Turok, at the visiting Luciano Berio, in 1972. Turok writes that when Berio arrived in America from Italy, he received a great deal of admiration and promotion in the media. He profited more from his music during his brief stay in the United States than did most American composers during their entire professional lives. Nevertheless, Berio persisted in denouncing America’s free-enterprise system and calling attention to its poisonous effect on American music. “In a not-very-subtle way,” Turok writes, “this is saying, it is safe to ignore American music, because the system . . . etc. In fact, the aggressive behavior Berio attributes to American composers best fits that of Boulez, also no friend of American music. European artists are for internationalism , so long as they come out on top.”1 An extremely influential German philosopher and musicologist, Theodor Adorno, busied himself denouncing the laziness of American audiences and the composers who pandered to these audiences.2 Younger American composers took note of his advocacy of serialism and his declarations that audiences were to be challenged, not pacified. In part to remain de rigueur, some deliberately wrote obscurantic compositions that they knew would utterly confuse or...