- "Other" Music:Race, Music, and Assimilation in U.S. History
A question plagued the first director of the music division of the Library of Congress, Oscar G. T. Sonneck: What does the nation sound like? Indeed, at the dawn of the twentieth century many composers and conservative intellectuals fretted that American compositions amounted to feeble imitations of European masters. Convinced that a composer's "innate Americanism" atrophied under European influence––"German music made in Germany by Americans," he called it––Sonneck hoped that a comprehensive music archive at the Library of Congress would free U.S. composers from the necessity of consulting European conservatories.1 The growth of a distinctly national compositional style, he believed, could take root only in U.S. soil.
Inspired by Antonin Dvo˘rák's incorporation of Negro spirituals and Native American influences into his 1893 "New World" symphony, a cadre of nationalist composers sought distinction from their European counterparts by appropriating snatches of African American and Native American musical traditions. Given Oscar Sonneck's position on "Americanism," it is perhaps surprising that he disparaged this trend, calling it an "injection of folk-song virus" into U.S. compositions.2 While conceding that folk music might mitigate [End Page 191] a loss of national identity, Sonneck argued that it was a poor substitute for a composer's creative genius and inborn Americanness. Moreover, he felt that the appropriation of folk music threatened the cultural and racial purity of the nation. Listening to America, Sonneck heard a fictional, racially homogenous nation––a United States where African Americans were second-class citizens, Native Americans unassimilable exotics, and Mexican Americans and Asian Americans perpetually alien. The only "real and pure" American folk songs were those that the "white elements of the American people brought with them to these shores."3 At best, the use of folk idioms from nonwhite traditions could serve as a source of inspiration or give the listener "the impression of something exotic." At worst, assimilating "exotic" music presented the "danger of an unnecessary musical miscegenation."4
Born in America to German immigrants, reared largely outside the United States in his parents' homeland, and writing in 1916 amid the anti-German sentiment of the First World War, Sonneck silenced his ethnic difference and transnational identity with musical chauvinism. Promoting a mode of listening that excluded the music of racial and ethnic "others" positioned him more fully within the boundaries of American cultural citizenship and enhanced his own claims to Americanness. And just as he concealed his own transnational past through nationalist discourse, Sonneck used the phrase "musical miscegenation" to fix and stabilize the hybridity that is always present in music, recasting cultural mixture in racial terms.
The three books under review critically engage the racial and nationalist discourse surrounding music that Sonneck participated in a century ago. In doing so, they expand the breadth of a scholarly movement within American studies, led by authors such as Ronald Radano, Guthrie P. Ramsey, and Josh Kun, that analyzes music within the critical contexts of racial formation and the nation. As Radano has argued, the ways we discuss music have a tangible influence on the social and political world, because debates about music often act as social discourse. The reviewed works reveal that attempts to Americanize "exotic" music by silencing racial difference had parallels in projects to assimilate Native Americans and Mexican Americans into a culturally homogenous United States. Simultaneously, these works also illustrate how music facilitates the creation of American identities that recognize and celebrate difference, offering alternate visions for what it means to be (and sound) American. Finally, a close analysis of...