Frontier Figures: American Music and the Mythology of the American West by Beth E. Levy (review)
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Frontier Figures: American Music and the Mythology of the American West. By Beth E. Levy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. Pp. xv + 449, notes, 9 black-and-white photographs, music, selected bibliography, index.)

When folklorists use the term “American music,” it means the wide range of traditional music found in America: folk, ethnic, Native American, and African American. But when the term “American music” is used by music scholars, it typically means art music written by American composers, which is the way Beth Levy uses the term in her book Frontier Figures. Levy’s book is about the influence of the American West on the creation of American art music. Although it’s not a study of music typically studied by folklorists, her elucidation of important themes in this area will be relevant to various studies of traditional music.

Levy considers composers from the late nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth century. In 1893, the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, while living in the United States, said that American composers should find a “national identity” based on the indigenous music of the country. Dvorak’s ideas were controversial. While American composers were interested in creating a national music, perhaps by injecting indigenous elements into conventional art music forms, this would be very difficult in the multi-ethnic United States (p. 5). Around the same time, historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis that American history, culture, and identity were formed by expansion into the western frontier had a profound effect on a generation of historians. Also, the myth of the “Wild West” was being created by such popular institutions as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Levy says: “This book . . . lies at the intersection of three frontiers: the musical frontier opened by American composers’ search for a national identity, the historical frontier pioneered by those seeking the roots of the American character in the American West, and the cultural frontier enacted by those who celebrated the West’s potential for colorful and commercial exchange” (pp. 13–4).

The first part of the book is on Arthur Farwell, who was one of several “Indianist” composers using Native American music for composing art music. Farwell is best known for establishing the Wa-Wan Press (1901–1911), named after an Omaha ceremony, as a vehicle for publishing his own compositions as well of those of like-minded composers. Levy paints a vivid picture of Farwell’s worldview, using many direct quotations of Farwell’s own words and references to pieces published by the Wa-Wan Press. Coming in contact with Charles Lummis, Farwell was introduced to the multi-ethnic West. In addition to Native American-based music, the Wa-Wan Press began to publish music based on the folk songs of cowboys, African Americans, and Spanish Americans. Farwell actually spent part of the summer of 1904 making transcriptions for Lummis, mostly from cylinder recordings at Lummis’s home, El Alisal, in Los Angeles (pp. 58–9). Farwell became acquainted with the ethnographic music of the West and used it as the inspiration for American music, even later in life when he no longer quoted actual folk music in his compositions. [End Page 106]

The second part of the book deals with Charles Wakefield Cadman, perhaps the most popular Indianist composer, as well as his contemporaries. Like Farwell, Cadman used previously collected and transcribed American Indian music as the starting point for a number of his works, some of which were commercially successful. Levy says: “If Farwell offered up the visionary West—philosophical and introverted to the point of idiosyncrasy—Cadman represents an extroverted West, pragmatic in its aims and material in its rewards” (p. 89). His Four Indian Songs, op. 45 (1909) included “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters,” one of the most popular songs of the day. Based on an Omaha melody transcribed by Alice Cunningham Fletcher, Cadman’s song is a product of intuition and imagination (p. 92). Levy tells how the Pittsburgh native came to live in the West, where he met the American Indian singer Tsianina Red-feather, with whom he travelled the country lecturing on Indian music while she sang...


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