The American sound

Description Patriotism has been an essential part of national identity since democracies began to replace authoritarian states in the late 1700s. As a nation founded explicitly on ideals of democracy, the United States has rightly fostered pride in the principles that distinguish it from other countries. But as a nation of immigrants and diverse cultural heritages, in a large continent that can equally legitimately claim the label of “America,” we have also struggled to define the shifting nature of American identity (understood as a quality that all citizens of th United States have in common). Music has always played a part in that definition, and some of the most compelling “American sounds” have emerged from attempts to integrate the vernacular musical traditions of the American people with an approach to music that aims at a higher quality of the spirit. SOUSA AND THE WIND BAND TRADITION We explored one early representative of American vernacular music, the parlor ballads of Stephen Foster. The country’s various vernacular traditions also included music for brass bands. By the Civil War era (1861-65), both Northern and Southern regiments marched to the sounds of wind bands, which also provided “down time” entertainment for the troops. The most famous North American bandmaster was John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), who conducted the U.S. Marine Band from 1880 to 1892, after which he formed his own ensemble. Known as the March King, Sousa wrote over 130 marches for band, as well as dance music and operettas. He toured North America and Europe extensively with his group, delighting audiences with such pieces as The Stars and Stripes Forever (1897), as well as band arrangements of Joplin rags, the newest rage. Nearly single-handedly, Sousa created a national music for the United States that continues to resonate in its concert halls, on its streets, in its sports stadiums and in the hearts of its people. But most composers in the art-music tradition considered this particular strand of vernacular music too raw and commercially driven to serve as a resource for artistic development. Rural folk traditions were thought to be more closely linked to the American spirit, and the composer who most successfully transformed these traditions into a national sound was Aaron Copland. COPLAND AND THE AMERICAN ORCHESTRAL SOUNDSCAPE Copland is one of America’s greatest twentieth-century composers. Few have been able to capture the spirit of this country so successfully-his well-crafted and classically proportioned works have an immediate appeal. His ballet suites are quintessentially American in their portrayal of rural life (Appalachian Spring) and the Far West (Rodeo and Billy the Kid). Copland came self-consciously to an American sound: born in New York of Jewish immigrant parents, he trained in Europe with proponents of early twentieth-century modernism, then returned to the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930’s and embraced a growing ideal that art should “serve the American people” during times of economic and social struggle. His new American modernist” style was designed to have wide appeal and be “‘useful” in a variety contexts (radio, film, etc.). In keeping with this ideal, Copland wrote incidental music for plays, and scores tor significant films that spoke to the American condition during the Depression, such as Of Mice and Men (1939) and Our Town (1940). While Copland admired jazz, and drew on it in his works, his American style was rooted primarily in Euro-American vernacular traditions, using elements of Appalachian and other Anglo-American folk melodies (as well as Mexican folk melodies). He also cited Stravinsky’s nuanced approach to rhythm and orchestration as an essential influence. Like Stravinsky’s early ballets, some of Copland’s most successful compositions involved a collaboration with prominent dancers and choreographers, who were also seeking to establish a genuinely American tradition of modern dance. Copland’s Appalachian Spring Among Copland’s ballets, Appalachian Spring is perhaps his best known, written in collaboration with the celebrated choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991). who also danced the lead. Copland noted that when he wrote the music, he considered Graham’s unique choreographic style: “She’s unquestionably very American: there’s something prim and restrained, simple yet strong, about her, which one tends to think of as American.” The ballet portrays “a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the nineteenth century. The bride-to-be and tho young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new partnership invites.” The ballet, which premiered in 1944 in Washington, D.C., was the basis for his popular 1945 orchestral suite, set in seven sections. The opening section of the suite introduces the characters in the ballet with a serene, ascending motive that evokes the first hint of daybreak over the vast horizon. In the most famous part of the work, we hear the well-known early American song Simple Gifts (“*”Tis the gift to be simple”), a tune associated with the Shaker religious sect, known for its spiritual rituals that included spinning around and dancing. This simple, folk like tune is designed to provide a quintessential American sound; Copland sets it in a clear-cut theme and variations, with a colorful orchestration tinged with gentle dissonance. The flowing tune takes on several guises, shaded by changing timbres, keys, and tempos Copland’s music was quickly embraced as a truly “American orchestral sound. It continues to be widely heard at events (or even in commercials!) that aim to emphasize national pride, as well as incorporated (and imitated) in movie scenes that illustrate the grandeur of the West. The America that his music envisions is a rural one, connected to the land and its traditions; it is also mostly an Anglo America, since the Appalachian tunes he employs have their roots in English folk traditions. Copland’s goal was to create an inclusive soundscape for the United States his music, like Sousa’s, is still a powerful presence in the cultural life of the nation. Aaron Copland Appalachian Spring original orchestration with 13 instrument, but later arrange for full orchestra by Copland himself. After you have read/study module 15.1 to 15.3, then answer the following 2 questions, which represents each of the topical areas within the topic of American music. Write no more than 2 paragraphs for each questions in this exercise in order to explain the concept: What qualities in Copland’s music have been understood as particularly American, and why? In what ways was West Side Story significant? What issues of race and ethnicity does it raise in ways that are similar to, and different from Porgy and Bess?


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