Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

America's unheard music

Charles Tomlinson Griffes is a name known to few concertgoers. Winthrop Sargeant, one of the country's preeminent music critics said that Griffes ''wrote some of the most beautiful music ever written by an American.'' Can't place the name yet? Perhaps the title ''The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan'' will jog the memory. That was the orchestral work by the Boston Symphony under Pierre Monteux in 1919 - the work whose orchestral parts Griffes couldn't afford to have copied (his highest yearly earnings from royalties was $62.49), so he did it himself, ill, while also working full time at the Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown, N.Y. He exhausted himself copying those parts. He died the following year at the age of 35.

Griffes was a fascinating musical personality, a prolific composer of piano music, of songs and chamber works. But he had one thing against him. He was an American. Our musical public never has developed a taste for and still does not enjoy the richness and diversity of poor young Griffes's music, nor of the music of any number of his comrades in arms. Why? Because the American public rarely hears American music and therefore doesn't know it. And why doesn't it know it? Because it doesn't hear it.

About these ads

There may come a time when a fifth head will be proposed for the Mount Rushmore quartet, and that authentic American hero could well be Griffes -- or Charles Ives. Ives's music has begun to make its way into the repertory, a repertory still largely bounded by the North Sea and the low countries to the north, the Rhine and the Rhone to east and west and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. From this fertile European heartland have sprung rich vines, and we still drink their vintage products. We have yet to discover our own musical heroes, composers whose music may, like that of John Knowles Paine, strike Beethovian fire or, like that of Henry Cowell, provoke charmed humor. We have not learned to listen to our own voice.

Is music so different from the other arts? Who, interested in painting, theater, or dance would be ignorant of Mary Cassatt and Jackson Pollock, of David Belasco and Tennessee Williams, of Isadora Duncan and Twyla Tharp? But our musical public lives in a 19th-century vacuum. It would fail the simplest 20 th-century music literacy test.

Which of our symphonies regularly programs American music? How many of our European-born symphony conductors know any American composers? How many piano, violin, or voice students are given music by Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, or Salvatore Martirano, or Daniel Pinkham?

Composers have themselves been forced to push their own music, but the circle is small. Concert managers don't help, they say it drives audiences away. Audiences have little say in what they hear.

But there have been those rare critics and writers with a curiosity about the music of their time who have helped us to know of the ferment and excitement bubbling from the studios. And some audiences have sought out the new. Witness the sold-out performances of Philip Glass's concerts in recent years. And the music of Steve Reich has made its way into the vocabulary of many non-concert-going Americans.

When a nation's habits are so set in permastone as the habits of our concert establishment seem to be, that it seems nothing can be done to change them, along comes another American composer who wins fame and recognition outside of his or her homeland and stirs again the hope that we will begin to tune ourselves in. To listen to what our composers are singing, and perhaps to catch an echo of our own selves in their music. As in the music of George Crumb, or Robert Ashley, or Miriam Gideon, or Roger Reynolds, or T. J. Anderson. Or any number of music writers who are documenting and mirroring our age and lives as surely as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms reflected the ages they lived in.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.