The Mid-Century American Symphony : Deceptive Cadence The middle of the 20th century was a golden age for American symphonic music. From William Grant Still's celebration of African-American culture to Marc Blitzstein's ode to aviation and the U.S. military, Harvard scholar Carol Oja explores a compellingly diverse group of American symphonies.

Symphonic For The People: The Mid-Century American Symphony

Composer Marc Blitzstein (left) with Leonard Bernstein studying the score of a Blitzstein work during a 1947 recording session. W. Eugene Smith/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image hide caption

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W. Eugene Smith/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Composer Marc Blitzstein (left) with Leonard Bernstein studying the score of a Blitzstein work during a 1947 recording session.

W. Eugene Smith/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Over the course of the 20th century, the symphony as a genre — originally an inheritance from Europe — increasingly became a transnational tradition, flowing across the Atlantic and back again.

For American composers contemplating a symphony in the middle of the 20th century, a core issue was how to assert their own voices — that is, to establish a sense of personal identity, whether national, political, racial, or regional. The inter-war period was especially fertile for the composition of American symphonies, as conductors of major orchestras promoted the cause. They included Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock with the Chicago Symphony, Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and most famously, Leonard Bernstein, first with the New York City Symphony and eventually with the New York Philharmonic. Carlos Chávez also played an important role as conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México.

Some of the works discussed here grapple directly with issues of identity, while others comfortably assume the mantle of European styles and expectations. Drawing on American sound-tropes at times proved fruitful, whether folk tunes, spirituals, the blues, or popular music. An ethnographic strain also emerged, inspired by experiences gained during travel or fieldwork.

Carol J. Oja is the William Powell Mason Professor of Music and American Studies at Harvard University. Her book Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War will be published in 2014. Harvard doctoral graduate Matthew Mugmon contributed to this article.

Great Symphonies From Mid-Century America

Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune

Virgil Thomson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune.

Born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) quickly became a cosmopolitan figure, living for long stretches in Paris and eventually making his home in New York City. His first symphony, composed in 1928, was Symphony on a Hymn Tune. The work is in four movements, which is standard practice with a symphony, but that's where the similarities end.

Thomson injects a strong personal style through the quotation of Protestant hymns, especially "How Firm a Foundation" and "Yes, Jesus Loves Me." Yet the tunes are fractured and manipulated, rather than revered and replicated. Thomson's frank but edgy style spoke with a distinctive open-voiced clarity, spiced with a bit of cynicism.

The fourth movement reveals how Thomson transforms melodic material. Sometimes he does so transparently, sometimes with intentional "wrong" notes. In an era when his modernist colleagues often revered complexity, Thomson took a radical turn to simpler writing, and his cinematically sweeping melodies evoke vast expanses of the American prairie. Symphony on a Hymn Tune languished for nearly two decades before receiving its premiere by the New York Philharmonic in 1945.

The Mid-Century American Symphony

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William Grant Still: Symphony No. 1, 'Afro-American'

William Grant Still's Symphony No. 1, 'Afro-American.'

One of the most fascinating American musical figures of the 20th century, William Grant Still (1895-1978) was multi-musical, playing oboe in the pit orchestra of Shuffle Along, the famed all-black musical from 1921, and working as arranger for popular radio shows of the 1930s, such as Willard Robison's Deep River Hour. Through it all, Still composed works for the concert hall, gaining the honorific "Dean of Afro-American Composers." A native of Mississippi, Still was awarded a scholarship to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in the era of Jim Crow segregation when Oberlin was one of the few major conservatories that admitted black students. Still studied with high-profile composers, including George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgard Varèse. In other words, he broke one barrier after another.

Still's Afro-American Symphony represents a milestone in his career. With its premiere in 1931, it was one of the earliest works by an African-American composer to gain a place in the orchestral canon, and it has held up well over time. In the work's title, Still identified his race with pride, inspired by the cultural activism of the Harlem Renaissance. The symphony is written in four movements, which have two different sets of titles, signaling the cultural bifurcation that defined Still's career. One version is thoroughly European: "Moderato assai," "Adagio," "Animato," and "Lento, con risoluzione." While the other, as found in one of Still's notebooks, refers to African-American history: "Longing," "Sorrow," "Humor," and "Aspiration." The work aims for a synthesis of African-American culture (especially as manifested in the blues) with the totemic power and prestige of the symphony. Still wrote that he wanted to "portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears; who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress."

The third movement, "Humor" ("Animato"), begins with a motif that resembles the natural rhythm of laughing. Suddenly, a banjo accompanies a jaunty tune whose rhythm and inflections are reminiscent of Gershwin's "I've Got Rhythm." (Still's wife Verna Arvey later leveled charges that Gershwin had swiped ideas from her husband; her complaints illustrate widespread issues of cultural theft across race lines, but they have never been substantiated.).

Still's style in the Afro-American Symphony is thoroughly accessible, fusing the sounds of symphonic jazz with those of the classical symphony. And the work shows off Still's resplendent orchestration, which is another key aspect of his talent.

The Mid-Century American Symphony

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Colin McPhee: Tabuh-Tabuhan

Colin McPhee's Tabu-Tabuhan.

While today gamelans can be found in colleges and universities across the United States, in the 1930s those Indonesian percussion orchestras were barely known in the Western world. Inspired by hearing rare gamelan recordings, the composer and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee (1900-1964) sailed for Bali in 1931. It was a voyage that ended up changing the course of his life. Born in Canada and educated in the U.S. and France, McPhee was already something of a nomad, and he ended up living in Bali for nearly a decade. A gifted prose stylist, he published A House in Bali, which is essentially a memoir, and Music of Bali, which remains one of the major studies of the island's rich and varied musical traditions, capturing them before the advent of mass media and jetliners.

Yet McPhee was primarily a composer, and Tabuh-Tabuhan is his principal work for orchestra. McPhee composed the piece in Mexico City in 1936, while on a break from his time in Bali, and his close friend Chávez conducted its premiere that same year. Tabuh-Tabuhan languished afterwards, waiting until 1953 for its debut in the United States, which was conducted in New York by Stokowski.

Tabuh-Tabuhan is written in three movements, and its subtitle is "Toccata for Orchestra." Not a "symphony" in a strict sense, Tabuh-Tabuhan is also not written for an actual gamelan. Rather it is a hybrid, embedding what McPhee called "a nuclear gamelan" of pianos, celesta, xylophone, marimba, and glockenspiel amidst a traditional western orchestra. Balinese gongs and cymbals are also included. As a result, the sounds of Bali are simulated within a Western framework. Tabuh-Tabuhan draws upon the timbre, rhythm, and textures of Balinese music to achieve a cultural detente with the symphonic tradition of the West.

"Nocturne," the middle movement, gives a sense of McPhee's honorable intentions and cultural accommodations. Featuring an ethereal flute solo, the underlying orchestral accompaniment shimmers and pulsates with ideas transcribed from gamelan practice. Yet the flute is of European vintage, rather than the suling, a Balinese bamboo wind instrument. As McPhee wrote to his friend Aaron Copland, after returning to Bali in 1937, "I feel sure that this work is going to have great value for western musicians, if they survive." As Japanese aggression intensified, the notion of survival was omnipresent. At base, McPhee sought to preserve a culture that he feared might be annihilated, and he did so within the opportunities and limitations of his era.

The Mid-Century American Symphony

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Marc Blitzstein: Airborne Symphony

Leonard Bernstein conducts The Airborne Symphony by Marc Blitzstein.

A symphonic oratorio completed in 1946, with both words and music by Mark Blitzstein (1905-1964), the Airborne Symphony soars to the monumental, charting the history of human flight while offering an elegy for the massive devastation of World War II. This is a symphony with a didactic thrust. It was intended for "the people," as a catchword of the Roosevelt years put it, and its composer had ardent political convictions, believing that music had the power to inspire a better world. In many ways, the Airborne Symphony fuses Beethoven's Ninth with a radio play. It included a narrator, chorus, and soloists, using multiple voices to affirm a sense of community. And it appeared not long after Earl Robinson's Ballad for Americans (1939) and Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait (1942) — works that proclaimed a sense of civic responsibility.

The mournful "Ballad of the Cities" delivers a eulogy for urban centers destroyed by aerial bombings, and the more intimate "Ballad of the Bombardier," for baritone and piano, is a gorgeous love song from a "white-faced 19-year-old bombardier" to his sweetheart back home. The Airborne Symphony premiered in 1946 with the New York City Symphony and the young Leonard Bernstein at the podium. A self-professed disciple of Blitzstein, Bernstein modeled both his political idealism and his musical style on this influential older colleague.

The Mid-Century American Symphony

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Walter Piston: Symphony No. 3

Jame Yannatos conducts Walter Piston's Symphony No. 3.

More than any other composer represented in this selection of symphonies, Walter Piston (1894-1976) made peace with the European tradition, becoming a master craftsman within its value systems. Copland once hailed him as "one of the most expert" in sheer technical virtuosity. As a result, Piston is often viewed as an intellectual composer, respected more for his skill in handling complex musical structures than for the emotional resonance of his work. But that assessment needs a reboot. Piston's music speaks powerfully, with a deep capacity for creating gorgeous orchestral sound.

Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Symphony No. 3 was premiered in 1948 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Koussevitzky. By the time of this work, Piston was firmly established as a professor at Harvard, having taught some of the country's most eminent composers. His Symphony No. 3 won the Pulitzer Prize, but in the years since it has fallen into the dustbin of history.

The symphony, in four movements, hews to well-established norms, yet that doesn't mean it lacks poetry or pizzazz. The fast second movement starts off with a contrapuntal section that displays Piston's formidable technique. A spunky spirit emerges, with rhythmic energy and unpredictable rests. Suddenly a delicate middle section appears with a flute tune that shows Piston could evoke nature and nostalgia as well as Copland, even though the latter has enjoyed much more fame and fandom.

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