Douglas W. Shadle. Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 344 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-935864-9.
Reviewed by Kasper B. van Kooten (Universiteit van Amsterdam)
Published on H-Nationalism (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Krisztina K. Lajosi-Moore (University of Amsterdam)
Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise
In 1892, exactly four hundred years after Christopher Columbus discovered America, the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvořák discovered American music. During a three-year residence in New York, Dvořák instructed American composers to find their voice, and guided them by writing his New World Symphony (1893), inspired by the American landscape, the music of Native Americans, and so-called Negro Melodies. After Dvořák had led the way, a range of American composers—Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, and others—set out on a triumphal march through music history with compositions that display a distinguishably “American” sound.
Although the narrative sketched out in the opening lines of this review is overly simplistic, it still dominates popular views of American music history, both within and outside the United States. The chief aim of Douglas W. Shadle’s Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise is to counter this view by scrutinizing the nearly completely forgotten history of nineteenth-century American symphonists active before the arrival of Dvořák. In the introduction, Shadle explains that this study serves not only to rehabilitate a forgotten repertoire that is significant from a musical and cultural-historical point of view but also to provide a better understanding of American musical culture in general: “how these pieces became our cultural detritus is revelatory for understanding the general condition of orchestral music and the status of its composers in the United States today. The immediate, decisive, and at times violently willful acts of forgetting that sequestered this repertoire and its creators relied on certain intellectual dispositions of the nineteenth century that persisted well into the twentieth and locked away the past. The gaping hole in our collective memory, not the music itself, is precisely what makes this repertoire relevant” (pp. 3-4).
Shadle presents Orchestrating the Nation as the “first book to approach the nineteenth-century American symphonic enterprise from a holistic vantage” by which he aims “to historicize the functions and possible meanings of this music within its original contexts” and to “demonstrate how shifting perceptions of the repertoire eliminated it from public consciousness” (p. 6). The author counters essentialist and teleological narratives concerning the question of how the musical national identity of the United States was formed and what the unmistakably American sound is, creating room for “national identity formation processes that were not focused directly on style” (p. 8). Shadle’s book enriches the field of national music studies both from a geographical and from a genre-technical point of view: geographically because he provides a New World perspective on the study of nineteenth-century national identity formation in music, a field that has traditionally focused on the Old World. Moreover, Shadle’s emphasis on the symphony as a potential national genre adds an insightful perspective to the scholarly study of music and nationalism in the nineteenth century, which has generally scrutinized musical forms deemed more overtly national, such as opera, the oratorio, and tone poems. Throughout the nineteenth century, the symphony was strongly associated with German musical culture and its universal pretenses, and often functioned as a standard for “national” composers in other cultures to deviate from rather than to follow. That American composers, despite the dominance of German symphonies in their domestic concert life, nonetheless chose the symphony as the domain in which to cultivate a distinct native musical culture is all the more remarkable indeed.
In chapter 1, Shadle relates the launch of the American symphonic enterprise in the 1830s and 1840s to ideas concerning American culture and national identity around 1800. Although the War of Independence (1775-83) had brought the United States political independence, the young country’s culture was still governed by European—particularly British—examples, creating a sense of a national identity crisis. The lack of a homogenic ethnic makeup increased this impression. What defined an American, and who was excluded? Should American intellectuals play the cosmopolitan card by trying to match the achievements of Europeans, or was it better to bow to no authority? And, in the latter case, what should a deviating culture be based on? By 1894, in an entirely different phase of American history, president-to-be Theodore Roosevelt had an outspoken opinion on this matter, arguing in Forum that “it is in those professions where our people have striven hardest to mold themselves in conventional European forms that they have succeeded least,” merely “aiming at that kind of mediocrity which consists in doing fairly well what has already been done better” (p. 240). Without this practical experience of having seen compatriots become “second-rate Europeans,” as Roosevelt called it, and moreover in an entirely different cultural climate, many early nineteenth-century thinkers tended to take the cosmopolitan route. The first attempts at a US musical culture, such as the Handel and Haydn Society founded in Boston in 1818, for example, focused on performing established European masters.
Shadle shows how this predilection for foreign composers among US critics and musical institutions remained prominent throughout the nineteenth century, and gradually increased because a growing number of orchestra members were German immigrants who cherished their own musical culture. This situation frustrated American symphonists, such as Anthony Philip Heinrich, William Henry Fry, and George Frederick Bristow, the consecutive protagonists of chapters 2 to 4. By introducing these three figures, Shadle reveals the variety of the American symphonic enterprise in its earliest stage (1830s to 1850s). Heinrich is the most enigmatic of the three, a Bohemian-born “Wanderer” who marketed himself as an American composer and mainly traveled through Europe to increase the esteem of American music with his experimental symphonies. Besides writing works inspired by American nature and Native American culture, he did not refrain from writing a Gran Sinfonia Britanica (1844) either. Fry cultivated an American symphonic style by adopting elements of Italian opera, thereby ridding himself from Teutonic examples and creating an accessible and therefore democratic musical idiom. Like Heinrich, Fry was inspired by American nature (Niagara: A Symphony, 1854), and also composed music on patriotic subjects (The Dying Soldier). In the same period, Bristow, by contrast, wrote relatively traditional symphonies following German examples, but considered these genuinely American, since he was American. These composers’ careers coalesced with the arrival of a touring company led by French conductor Louis-Antoine Jullien in 1853 and its aftermath, discussed in chapters 5 and 6. Jullien programmed their works frequently, which legitimated them to complain about the way American orchestras neglected them.
The Civil War (1861-65) not only divided the country in two but also halted the symphonic enterprise, and therefore forms a natural caesura within Shadle’s book. In the latter half, he focuses on Louis Moreau Gottschalk (chapter 7), John Knowles Paine (chapter 8), Ellsworth C. Phelps (chapter 10), and ultimately Dvořák (chapter 12). Gottschalk was a celebrity in his days, writing “Latin” symphonies that expressed his belief in a Pan-American Republicanism, while not aiming to construct a “distinct American national sound” (pp. 141, 145). In comparison to Gottschalk’s exotic and progressive music, the German-trained Paine became the protégé of influential conservative factions in his hometown Boston. Paine’s formalist approach to symphonic music contrasts with that of the virtually forgotten Phelps, who was inspired by Native American culture (Hiawatha, 1878) and the abolition of slavery (Emancipation, 1880). In the chapter on Dvořák, Shadle examines the Bohemian composer’s American sojourn in the context of discussions concerning the sound of American music and the applicability of African American music as a source for art music during the 1890s.
Shadle’s survey reveals several strategies chosen by composers to cultivate the American symphony. The most conservative among them chose formalist, traditional designs based on the German classics. The majority, however, took a more programmatic approach to the symphony, sometimes including sung movements, in which national themes could be expressed. Some symphonies formed patriotic contemplations of political events, such as the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery that followed in its wake. Others were based on American nature and Native American culture. Reflecting on the vogue for African American melodies as the basis for American classical music, Amy Beach—who, like many other symphonists discussed in Shadle’s book, does not receive a separate chapter—provided an alternative that came closer to the ethnic background of her listeners with a Gaelic Symphony (1894). What united most American symphonists was their common and usually rather fruitless campaign to be performed more frequently. As Shadle emphasizes, many of these symphonies were performed but often only once—despite audience enthusiasm—and that was obviously not enough to be remembered. Later generations of American composers frequently used this oblivion to underline the significance of their own advent and have secured their place in the pantheon of American music partially by successfully dismissing their forefathers as insignificant.
Shadle makes a powerful claim that the American symphonists discussed in this book deserve more attention than history has hitherto given them. Not only are their reception and the discourse surrounding them fascinating from a cultural-analytical view but much of the music itself is also interesting and actually quite enjoyable. An accompanying website with sound examples from the pieces analyzed in the book reveals this. As Shadle himself puts forward on the final page of the epilogue, “listeners today might enjoy much of this music” (p. 277). They might even hear some premonitions of the American sound, particularly in the symphonies of Fry, who managed to get around both German and British examples with his Italian-tinged melodies and, at times, proto-Hollywood orchestrations. But that is not necessarily what Shadle wants us to listen for. The greatest merit of this repertoire is that it challenges and expands our idea of American classical music and how it came into being.
Shadle’s work simultaneously sparks questions, particularly concerning its methodology and structure. In the introduction, the author explains that he has “chosen to examine these topics in national and transatlantic contexts in order to challenge the longstanding tendency to favor purely national accounts of the nineteenth century” (p. 6). Apart from the accidental occasions when successful performances abroad strengthened the reputation of US composers at home, most of the transatlantic dynamics within Shadle’s study are one way and entail the degree to which German discourse concerning the symphony affected domestic discussions. A comparative approach could have deepened Shadle’s argument, from both a genre-technical and a transnational point of view. How, for example, did American composers active in other genres, such as opera, create a niche for themselves in a cosmopolitan-oriented music culture? And how did symphonists in other cultures escape the paralyzing prominence of the Germanic muse? One might think here of eastern Europeans, such as Dvořák, or the English composer Cecil Forsyth, who in Music and Nationalism (1911) argued that “musical England was still a German colony” (p. 1). If only for the sake of contextualization, a comparison between the American symphonic enterprise and other similar endeavors could have been revealing.
Whereas my plea for a comparative angle is a suggestion rather than a criticism, I must express some objections to the structure of Shadle’s study, built up out of seven biographical chapters interspersed with more thematic and integrating episodes. Compared to a symphony, Shadle’s book has strong outer movements, but the middle part at times reads like a slightly overlong theme with variations. In a way, this theme with variations corresponds to the history of the American symphonic enterprise, which Shadle likens to a “winter that never turned into spring,” in which “these composers and their music froze before they could bloom” (p. 14). One could argue that the repetition of different composers making similar false starts is simply how things happened, and that histories with a clearer sense of direction risk succumbing to the teleological fallacy of traditional historiography. But Shadle could have presented a more pronounced and dynamic history if, for example, he had given more precise dates rather than relational time specifications, such as “six years later.” In most cases, but not always, endnotes provide the necessary information about when a certain event took place or a certain quote was uttered; but Shadle’s historical analysis would have had a sharper edge if he had offered more temporal indications in the running text.
Another problem is caused by Shadle’s decision to build most of his chapters around a single composer and his/her symphonic activities. In some instances, the tendency to name chapters after composers turns out to be counterproductive, because information that is relevant to Shadle’s overall argument but hardly related to the composer in question seeps into the chapter and weakens its thematic unity. The eighth chapter on Paine, for example, starts with an episode that appears unrelated to this composer’s biography, and only in a later chapter do we learn more about Paine’s symphonic activities. In fact, Shadle discusses many more composers than those seven to whom he apportions a chapter, and the former sometimes show up within the “biographical” chapters at unexpected places. Perhaps a thematic or diachronic, rather than biographical, approach could have avoided these issues. One positive exception to this rule, however, is the twelfth chapter on Dvořák. Unlike many previous studies of Dvořák’s US sojourn, Shadle’s work does not reduce Dvořák’s American colleagues, such as Paine, Beach, and George Whitefield Chadwyck, to ethnocentric—if not xenophobic or even racist—antagonists within a veni-vidi-vici narrative (I think here, for example, of Charles Hamm’s writings on this subject). Instead, the author focuses on the activities of these local composers during Dvořák’s US residence and reveals how many of Dvořák’s “revolutionary” statements on the future of American national music actually already had some currency in the American musical world.
Shadle’s Orchestrating the Nation unveils a significant chapter in music history in a form that is informative, engaging, and appealing to both scholars and music lovers. The author has convincingly brought the nineteenth-century American symphonic enterprise back into academia. Whether this book also manages to bring them back onto concert programs, only time will tell.
. Quoted in Meirion Hughes and Robert Stradling, The English Musical Renaissance 1840-1940: Constructing A National Music (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 119.
. Charles Hamm, Music in the New World (New York: Norton, 1983); Charles Hamm, “Dvořák, Stephen Foster, and American National Song,” in Dvořák in America, 1892-1895, ed. John C. Tibbets (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993), 149-156; and Charles Hamm, “Dvořák, Nationalism, Myth, and Racism in the United States,” in Rethinking Dvořák: Views from Five Countries, ed. David R. Beveridge (Oxford: Clarendon University Press, 1996), 275-280.
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Kasper B. van Kooten. Review of Shadle, Douglas W., Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise.
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