Jan. 8, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 7

current issue
archive / search

    American classical music: Exploring roots, reflections

    By Jennifer Vanasco
    News Office

    The influx of European composers to the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, caused by the rise of fascism, forever affected the sound and shape of American classical music. Comparing early 20th-century music made by European immigrant composers with the response to it produced by later American composers is the focus of an innovative two-day symposium titled "The Rise of the American Music Identity -- The Roots and the Flowering."

    The symposium, presented by Mostly Music and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Humanities Council, will be held on Saturday, Jan. 17, and Sunday, Jan. 18, in Goodspeed Hall. Features include two concerts and several discussions with practitioners in the arts, including John Eaton, Professor in Music, who was the recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant"; composer Patricia Morehead, who is co-artistic director of the instrumental group CUBE and a doctoral candidate at the University; and Philip Morehead, head of musical staff for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists. Saturday's events are free; Sunday's concert is $5 general admission and free for students. Tickets are available at the door.

    Eaton said that the focus of the symposium is on "formal" music, rather than "vernacular" music. "The distinction between formal and vernacular music was made by Virgil Thompson, an American composer and critic," Eaton said. "There's no question that jazz is America's vernacular music. Formal music is more structured classical or contemporary music."

    During the '20s and '30s when European composers were fleeing Europe for America, "the American arts were just beginning to develop an identity," Eaton said, "so these big guns from Europe were -- and are -- very influential."

    These immigrants had spearheaded the new music movement in Europe and they brought their new musical forms here. However, Eaton said, although some of the European composers were trying, in their music, to "wipe the slate clean" of many traditional influences, American composers had no such compulsion. "Whatever came to this country from Europe was modified by American artists who had their own stimuli and were still trying to establish their own musical tradition and institutions."

    Eaton said that this dynamic was echoed in most of the other creative arts during the period, which is why the symposium begins with a roundtable discussion of the creative response of American artists to foreign influences, called "All Arts Considered." The discussion begins at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 17. Panelists are drawn from literature, drama, dance, the visual arts and music. They include Richard Stern, novelist and Helen A. Regenstein Professor in English Language & Literature; Nicholas Rudall, Founding Director of Court Theatre and Associate Professor in Classical Languages & Literatures; Anna Paskevska, ballet dancer and Director of Dance at Columbia College; Berthold Hoeckner, Assistant Professor in Music; Joel Snyder, Chair and Professor in Art History; and Eaton, composer and performer of electronic and microtonal music. The panel is followed at 3:45 p.m. by an open rehearsal of Eaton's work Lettere, a musical setting of the poetry of Michele Ranchetti, which Eaton will discuss with the audience.

    In a related pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18, Eaton and Hoeckner will continue their exploration of European influences on American music and will discuss the afternoon's program.

    For the concert at 4 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 18, CUBE contemporary music ensemble will be led by Philip Morehead in a program that compares music by transplanted 20th-century Europeans with music by Americans who were influenced by them. For instance, Schoenberg's Opus 19, a selection of very short piano pieces that were an early attempt to write music without traditional tonality, will be compared with Session's From My Diary, which clearly shows Schoenberg's influence; cabaret songs by Kurt Weill will be contrasted with three songs by Gershwin; and Varese's Density 2.5, which explores musical tone and color, will be compared with Eaton's Lettere, which was influenced both by Varese's musical forms and by his experimentation with electronic music.

    "In the end, what the Europeans of this era brought to us was their attitude of making music new," Eaton said. "And Americans, hearing them, took that idea and ran with it."