The Great American Symphony: Music, the Depression, and War
by Nicholas Tawa
(Indiana University Press, 2009), 256 pages, $25.

In The Great American Symphony: Music, the Depression, and War, Nicholas Tawa offers to his readership a much-needed study of an important but insufficiently documented phase of American music making. By the turn of the last century, the United States of America could boast of a longstanding tradition of serious music making, not only in performance, but also in composition. Horatio Parker, Daniel Gregory Mason, George Whitefield Chadwick, and Charles Tomlinson Griffes, among others, had demonstrated that American composers could meet the challenge of a European conservatory education and produce works in the inherited forms—concerto, cantata, oratorio, instrumental sonata, symphony, and symphonic poem—that could bear comparison with contemporary achievements in the German and French traditions. Yet Parker’s Organ Concerto (1902) sounded rather like those of his teacher Joseph Rheinberger; Chadwick’s symphonies (1882 and 1886) resembled those of Joachim Raff, Carl Reinecke, and the other lesser German and Austrian composers. Griffes adopted the vocabulary of French music, especially Claude Debussy’s, for his tone poems and orchestral sketches; Mason strove to write like Johannes Brahms and largely succeeded, but without Brahms’s genius.

Missing in most serious American music before 1930 was an identifiable national voice. Some composers had made attempts in that direction—Louis Moreau Gottschalk around the time of the Civil War and Charles Ives beginning in the late 1890s. But Gottschalk had died in Brazil in 1869 and his music had lapsed into oblivion. Ives’s avant-garde experiments proved too dissonant and quirky to attract the concert going public, so much so that Ives stopped trying to bring about performances. He saw to his insurance business, leaving composition to his leisure hours until he finally ceased to compose altogether after 1925. Now and then in the twentieth century’s first three decades a few musical “sports” appeared that spoke with a regional inflection. In his Dance in Place Congo (1918), Henry Gilbert uses dance rhythms and tunes associated with the Créoles of New Orleans. In his Skyscrapers ballet (1926), John Alden Carpenter creates a new brassy, percussive language to depict the American cityscape. Then there is George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1921).

Tawa argues that a distinctively national voice emerged in American music only in the mid-1930s and that when it did it was noticeably not tied to the mere incorporation of ethnic or national material; rather, this new American sound would assert itself paradoxically in the work of those composers who accepted the challenge of that most European, most abstract, and most ambitious of musical forms, the symphony. The Great American Symphony defines the years 1935 and 1950 as epochal, proposing the decade-and-a-half that they enclose as the golden age of American symphonic composition. During this period, social, cultural, economic, and political conditions acted in concert (as it were) to spur American composers to take up the symphonic challenge and to dispose a wide audience, sometimes mediated by radio, to receive these works in an open and appreciative way. Under the exigencies of the Great Depression, as Tawa writes, thoughtful Americans sought “to rediscover [the nation’s] social ideals and feel again what it was that united Americans.” Serious music would serve these impulses.

In the confluence of these developments, socio-cultural and political, American composers experienced an increasing attraction to symphonic form. A notion of “symphonism” took hold that, in Tawa’s summation, designated “orchestral music of large scope in both length and ambition … involving a full-sized ensemble … serious in nature … unfold[ing] in several movements.” Based on “precedents going back to the nineteenth-century Romanticists,” as Tawa adds, the conviction took hold among American composers “that music, through the symphony, possessed the ability to achieve the highest and most comprehensive form of human communication.” Identifying the Romantic impulse behind the symphonic revival of the 1930s is important to Tawa’s analysis. In music generally, the mid-twentieth century saw the consolidation of self-consciously modernistic trends such as atonal expressionism, serialism, and neoclassicism, whose practitioners rejected the Romantic inheritance and disdained the symphony as an embarrassing item of the bourgeois legacy. But the men of the American symphonic revival wanted to convey “meanings affecting all humanity,” in Tawa’s words, in the manner of Beethoven’s Ninth; they wanted to write scores “breathing the youthful spirit of the nation.”

The three middle chapters of The Great American Symphony that constitute the heart of Tawa’s study follow a chronological order: “Symphonies of the Mid- to Late Thirties,” “Symphonies of the War Years,” and “Symphonies of the Immediate Post-War Years.” In the first of the three, Tawa discusses Samuel Barber, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, William Schuman, John Alden Carpenter, Virgil Thomson, and Henry Cowell. In the second, he discusses George Antheil, David Diamond, Leonard Bernstein, Walter Piston, Samuel Barber (again), and Mark Blitzstein. In the third, he discusses Douglas Moore, Peter Mennin, Randall Thompson, Aaron Copland, Paul Creston, and Robert Sessions. Of all these names the best known today are mostly those in the earliest set, especially Barber, Hanson, Harris, and Schuman. Copland would be the exception. Despite concert-hall obscurity Antheil, Creston, Diamond, Mennin, Thompson, and the others have all been given their due in recordings, some of recent vintage, in the bounteous expansion of the discography that followed on the introduction of digital recording in the 1980s.

Hanson, who wrote his “Nordic” Symphony (No. 1) in 1922 and who scored a public success with his “Romantic” Symphony (No. 2) in 1930, might seem the logical starting place for Tawa’s survey. Somewhat surprisingly, Tawa puts Barber at the beginning, seeing in the Symphony in One Movement (No. 1, 1936) the true opening statement of a glorious fifteen-year phase. Barber represents the generation of the mid-1930s not just in his codification of a style that we might call traditionalist non-conformism but also in his career profile. He appeared in an initial burst of confidence, flinched later under critical attacks on his mode of expression, and suffered something like the suppression of his work from the 1950s until shortly before his death. Barber’s works remained in the catalogue of recorded music in that period, just barely, but concert performances decreased in their frequency and musicological journalism dismissed or even denounced him. His two operas failed to take hold and, after his Piano Concerto (1960), he gradually ceased to offer new works to the public.

Tawa’s commentary provokes even aficionados to revisit the music that he discusses. Barber is again a case in point. Of the keynote Symphony in One Movement, Tawa writes, “It would be an utterly personal expression” reflecting Barber’s “traditional late-Romantic style,” that “asserted its humanity in the teeth of the political tensions burgeoning at the time.” Despite the symphony’s traditionalism, it succeeds in being “contemporaneous” by virtue of its “harmonies … enriched with dissonances” and “strong driving rhythms.” In compressing the multiple separate movements of the textbook symphony into a continuous twenty-minute flow, Barber followed the example of Jean Sibelius’s C-Major Symphony (No. 7, 1925) but also that of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony (1909). In the Symphony in One Movement’s concluding section, Barber avails himself of Baroque procedure, writing a powerful passacaglia, whose repeated basstheme, working its way through the instrumental registers, is related to the main subject of the score’s initial episode. Barber’s use of passacaglia links his symphony to those of Roy Harris and William Schuman (No. 3 in both cases), which followed Barber’s within a short time.

Tawa accords Barber the singular honor of appearing in two of his chapters. Barber wrote his second and last symphony while serving in the Army Air Corps in World War Two. In some ways more conventional than Symphony No. 1, Symphony No. 2 (1944) disposes itself in three movements on a fast-slow-fast plan; Symphony No. 2 is a larger work than Symphony No. 1, requiring about thirty minutes in performance. Symphony No. 2 is also noticeably more modern in sound than its precursor. In the chapter on “Symphonies of the War Years,” Tawa remarks the score’s “nervous tension” expressed in “angular melodies, terse motifs, constantly recurring dotted rhythms… and high levels of dissonance.” The music is everywhere “edgy,” but “closely ordered.” It is something of a mystery then why Barber, after recording the piece in 1950, disowned it and, beginning in 1964, actually tried to destroy all remaining copies of the score. Tawa suggests that, “he was probably fed up with the relentless attacks of the serialists”; in any case, at this time, Barber “found conductors … denying him a place in their programs.” Thus, “obliterating the symphony may have been the outcome of despondency, a despairing response to the negativity he was encountering daily.”

In the case of Hanson, Tawa strays provocatively from the critical flock by finding considerable fault with the famous “Romantic Symphony,” Hanson’s best known because most-recorded and most-played work, while nominating that composer’s Symphony No. 3 (1937) as his finest. Indeed, Tawa devotes four pages to what “strikes [him] as the most outstanding of Hanson’s [seven] symphonies.” Tawa praises the work as technically accomplished, philosophical, and melodious. “The listener listens to the final notes,” Tawa writes, “aware that they conclude a musical poem of near-epic proportions.” Where Barber experienced a posthumous revival of his reputation, however, Hanson seems today to be largely a name in the record-catalogue, known to connoisseurs and an object of nostalgic contemplation whose scores, however, are unlikely to be encountered in the concert hall. Tawa’s observation that Hanson’s subsequent symphonies never approached the artistic level of Symphony No. 3 perhaps explains this, but so does the fact that there is no equivalent in Hanson’s catalogue of Barber’s Violin Concerto (1938), which is played all over the world.

On Harris and Schuman, Tawa has much of interest to say, and he is refreshingly direct in his assessment of Harris. Tawa characterizes Schuman’s Symphony No. 3 (1941) as “The Muscular Symphony,” an apt description. Less Romantic, more self-consciously modern than Barber in harmony and orchestration, Schuman in his No. 3 nevertheless makes use of some of the same compositional devices as Barber. Barber’s Symphony in One Movement concludes in a passacaglia and his Symphony No. 2 concludes with something like a fugue. Schuman disposes his Symphony No. 3 in two movements, each subdivided into two phases, the titles of which come from Baroque procedure—Passacaglia and Fugue (I) and Chorale and Toccata (II). Tawa comments that, “the composer’s willingness to allow strong feeling to enter [the symphony’s] pages” rescues the work from its machine-like, constructivist character. As everywhere in The Great American Symphony, Tawa’s purely verbal explanations of technical aspects of the score are lucid and non-specialist-friendly, not an easy effect to achieve with reference to music as relentlessly contrapuntal and form-obsessed as Schuman’s. For Tawa, Schuman’s Symphony No. 4 (1942) is “gloomy, fervid, and astringent.”But its strong procedural logic is attractive. In Symphony No. 5 for Strings (1943), Schuman strikes Tawa as “worn down by the war.”

The Great American Symphony acknowledges Harris’s Symphony No. 3 (1938) as a masterpiece, but it also acknowledges that the work stands out as something of a fluke in its composer’s oeuvre, for in no subsequent work entitled symphony did Harris ever again achieve such memorable material or such a convincing formal scheme. When Tawa writes that, “the intelligibility of the structure is welcome,” he seems implicitly to be selecting Symphony No. 3 from the other twelve (or fourteen or fifteen) similarly titled scores by the same composer. Of Symphony No. 5 (1942), Tawa observes how “few of the ideas are particularly distinguished or warrant development” and how “excessive use of loud volumes of brass and percussion detract from the total effect.” As for Symphony No. 6 (1944), subtitled “Gettysburg,” Harris seems unsure how to bring off a persuasive conclusion: “As is frequently the case with Harris’s finales, the intended effect falls flat.” In Tawa’s judgment, “self-criticism was not [the composer’s] forte.” Indeed, Harris seems to have been an instance of the egocentric self-promoter whose verbal self-advocacy is ultimately more convincing in the short term than his artistic achievement. At least one colleague of Tawa has referred to Harris (in private conversation with the present writer) as a technical incompetent who accidentally got it right once or twice.

The chapter on “Symphonies of the War Years” contains valuable discussion of composers who have not received much attention in music histories: Antheil, for example, whose Symphony No. 4 (1944) deserves revival, and Thompson, whose Symphonies Nos. 2 (1932) and 3 (1947) would also appeal to today’s audiences, would only some enterprising maestro put one of them or both on a program.

In addition to its lucid analytical and evaluative discussion of so many symphonic scores, The Great American Symphony is also praiseworthy for its frank endorsement of the idea that art is never simply, as postmodern theory insists, a matter of abstract form or a reflection of repressive ideology. Far from it, Tawa grasps that art—not least music—is bound up both symptomatically and inspirationally with the health of a polity. He treats the music that trend-setting elites promoted in place of the music of Barber, Schuman, Mennin, Creston, and others with skepticism and deplores the snobbism that conferred its badge of authenticity only on those scores that addressed the audience with the sneering equivalent of a loud “to hell with you.” Tawa judges it as good that during the Roosevelt years, many ordinary Americans acquired the habits of concert going and listening attentively to broadcasts “in order to experience what was for them a rewarding enrichment of their everyday lives.” Tawa echoes Aristotle when he asserts that such people “were able to join others in the audience in common appreciation of art at the finest expressive level.”

In this way, as a defender both of tradition and of high-cultural experience, Tawa is at one with contemporary conservative views of art in its relation to culture, such as Roger Scruton’s in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (2008) or Carson Holloway’s in All Shook Up (2001). It is slightly ironic that Tawa would probably not classify himself as philosophically conservative judging by his casual, stereotypical remarks about “McCarthyism.” Nevertheless he is a kind of esthetic conservative and that is a good thing. The Great American Symphony concludes with Tawa’s observation that American composers today seem largely to have rejected the doctrines of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and have returned both to audience-accessible musical languages and the composition of symphonies. Tawa’s book will be of immense interest to anyone curious about the relation of American art and society in the last century.  

Thomas F. Bertonneau is the author of numerous articles on literature, anthropology, philosophy, education, and music. His study of Alfred de Vigny appears in the current Anthropoetics. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego.