Is There Any American Classical Music?

In summer 2011, I had the privilege of attending a master class in voice at the Mozarteum music academy in Salzburg, Austria.  I was immersed in a different language, a different culture, and, more specifically, a different musical culture.  I had gone with a certain set of expectations as to what I would learn; little did I know that those expectations would be completely thwarted and that my perspectives shifted.

I had expected to absorb the great Austro-Germanic tradition, to be steeped in the city of Mozart, because after all, we in the United States do not have a Mozart.  Nor do we have such deep roots in classical music. The general public in Europe and Austria is arguably more interested in classical music than the American general public.  People might know the words to an opera aria even in a language not their own, or be willing to create radical opera productions because they have seen enough traditional ones to crave something new. Also, classical music in America is plagued with financial difficulties that music in Europe does not generally endure, given that their governments actively fund the arts.  Therefore, the volume and scope of classical music offerings is much greater and lavish than what one can find here in the United States, with the exception of New York city and a couple of other places. Traditionally, royalty and courts have supported classical music, even fostered its development.  So naturally, I assumed that the depth, history, and prominence of classical music in a country like Austria automatically trumped our fledgling American tradition.  After all, when you see Mozart on a chocolate wrapper, you’ve got to assume that these people care!  But my logic was proven only partially correct. After my experience at Salzburg, I came to understand that Austria does indeed have a rich tradition, but I recognized that we also have a distinct musical culture of our own.

Perhaps as Americans we have a complex that our classical music tradition isn’t “good enough” when we compare ourselves to Europeans.  We do not have as long or deep of non-popular or art music in our culture.  And rather than being something that is just a part of our background, classical music here is often an elite phenomenon that is enjoyed by people living more urban areas and/or who are more affluent.  But what is so uniquely American is that the ethnic diversity that is the hallmark of our country is reflected in our classical music. We have deep Italian roots, especially in opera, reaching back to colonial times and including genius librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (think Don Giovanni or Cosi’ Fan Tutte), who was the first professor of Italian at Columbia University; rich, German (choral) traditions so prominently found in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions that are imparted to children in schools from the time they are very young; African-American spirituals and blues traditions that have filtered into our sensibility through compositions and also through the performers, who are often known for their passion, elegance, depth of feeling, and (pardon the horrible cliche’) “soul”; refugee Jews who brought with them their rigorous training in technique, deep knowledge and scholarship, and emotion when they escaped various pogroms or wars and settled into various conservatories, universities, musical ensembles, solo careers, or even Hollywood film studios; and in more recent decades, the influx of Asian musicians who bring incredible discipline to their craft and an unparalleled enthusiasm for excellence, not to mention brilliant artistry (Sarah Chang, anyone?).  Various artists of classical musics from around the world have also inspired the American tradition when they have come here and collaborated with our performers and composers.  And of course, we cannot neglect our good old “Yankee ingenuity” with innovative individuals that have created unique forms and styles of their own.  We have Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, and renowned women like Joan Tower and Meredith Monk, to name but a few.

These are, of course, but broadly painted generalizations of our various cultural strands, and I am indeed neglecting numerous others who have contributed to our classical music melting pot.  But the point remains:  America is indeed a powerhouse in terms of classical music.  Certainly in such a huge country there is a wide range of training for aspiring musicians, some of it downright shoddy.  But there is also plenty of world-class education too, preparing the future virtuosos and good, decent, working musicians of tomorrow.  American conservatories and music departments are full of international students and professors—-if this is not a sign of our musical prowess, I don’t know what is.  Our diversity has made our classical music heritage something remarkable, drawing on the strengths of various cultures.

I am now a wiser musician who can certainly appreciate a Mozart, or a Sibelius (visiting his home outside Helsinki and even being allowed to play his piano was a most heartwarming experience!)  But I have learned my lesson through experience, learned how wonderful a classical music tradition we have here in the United States.  And the exciting thing is, it’s only going to grow even more.  It really does take stepping away from your own country in order to appreciate it.

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