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Educational and patriotic thoughts about American music

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–Earlier this month we celebrated our Independence Day. My thoughts brought me to the importance of American music, and the shameful neglect we have allowed music education to be. Part of this was stimulated by an article in the editorial section of the San Diego Union-Tribune by John M. Eger, on July 8.

But first, let me share with you a sensitive, meaningful poem by an anonymous music teacher, circa, well….anytime:

WHY I TEACH MUSIC:

Not because I expect you to major in music.

Not because I expect you to play or sing all your life.

Not so you can relax or have fun.

But…

So you will be human,

So you will recognize beauty,

So you will be closer to an infinite beyond this world, So you will have something to cling to, So you will have more love, compassion, more gentleness,

 More good….in short, more life!

Of what value will it be to make a prosperous living

Unless you know how to live?

On American and modern music: We have been conditioned to believe that if it is called “modern music”, or if the name of the composer is unknown to us, it is probably ugly and not worth our attention. Yes, there is a natural tendency to dislike the unknown, but in music, sadly, we do not even give it a chance to redeem itself. Even the late Karl Haas (from the enormously popular radio program “Adventures in Good Music”) told me that he sometimes received fan letters which warned him that if he as much as mentions the fact that he was about to play music from the Twentieth Century, the radio would be turned off immediately. This is tragic; it is cultural suicide.

I remember sadly an evening of music played by the San Diego Symphony, maybe fifteen years ago. In the first half was music by Robert Schumann, and after intermission, the conductor programmed the fabulous Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók. The latter is to me one of the greatest compositions ever. Period. You can imagine my disappointment, pain, and frustration to see more than half of the audience trampling its way to Symphony Hall’s exits, just to avoid listening to Bartók in the second half! In retrospect, the program order should have been reversed.

The fact is, that there is a vast amount of modern music, a lot of it composed by Americans, which is accessible, enjoyable, even at a first hearing, and very melodious. In other words, it is what I call “listener friendly”.

After being so involved with the subject of American orchestral music (I gave a lecture on the subject to the music faculty of Hebrew University in Jerusalem), I have had many a talk with musicians, critics, and music lovers. One salient fact stands out: The American public has an inferiority complex about its own music. We tend to believe that if it originated in Europe, it is probably better, and if it is from the U.S., it will be lacking in depth and lasting value. Only history will eventually resolve this, but I have noticed in my various travels and conversations that most natives from other countries support and proudly believe in their own heritage, whether it be historic or contemporary. Audiences and musicians alike enthusiastically program and attend concerts of their own composers in Canada, Poland, Denmark, England, Mexico, and the former Soviet republics. I am sure that it is the same in many other places; but don’t get me started on Israel!

Curiously, when I was invited to guest conduct in Lithuania in 1992, when working out the repertory to be performed at the concerts, I was politely asked to “please not bring any Copland, Gershwin, or Bernstein”. At first, I was surprised and a bit annoyed, already thinking of several hidden implications from that request. But after directly asking the director of the Lithuanian Philharmonic as to “why”, the answer was surprising: “We don’t want you to bring us music from these composers, because we program them too frequently, and they are very popular here. We want you to bring to us some different American music”. So, I brought them Paul Creston, Alan Hovhaness, Norman Dello-Joio, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Ernest Bloch. After the fact, the musicians told me how much they enjoyed playing the music of these composers, and the audiences seemed responsive and enthusiastic, in both Vilnius and Kaunas.

As an aside, I was told by a cellist of the Vilnius orchestra, “We are glad that you brought us the music of Bloch. During the Soviet regime, we were not allowed to perform his music, just because he was Jewish”. He also proudly showed me a printed program for later in the month, where he was performing Bloch’s Schelomo, the Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra.

Getting back to our American heritage, it is best to quote the words and spirit of one of our greatest composers, Charles Ives. He not only preached, but practiced the concept of “Wake up, America! The culture and traditions of Europe are fine, but stand up, support, and enjoy your own wonderful music”.

I fully endorse that. Let us strive to discover and enjoy totally unknown and lesser known treasures of our past and present. Be careful, you may enjoy what you hear.

*
Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and a guest conductor of professional orchestras around the world

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