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Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music$

Michael Broyles

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780300100457

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300100457.001.0001

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“Prologue to the Annual Tragedy”

“Prologue to the Annual Tragedy”

(p.92) Chapter 5 “Prologue to the Annual Tragedy”
Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music

Broyles Michael

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The emergence of modernism in the American musical world represents a dramatic break with the past. Initial attempts to plant musical modernism on American soil proved futile, but change finally occurred in the 1920s, thanks to a group of headstrong, individualist, imaginative, creative maverick composers. It happened in 1922, when ultramodern musicians, helped by sympathizers in the other arts, began to launch what became a successful campaign to establish modernism in American music. These ultramoderns succeeded because they organized in a way no musicians had done before, thus dramatically transforming relationship between artist and the public. In New York, it was the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz who had helped make modernism part of the art world since the beginning of the twentieth century. The man who had his pulse on American music in 1920 was Paul Rosenfeld, the most important voice for the musical avant-garde from 1917 through the 1920.

Keywords:   modernism, American music, maverick composers, arts, ultramoderns, New York, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Rosenfeld

CHANGE MAY BE INEVITABLE, but most humans crave stability, or, barring that, at least continuity. Historians try to oblige. As they sift through the shards of the past, they seek that continuity, usually by searching for connections with the present. An explanation of origins, sources, and causes can serve a mediative as well as an intellectual function.

Continuity and connections thus become part of our world, ubiquitous, fundamental to the modern mind-set. They span television programs as well as books; they are an assumed, inevitable element of our thought. But unfortunately reality does not always cooperate. Sometimes change comes suddenly and dramatically. New developments appear, completely unanticipated, often disrupting a stasis that had been in place for many years. These sharp edges of historical fracture can loom disturbing or threatening, upsetting the haven of temporal coherence. As such they provide a challenge many historians relish, to wrest them in, to reestablish a smoothness and connection with the past. Yet in such cases historical accuracy may best be served if the historian admits that suddenness rather than trying to explain it away.

The arrival of modernism to the American musical world is one such dramatic break with the past. Although certain individuals had struggled mightily to plant musical modernism on American soil, in virtually every case it withered and died almost immediately, leaving very little residue.1 The climate was too hostile for its nourishment, and a stasis that had been in place since at least the 1880s remained. Yet a break was imminent, and it came so suddenly that its swiftness has escaped the notice of most historians.

(p.93) When and how did this happen? When, 1922, a pivotal year in the history of American music, one of the major fault lines in the American musical landscape. Before 1922, the American musical world seemed frozen in the late nineteenth century, lost on its own plain. After 1922 the musical world could no longer ignore or dismiss the artistic revolution that was unfolding.

How? In 1922 musicians, helped by sympathizers in the other arts, began to mount what was ultimately a successful campaign to establish a new outpost on the slope of modernism. In essence the ultramoderns succeeded because they organized in a way no musicians had done before, and in so doing they altered fundamentally the relationship between artist and the public. This and the next chapter are about how a group of maverick ultramoderns radically transformed the American musical landscape.

The suddenness of this upheaval has gone unrecognized precisely because of the continuity bias that pervades the historical disciplines. Scholars have stressed earlier attempts by composers, both singularly and collectively, to promote new ideas as steps on the way to the ultramodern revolution of the 1920s. Such material provided sufficient explanation to obviate the need to focus on specific and individual years. Yet the utter failure of the modernists to significantly affect the American musical world undermines the argument for smooth evolutionary development. Only Ornstein made any sort of impact, and even he retreated, for a complex of singular, personal reasons. When one looks at the American musical landscape immediately prior to 1922 it becomes apparent just how bleak the horizon appeared to the modernist.2

American Music, Stuck on a Plain

To many observers in the years following World War I, Charles Ives and Leo Ornstein had brought the America musical world to the edge of chaos.3 From 1913 Ornstein had perplexed and disquieted audiences with his futuristic works, which to many obliterated all rationality in the music universe. Then, as suddenly as he came, he disappeared. And just as Ornstein departed from public view, Ives emerged from his two-decade withdrawal from the professional music world, startling musicians across the country with his Concord Sonata and his huge collection of songs. Beginning in 1921, hundreds of musicians to their surprise found packages of printed music in their mail, sent gratis, compliments of Mr. Ives.

Ives and Ornstein were not alone in their musical intuitions. In Europe, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók were moving in the same direction. And on the West Coast, Henry Cowell had begun to experiment (p.94) with tone clusters in ways both similar to and different from what Ives and Ornstein did. None of those composers had reached the American public when Ives and Ornstein began their treks, however. Cowell became known only in the 1920s after he returned from Europe, and, except for those whose works Ornstein performed, few European modernists were heard in the United States before 1920. The infant recording industry was interested mainly in Italian tenors and a few well-known instrumentalists; commercial radio stations simply did not exist.

Ives and Ornstein were in one sense too individualistic. Each followed his own drummer, but neither tried to change the way Americans went about the business of presenting and hearing music. Throughout the 1910s Ornstein did remain on the front line, introducing audiences to modernistic music. But it was not enough. Americans might be fascinated with the maverick, but the disdain he elicited precluded his ability to effect change. The dynamic quality of American culture came from its open, flexible nature, which supported the fluid, self-directed formation and reformation of organizations and alliances, not from the quirky individual. If American music was to find a new direction, more than the occasional work of an isolated artist who carved out a unique career was necessary, particularly when forces of resistance were as strong as they were in the 1910s. In other words composer and public might be in different places on a single mountain but one or two composers alone could not successfully maintain a foothold on an entirely different range. When one of the most profound changes in American musical culture finally occurred in the 1920s, it was only because a group of headstrong, individualist, imaginative, creative mavericks could somehow align themselves, at least briefly, into a community.

While the Other Arts Embrace Modernism

The situation in music is all the more ironic when compared to the other arts. By the 1920s literature and the visual arts had fully embraced modernism, and Europeans looked to the United States for the future. In 1917 the Italian dadaist Francis Picabia wrote: “It is in America where something must happen. Paris is nothing but a remnant of what it once was. In Europe, countries and cities: there's nothing to speak of.” Picabia wrote these lines in a letter to the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, the man who had almost single-handedly defined American modernism.4

That modernism had been part of the New York art world since the beginning of the twentieth century was primarily because of Stieglitz. His contributions were twofold: without question among the great photographers of (p.95)

“Prologue to the Annual Tragedy”

Alfred Stieglitz, Paula (1889), a work that revolutionized American photography (Courtesy of the Photography Collections, University of Maryland, Baltimore County)

all time, Stieglitz was one of the first American artists to master an out-and-out modernist approach; his gallery “291,” located at 291 Fifth Avenue, became the intellectual locus of modernism in the first decade of the twentieth century, with Stieglitz as its resident guru.

Stieglitz's journey into modernism began metaphorically with Paula, a photograph he made in 1889, when he was studying in Germany. This (p.96) haunting photograph of an otherwise unknown German woman, quietly writing at her desk as she is bathed in bands of light coming through the shades, evokes a quiet romanticism. But Paula is no grandiose, melodramatic romantic subject. She is real, and the moment is touching in its intimacy and its very ordinariness. The photograph itself is a technical tour de force; no one before had been able to resolve the values of light and shade found in the Paula photograph.

Stieglitz returned to his native city, New York, in 1890, after nine years of study in Germany, and quickly mastered his modernist approach. While painters in Europe were starting to dissect their world into interlocking cubes, Stieglitz eschewed the painterly approach of most turn-of-the-century photographers and celebrated the new urban environment of New York with images that combined the realism of straight photography with a powerful sense of mood and composition. In Stieglitz's best work we see little nostalgia for the old but rather a celebration of the new, of industrial life with all its ugliness and harsh beauty.5

Stieglitz needed an outlet for his work, however, and he founded several. He organized a group called the Photo-Secession, a name borrowed from avant-garde or “secessionist” photographers in Austria who challenged the reigning realistic school of photography, and he established two magazines, Camera Notes and Camera Work, that further argued the case for modernism. His most important contribution was the gallery he established in New York, the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, better known as “291.” It was much more than a vehicle for Stieglitz s own art. He mounted exhibitions in all media, and the gallery soon became a gathering place where artists and others interested in new art could discuss and debate the latest developments. The influence of the 291 gallery extended to Europe. Francis Picabia visited New York in 1913 and came away so impressed with Stieglitz's gallery that he modeled his new journal 391 on it. He wrote to Stieglitz: “You will receive a journal ‘391’ that is a double of your journal ‘291.’ … it's better than nothing, as here there is truly nothing, nothing, nothing.”6

Gallery “291” lasted until 1917, but its heyday was from 1905 through 1912. The year 1913 brought the International Exhibition of Modern Art, which was held at the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory in New York City and became known as the Armory Show. Probably the most important single event in American art, certainly the most significant event in the establishment of modernism in America, the Armory Show for the first time gave Americans a full sense of the new currents in Europe. It created a sensation. An estimated eighty-seven thousand people saw it in New York, and it made headlines in all the city's newspapers. After its New York run the show traveled to Boston (p.97) and Chicago, where it met a similar reception. All together an estimated three hundred thousand people saw the exhibition.

The Armory Show was also the beginning of the end for the 291 gallery. In the political world of New York art, Stieglitz was essentially shut out of the show as a planner and participant, and he never quite regained the position he had. But by then it didn't matter; modernism was established in the United States, with the emergence of Arthur Dove, John Marin, Joseph Stella, Man Ray, Georgia O'Keeffe, and others. It got a big boost in 1915 when both Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, whose Nude Descending a Staircase had been the prime shocker of the Armory Show, immigrated to the United States. World War I had much to do with their decisions, but the success of the Armory Show contributed significantly.7

In literature modernist works had begun to appear even before the war. William Carlos Williams, a country doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, published his first volume of poetry, Poems, in 1909. In New York and later Hartford, Connecticut, Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive whose life parallels Ives's in uncanny ways, was writing poetry derived from the symbolists of France. Beginning with his first published poem, “Carnet de Voyage” in Trend in 1914, Stevens's works appeared regularly in magazines over the next several years, culminating in his first book of poetry, Harmonium, in 1923. The Egoist in London published Marianne Moore's first poems in 1915. Six years later, when the Egoist Press issued a book of twenty-four of her poems, she was recognized internationally as a major modernist poet. Meanwhile, by 1909 Ezra Pound had settled in London, published his first books of poems, met William Butler Yeats and Ford Madox Ford, and joined the Second Poet's Club.

American literary modernism, a movement with poetry at its core, was promulgated in large measure through a series of small magazines founded in the 1910s and ′20s: Vanity Fair, the New Republic, Theater Arts Monthly, the Dial, Seven Arts, the American Mercury, the Saturday Review. Many were political as well as literary. Some were primarily political, almost always leftist. The Masses was overtly socialist, using art, literature, and investigative journalism to attack the evils of capitalism. The New Republic, though more mainstream, was a journal of opinion rather than a journal of the arts, as James Oppenheim, the founder of Seven Arts, observed. Other magazines, including Seven Arts and the Little Review, did focus specifically on the arts. Yet even some of those that were not political nevertheless directly challenged conservative opinion. The Little Review defiantly published excerpts from James Joyce's Ulysses, an act that resulted in the publisher of the magazine being prosecuted for obscenity in New York in 1922. (p.98) Found guilty, he was fined fifty dollars and ordered not to publish any more from the book.

None of the magazines was more important to music or had a longer history than the Dial, which from the start blended political thought with literary pursuits and musical criticism. The original Dial, a vehicle for transcendentalism, was founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller in 1840, with John S. Dwight as its music editor. Although the transcendental Dial survived only until 1844, in 1880 Francis F. Browne resurrected it in Chicago, and until his death in 1913 the new Dial published critical and political essays from many of the leading thinkers of the time.

The Dial continued uncertainly until 1916 when Martyn Johnson purchased it and made it into a voice of radical journalism. It never lost its literary orientation, however, and in 1919, through a complex series of insider moves, Scofield Thayer bought out Johnson's stake, moved it from Chicago to New York, and refocused it as a journal exclusively for literature and the arts. Beginning in 1920 the Dial played a major role in defining musical modernism.

But the Musical World Remained Aloof

Amazingly, the American musical world remained untouched by modernism into the 1920s, seemingly impervious to the tempest unleashed in the other arts. Both musicians and the public reacted to musical modernism as a thing apart, viewing it from the cocoon of a musical tradition handed down from the 1880s. Departures from the tradition were aberrations. When Ives tried to interest professional musicians in his compositions, or when Ornstein presented his new works to the public, the composers were looked upon as misguided eccentrics at best. At worst Ornstein was seen as some sort of circus sideshow, the price of a ticket allowing one to gawk and guffaw at a very public act of musical mayhem. A few connected Ornstein's explorations with those of the cubists and the primitivists, but the musical public in general continued to view him within the framework of a strictly musical world gone awry. To most, music was a one-of-a-kind art in America in the early twentieth century.

For those few interested in modernism, 1918–21 seemed a barren period in American music. A few foreign visitors attempted to interest the American musical public in new music. Busoni made his third appearance in 1915, having previously been there in 1903 and 1910. Ernest Bloch arrived in 1916 and decided to remain in the United States. Several of his pieces were programmed in 1916 and 1917, and through Paul Rosenfeld's influence Bloch was associated briefly with the Seven Arts magazine. Most notably, Sergey (p.99) Prokofiev appeared in 1918 and gave a number of concerts between then and 1922, playing several of his pieces, including the Second Piano Sonata, Op. 14, and Visions Fugitive.

Yet modernism seemed to make no headway. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring did not receive its New York preview until 1924, even though Sergey Diaghilev toured with the Ballets Russes in 1916. Diaghilev apparently concluded that the United States was not ready for the Rite, and he was probably correct. By 1920 Ornstein had begun to curtail his concert career and was already considering alternatives; he soon retreated to a teaching position in Philadelphia. He had also begun to compose more conservative, accessible music and play more traditional programs. Edgard Varèse was thoroughly rebuffed for attempting to do orchestrally in 1918 what Ornstein had done at the piano. Ives did not even try to reach an audience until 1921; and when he did he received little more than polite and puzzled thank-you's.

Some musicians who would later have key roles seemed oblivious to modernism prior to 1922. Onboard ship to Paris in 1921 Aaron Copland wrote home about three Frenchmen who instructed him in French and enjoyed immensely his linguistic faux pas. One of them in particular, “the painter, who is a man about 30,” befriended Copland. The painter was Marcel Duchamp, and years later Copland admitted, “this meant nothing to me, despite the fact that in 1913, at the New York Armory Show, he had sent the art world into a tizzy with his Nude Descending a Staircase.” True, Copland was only thirteen at the time of the Armory Show, but as a teenager he regularly read literary journals such as the Dial, which were well attuned to various phases of modernism.8

Charles Ives seemed equally unaware of events in the other arts, or at least chose to ignore them. Recent research has softened the image that his earliest biographies presented of a man almost totally isolated from his surroundings. We now see him as very much a man of his time: Ives was quite familiar with the products of his European musical heritage and his contemporaries, and he was much in tune with social and political movements of his day. But no one has yet been able to establish a connection between Ives and nonmusical manifestations of modernism. Ives lived for many years in the heart of Greenwich Village, yet intellectually he was miles from the Stieglitz school, and there is no record of him even noticing the Armory Show. Given the press coverage, he must have known about it. Would he have gone to see it? Probably not. And did Ives read any of the new literary works? He and Harmony read a great deal, but what evidence there is suggests it was mostly nineteenth-century literature.9 At best we are confronted with a stony silence from Ives.

(p.100) Why did modernism and music seem to live in such different worlds in America? This situation contrasts strongly with Europe: in Germany music and literature had been closely tied since the nineteenth century; in France music derived much inspiration from painting; and in Austria Freudian thought profoundly influenced all the arts.

For Ives modernism was partly a moral issue. Many writers have seen him as the Victorian recalcitrant, morally disturbed by the shocking behavior of modernist artists and the positions they espoused. He could not even accept nudity in painting. Yet Ives was typical of his time in one respect: modernism was associated with Greenwich Village, and by the 1910s Greenwich Village was known as a hotbed of not only radical thought and artistic experimentation but disturbing (for the time) lifestyles, a place where free love, lesbianism, and homosexuality were condoned. Ives the typical New York businessman looked askance at such goings-on in the Village, as did many of his colleagues. Ives firmly believed in old-fashioned family values.10

Yet while the moral challenge to Victorian lifestyles that the new artists posed may have bothered Ives, it hardly accounts for the overall distance between music and the other arts. More important was the continuing strength of formalism. American musicians believed in universal principles long after art had called them into question. Leo Ornstein's pieces were blasted, not just because they sounded like cacophony to many listeners, but because they violated perceived universal rules of sound and form. In music system has always been important, and many considered its absence a critical flaw. Thus in 1914 Thomas Vincent Cator could write to Musical America that “Leo Ornstein uses no systematic harmonic construction; unless he is systematic in the use of none at all.” Cator then went on to reharmonize the opening measures of Ornstein's first of Two Impressions of Notre Dame “according to the best principles of harmony with chords that are logically related to one another.” Four years later Charles L. Buchanan, in a discussion of Ornstein, asserted that “music, as we of the Western world have understood it, is a disciplined sound, sound made captive by a kind of mathematical set of figures and indications.” Ironically this is not only the same argument that was leveled against Charles Ives, but it is the same argument that serialists would use after World War II, when they sought to break with the past. It is an attempt to ground musical process in a formal tradition, or at least a formal system.11

The formalist conception of music undermined its importance in another way. Music in the late nineteenth century was considered to be in women's sphere, at a time when such gender separation was deeply embedded in the culture. Such a locus depended on the nineteenth-century notion (p.101) that music was abstract and pure, part of the formalist assumption. Henry T. Finck confirmed that such attitudes marginalized the importance of music. In 1904 he addressed directly the question of the place of music in American life. He wished to “silence such men” who held the notion that music was merely a “plaything.” (The emphasis is added here, but Finck's context stresses the point.) Yes, that was the problem, Finck observed: real men did not take music seriously. He then went on to suggest that music indeed was more than a plaything, citing three examples: music in the church, music for important social and ceremonial occasions, and music in the military. “The same man who sneers at music as a mere plaything would not want his daughter married without the atmosphere of solemnity and jubilation it gives the occasion, or bury a member of his family without the ongoing strains of a funeral dirge.” Finck then appealed to the Gilded Age male where it counted the most, his family and his pocketbook: add up the cost of tens of thousands of organists every week, and then ask why would pastors spend so much money if they considered music “a mere plaything.”12

Finck's argument helps explain Ives s own defensiveness, but it also underscores the distance between the place of music and the other arts in American culture. For instance, even though many novels were written by women at the turn of the century, there was no need to defend the work of William James or Henry Adams as being a “mere plaything.” They may have needed defending, but for other reasons. Literature had a very different tradition in American culture.

Ives may be the exception, snorting, railing about music and its “sissy” role, although in all fairness most of his rhetoric came later, but Ives typified most musicians in one sense. They did not connect to the other arts around them; when it came to modernism they just didn't get it. And this condition lasted well into the 1920s. In this respect Ives was a typical musician, although possibly more extreme than many. He refused to acknowledge even new musical experiments. I find it inconceivable that Ives did not know of Leo Ornstein's Bandbox concerts of 1915, particularly given their coverage in major New York newspapers. Yet there is no mention of them in the Ives record, and in 1921 he wrote, “Ain't never heard nor seen any of the music—not even a god damn note—of Schoenberg—Scriabine—Or Ornstein.”13 Whether that is true or not, and it is likely not, is beside the point; the aesthetic distance remains.

The first to notice the insularity of the American musical world was Edgard Varèse, who had arrived in the United States in 1915. A bona fide musical radical, Varèse was independent, headstrong, and rebellious. Varèse took one look at the musical scene and was appalled. Where were the American (p.102) modernists? He lamented both the timidity of composers and the conservativeness of musical organizations. He called them “Bourbons who learn nothing and forget nothing. They are mausoleums—mortuaries for musical reminiscences.”14

Varèse attempted to stir interest in new music, but he met stiff resistance from both musicians and the public.15 Like Ives and Ornstein, Varèse had leaped onto the slope of musical modernism, only to find himself cut off and isolated. Composers like Varèse and Ornstein were so distanced and removed they were unable to alter in any serious way the prevailing musical landscape.

The situation that so troubled Varèse persisted into the 1920s. The critic Paul Rosenfeld wrote a letter to his friend the novelist Sherwood Anderson that captured the mood of despair that hung over the New York scene. Although he surveys an arena much wider than music, his comments address the musical situation: “It seems to have been a miserable springtides for everyone. Poor [Ernest] Bloch in Cleveland has had a winter of physical ailment and the next thing to a nervous collapse. He looks as badly as I have ever seen him look. Ornstein I believe has done nothing at all. He worked for a month with the laborers on his place in the White Mountains and found that didn't satisfy him; now he talks of going into business. Stieglitz and [Georgia] O'Keeffe had a bad time of it, too, I think…. Everywhere there appears to be a sort of palsy…. I can readily comprehend that the general rottenness should have touched you, too. For it is a general rottenness in which we all are involved.”16 Six months later the mood had not improved. Rosenfeld again wrote to Anderson: “We are tired, aren't we? Everybody is dead tired.”17

If any man had his pulse on the American music world in 1920 it was Paul Rosenfeld. From 1917 through the 1920s he was the most important voice for the musical avant-garde. Rosenfeld had grown up in New York, amid comfortable middle-class Jewish surroundings. After graduating from Yale in 1912, he studied journalism at Columbia, then went to Europe. While there he had an epiphany: expatriation, an idea he toyed with, was not for him; nor was it a solution for the arts in America. America must create its own art, unbeholden to European models.

Rosenfeld returned to the United States in 1916 with a mission and fell in with a group of young intellectuals and writers, including Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Ralph Bourne. He also met and was much influenced by Alfred Stieglitz. In fact Rosenfeld considered the hours spent at Stieglitz's 291 gallery one of the two most formative events of this time and came to look upon Stieglitz as a surrogate father. Although none of the modernists in these (p.103) circles were professional musicians, music was ever on their minds, sometimes close to the center of their activities. As a young boy Stieglitz had dreamed of being a concert pianist, and Rosenfeld was the only nonperformer allowed to sit in on the evenings at Claire Raphael's house listening to an amateur string quartet that included Waldo Frank.18

The second defining experience for Rosenfeld was his friendship with Leo Ornstein, with whom he not only discussed music at length but also studied piano. The relationship began by chance, when Rosenfeld attended a private concert of Ornstein's at Claire Raphael's home. Rosenfeld identified immediately with Ornstein's futuristic works: here was the music of today. They reminded him of Stieglitz's photographs, except they were more violent: Ornstein's music recorded “not only the clangors, but all the violent forms of the city.” To Rosenfeld, “Ornstein is a mirror held up to the world of the modern city.”19

Rosenfeld wanted music to be about life and the contemporary world around him. His criticism of those composers who seemed to shun life was harsh. In April 1922 he reviewed a concert of the Music Guild, a group of young composers seeking to establish their styles. Rosenfeld was mostly disappointed with what he heard, pieces by Marion Bauer, Charles Haubile, Walter Kramer, and Deems Taylor, harmonies “out of the impressionistic period.” White Peacock, by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, was “really The Afternoon of a Peacock, and by no means the first afternoon the peacock had had.” Most of all Rosenfeld found these composers out of touch: their music was “of the sort given out by men who have very little contact with anything in the world save music, and who are unaware entirely of the fact…. They are fugitive from their own personalities. The world in which they breathe does not seep into their composition, and colour it. Like the audience's, their life remains somewhere within them, and never touches the earth.”20

In 1920 Rosenfeld accepted a position as music critic for the Dial, where his regular column, “Musical Chronicle,” had begun to appear in 1918. Before that he had published music and other criticism in the New Republic and Seven Arts. Later he became editor of the Dial.

By 1919 Rosenfeld had become, according to Copland, then still a teenager in Brooklyn, the person to read for the latest musical developments. Later, when Rosenfeld called Copland to compliment him on his Passacaglia and his piano piece Cat and Mouse, the first of the young composer's works heard in New York after his return from Europe, Copland comented, “I could not have been more surprised than if the President of the United States had called. To me, an okay from the critic of The Dial seemed better than approval from The New York Times.”21

(p.104) Rosenfeld's musical descriptions were poetic and searing, yet powerful in their deadly accuracy. Typical is his description of Schoenberg: “Arnold Schoenberg of Vienna is the great troubling presence of modern music. His vast, sallow skull lowers over it like a sort of North Cape. For with him, with the famous cruel five orchestral and nine piano pieces, we seem to be entering the arctic zone of musical art. None of the old beacons, none of the old stars, can guide us longer in these frozen wastes. Strange, menacing forms surround us, and the light is bleak and chill and faint.”22

This was written in 1920. It was signature Rosenfeld. As a critic Rosenfeld himself was a paradox—he used romantic weapons to write modernist criticism. The vivid metaphor, an intense, ornate prose, an excess of excess are Rosenfeld's. His rhetoric soars, his likes and dislikes are in the open, and he frequently aligns himself with the programmatic interpreters of the nineteenth century. He is the modernist and anti-modernist at once. He believes in something as nebulous as spirit in music, and he is staunchly anti-puritan, as the early moderns saw Puritanism. Yet he somehow managed to hang on to both edges of the chasm between criticism and poetry.

In the burgeoning world of musical modernism Rosenfeld was more than a music critic, however, as his relationship with Copland illustrates. From their first encounter Copland and Rosenfeld developed a warm friendship. Rosenfeld often invited Copland to his house for dinner, where the composer met a number of literary people, including Hart Crane, Lewis Mumford, Waldo Frank, E. E. Cummings, and Edmund Wilson. Copland described Rosenfeld as living “a bachelor life surrounded by the latest books.” Rosenfeld also introduced Copland to Minna Lederman, and after the performance of the Organ Symphony Rosenfeld worked out a plan with Lederman to improve Copland's financial state. Copland was invited to play for several possible benefactors at Lederman's parents' house, but when that produced little, Rosenfeld, at Lederman's urging, went to Alma Wertheim, who eventually gave Copland a check for a thousand dollars. Later, after Copland had began to achieve a reputation and needed a place to work on his “Incidental Music for an Imaginary Drama,” which eventually became Music for the Theatre, Rosenfeld pointed Copland in the direction of the MacDowell Arts Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.23

Copland was not the only musician to benefit from Rosenfeld's generous personality and concern for new music. His stature in the literary world gave him entrée into the homes of potential patrons, and Rosenfeld tapped into the New York world of individual patronage greatly to the benefit of music. He included musicians in his dinner parties, and when he heard of a new, talented composer, such as Roger Sessions, whom Ernest Bloch championed, (p.105) Rosenfeld invited him to his house. Rosenfeld was always ready to come to the aid of someone he liked and respected, be it to cook a dinner or pay a hotel bill.

Rosenfeld was an ardent champion of new music, and in addition to his regular column in the Dial he published four books on American music between 1920 and 1930, Musical Portraits, Musical Chronicle, Modern Tendencies in Music, and An Hour with American Music. Rosenfeld also wrote four other books in the 1920s as well as articles on painters and writers, including John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Marcel Proust, Guillaume Apollinaire, James Joyce, Carl Sandburg, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson (with whom he was quite close), and E. E. Cummings.24

Friendships, however, never clouded Rosenfeld's judgment. In 1927 he wrote about Copland, “His gift is decidedly proficient but small, as yet so immature that it makes the impression not so much of something human, as of something coltlike: all legs, head, and frisking hide; cantering past on long uncertain stilts…. With all his grandiosity and élan, Copland has not yet found a largely symbolic and inclusive form for his gift; or achieved, symphony and concerto notwithstanding, an expression of prime importance.” In a letter to Sherwood Anderson, Rosenfeld defended his integrity. The cause was an article highly critical of his friend Waldo Frank, a decision that caused Rosenfeld considerable agony and eventually a break with Frank. He wrote: “I can't have any subject on which I have to keep silent out of policy—that is dishonest and is unfair to myself as well as to others. I will not keep silent because a man is my friend, and if to-morrow I should feel myself cooking with some resentment against you or Van Wyck, I would go ahead, so help me God. Perhaps I ought not to have friends.”25

Yet Rosenfeld's importance to American musical history goes beyond his efforts to help young musicians or even his writing, some of the most eloquent yet ornate prose in the history of music criticism. He was the principal link between music and avant-garde activity in the other arts. He was part of the inner circle of New York literati, and he was willing to bring music into that circle. Probably more than any other person Rosenfeld awakened the American musical world to literary and artistic modernism and the literary and artistic world to musical modernism. His efforts were both professional and personal.His constant stream of Baroque prose squarely in the middle of the most important literary journal of the twenties, the Dial, resolved definitively the problem of music's isolation. Rosenfeld was the music critic for the Dial, even though he also wrote voluminously on other topics.

Rosenfeld's literary style was much maligned and resented, a clear sign of success. When Gorham B. Munson launched a new literary magazine, (p.106) Succession, in 1922, the first issue included a diatribe against the Dial. Although not mentioning him by name, Munson leveled his heaviest artillery at Rosenfeld: “It [the Dial] features a wallowing ox of a stylist who retails each month acres of vague impressionistic excrement on music, painting, and books.” This, of course, confirms that Rosenfeld was read. He simply could not be ignored, and consequently neither could his subjects.

Above all Rosenfeld was a champion of American music. In the modernist movement he saw America finally able to free itself from the yoke of European influence under which it had so long been burdened. This was an important part of how musicians and the public perceived their activities in the 1920s. This attitude is paradoxical because modernism was predominantly an international movement, a position stressed by some of the organizations that musicians formed at this time. But that fed back on itself, as the very international orientation of some of the organizations fomented resentment, splits, and the establishment of rival groups. The question of an American music did not go away in the 1920s; it was sometimes overshadowed by what seemed larger and more threatening issues, but nevertheless it remained an undercurrent, exerting a constant and sometimes powerful force.

In the summer of 1921 Rosenfeld, glumly anticipating the forthcoming musical season (1921–22), described just how mired in the past musical New York had become. The piece he wrote was called “Prologue to the Annual Tragedy”:

Without indulging in special thaumaturgical practices of any kind, without examining the entrails of any musical bird, you know exactly what is going to take place during the oncoming season. You know that what is going to happen is very much the same that happened last season; and that was next to nothing at all. There is no music to be had…. The profession of conductors will do heroic work as usual in preventing symphonies of any composers save Tschaikowsky and Brahms from being heard…. On the mouldering citadel of Wagner lies Bodansky like a thing of green bronze; he will conduct the ‘Walküre’ so inspiredly that she will sound an elder sister of ‘Madama Butterfly.’ As for the glorious company of the pianists, there's not a one of that exalted confraternity who won't be found playing the Chopin bminor sonata and all its faithful attendants. If one of them does the Opus 111 of Beethoven, all will do the Opus 111 of Beethoven.26

By 1922 strains in the musical status quo in the United States had reached the breaking point. At that time Deems Taylor interviewed Fritz Reiner, newly appointed conductor of the Cincinnati Orchestra. Reiner, who came directly from Europe, mentioned a new generation of composers, Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, and Ildebrando Pizzetti. (p.107) (Pizzetti, mostly unknown today, created a considerable stir in 1915 with his opera Fedra.) Reiner went out of his way to stress that Strauss and Debussy were fine composers, but “their day is past, that is, as sources of inspiration for other men. We cannot go on building on their work.”27 America may or may not have wanted to hear Reiner's message, but his implication was clear: Americans were still a generation behind.

An article by Constantin von Sternberg that appeared in the Musical Quarterly in January 1921 unwittingly made clear just what Reiner meant. Entitled “Against Modernism,” it is a vitriolic polemic blasting musical modernism and music critics who take modernism seriously. At one point von Sternberg contrasts modernistic composers with Palestrina, Monteverdi, Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, and other historical figures who were considered radical in their time, always pointing out why the older composers are dramatically different from the modernists. But who are the composers von Sternberg criticizes? Throughout this ten-page diatribe he never once mentions a modernist composer's name! The only clue comes about two-thirds of the way through the article with a single reference to several pieces, “Eulenspiegel, Don Quioxte, Salome, Electra,” followed by a diatribe against Salome: “The Bible dramatized! Ruth? Magdalene? Deborah? Not much!—Salome! Perverseness glorified…. Nice ethics, that! And why all this to-do? What for? Only and exclusively for the laus dives plebeii in terms of coin which the late Vespasian regarded as ‘oderless.’ Modernism—commercialism!”28

The four modernist pieces that von Sternberg specified were all by Richard Strauss, and they were written in 1895, 1897, 1905, and 1909, respectively. Thus in 1921, in possibly the most prestigious musical journal in the United States, Strauss was still considered the epitome of what was new and in von Sternberg's eyes bad about modern music.

A similar position regarding what was modern is found in the writing of W. J. Henderson, a conservative critic. In February 1921 he wrote in the New York Herald about “Obstinate Conductors [who] Play Music Progressives Do Not Like Hoping to Make Them Like It.” To Henderson progressives were the enlightened public, those open-minded people on whom the future of the art depended. Yet Henderson had little sympathy for those conductors who tried to force modernist music on the progressives. Was he suggesting Varèse, Ives, Schoenberg, Bartók? No. In 1921 Henderson was referring specifically to Gustav Mahler and Aleksandr Skryabin, turn-of-the-century composers whose outputs were generated mostly between 1890 and 1910.29

Meanwhile forces beyond the control of modernist musicians or critics contributed to further destabilization of the American musical landscape. In (p.108) particular a bifurcation between high and low culture, or classical and popular, grew into a major rift, with a concomitant loss of the middle ground. Some sort of split between high and low culture was of course nothing new. It had existed for centuries. Early understandings of the difference were as much political or place-bound as musical: music for the court as opposed to music for the countryside, music for the cathedral instead of the parish church. Music of high culture was often more complex, certainly grander, as it was designed to mirror and enhance the upper strata of the hierarchical society in which it was born. Music of low culture was often simpler, more spontaneous and less fixed, frequently dependent on oral tradition. But there was overlap; Mozart's final opera, The Magic Flute, as subtle, symbolic, and complex as any opera in the literature, was composed for a lower-class theater on the edge of Vienna, not the aristocrat-patronized houses that premiered most of his other works.

The idea of high and low culture was redefined in the nineteenth century, when high culture took on moral, idealistic trappings. Good music was good for you, and it was approached as a sacred object. Classical music became sacralized. To a writer like John S. Dwight the Adagio of a Beethoven symphony was as much a prayer as a hymn or psalm sung in church.

New electronic technology in the 1920s reordered cultural stratifications. The phonograph had existed since the late nineteenth century, but only after World War I did it become the mass medium that we know today. Similarly, radio broadcasting began only in the early 1920s, with the first commercial station originating in Pittsburgh in 1920. Radio and recordings had little direct effect on the work of the ultramoderns of the 1920s, but they intensified the split between high and low, with implications that affected all types of music making.

Emphasis on mass media took away the “genial middle ground” that Van Wyck Brooks spoke of in 1915. Much piano music of the nineteenth century existed somewhere in this middle area. Composers ranging from Edward MacDowell, for example, to many otherwise unknown today offered many small piano pieces to the public. How are they to be classified? MacDowell's “To a Wild Rose” was immensely popular, and it has since become a classic, in part because it was composed by MacDowell. Yet what about “Minuet Antique” by W. C. E. Seeboeck? Critics may not judge it as good a piece, but it nevertheless occupies much the same cultural ground as “To a Wild Rose,” or “To a Waterlilly.”

Nineteenth-century piano music was sometimes difficult to categorize partly because it was transmitted via the same mechanism, the printed page, as Beethoven's sonatas or Bach's fugues. With the increasing use of mass media (p.109) in the 1920s, popular culture became more distinctive and easily identifiable. It became even more a commodity, a tendency that had begun with the development of Tin Pan Alley, but the new technology extended that tendency dramatically. It allowed what was then called low culture to reach millions of Americans in a way that hitherto had been impossible. Most important, it standardized such culture and in so doing created a truly mass medium.

Standardization occurred because the low was no longer dependent on local conditions. Musicians of all stripes had toured extensively in the nineteenth century, covering all areas of the country from the largest cities to the smallest towns. Yet in most communities the vast bulk of music experienced was local. For most Americans instrumental music was defined by small local ensembles, a dance band, a military band, or frequently just a handful of random instruments. More often than not availability determined instrumentation. For many dances a single fiddle sufficed. Local singers patched together entertainment from what Tin Pan Alley produced.

Tin Pan Alley and the minstrel show began the trend toward standardization, yet until approximately World War I the local filter remained. To Ives, the local stonemason John Bell bellowing off-key represented a sublime musical experience, but not all Americans idealized such singing the way Ives did. And one or two fiddles might suffice for the dance in the barn or “opera house,” as local entertainment venues were often called, but the style and repertoire were defined by the tradition and the ability that the performers brought with them. And in most communities that meant the Anglo-Celtic tradition, with a smattering from the minstrel shows. Enjoying the products of Tin Pan Alley required either the ability to perform or an intermediary. That necessity defined the experience. Listening to a friend or relative sing “Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie,” even to join in, was quite different from listening to Al Jolson render “Mammy.” For most Americans the latter became possible only in the twenties. With the spread of the phonograph, Jolson's nasal timbre became as much a part of shared culture as were the songs themselves.

But there was another even more important limiting factor, the printed page. For a piece to stick, to really enter the collective consciousness, sheet music was essential. After a period of time some songs did become sufficiently well known to be perpetuated orally, for example many of Stephen Foster's songs, or certain hymns like “Nearer My God to Thee.” But even that occurred only after extensive written dissemination. Written transmission is problematic less because it limits reception to those capable of deciphering the code—they can play the music for others—than because it limits (p.110) what can be transmitted. Most vernacular music contains much that simply cannot be put on paper. A performance style can never be fully duplicated. Many praised Henry Russell's performances in the early nineteenth century, but we can only infer and imagine their nature; we can actually hear Al Jolson, and we know.

The further removed from Western notational ability, the greater the limitation of stylistic transmission. Jazz developed at roughly the same time as ragtime, but ragtime became a rage around the turn of the century, while jazz spread widely only in the 1920s. That temporal divergence is due at least in part to technology: ragtime can be captured and reproduced fairly accurately in piano notation. Jazz cannot. One can only shudder at what some future generation of musicologists might think were they to try to resurrect the sound and feel of jazz only from transcription. Can anyone describe a blue note of a Louis Armstrong or Bessie Smith with such precision that someone who has never heard either could accurately conjure the sound?

After World War I jazz could enter the American collective consciousness in a way that earlier had not been possible. Technology created a distribution system geared perfectly to the low, the vernacular.30 Consequently jazz, as a musical genre in its own right, and as a symbol of popular culture, became something that the ultramodern composer and critic had to encounter. Jazz elicited wide-ranging reactions. Some composers, such as Aaron Copland, sought to incorporate jazz into their works; others reacted vehemently against it. Still others, such as George Gershwin, sought to bridge the high-low gulf from below; using jazz-oriented popular language as his natural idiom, Gershwin attempted to expand it into a modernist style. Critics were equally divided about jazz. Gilbert Seldes, a supporter of vernacular culture in general, defended jazz in Paul Rosenfeld's own magazine, the Dial, whereas Rosenfeld saw no merit in it whatsoever. Rosenfeld's comments harbor both an unabashed elitism and an undisguised racism, and even Seldes succumbed to racial stereotyping when he tried to distinguish between white and Negro jazz.31

The bifurcation between high and low culture, however, meant that in the final analysis low culture could be ignored by the ultramoderns. It was not always, but the most radical ultramodernist could and often did. The ultramodern composer was thus freed not only from needing to incorporate popular idioms but from audience pressure to connect with other aspects of American musical life. Thus even such politically radical figures as Charles Seeger could disregard popular and folk music in the 1920s. In particular the ultramoderns were suspicious of new mechanisms of distribution. They ignored media such as radio almost entirely. Most were openly hostile to it. (p.111) Charles Ives, whose own work had earlier incorporated ragtime, hymns, folk songs, and popular tunes, was greatly troubled by what the new media spread. Ives probably spoke for many of his time and musical orientation when he railed against the popular arts, as much for what they portended regarding the interaction between producer and consumer as for what came out of the electronic media: “Is machinery, especially the combustion engine—& radio & photo movie-machines making America Saps! … Press a nice little button lie back in your easy chair and have it passed[?] the nice and regular standardized stuff to the mouth ears eyes and mind—as if what ever brain muscles are left haven't gone soft.” Even a popular musician like John Philip Sousa could despair: “With the phonograph vocal exercises will be out of vogue! Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink?”32

Charles Seeger, Charles Ives, and John Philip Sousa may have had little in common, but each knew and sensed that technology was changing their musical world fundamentally, even though they were uncertain where it would lead. In one sense they may have feared the worst, and in another they sought the new. But no one in 1922 could have anticipated what would happen next.


(1.) For example Edgard Varèse's founding of the New Symphony Orchestra in 1918, which is discussed later in this chapter.

(2.) In what is still the most detailed study of American musical organizations of the 1920s, Metzer, “The Ascendancy of Musical Modernism in New York City,” 156–62, surveyed the various groups organized in the United States to support composers, starting with the Manuscript Society, and including the Modern Music Society, the New Music Society of America, the Franco-American Musical Society, later renamed the Pro Musica Society, and the American Music Guild. Metzer sees the work of new-music groups of the 1920s as building on earlier ones: “The new music groups of the 1920s expanded upon the initial efforts of the Modern Music Society.” Furthermore, although Metzer recognizes the different foci of the various organizations—some were dedicated to radical modernism, others more conservative—and although Metzer acknowledges that some had greater influence than others, his own language, which explicitly includes all shades of new groups, acts to smooth the continuum, discounting the differences in approach and motivation that characterized the ultramodern societies almost as much as their musical choices. In fact, Metzer, in citing precedents, not only connects the new organizations of the 1920s with recent European effects, such as the Verein für Musikalische, founded by Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna, and Les Six, a joint effort of six composers in Paris, but draws a line of connection going back to the medieval music guilds.

Oja, Making Music Modern, the most important study of art music in New York in the 1920s, also smooths many of the sharp edges dividing organizations, compositional schools, and attitudes of the time. Oja discusses many differences between various organizations but does tend to blur distinctions between the ICG and the League of Composers, on one hand, and more conservative organizations, such as the Pro Musica Society and the American Music Guild, on the other. Oja does acknowledge the more conservative outlook of the latter but, in stressing the international flavor of all of these organizations, concentrates more on the similarities than the differences between them (178–79).

Oja and Metzer both show exemplary scholarship, but they found what they sought, and they were not examining evidence that might separate individual years. Beyond Oja and Metzer, few writers have examined the overall musical climate in which these organizations flourished. Most writers are composer-centric, discussing individual composers and what they wrote, with only a passing mention of musical organizations or reception.

(3.) Ornstein himself described his Violin Sonata, Op. 31, this way, as we saw in Chapter 4.

(4.) Quoted in Mattis, “Edgard Varèse and the Visual Arts,” 98.

(5.) Stieglitz's lack of nostalgia is unusual, for the trait pervaded American culture in general; it is a principal theme, for instance, in Ives's music. See Feder, Charles Ives, in which Ives's nostalgia is a principal topic throughout the book. For broader discussions of the impact of nostalgia on American attitudes, see Wiebe, The Search for Order, and Lears, No Place of Grace.

(6.) Francis Picabia, letter to Alfred Stieglitz, Barcelona, January 22, 1917, quoted and translated in Mattis, “Edgard Vareèe and the Visual Arts,” 98.

(7.) Naumann, Making Mischief, 189, 193, 222–23; both Picabia and the painter Albert Gleizes asserted that the war had made artistic creation impossible in Europe (“French Artists Spur on an American Art,” New York Tribune, October 24, 1915).

(8.) Copland and Perlis, Copland, 1900 Through 1942, 42–43.

(9.) The most extensive list of Harmony and Charles Ives's reading is in a small diary, dated 1919, in the Charles Ives Papers, MSS 14, Box 45, Folder 8.

(10.) Ware, Greenwich Village, 235–67. Ware does discuss the Village in the earlier years. For Ives's attitude toward nudity in painting, Ives diary entry, June 26 [1914], Charles Ives Papers, Box 45, Folder 12.

(11.) Thomas Vincent Cator, letter to Musical America 21, no. 9 (January 2, 1915), 24–25, letter dated December 17, 1914; Buchanan, “Ornstein and Modern Music,” 174.

(12.) Finck, “The Place of Music in American Life,” 490, 511.

(13.) Charles Ives, letter to Walter Goldstein, Ives Papers, Box 29, Folder 13, quoted in Swafford, Charles Ives, 319.

(14.) Lott, “‘New Music for New Ears,’” 267.

(15.) The next chapter discusses Varèse's career in more detail.

(16.) Paul Rosenfeld, letter to Sherwood Anderson, June 24 (1920), Newberry Library, Anderson Collection, An, Box 20, Folder 31.

(17.) Rosenfeld to Anderson, January 1 [1921].

(18.) Leibowitz, ed., Musical Impressions, xix; Mellquist and Wiese, Paul Rosenfeld, Voyager in the Arts, xx.

(19.) Rosenfeld, “Leo Ornstein,” 267.

(20.) Paul Rosenfeld, “Musical Chronicle,” 657, reprinted with slight modification as “All-American Night” in Rosenfeld, Musical Chronicle, 259–60.

(21.) Copland and Perlis, Copland, 1900 Through 1942, 101.

(22.) Rosenfeld, “Leo Ornstein,” 233.

(23.) Copland and Perlis, Copland, 1900 Through 1942, 102, 110–12, 117.

(24.) Rosenfeld's other books were By Way of Art, Men Seen, and Port of New York: Essays on Fourteen American Moderns, as well as a novel, Boy in the Sun.

(25.) Rosenfeld, Hour with American Music, 133–34; Paul Rosenfeld, letter to Sherwood Anderson, November 29 (n.y.), Newberry Anderson Collection, Folder 31.

(26.) Rosenfeld, Musical Chronicle, 3–10. The piece was written in August 1921 and originally published without the title in his “Musical Chronicle” column in The Dial 71 (1921), 487–91.

(27.) Deems Taylor, “Mainly About Music,” New York World, October 1, 1922, in “The New York Scrapbooks.”

(28.) Sternberg, “Against Modern'ism,'” 6.

(29.) W. J. Henderson, “Obstinate Conductors Play Music Progressives Do Not Like Hoping to Make Them Like It,” New York Herald, February 13, 1921, in “The New York Scrapbooks.” Mahler died in 1911 and Skryabin in 1915. Mahler's music is decidedly romantic, and Skryabin's is mostly romantic, although in his later works he began to move beyond romantic harmonies and tone colors.

(30.) Technology is the wild card in the consideration of developments of the 1920s. I believe that its ramifications are vast, and that I have only scratched the surface in that regard. This topic awaits further research.

(31.) “In words and music, the negro side expresses something which underlies a great deal of America—our independence, our carelessness, our frankness, and gaiety. In each of these the negro is more intense than we are, and we surpass him when we combine a more varied and more intelligent life with his instinctive qualities.” Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts, 145–46.

(32.) Charles Ives, handwritten drafts for the essay “Emasculating America,” Charles Ives Papers, Box 25, Folder 7; Sousa quoted in McLuhan, Understanding Media, 275–76.