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Song served as a primary generative force throughout Amy Beach’s prolific compositional career. Her three major pieces for orchestra alone-Bal Masqué (1893), the “Gaelic” Symphony (1896), and the Piano Concerto (1900)-are no exception. This chapter argues that Beach’s affinity for song not only shaped her approach to large-scale orchestral composition, but also facilitated positive responses to her works well beyond their premieres. Beach’s ultimate success with song-inspired orchestral composition reflected broader trends of the era overshadowed by experimental modernisms.
Myths about nineteenth-century American orchestral music abound, even in the United States. At one of his Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, for example, the conductor Leonard Bernstein claimed that ‘around the beginning of the twentieth century, American composers were beginning to feel funny about not writing American sounding music. And it took a foreigner to point this out to them – a Czechoslovakian composer named Dvořák.’ Of course, American composers had considered the possibility of how to develop a distinctly national style for decades before Dvořák's arrival in 1892. Yet Bernstein's lack of access to their music led him to adopt a myth of German domination saved in successive stages by Dvořák, George Gershwin, and Aaron Copland.
Such is one myth about this repertoire. But even in its own day, musicians outside the United States had little direct contact with American compositions until the end of the nineteenth century. European musicians and music-lovers learned about American orchestral music primarily through overseas press correspondents reporting on concerts in major cities, especially Boston and New York, leaving them to speculate about American musical developments. Even so, certain American composers gained a foothold in the French imagination well before the 1850s when they spent time in France and engaged with significant figures there.
A generation later, the speculation and innuendo following this lack of direct access momentarily subsided when the American conductor Frank Van der Stucken (1858–1929) programmed music by some of the country's most prominent composers for a performance at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Although he chose popular works that fitted squarely within European conventions, critics panned the concert with near uniformity, betraying the fact that their imaginations, rooted in a sense of American cultural inferiority, had strongly shaped their expectations. Despite this cool initial reception, the furore surrounding the New York premiere of Dvořák's Ninth Symphony, ‘From the New World’ (1893), prompted certain French writers to begin viewing American composers as transatlantic partners in ongoing international dis-courses about the future of classical music, particularly the question of how to construct a national compositional school while confronting the legacies of Beethoven and Wagner. This chapter sketches the fitful transformation of American orchestral music from myth to reality in France during the nineteenth century.
The transnational character of the literate musical community in the United States created an environment in which language barriers, ideological biases, and other potential sources of misunderstanding caused print items to change shape quickly as they were transferred from one reader to the next. The aesthetic controversy between William Henry Fry and Richard Storrs Willis surrounding the 1853 premiere of Fry's Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony provides a rich case in point. The controversy at times seemed to draw from a parallel debate in Europe, often called “The War of the Romantics,” which concerned the future of symphonic composition and music's capacity for representation. At others, the controversy seemed to diverge from its European counterpart as central concepts were articulated in new intellectual contexts. The vagaries of print culture help explain these discrepancies. This article outlines the central arguments of the debate, situates them within their transatlantic contexts, and examines how print culture played a significant role in the controversy's unfolding as early as 1839, fifteen years before it took place. More broadly, it constructs a new framework for examining the function and meaning of nineteenth-century music periodicals by illustrating how an antislavery newspaper became an unlikely voice in a debate over program music.
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