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.