BOOK REVIEW. THE GREAT AMERICAN SYMPHONY: Music, the Depression, and War. By Nicholas Tawa.

by Walter Simmons


THE GREAT AMERICAN SYMPHONY: Music, the Depression, and War. By Nicholas Tawa. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009. 237pp. $24.95.

Nicholas Tawa is a veteran musicologist—one of the founders of the Society for American Music (formerly known as the Sonneck Society) and the author of countless books on various aspects of American music. He has focused on art music as well as more vernacular styles, has written about all periods, and is especially interested in examining the social and political context in which the music under discussion has arisen, and its relationship to that context.

At its conceptual core, Tawa’s latest book focuses on the period roughly from 1935 to 1950, when a combination of factors—the failure of the experimental music of the 1920s to win popular support, the Great Depression and the consequent shock to America’s self-esteem, and, later, the challenge to mobilize the country to defeat tyranny overseas—resulted in a consolidated effort by composers to create a symphonic repertoire of the highest quality that would embody and extol the shared values of America in a language that the general public could and would appreciate; in a sense, to “speak for” the American public, while providing a “bulwark against barbarism.” As additional factors that contributed to this brief period, Tawa cites the advocacy by major conductors of the living composers they favored; FDR’s “Federal Music Project,” which led composers to feel needed and appreciated by the society in which they lived; and the resident orchestras formed by the major radio networks that broadcast much of this new American music. After elaborating these factors, Tawa then discusses the symphonic works that attempted—often successfully—to achieve the goal of “speaking for” the American public, and even contributed to the incipient development of a national musical language. He identifies each composer according to a particular descriptive rubric (e.g. Hanson and “the Spiritual Symphony,” Harris and “the All-American Symphony,” Schuman and “the Muscular Symphony,” Mennin and “the Dynamic Symphony,” etc.). For example, he considers Barber’s Symphony No. 1 (1936) to be the first work to embody these ideals successfully, while viewing Hanson’s Third (1938) as a statement on behalf of courage and perseverance during hard times, leaving listeners with a sense of “lofty concepts and exalted thought.” He notes the immense if brief popularity of Harris’s Third (1939), which many believed at the time to be “the great American symphony.”

After concluding his discussion of the important symphonies of the 1930s, he goes on similarly to discuss the “war symphonies,” noting that while some composers became creatively paralyzed by the war, others felt it was their civic duty to continue to compose, producing works that promoted the spirit of democracy, without obvious literalism or jingoism. He cites American symphonies by Antheil, Diamond, Piston, and Barber (No. 2) as sources of national pride and courage during those years. A discussion of the symphonies of the immediate post-war years follows—works that reaffirmed American values, while inspiring trust in the future. But this was also the beginning of the “Cold War,” and with it the “red scare” of the McCarthy period. During the Depression and the war years, many of the composers who had shaped the American symphony into a source of national cohesion, did so from a sense of solidarity with “the common man.” Many of them felt a kindred affiliation with the Soviet Union, which had been one of the Allies during World War II, believing (erroneously and somewhat naively) that their sympathies were shared and supported by the Soviet government. But now the Soviet Union was our enemy, and those who had expressed sympathy for communist ideals in the past, were regarded as traitors. Even the composer of A Lincoln Portrait, Appalachian Spring, and Rodeo was blacklisted. Tawa attributes the end of this Golden Age of the American symphony to the politically-based schism within American society, along with the post-World War II suspicion that feelings of nationalism were precursors of fascism. Roger Sessions, vehemently opposed to populism, nationalism, and fascism, pointed the way toward a new “internationalism.” In this he was joined by the many composers who immigrated to this country in the wake of the war, and who knew and cared little about an “American symphonic school,” supporting the notion of an “international style.” Tawa quotes Paul Turok, who pointed out, “European artists are for internationalism, so long as they come out on top.” 

This central argument is filled out by additional relevant information about each composer, as well as a more cursory examination of what happened to American symphonic music after 1950, leading roughly up to the present, when Tawa sees a renewed interest in the symphony afoot. Although he does discuss the continuing symphonic vein in American music after 1950, Tawa might have stressed the irony that although the American public was most intensely drawn to the search for “the great American symphony” during the 1930s and 40s, it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s when most of the greatest American symphonies were actually composed. In the course of pursuing his argument Tawa discusses about twenty composers, most of whom one might expect to find, although I was somewhat surprised by the importance given to the symphonies of John Alden Carpenter and Douglas Moore, and somewhat disappointed by the absence of any mention of Gardner Read’s four symphonies or Vittorio Giannini’s seven.

The Great American Symphony is a significant contribution to the history of American art music; while most of the basic factual information has appeared elsewhere before, Tawa brings to it the insight of his own personal interpretation, while the circumstances he recounts led to an egregious outcome that is still very much with us, i.e. the virtual obliteration of a vast repertoire from the awareness of the younger members of today’s musical public—a repertoire that at one time galvanized the enthusiasm of a whole generation of music lovers. My own experience has confirmed that young musicians today are largely unaware of the symphonic music composed in America between, say, 1920 and 1970, aside from a few favorites by Copland, Barber, and Bernstein. This is of particular importance to those of us concerned with the fate of classical music in American culture because much of the “listener-friendly” music composed during the past 25 years has been written from a position of utter ignorance of this earlier repertoire, resulting in much “reinventing of the wheel,” and often not doing as good a job of it. It is also especially important because the business of classical music in this country has been undergoing a steady process of “dumbing down,” and, as a result, what is peddled through the media as “classical music” has become increasingly boring, hence failing to attract intelligent younger listeners who seek the excitement of discovery, rather than the tedious re-hashing of a finite, pre-digested, overly familiar roster of standards whose chief function is to provide reassurance of class and status. (I realize that in writing for Fanfare, I am “preaching to the choir,” because this publication is geared to those with a taste for discovery.)

Tawa has a relaxed, conversational writing style, which is pleasant to read, and he does not hide the fact that he is expressing his own observations and perceptions, derived from a lifetime of listening and study. So there is no pretense of pure “objectivity,” nor the tedium of timid, defensive academic writing, while his descriptions of each composer’s music succeed in capturing each one’s distinctiveness, providing some guidance to the reader who wishes to explore the music that Tawa is advocating.