“Serenading the Reluctant Eagle: American Musical Life, 1925-1945”. By Nicholas Tawa

by Walter Simmons



SERENADING THE RELUCTANT EAGLE: American Musical Life, 1925-1945.  By Nicholas Tawa. 261 pp.  New York: Schirmer Books, 1984, $19.95.

Few books on the subject of American concert music provide much of either value or interest.  Most tend to fall into one of two categories: those that aim toward comprehensiveness but become little more than compendia of names, dates, places of birth, and random lists of titles, with little or no attention to musical content or critical evaluation; and those that focus on a limited number of presumably representative composers.  In books of this kind (like Rockwell’s All American Music) the selection of composers is rarely made from a truly informed perspective, but rather from a superficial awareness of that portion of the spectrum currently in the limelight.  This approach would not be so misleading were it not for the fact that in this country the limelight has always had a focus both too narrow and too shallow to be of any value and its force is determined by factors that are more political than artistic; hence books of this kind are no more illuminating than official texts on contemporary music in the Soviet Union.  Furthermore, succeeding generations of books on American music have tended to inherit the errors, omissions, and misunderstandings of their predecessors, while contributing a few more of their own.  Thus it is somewhat astonishing to encounter in Nicholas Tawa’s Serenading the Reluctant Eagle a real awareness of the context in which American music has developed, knowledge of the music itself, and even a concern for the situation just described with regard to the literature on the subject.  Tawa is a musicologist from the University of Massachusetts in Boston who has focused on the issue of music in relation to American culture, and it is this perspective that he brings to the subject. Concentrating on the period between the two world wars — a period that has been called “The Golden Age of American Music” — Tawa analyzes a number of the cultural and political attitudes that underlie the situation, influencing the course of events in the public arena.

The book is organized along two dimensions: One is chronological.  Tawa sets the stage by describing a musical culture so intent on justifying itself according to snobbish European attitudes — both social and intellectual — that it was more than willing to alienate its legitimate constituency — its audience — in the process.  While our cultural patriarchs scorned American vulgarity from a pose of aristocratic gentility, spokesmen for the avant-garde derided middle class standards from a perspective of haughty intellectual superiority.  Since it is a truism of human communication that people cannot be won over by being denigrated, during the 1920s the American public responded by withdrawing from the music of its own culture, understandably finding it irrelevant to their interests and concerns.

During the 1930s composers began to recognize their cultural irrelevancy and attempted to embrace a more populist approach.  This new attitude found intellectual legitimacy as a corollary of the leftist political styles then in vogue.  From this perspective avant-garde experimentation was viewed as irresponsibly elitist.  Many of those who had denounced bourgeois taste most contemptuously a few years earlier were now bending over backwards to appeal to the “common man” through accessible works that often drew upon vernacular musical idioms.  Whatever its roots in vain intellectual fashion, this attitude resulted in a number of constructive steps — constructive, at least, according to the democratic notion that drawing people in is more desirable than alienating them — culminating in the WPA Arts Project of the late 1930s.  Though short-lived, this project poured large sums of money into an effort to bring concert music — especially American concert music — to a broad-based public.  During a period of four years, 6,000 works by 1,600 American composers were performed all over the country, reaching and involving people from all walks of life.  Tawa calls this period “one of the highest points in American cultural history.”

However, World War II and a philistine political backlash brought this program to an end.  Moreover, many of the refugees who fled to this country from Europe were prominent musicians who espoused “internationalism” in artistic matters, which really meant a reinstatement of European attitudes and techniques and a virtual boycott of those American composers who resisted this line of thinking — at least of those who had not gained enough of a foothold, as had Barber and Copland, for example, to achieve immunity.  The period of rapprochement between composer and audience was over and the attitude of mutual suspicion returned, remaining until the mid 1970s, when composers once again began to address the question of their own accountability.

Simultaneously with this chronicle, Tawa has divided his book into chapters that focus on the attitudes expressed, respectively, by composers, by intermediaries (performers, critics, boards of directors, arts patrons), and by audiences, before summarizing the actual musical contributions of the most prominent composers of the era — with particular attention to the way they were received in the concert halls.  Organizing the book in this way inevitably entails returning repeatedly to the same issues, viewed each time from a somewhat — sometimes only slightly — different perspective, but such a format has its virtues.  Tawa has drawn his perspective from documents of the time, often written by those who, over the years, have gone on to achieve considerable prominence.  Many of these individuals would probably be embarrassed to see their views expressed without the veneer of moderation that comes with the responsibility of eminence.  But these documents reveal to the reader too young to have lived through the period the attitudes, expressed with brazen arrogance, that have underlain and influenced many of the aspects of American musical life that we have come to accept as “the way it is,” without realizing that “the way it is” now is the result of the self-serving behavior of individuals whose interests lay elsewhere than in the development of a healthy musical culture and that those individuals have been the chief beneficiaries of “the way it is.”

Tawa concludes with a number of proposals for improving the situation surrounding contemporary music in this country.  In keeping with his own orientation he encourages a continued examination of the relationship between composers and their culture, rather than viewing music in a social vacuum.  He urges that music be viewed as a form of two-way communication between composer and listener, entailing a degree of mutual responsibility and mutual accountability.  Of course he encourages us to cease neglecting our own music, a pathetic situation that remains to this day unabated as we continue to welcome foreign conductors and soloists utterly oblivious to the bulk of American music as well as to their obligation to learn about it. (Tawa quotes Koussevitzky’s comment that American audiences “would never understand American orchestral compositions until they heard them conducted by American-born conductors,” a remark that is more appropriate today than it was decades ago, when we had conductors of the stature of Koussevitzky, Stokowski, and others far more able to penetrate the spirit of American works than are the exotic manikins at the helms of most of our major orchestras today.) Tawa underlines what ought to be obvious, but somehow isn’t: that we allow our musical life to be manipulated in ways that are fundamentally opposed to the democratic ideals that underlie (at least vaguely) most of this country’s institutions.  And to those who fatuously argue that artistic quality is inherently undemocratic one can only point to what we hear — the quality of most of the recent compositions that are performed and the general quality of musical performance as evidence that something other than high artistic accomplishment is certainly the operative factor.  Somehow or other the American public has been intimidated into accepting the authority of self-appointed aristocracies regarding their musical life that they would never countenance in other areas and that no other country would countenance in this area.  Tawa urges that federal support of musical institutions be contingent on performance of a certain quantity of American music — a proposal I thoroughly endorse (although I would increase his suggested quota from 12 or 15% to something along the lines of 30%) and which has never been refuted with any cogency.  Tawa even goes so far as to urge that representatives from the general audience participate in the selection of composers to receive grants and awards and that audience polls concerning repertoire policy be a regular practice.

Serenading the Reluctant Eagle boldly confronts many important issues that are rarely addressed in print — largely because of the pervasive timidity of most of those who chronicle our musical life. (Other important issues remain to be addressed: the relevant consequences of ethnic background and sexual preference among musicians and composers, for example.) One may or may not agree with some of Tawa’s particular beliefs — I, for example, do not share his commitment to the necessity of nationalistic musical styles, nor do I believe that most composers cantailor their music to the audience’s level of sophistication. (Composers seem to be at their best when they write from within themselves in the language that is most natural to them.  But if the result is meaningless and irrelevant to most listeners, then it is the responsibility of the “intermediaries” to recognize this and to turn to music that is meaningful and relevant and not allow disgruntled composers to blame listeners for their own failures or to browbeat others into being subjected repeatedly to music they do not enjoy.  There has never been a shortage of high-quality American music capable of reaching listeners, but there have been many factors preventing listeners from hearing that music — as there continue to be today.) But the issues and ideas that Tawa raises are interesting, provocative, and long-overdue in our ongoing public dialogue.  Moreover, his book is written in a direct, conversational style accessible to anyone interested in the subject.  One can only look forward to further studies of this kind — by Tawa himself and by others in the field.  Not only is there room for more examination of the period between the wars, but there is a need for similar analyses of the period since World War II.