By Thomas Heuser
Imagine the American landscape, from awe-inspiring swaths of untamed wilderness to communities rich with a bustling diversity of peoples. In the early 1890s, the wealthy philanthropist Jeannette Thurber dreamt of creating an American national style of classical music so that the American Dream would be recognized in the broader Western canon. She turned to Antonín Dvořák, a Czech composer who was credited with creating the national Czech style, whom she paid top dollar to move to America in 1891. During his four years in America, he published a handful of compositions that went a long way towards defining the American musical personality. Journeying over thousands of miles of railroad, Dvořák determined that the American style should feature pastoral sounds, the sounds of nature, hymn-like melodies, harmonies from spirituals and rhythms from Native American dance. A Symphony “From the New World” was born, and lives on today as one of the most beloved works in the literature.
As the twentieth century barreled forward through the first World War and the Great Depression, the American classical music identity began to drift overseas as more than simply Dvořák’s renderings. Samuel Barber was an incredibly prodigious musician whose earliest compositions won top international prizes, and he became the first American composer to be performed at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. Barber’s Violin Concerto of 1939 shows distinct influences from jazz and the blues, where harmonies become richer and the musical flow becomes more rhapsodic. The music’s bluesy lyricism creates a nostalgic feeling, as though the composer were yearning for the days when the American Dream was still a simple ideal of possibility not scarred by lost soldiers and shattered financial hopes.
Perhaps at no other time was America living up to its dream of prosperity as successfully as during the “Roaring Twenties,” when the end of the first World War and a soaring economy buoyed the confidence of the American people. But that confidence too was tempered by a sense of something lost, a feeling that progress was at the expense of inherited tradition. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby shed a pale green light on the mixed emotions boiling underneath the surface of our flourishing society. In his 1999 opera The Great Gatsby, the composer John Harbison brings the popular foxtrot of the Roaring Twenties to the opera house in order to create a distinctly American mood. During the wild dance number, the dreamy sounds of a jazz band fade in and out, like a nostalgic memory running underneath the surface.