I gave up a long time ago on trying to find much meaning or substance in music for patriotic occasions. We live an age of such small-minded, parochial jingoism that thinking of any music in terms of nationalist celebrations seems only to cheapen the music.
This year I got thinking that maybe it’s gotten so bad that it’s time to fight back. Leaving music out of the discussion seems to only encourage the triumphalist nitwits. A day like the Fourth of July ought to be a moment for reflection as well as celebration. We ought to take at least a moment to think about the nation’s failings and crimes, as well as it’s triumphs.
Here are highlights from four great American works of art that I think are worth listening to as we think about how the reality of America compares to the idea of America. Fortunately, what they tell us about the nation is as hopeful as it is harrowing.
William Grant Still- Afro-American Symphony
Still’s First Symphony is a wonderful work- I’m long overdue to conduct it again. It’s his most celebrated work, but there are many fine pieces in this catalogue which deserve to be played more regularly. Each movement is inspired by a different poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar and the piece ranges across a wide swath of moods from longing to humor to aspiration. The Finale is simply stunning and almost unbearably moving. Listen to it today in hopes that we will never, ever celebrate another Independence Day in the USA with the Confederate battle flag hung or displayed in any public building in the country.
Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,
Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll
In characters of fire.
High ‘mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky,
They banner’s blazoned folds now fly,
And truth shall lift them higher.
Walter Piston- Symphony no. 2
Copland’s Third Symphony has long be the de facto “Great American Symphony” in much the way The Great Gatsby is, for many, the obvious “Great American Novel.” In Piston’s 2nd it has a worthy rival. If Piston’s Finale doesn’t quite scale the same height’s of inspiration and ambition as Copland’s, his slow movement surpasses that of his more famous colleague by miles. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the greatest slow movement in an American symphony. Written in 1943, it’s part of a true war symphony- the first movement turbulent and troubled, the Finale dramatic and urgent. At the heart of the Symphony, though is this great, pensive, heartfelt song of love and loss.
Charles Ives- Symphony no. 3 “The Camp Meeting”
No reflection on the nature of America would be complete without an examination of the role of organised religion and the evangelical movement in American life. For those in my generation who don’t participate in the traditions of faith, it’s easy to point to the American evangelical religious tradition’s dark history of anti-intellectualism, its attempts to blur or erase the line which differentiates belief and knowledge, fact and parable, its frequent rationalization of racism and sexism, and its penchant for corruption, hypocrisy and charlatanry amongst the clergy, as reasons to hope that religion’s place in American life will one day be diminished. On the other hand, Ives’s Third Symphony, which tells the story of one evening’s traditional evangelical gathering, shows us the best of American religion in all its nobility, honesty, compassion and complexity. Prior to the economic disasters of the last decade, America had become an almost absurdly prosperous place- a land of easy money and decadent creature comforts. In harder times, people had to seek comfort in ideas and community. Ives’s music, some of the most intellectually probing and radical written in the last 150 years, reminds us of the kind of solace shared experience and powerful ideas can bring in troubled times. More on the piece here.
Symphony no. 1
This, of all years, seems the perfect time to include Corigliano’s powerful work on the list. A cris de coeur from the apex of the AIDS epidemic, it was written at at time when many, many of our leaders- mainstream, powerful figures, not marginal nut jobs- seemed to think that AIDS really was some kind of holy curse on moral deviancy. Remember who was saying “let them die” and “they deserve it” in the 1980’s? History teaches us that anytime we create an “other” – whether it be an “other” based on race, religion, sexuality or beliefs, it’s all too easy for society let the lives of the “other” cease to have any value. Corigilano’s ability to channel grief, rage and hope into a piece of music so powerful and of-its-time was one of thousands of acts of protest and education that have helped bring us to the first Independence Day in America’s history on which every citizen can marry the person they love in any state. And, thank goodness, AIDS is no longer quite the death sentence, nor the stigma, it once was. Now that is what I call cause for celebration. Bring on the hot dogs and beer. God bless America.