Sunday, July 10, 2011

Patriotic pap

Classical music stations go in for playing American music on the Fourth of July, just as they can't resist playing Messiah at Christmas or the Easter Oratorio at Easter. Unfortunately, much of the American music they play is not of the first rank, since most American music that would appeal to the classical radio demographic is not of the first rank. They subject us to a lot of stuff they wouldn't be caught dead broadcasting the rest of the year, such as the overblown symphonies of John Knowles Paine or William Henry Fry. Or they go in for the better, lighter fare from Gershwin and Copland, which is all very well, except there isn't very much of it, at least not enough to fill a whole day of programing.

Or they play a lot of Sousa. Now, I like Sousa, but while he's classic, he's not exactly classical, and the militarism bothers me. As I've noted elewhere, Sousa wrote great tunes that make up the soundtrack of American imperialism. I remember a few years ago, Bernard Holland, writing about Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for Harspichord and Piano, referred to what he called the "gray militancy" of the percussion parts. When I read that, I thought, you've got it all wrong: militancy is never gray. It's always cheerful, upbeat, happy. It's important that the boys are humming while they march to their deaths. Otherwise their heads would be too clear, and they might start thinking about why they don't want to go.

We do have one great piece of American classical music that pertains specifically to the Fourth of July holiday — Charles Ives's Fourth of July. It's so good you don't need the holiday as an excuse to listen to it, and yet I can't remember the last time I heard it on the radio. Brief as it is, it's much too raucous to show up on a wussy station like WRTI. And you'll never, ever hear it on the TV special from the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. So I took it upon myself to play it at home — my own sonic fireworks display, the louder the better. The only other American piece I listened to last Monday day was Elliott Carter's snappy little ASKO Concerto. Not really Americana, I grant you, but then, a lot of great American music isn't. It doesn't feel the need to be.


Anonymous said...

Once was enough for Ives' Fourth of July. Never again. He was an excellent insurance agent, though. Horatio Parker probably counseled him to take that up; good advice.

Joe Barron said...

You're entitled, but I respectfully disagree. The Fourth of July kicks butt. Listened to the Third Symphony again Sunday night - the Farberman recording. What a jewel! It always takes me back to spring mornings in my neighborhood when the azaleas were in bloom. I'm looking forward to hearing it in Danbury in the fall.

Parker did think Ives had talent: he just wanted him to color inside the lines.

And Ives was not an insurance agent. That is, he did not sell insurance polices. He wasn't the guy who came to your house. That's a popular misconception. He began as an actuary and ended up running the office.