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Frontier Figures

Frontier Figures: American Music and the Mythology of the American West

Beth E. Levy
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 470
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  • Book Info
    Frontier Figures
    Book Description:

    Frontier Figuresis a tour-de-force exploration of how the American West, both as physical space and inspiration, animated American music. Examining the work of such composers as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, Charles Wakefield Cadman, and Arthur Farwell, Beth E. Levy addresses questions of regionalism, race, and representation as well as changing relationships to the natural world to highlight the intersections between classical music and the diverse worlds of Indians, pioneers, and cowboys. Levy draws from an array of genres to show how different brands of western Americana were absorbed into American culture by way of sheet music, radio, lecture recitals, the concert hall, and film.Frontier Figuresis a comprehensive illumination of what the West meant and still means to composers living and writing long after the close of the frontier.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95202-7
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction: The Course of Empire
    (pp. 1-20)

    The turn of the twentieth century came early to America. Still a young country by international standards, the United States seemed determined to celebrate its coming of age in 1892–93 with a cluster of events marking the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s fabled transatlantic voyage and so-called discovery of the New World. They culminated in the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Drawing on a pointedly diverse range of natural and human resources, the exposition was meant to reinforce the idea of American exceptionalism and to display America’s growing centrality on the world stage....


    • 1 The Wa-Wan and the West
      (pp. 23-55)

      If on the afternoon of 27 April 1919, you found yourself seated at the Greek Theatre on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, you would have witnessed and most likely been asked to participate inCalifornia: A Masque of Music. With musical numbers and libretto crafted by Arthur Farwell and personnel recruited from the ranks of the Berkeley Music Department, the masque places a toga-clad personification of California in the company of the muses: “California! ’tis a name Worthy of Apollo’s nine; ’tis music’s self/Soft syllabled upon the silent air.” Only six of the nine muses grace the...

    • 2 Western Democracy, Western Landscapes, Western Music
      (pp. 56-84)

      On his western sojourns, Farwell saw himself as an evangelist bringing the gospel of good American music to such remote locations as Kinsley, Kansas. But he also returned to the East in evangelical mode, ready to discourse about Indians and to spread the word about composition in the American hinterlands. Although Farwell functioned as a prophet, for many of his western adventures Charles Lummis was actually the one who prepared the way. Travel writer, ethnographer, architect, librarian, activist, and antiquarian, Lummis was a formidable figure in the culture of Southern California. In January 1904, when Farwell’s Indian Music Talk brought...


    • 3 Encountering Indians
      (pp. 87-123)

      Farwell never wrote an opera. Nor did he complete a full-fledged music drama in anything approaching a Wagnerian sense. While his preference for the miniature surely dissuaded him, turning to opera would also have seemed at odds with his vision of the community pageant as the real “music of the future.” His scripts feature souls and seers, but few lovers, villains, heroes, or sidekicks. Farwell’s was not a comic muse. Yet his closest approximation to a conventional stage work bears the titleCartoon, or Once Upon a Time Recently. Completed in 1948, it relies on spoken dialogue to advance its...

    • 4 Staging the West
      (pp. 124-152)

      Cadman’s was a scenic imagination. Before his career came to an end in the 1940s, he had written operas or operettas set in Puritan New England, Arizona, California, the upper Mississippi Valley, Mexico, Cuba, and Japan, as well as pageants for Colorado and Portland and a small assortment of film music. With or without Indian characters, these works offer variations on the theme of encounter: between cultures, between lovers, and between man and nature. Cadman’s high school operettas, like his vast quantity of pedagogical piano miniatures, were written more or less on demand for publishers eager to meet a market...


    • 5 West of Eden
      (pp. 155-178)

      Given Cadman’s geographic imagination and his substantial catalog of operas and operettas, it is striking that none involves a farmer, a homestead, or a family of settlers. The emigrant Hurds inThe Golden Trailintend to put down roots once their journey is done, but when we meet them they are still traversing land that is pointedly not their own. The Ortego family ofThe Bells of Capistranorely on their land for cattle grazing, but they do not till the soil. The impassioned recitation “I Am the Land” by the Mexican fiesta maker Carlos rouses a certain agricultural reverence...

    • 6 Power in the Land
      (pp. 179-203)

      Foss’s cantata reinforced the idea that the prairie has a voice of its own. But in his sixties, the composer looked back with a more introspective understanding of the prairie allure. “The Prairieis still a favorite work of mine,” he told Vivian Perlis in 1986. “I’m not ashamed of it even now . . . it did a lot for me.” He further recalled: “I felt like a refugee, but then a refugee learns to call anything his home, wherever he is. So America very quickly became my home, and I am sure Aaron had something to do with...

    • 7 Harvest Home
      (pp. 204-224)

      Thomson’s oeuvre is remarkably free of cityscapes. Perhaps the most important near-exception lies in the ballet he wrote for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan,Filling Station. Here, a gas station attendant vies for attention with two truck drivers, a highway patrolman, and a gangster. Kirstein created some vaudeville-style dancing for the 1937 premiere, including a ragtime “Big Apple” number. Yet the atmosphere is distinctly suburban; in Thomson’s words, the ballet aims “to evoke roadside America as pop art.”¹ Thomson’s evocations of urban spaces—factories, skyscrapers, and the like—occur almost exclusively in his film scores, where they present an antithesis to...


    • 8 How Roy Harris Became Western
      (pp. 227-245)

      “Born in a log cabin on Lincoln’s birthday in Lincoln County, Oklahoma”—this is the inevitable and emblematic opening of any biography of Roy Harris. From the beginning of his career until the present, these phrases have encapsulated crucial aspects of the composer’s life: his humble but self-sufficient beginnings, his association with the rural West, and his almost magical ability to represent anything and everything genuinely American. This was indeed the stuff that myths were made of, and in Harris’s case, fact and fancy were quickly entangled in a journalistic and autobiographical web.

      Even before Harris returned from his Parisian...

    • 9 Manifest Destiny
      (pp. 246-267)

      Marking the apex of Harris’s career was his Third Symphony. Though many listeners single out the Fifth or the Seventh as his finest symphonic achievement, it is the Third and only the Third that remains in the standard repertory. At the time of its first performances, it seemed to represent the fulfillment of all the quasi-messianic hopes that had been vested in the composer. Harris had at last achieved his manifest destiny, uniting his vaunted “personality” with technical innovation in the prestigious genre of symphonic writing. Critics have praised the symphony for its “American flavor” or its organic unfolding, but...

    • 10 The Composer as Folk Singer
      (pp. 268-290)

      At the same time Harris was experimenting with autogenesis inFarewell to Pioneers, he was also making forays into a more accessible musical language based on folk song. In response to a commission by RCA Victor—apparently the first American work commissioned specifically for recording—Harris produced the orchestral overtureWhen Johnny Comes Marching Home(1935), which took one of Harris’s favorite tunes as its basis. This was not his first attempt at folk-based composition. Dan Stehman observes that ten years earlier he had used the tune “Peña Hueca” in hisFantasy for Trio and Chorus, almost certainly working from...


    • 11 The Saga of the Prairies
      (pp. 293-316)

      Late in September 1936, the Columbia Broadcasting System offered Aaron Copland his first radio commission. Along with five other composers—Louis Gruenberg, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and William Grant Still—Copland crafted a piece to fit the network’s basic guidelines for length (less than thirty minutes) and instrumentation (fewer than thirty-seven players).¹ Many years after the fact, Copland recalled his excitement at composing for this new medium, claiming to have written “in a style designed to bridge the gap between modern composition and the need for a wider public.”² His initial title for the work,Radio Serenade, was...

    • 12 Communal Song, Cosmopolitan Song
      (pp. 317-350)

      At a time when Russian-Jewish immigrants were considered America’s most likely Bolsheviks, Copland’s voluntary association with the left probably came as no surprise. Elizabeth Bergman Crist has detailed the prevalence of communist and socialist ideals among Copland’s associates and has persuasively situated Copland’s own activities within the purview of the Popular Front.¹ For my purposes, the most notable aspects of Copland’s political engagement are the geographical settings that agitated his political conscience and the impact that leftism had on his views about folk music. As Bergman Crist has shown, Copland seems to have developed many of his populist ideals while...

    • 13 Copland and the Cinematic West
      (pp. 351-368)

      Alienation and self-discovery (sexual or otherwise) are major themes in all of Copland’s western scores.Billy the KidandRodeomade these themes visible through dance, but they withheld definitive answers about Copland’s own attitudes. His authorial voice is even harder to tease out of his western film scores:Of Mice and Men(1939) andThe Red Pony(1949). Both are based on previously published works of John Steinbeck, and in both cases the screenplays were substantially complete before anyone thought to approach Copland for the music. Nevertheless, the resulting scores represent his most direct engagement with western character types,...

    • Conclusion: On the Trail
      (pp. 369-374)

      Along his path from orient to occident, Aaron Copland shed old identities and invented new ones. It is this symbolic flexibility that best identifies him as a hero of the mythic West we still know today—a world in which aspirations toward authenticity so often dissolve into souvenirs and simulacra. Mediated by the History Channel and Hollywood, by education and entertainment, by travel and tourism and television, the souvenirs of westward expansion are all around us, and the simulacra too: in the rhetoric of our politicians and the attractions at our theme parks, in our highway system and on our...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 375-420)
    (pp. 421-436)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 437-449)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 450-452)