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The Outlook for the Young American Composer

An interview with the Distinguished American Composer, MRS. H. H. A. BEACH
Secured Especially for THE ETUDE by Mr. Edwin Hughes
 [EDITOR’S NOTE—The following interview was secured by Mr. Edwin Hughes, the well known American pianist and teacher in Munich, Germany, shortly before tile outbreak of the war. For the last three years Mrs. Beach has resided abroad. Our readers will notice in the following article that, like all liberal-minded Americans, she appreciates the desirability of residence abroad for Art workers. At the same time it should be remembered that Mrs. Beach’s triumphs are solely the result of her American training, and had been achieved entirely before she ever crossed the seas.
Mrs. Beach was born at Henniker. N.H., September 5, 1867. Her musical studies were conducted in Boston with E. Perabo, C. Baermann and J. W. Hill. As early as 1885 she appeared as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Thereafter her work as a virtuoso was paralleled by her unusual accomplishments in musical composition, which range from Symphonic and Choral works in larger forms to delightfully musicianly songs and pieces in smaller form which are entitled to recognition by serious minded musicians everywhere. America may well be proud of Mrs. Beach as Mrs. Beach has never failed to proclaim her pride in America.]

THERE is no questioning the fact that the young American musician who intends to devote himself to composition can acquire all the material for musical composition quite as well in America, under American teachers and in American music-schools, as in Europe. Until he has “found himself,” in fact, it is much to the advantage of a young composer not to come in too close contact with any of the commanding musical personalities of Europe.

I think that to a very considerable extent there is developing in American composition as a whole to-day a spirit that is really American. It is not so much that we are developing an “American school” of composition, but more that there is a different line of development in different individuals, that each is seeking his own way. I might compare it with the spirit of American independence; each man is a law unto himself to a large extent. The fact of my having been entirely in Europe during the past three years has cut me off to a great measure from following the most recent developments in American composition, but from what knowledge I have been able to glean I can say that our composers are progressing rapidly and that they are not adhering to any “school.”

We are so young as a nation that we have had to accept help from the outside in music as in all other lines of culture. In music we have been fascinated by one nation after another in turn. The modern French school for example exerted a large influence over our composers for a time, but its influence I think as been short-lived. It cannot be said that our composers are adhering to any European “school” at present, and this is as it should be, for I am very much against placing any such sort of limitation on musical composition. The development of the American composer must be on as broad lines as possible. He must not feel himself restricted to his own or any other country; his field must be the whole world.

For the young aspirant to honors in musical composition I should advise that great stress be laid on the acquirement of a broad general education, an all around intellectual development, in addition to his purely musical training. Our university schools of music are I know working toward this end, but my knowledge of their activities is too limited to permit me to judge in how far they have succeeded, or whether they have succeeded to a greater extent than our better class of conservatories. At any rate the aim of the university schools of music is to produce musicians in the broad sense of the word, instead of producing brilliant pianists, violinists and singers.

Some of our best known composers have been products of the Harvard University School of Music, such as Chadwick, Converse and Foote. Professor J. K. Paine, who was the teacher of these men and the head of the music department of Harvard for many years, was a very dear friend of mine. He conducted his course at the university entirely through lectures and class-room work, and the object was of course to develop general musicians where there was evidence of talent, and to raise the appreciation and understanding of music as a whole among the college students. Of course only a small fraction of the three thousand or more students take the course in music. The majority of the young men like to have a good time while they are at college and the musical part of their education does not reach much higher levels than those set by the glee and mandolin club. However, out of the small number who do take advantage of the course in serious music, there are always a few who possess real talent.

Professor Paine’s own compositions exhibited nothing that one could brand as specifically “American,” but had a more international character. Many of them were very beautiful, including his opera Azara, which unfortunately has never had a public hearing, although there were promises after its completion for a production at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Most of Paine’s pupils, as well as nearly all of our successful American composers, supplemented their work in America with further study in Europe. Of those mentioned above Foote was the only one whose education was entirely American.

Horatio Parker studied in Munich with Rheinberger and Edward MacDowell was entirely a European product (with the exception of his early piano studies with Carreño in New York), having been brought or from America when he was a young boy and remaining in Europe until he had developed into full manhood and had already published a number of compositions. These earlier works of MacDowell show no distinctively American traits, exhibiting as they do the strong influence of Raff, who was MacDowell’s teacher. It was only after MacDowell’s return to America that he began to write music that showed forth characteristics of his native soil.

I should advise all American composers to go abroad and work, for a time at least, in order to come into immediate contact with the wonderful musical life and atmosphere of Europe. The results of their work are certain to be finer and broader than if they remained exclusively in America. I realize that in making this statement, I am apparently speaking against my own work, which was done entirely in America until three years ago, when I came to Europe for the first time. Still, without at all advising a permanent residence in Europe, I am convinced of the broadening influence of European musical culture on the American composer who can make a more or less lengthy sojourn in one of the European music centers. At the same time I would advise him not to remain too long

The wonderful thing for the American musician going to Europe is to find music put on a so much higher plane than in America, and universally recognized and respected by all classes and condition the great art which it is. There is indeed such a tremendous respect for music in Europe that it is almost impossible to convey this feeling to persons who have never been outside of America. Music is in the air constantly, wherever one goes.
Quite near my home in Munich is the beautiful Hof Garten where hundreds of people go to drink a cup of coffee under the shade of the horse-chestnut trees on warm summer afternoons. Twice a week one of the military bands from the garrison gives a popular concert there. The other day when I was enjoying a cup of coffee under these delightful circumstances the first numbers on the program of this “popular” concert were the Overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute and a long selection from Wagner’s Parsifal, which lasted certainly twenty minutes.

Nearby is the Odeon Platz where nearly every noon at the changing of the guard before the Royal Palace, a splendid military band gives a short program of standard musical compositions. The crowd which gathers at this time of day in front of the Feldherrn Halle, where the band is stationed, numbers hundreds, and thus music of the best sort is offered daily to the public. There is a great lack of such institutions in America.

It is of immeasurable advantage to the American composer to come to Europe also in order to try his mettle side by side with his European confrères. My own experience has been that my work has been judged entirely on its merits. In my concerts of my own compositions during the last season I had to appear before audiences in which I had practically no one whom I knew and it was a great satisfaction to feel that I was able to win the attention and the warm expressions of appreciation from such totally strange audiences in a foreign country. In Europe one has the feeling that music is not regarded as a mere form of amusement, but as a great, serious art. One of the numerous signs of this is the naming of street after famous composers. In every German city of importance one finds a Beethoven Strasse, a Mozart Strasse, a Wagner Strasse, and so forth.

To return to the American composer in his native land, I may say that there is a great deal of untouched material for musical inspiration in the works of our American poets. When we see an English composer, Coleridge-Taylor, giving a musical setting to Hiawatha, one would certainly think that our native composers should find numerous springs of inspiration in the poetical works of their own countrymen. I do not mean to indicate that American subjects or the work of American poets should be the sole source of inspiration for American composers, for as I said before, I am opposed to all restrictions of this sort, and I believe that the American composer must have the world as his field of work.

There is not much of our history that is available for musical settings for the simple reason that it is all too recent for the necessary haze of romance to have been sufficiently drawn over it. How ridiculous it would for example, to attempt to put Lincoln or Grant on the stage in an opera. Perhaps later such things may be possible but not now.
There are, however, some picturesque moments in our history which might be made use of for opera texts, particularly those connected with Indian life and with the Spanish settlement of California, where many beautiful and suggestive incidents are to be found. But here of course we are dealing with something which is not typically American from the point of view of our generation.
From a musical standpoint the treatment of an Indian subject for an opera presents restrictions, and to any except an American audience the presentation of an opera dealing with Indians mould be impossible. Europeans for example have no understanding  for Indian customs and ideaIs, and it would only appear ludicrous to them to attempt to represent such things on the stage.
On the other hand the old New York legends of Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane and similar old American stories might make good material for opera, as they contain a great deal that is really American. The situations and characters we can understand fully as they hail from the foundation of the modern American nation, whereas, Indian and Spanish-California themes must ever remain to a great extent foreign to our innermost feelings.
Personally, I do not think that Indian and Negro melodies will play a very great rôle in the future development of American composition, although some critics think that we shall develop along these lines because of the original melodies and harmonic intervals of this class of music. This is something which only time can prove.
There is of course a possibility of making use of Indian airs, as a number of works by American composers already have proven, but as for their forming a basis for a national “school” of musical composition, in the sense that Russian folk-songs do to a certain extent in Russian music, this is quite out of the question. We are all European by descent, and therefore these Indian airs can never really become a part of us. They are not the songs which we are used to hear from the cradle on; in fact we only know them by hunting for them in out-of-the-way places.

Our Negro melodies are also not specifically American. Taking for granted that many of them were not brought over from Africa, but originated in America, they can still not be regarded as American folk-songs or the whole country. As such they have for us northerners little meaning.

The Foster melodies, beautiful as they are, cannot be regarded as folk-songs, as they are all from the pen of one individual. They are too well known in their original shape to be used to advantage as themes for the composition of works in the larger forms, and in addition there would be far too few of them to go around in case all American composers wished to use them for such a purpose.

I know too little about our American pageants and their music to be able to say anything in regard to their relation to the general development of American music, but I think that the representation of such scenes from our history on a large scale must surely have the effect of stimulating the imagination of our composers.

One great drawback to the cause of American music is the fact that American orchestras and American performers do not give American composers a fair place on their programs. With orchestral conductors this is in a measure explainable (but not excusable), by the fact that the leaders of our principal American orchestras are, almost without exception, foreigners. During, the summer months when plans and programs for the coming season are usually made, they are most of them in Europe. Now from the standpoint, say, of a German conductor, it is quite understandable that he should be better acquainted with the work of contemporary German composers than with that of living composers of any other nationality, and that in his search for novelties for the next season’s concerts the lion’s share should fall to his compatriots.

When this same German conductor is engaged as the head of an American orchestra, however, the matter takes on another aspect. It would hardly be fair to place all the blame on the shoulders of our foreign conductors, for a great part of it lies with our own American audiences. We must educate public opinion to the fact that we really have composers in America whose work is worth hearing, and we must make our audiences patriotic enough to insist on having a fair share of American music on the programs to which they listen. Fair play is really the expression I should use here, for I would not want that an undue place be given to American composers on our programs merely out of a spirit of spread-eagleism. The fact is that American compositions are worthy of a chance of being heard and they should have that chance, along with the works of foreign composers.
This is then the fundamental requirement, the education of our concert-going public to the fact that the work of American composers is really worthy of consideration. The secondary requirement is the impression on the foreign conductors who lead our orchestras of the fact that they must give more consideration to American composers in making up their programs.

When these two things have been accomplished, the American composer will be a long way toward the goal of a rightful recognition of his abilities. Then it will be merely a question of supply and demand, and there is undoubtedly a great deal to be given when the public is ready to receive it. If the number of native American conductors at present in charge of orchestras in the United States were larger than it is, this would be undoubtedly of great advantage to the American composer.
Our composers owe an immense debt to the many women’s musical clubs scattered far and wide over the whole land, which have done an enormous amount of work in popularizing the compositions of American musicians. They have cultivated the study and the appreciation of the works of their own countrymen in a most praiseworthy manner, giving them a chance for a hearing alongside of the works of European composers.

In regard to the position of women composers I may say that I have personally never felt myself handicapped in any way, nor have I encountered prejudice of any sort on account of my being a woman, and I believe that the field for musical composition in America offers exactly the same prospects to young women as to young men composers.
The attitude of American publishers toward native composers is I think a friendly one. Of course music publishing is a purely business matter, and is regulated by the question of supply and demand. But I think the American publishers are after good material, and don’t care where it comes from.

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