Songs of Freedom

Over the course of time many peoples have migrated to the USA, including Europeans from Britain, France, Finland, Holland and Spain – colonisers among them – as well as pilgrims seeking religious tolerance, and farmers seeking land and opportunity. Then there were the millions of slaves from Africa who were forced against their will to enter America.

Integration has always been a particular challenge for those of Black or Jewish heritage. Between 1900 and 1924, 1.75 million Jews emigrated to the USA from Eastern Europe. Quotas were put in place to restrict the flow of Jewish immigrants following the First World War, and antisemitism flourished, particularly during the 1930s and the Great Depression. Communities endured harsh restrictions and often physical danger.

Black people fared no better. After the Civil War ended in 1865, laws were passed to limit the rights and freedoms of Black people. Right up until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, segregation and discrimination were legally permissible. Black and Jewish communities collaborated to tackle the exclusion they faced, and through coming together in Civil Rights protests, the music of Black people (jazz, spirituals, gospel) was heard by wider society.

Many Black people migrated north to create artistic movements that would demonstrate their creativity. These movements were known as the Harlem Renaissance (c.1917-1930) and the Chicago Renaissance (c.1935- 1950), encouraging poets, playwrights, dancers, actors, musicians and photographers to look back to the great African civilisations that flourished by the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Musicians used blues, jazz, ragtime and Negro spirituals to form the essence of their musical style. They believed that by achieving excellence in art, Black people would be recognised as deserving of freedom and justice. Leading composers included William Grant Still, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds and William Levi Dawson, whose music amplified the social perspectives of their lived experiences. The legacy of those composers is at last being acknowledged, and is carried on by more recent figures such as Wynton Marsalis, who has written some of the most inventive contemporary concert music – infused with spirituals, jazz and gospel influences, connecting him with the Renaissance movements but moving forward with a crystallised aesthetic.

Excluded peoples proved integral to the formation of the American sound. As Rachmaninov, an emigré who had fled Russian political upheaval, said in an interview in 1919: “There is a strong national characteristic in America, a characteristic born of her broad democracy, the gathering of many nations, a cosmopolitan note which your composers must catch and write into your music. How will it be done or when or where, no one knows. I am convinced however, that the plan of taking Indian themes, and Negro themes is scarcely likely to produce great distinctive American music, unless these themes are developed by Indian composers and Negro composers. The highest quality of all art is sincerity.”

Rachmaninov was effectively arguing against cultural appropriation long before the term was coined. Yet the common ground found between Jewish and Black communities led to a melting pot of cultural exchange. Black musical styles became integrated into an American sound propagated by composers of different backgrounds, most famously in the adoption of jazz and blues idioms by Jewish composers such as George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

Gershwin’s parents fled Russia’s antisemitic persecution to join America’s immigrant population. Known then as Jacob Bruskin Gershowitz, he changed his name to George Gershwin to blend into American society. Gershwin listened to ragtime pianists from Harlem and assimilated their musical mannerisms, the blues idiom and the rhythmic ingenuity and soulfulness of Negro jazz. Through his ability to improvise, he could write songs for Broadway musicals as well as music for the concert hall, delivering a string of jazz-influenced concert works including An American in Paris (1928) and Cuban Overture (1932). Gershwin said of writing jazz-influenced works for the American people: “Jazz I regard as an American folk music; not the only one, but a very powerful one which is probably in the blood and feeling of the American people more than any other style of music. I believe that it can be made the basis of serious symphonic works of lasting value, in the hands of a composer with talent for both jazz and symphonic music.” Gershwin wanted to move away from slavishly imitating European classical models in music: “Music must reflect the thoughts and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are American. My time is today.

This approach is epitomised by Rhapsody in Blue (1924). Gershwin managed to fuse the idioms of classical and jazz together with such subtlety that he forged what seemed like a new musical language, moving away from the German tradition. Was this approach significantly different to what Margaret Bonds or William Grant Still were writing during the Chicago and Harlem Renaissance movements? The key difference, perhaps, is background and therefore the extent to which these composers could flourish: Gershwin borrowed Black idioms but was embraced by the mainstream in a way that was still closed off to many Black composers. In order to write his American folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935), Gershwin spent time in the rural south, absorbing the music and lifestyle of poor African Americans. Despite the accusation from critics of stereotyped characters singing appropriations of a musical style that was felt to be inauthentic, this work has endured as something that seems, in essence, to possess a genuine American voice, and at the time it showcased the power of Black folk music on an operatic stage.

In addition to his interest in jazz, Copland sought to amplify Mexican and Aztec culture via his friendship with Mexican composer Carlos Chávez. Like Gershwin, Copland was conscious of the dominance of German aesthetic ideals and wanted to write music that had a distinct voice. Chavez’s interest in folk music intrigued Copland, influencing his own lifelong quest to write music that had an immediate connection with ordinary people, and which could be described as uniquely ‘American’. In his Norton Lecture at Harvard in 1951, Copland spoke of: “This desire of mine to find a musical vernacular, which, as language, would cause no difficulties to my listeners,” and which reflected “my old interest in making a connection between music and the life about me.”

Copland’s music embraced styles linked to dance and popular culture influenced by jazz, a form created by oppressed people now emerging as part of the language of mainstream classical music. In the 1930s, like Chávez, Copland explored American folk music collections in his quest to write music that people of all backgrounds could grasp. He studied their harmonies, motifs, textures to create something that was accessible and quintessentially American, embracing Mexican folk music, cowboy songs, Shaker themes, American popular songs and even, in his Lincoln Portrait, the speeches and letters of Abraham Lincoln.

Bernstein met Copland in 1937 while he was still a student at Harvard, and he was impressed by the innovative and eclectic musical outlook of Copland’s compositions, as well as the music of Gershwin with its melding of jazz and classical music. Bernstein wrote a thesis with the title ‘The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music’, in which he explained how composers such as Copland and Gershwin used jazz and other indigenous musical ingredients such as blues, African American spirituals and gospel music to create a distinctive American musical language. Bernstein wanted to be part of a movement that created a distinctive, fresh musical sound that could be identified as American. One work that epitomises this aspiration is West Side Story, to a libretto by Stephen Sondheim, in which theatre, dance, music and words dealt with race, religion, youth culture, gang warfare, immigration and what it means to be American. These themes are still relevant today. Bernstein took his musical cues from Copland and Gershwin by integrating Latin and American jazz influences into this musical. In common with Copland, Gershwin, Bonds, Still, Marsalis and others, Bernstein sought to bring the music of oppressed and marginalised people across America into the classical realm to create a fresh, eclectic musical language that connects with ordinary people in America – where the aspiration of freedom rings.

Bernstein became the mentor of the Philharmonia’s Principal Guest Conductor Marin Alsop, who in an interview with Tom Huizenga for Deceptive Cadence explored the question ‘What Makes Music American?’: “Without sounding too patriotic or even xenophobic, I really feel that what makes American Music ‘American’ is inherently related to essence and ideal. America for me is still an ideal: a country of possibility, immediacy, access, inclusion and straightforwardness. It is a place where people can achieve greatness.”

By Philip Herbert

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Philip Herbert is a London-born, award-winning British Composer, with eclectic creative interests: his music has been performed by ensembles such as the BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, and the Cleveland, Minnesota, Nashville, Detroit and Charlotte symphony orchestras to name a few. In October 2022 he received an honorary Doctor of Music Degree from the University of Winchester.