x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Classic American

Far from being imitators, US composers have created their own distinctive style, which will be illustrated with a concert featuring a programme inspired by the New World at the Al Ain Classics Festival this week.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra from Baden-Baden, Germany, will be performing in Al Ain on March 5.
The Mahler Chamber Orchestra from Baden-Baden, Germany, will be performing in Al Ain on March 5.

When the American writer Edmund White started living in Paris in the 1980s, he reported himself shocked at how differently the French saw the culture of his home country. It wasn't that they despised it - in fact, Parisians idolised figures such as the jazz musician Charlie Parker, the film director Nicholas Ray and the comedian Jerry Lewis (yes, him too). It was that they had little knowledge, and even less interest, in figures from American high culture - writers like Gertrude Stein and the composer Aaron Copland - that White had been brought up to revere. Why was it that American high culture was so invisible outside its borders?

Nowhere is this narrow international view of American high culture - still true today - more entrenched than in the area of classical music. Despite the dominance of contemporary American literature and visual art, the country's orchestral music tradition is still relatively obscure outside the US itself, overshadowed by the massive success of American popular music. This is partly understandable, while Europe has no real equivalent to Hollywood or the starburst of American popular music styles, complex orchestral music is something it feels itself to be rather good at - and the rest of the world agrees. When America can offer us the shock of jazz, the depth of soul and the epic emotions of the big screen, why do we need to seek out its version of what we see as European traditions when we suspect they are likely only to be poor surrogates?

The answer to this doubt is simple: whatever American composers may be, workmanlike imitators of European models they are not - a fact supported by the wonderful programme of American classic due to be performed at the Al Ain Classics Festival on March 5. Often steeped in the traditions of American folk, jazz, ragtime and hymn music, the best American composers forged a style that still uses the artillery of the European orchestra but fires it to a distinctively North American rhythm.

Often spiked with a jerky, kicking undertow and hinted influences of anything from barn dances to blues, the music of such composers as Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein is vibrant, sophisticated and often delightful. It's true that much of it shows the influence of contemporary trends from Europe - Copland studied in Paris, while Gershwin was a friend of that arch-innovator Schoenberg.

At the same time, the 20th-century art music scene was always dominated by a cross-Atlantic exchange of styles and ideas, with traffic often going west to east. On one hand European émigrés helped shape 20th-century America's music scene - Mahler became conductor at New York's Metropolitan Opera, while Stravinsky and Schoenberg ended up living down the road from each other in Southern California.

But on the other, jazz and other American music traditions reshaped Europe's music too - from Dvorak's celebration of African American melodies in his New World symphony, to the jazz and ragtime-inspired looseness of French composers such as Darius Milhaud and Eric Satie. Twentieth-century American composers reflect much of the excitement and unease caused by this fertile traffic - their blurring of popular and classical music has for almost a century now made audiences unsure as to which world they fit into.

Given how central American music has become in world culture, it's ironic that the first person to bring it to the ears of classical music fans was actually a Czech. While teaching music in New York in the 1890s, the already famous Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak was introduced to African American spirituals by the composer Harry Burleigh. Entranced by their melodic power, he incorporated their influence into what became one of the 20th-century's most popular pieces, his Symphony No 9 From the New World.

Dvorak's use of American folk traditions made perfect sense given his background - back in Bohemia he had been equally inspired by Czech folk songs. Nonetheless, his acknowledged respect for music made by black people - he even compared some of Beethoven's themes to "negro melodies" - was extremely forward thinking given the systematic racism of his time. His skilful variation of such melodies in his New World symphony also showed it was possible to create a powerful, distinctively American musical sound while staying true to the forms established by European classicism.

Dvorak's example was followed decades later by Charles Ives, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, all of whom tried to create authentically American art music in their own very different ways. While much of this music remains internationally obscure - the brilliance of Ives's muscular, semi-atonal works is a secret to many non-American music buffs - some of it has gained huge popularity. The reveille-like brass of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man forms of the most recognised pieces in the classical repertoire, cropping up in anything from Saving Private Ryan to Rolling Stones concerts. Likewise, Barber's melancholic, affecting Adagio for Strings has become one of the world's most popular orchestral pieces.

In 2004 it gained the bittersweet accolade of being voted the saddest piece in the classical canon by BBC Radio 4 listeners, and has even gained an unlikely second boost in past decades through regular sampling by producers of trance music. While these major figures have provided a respectable face for American art music, they aren't necessarily its most popular composers. The public holds back its greatest affection for two men who went even further in shaking up the divide between popular and classical music: George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.

Gershwin's and Bernstein's genre-mixing music broke down boundaries between populist Broadway and the high art of the concert halls in a way that confused critics and delighted audiences. Growing up in Manhattan's gritty Lower East Side, Gershwin was already a hugely successful popular songwriter before he moved into concert halls and opera houses with Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess. Bernstein, meanwhile, crossed the lines between the popular and classical camps even more frequently, renowned as both a respected conductor and reviver of Mahler, and as the musical talent behind such Broadway hits as On the Town and West Side Story.

While each took his own route, underneath the scores of both is a potent fusion of jazz and the surprisingly similar, jerky rhythms of East European Jewish klezmer, all put through a rigorous cycle of variation. The results of this fusion were, at their best, captivating. The opening wail of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is one of those iconic snatches of music that's nigh-on impossible to forget - it seems appropriate that the general idea for this emblematic product of the fast-moving 1920s was suggested to Gershwin by the rattle of a train.

And while there is much that is agreeably hummable in both Gershwin and Bernstein's music, theirs is no easy populism. Because catchy tunes such as America and Maria quickly staked a place in the American songbook, people often forget that the music in Bernstein's West Side Story is often harsh, louche and faintly dissonant, pushing far beyond the boundaries customary for the Broadway mainstream.

Many critics hailed Gershwin and Bernstein as the great future hopes of American composition. Unfortunately, they were wrong. Gershwin died of a brain tumour at just 38, still feeling that he'd barely started his life's work. Bernstein lived far longer, but while pieces such as the Chichester Psalms and his operetta Candide have found a regular place in the repertoire, he slid away from composing and into the role of star conductor and musical celebrity, leaving a work composed in his 30s - West Side Story - as his ultimate memorial.

Dubbing work by these composers as "serious" music still remains controversial. The belief that great music can't be accessible still stubbornly persists in some circles - even Bernstein criticised Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue for not sufficiently integrating all its themes into one seamless whole. Nonetheless, American composers' open-minded mutation of popular music is partly what makes them so interesting. Struggling to be remain relevant and contemporary in a country that sometimes paid them scant respect, their scores throw up some interesting questions about the nature of American culture.

How, for example, do you forge a tradition in a country that still feels itself to be new? It is this undercurrent of questioning and doubt that makes such music so interesting, especially at a time when it seems America's star is no longer rising. Daniel Harding leads the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a programme comprising Bernstein's Candide Overture, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Dvorak's New World symphony, on Friday, March 5, at Al Jahili Fort, Al Ain. For further information visit www.abudhabiclassics.com.