Monday, December 19, 2011

Michael Broyles's "Beethoven in America"

Michael Broyles is Professor of Music at Florida State University and former Distinguished Professor of Music and Professor of American History at Pennsylvania State University. His book, Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices, written with Denise Von Glahn, won the Irving Lowens Prize in 2007.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Beethoven in America, and reported the following:
I have often been asked, what does a piece of music mean? What is it about? I usually answer “to whom?” Beethoven in America explores the many ways that Beethoven’s music has been viewed, valued, interpreted and used in the United States for the past 200 years. It examines how he has been appropriated in popular music, film and theater, in art, and in both TV and magazine commercials. The early part of the book addresses how Beethoven came to be deified as a Romantic icon in the nineteenth century, and how twentieth-century modernists, wanting to overthrow Romanticism but not wanting to abandon Beethoven, redefined him and made him a modernist.

Page 99 occurs at the juncture between Romanticism and modernism. It does not mention Beethoven, but rather discusses the rise of modernism in various arts. The page lies on the tail end of a discussion of the New York Armory Show of 1913, which shocked the American art world with first glimpses of radical new ideas sweeping Europe. Then it moves to music, to discuss two of the pioneers of American modernism, Charles Ives and Leo Ornstein.

From page 99:
Musical modernism, it seemed, lagged far behind its artistic cousin. Through the 1910s music heard at most concerts was little changed from what appeared in the 1880s. Yet musical radicalism was present, only hidden away, out of public view, in such places as Redding, Connecticut. There Charles Ives continued his foray into modernism which he had begun in New Haven in the 1890s. Ives knew he was creating new and controversial music, in style and complexity far beyond what the public would accept. As a consequence he decided not to enter the music profession, but instead had an extremely successful career in the insurance business. At night and on weekends he composed. He was much aware of what was happening in Europe but he made little attempt to connect directly with the European moderns or even to get his music performed. Scores piled up, only to be discovered later. Ives was clear about his choice: He didn’t want his family “to starve on his dissonances.”

Somewhat later than Ives’s was Leo Ornstein. A Jewish immigrant who came to the United States in 1906 Ornstein suddenly discovered his own modernist style in 1913. He was more public about it, because he was his own performer. A talented concert pianist, Ornstein created a stir wherever he went with his ultramodern works, such as Danse Sauvage and Suicide in an Airplane. His appeal was due in part to the outrageous novelty of his music, and the audience’s privilege of witnessing a small, wiry man beating a piano into submission.
Learn more about Beethoven in America at the Indiana University Press website.

My Book, The Movie: Beethoven in America.

Writers Read: Michael Broyles.

--Marshal Zeringue