Sunday, August 19, 2012

Beth E. Levy's "Frontier Figures"

Beth E. Levy is Associate Professor of Music at the University of California, Davis. Her contribution to the volume Aaron Copland and His World, ed. Carol J. Oja and Judith Tick (Princeton University Press, 2005) won the Society for American Music’s Irving Lowens Award for the year’s best article on American Music.

Levy applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book Frontier Figures: American Music and the Mythology of the American West, and reported the following:
I chose to call my book Frontier Figures because it’s about composers who bumped up against western Americana and about the western characters they drew into the unlikely realm of classical music. My chapters treat eight composers in succession, and each approached the West in a different way, paying as much attention to people as to landscapes. One of the things that holds my narrative together is the perception that while composers at the turn of the twentieth century were most interested in Native Americans, later composers turned first to pastoral or pioneer settings and then to the colorful cowboy as a source of inspiration. In short, it’s people who are stylized in the Thomas Hart Benton painting on the book’s cover and people who appear front and center on page 99, even though they might not be the people you might expect.

Page 99 [inset at left; click to enlarge] is representative of what the book does–though of course it is only about a quarter of the way through the story. You’ll have to wait until page 179 to hear about Virgil Thomson’s soundtrack for the Dust Bowl documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains. Not until page 227, with the much heralded entrance of Roy Harris, will you meet a composer who was actually born in the West and made “westernness” a key component of his self image. Aaron Copland, certainly the most influential “cowboy composer”(despite his Brooklyn birth), takes the stage on page 293, and only those who visit the conclusion will encounter Ferdé Grofe’s iconic Grand Canyon Suite. (Of course you can always skip to the end!)

By contrast, page 99 treats the lesser known Charles Wakefield Cadman, usually remembered as a sentimental songwriter but here hard at work on his most ambitious project, Daoma. In negotiation with librettist Nelle Eberhart and Francis La Flesche, a key informant for ethnologist Alice Fletcher, Cadman aimed for a “purely Indian” opera, appropriating Omaha songs but uniting them with operatic models taken from Verdi and Puccini. While Daoma never reached the stage and therefore sparked little of the critical reception incorporated into other chapters, my discussion here is typical in that I begin by thinking about history and biography before exploring aspects of the creative or collaborative process and analyzing how the music works to create a self-consciously “western” impression.
Read Chapter 1 (on composer Arthur Farwell) and learn more about the book at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue