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Policing concert hall patriotism: consequences

The Fort Worth Symphony was recently involved in a public spat about opening its concerts with The Star-Spangled Banner. On Tuesday, Douglas W. Shadle discussed the long history of policing patriotism in concert halls. Here he proposes a solution.

What can be done about the practice of performing The Star-Spangled Banner before classical concerts? The critic leading the charge against the practice, Scott Cantrell, suggests that American orchestras should perform more music by American composers if they want to express their patriotism. I agree. But the sentiment is deeply ironic in the context of Cantrell’s attack on the national anthem. American composers are absent from today’s concert programs precisely because anti-nationalists consistently shackled them. Let’s explore that history and then consider final solutions.

Typical concert programs of the early nineteenth century included a wide array of genres: symphonies, overtures, opera arias, choral numbers, solo works, and even “popular” tunes. Audiences did not feel ashamed or embarrassed to hear popular music. They frequently requested it from the floor. Steadily, however, programming trends throughout Europe and the United States consolidated into the standard three-part format used today: overture, solo concerto, symphony. With the exception of choral symphonies, vocal music all but disappeared.

As I’ve explained, abstract instrumental music was the alleged domain of German composers. All others became trespassers. The elevation of this music therefore struck a deep blow for Americans who tended toward experimentation. John Knowles Paine’s two abstract symphonies (1876, 1880) fared well in America and Europe but still managed to fall out of the standard repertoire. Pieces with evocative national programs, however, such as Louis Maas’s On the Prairies (1882), remained targets of sharp critical barbs when they were performed at all.

The music of Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781–1861), a Bohemian who immigrated permanently to the United States, was one of the first such targets. Though he was a prolific symphonist who penned colorful works on American subjects, no permanent American orchestra ever performed his music during his lifetime. He was forced to hire his own musicians and hoped that generous benefactors would help him recover costs. He was able to do so a mere three times.

Critic John Sullivan Dwight targeted Heinrich’s compositional patriotism in 1846. “We are sorry to see such circumstances dragged into music as the ‘Indian War Council,’ the ‘Advance of the Americans,’ [etc.] Music composed with no consciousness of anything in the world but music, is sure to tell of greater things than these.” He said very little about the quality of the piece as such. Its patriotic pretenses gave him reason enough to dismiss it.

Critics were not the only figures who summarily dismissed American composers. The original by-laws of the New York Philharmonic, founded in 1842, included a clause mandating the annual performance of American works. (The standard concert season comprised only a handful of performances.) The orchestra first fulfilled the mandate in 1847, when it premiered an overture by one of its violinists, George Frederick Bristow (1825–1898). After ten seasons, however, this overture remained the only American work featured at a Philharmonic concert.

Bristow, meanwhile, had composed a full-length symphony that was wholly devoid of overt patriotism — or programmatic subject matter of any kind. There was no obvious stylistic reason why the Philharmonic would not have chosen to perform it.

The snub irritated Bristow, who eventually took his grievances to the press and urged the Philharmonic’s German contingent to return to Europe: “If all their artistic affections are unalterably German, let them pack back to Germany and enjoy the police and bayonets and aristocratic kicks and cuffs of that land.” Reality indeed.

Why the harsh response? In the aftermath of the failed revolutions of 1848–49, German-speaking immigrants had swelled the Philharmonic’s ranks. With a strong voting majority, they had no particular incentive to enforce the original by-laws. Bristow instead had to turn to Louis Antoine Jullien, a London-based conductor who brought an orchestra of virtuosi to the United States in 1853. Jullien not only championed Bristow’s music on this tour, but he commissioned Bristow to write a second symphony and brought both works back to London. Audiences at home and abroad loved it, while critics felt satisfied that a “good” American composer had finally emerged.

The Philharmonic should have been embarrassed. But as late as 1879, Harvey Dodworth, one of the orchestra’s founders, publicly lamented the fact that Germans had taken power from the charter members and had used this power to thwart the aspirations of local composers. Other leading German musicians, particularly the conductor Theodore Thomas, would continue to steamroll American composers despite such jeremiads.

Banning American patriotism from concert halls became the American way. Had we been more open to it, this discussion would not be taking place. It is all the more remarkable, then, that The Star-Spangled Banner in particular should be standing at the center.

Critics, including Cantrell, often take swipes at “creative” renditions of the The Star-Spangled Banner. These attacks reflect outdated conceptions of music. Like the cast of forgotten American composers mentioned above, however, our national anthem resists this perspective.

As an eminently mobile song, The Star-Spangled Banner changes shape as it is performed in various places. And like other songs of its type, it accrues new layers of meaning over time. There is in fact no official version of the national anthem — no Urtext for us to consult. Some performers sing it in a lazy quadruple time, as opposed to a statelier three. Some don’t sing it in English. Some don’t sing it at all. And we may wince at one version or another. But the song’s very malleability and democratic openness to novel forms of expression are authentic manifestations of an American national identity. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s inviolate Beethoven could not be more different.

Perhaps, in the end, the Fort Worth Symphony should stop playing The Star-Spangled Banner before every concert. On the one hand, frequent performances lead to banality. (We should have learned that lesson about Beethoven long ago.) On the other, we shouldn’t let the sterile concert hall debase the peculiarly American transcendence of the national anthem.

Featured image: Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. Photo by Alex de Carvalho. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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