Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s
by Carol J. Oja
Oxford University Press, 493 pp, $39.95

Rating: 5 stars *
World War I brought down more than empires: imperial tastes, the preference for grand order, and most any sense of longevity and continuity and all things right with the world. A kind of artistic chaos followed the social revolutions. Out went the Turkey Trot and in came the Charleston, and all the dancing-school waltzes couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back on his throne.
Post-Romantics such as Rachmaninoff survived Liberace-style, but only the grandest orchestras with the greatest halls could still play the German oeuvre — or did; and most big American music was in the German vein.
With the fall of empires; music became small like Berners, disorderly like Messiën, insecure like Roussel, nervous like Stravinsky, or beating out made-up rules like a 10-year-old — Schoenberg and Kirshner. (The problem with Schoenberg's 12-tone music, as one wag put it, was that there weren't nearly enough aughts in it.)
The irony of Carol Oja's impeccable study of what was called Modern Music in the 1920s is that, despite her subtitle, New York wasn't the center of it. It just was — and is — the publishing center for and about Modern Music.
It was Boston, not New York, that premiered the New York impressionist Charles Tomlinson Griffes. New York didn't have a first-class orchestra, let alone a first-class conductor who could promote Modern Music. Modernism came to New York from three places: Europe and New England, mostly, and eventually California. Jazz may have been a special case; then again, it may not have been.
Much is made of the New York launch of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" in 1924, but Stravinsky's "Sacre du printemps" was premiered there a month before that — and Gershwin appeared pretty tame by comparison. Yet, while America embraced Gershwin through Fiedler and the Boston Pops, New York didn't look upon him as Modern Music — its reviewers said so clearly — and many New Yorkers thought him low-brow.
American Modern Music was Charles Ives, a Connecticut Yankee. His spurned protégé, Henry Cowell (editor of New Music), was no New Yorker, nor were Carl Ruggles or John Cage.
Oja points up that European modernism drew many American composers to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger but it did not produce Modernists. Rather, Boulanger introduced a French sensibility to the likes of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti — no more Modernist than Francis Poulenc.
The author also takes on the "triumph" of Mass Art trumpeted in the 1920s by transplanted Midwesterner Carl van Vechten, founder of the Harlem Renaissance. Here she is at her best, seeming to relish demolishing the great man/great music myths of concert notes. For Oja, composers were salesmen, promoters and hucksters — and certainly there is an element of that in all the forms she handles well: machine, jazz, soundtrack, and neo-Classicism (into which serial box 12-tone has now been dumped). She comprehends the musical marketplace better than any other recent writer, and tells it like it is: It ain't artsy but it is something that rhymes with it.
Jazz, she notes, had only a superficial influence on Copland, Milhaud, Ravel and others; only Gershwin of the so-called "classical" composers truly incorporated it or grasped its essence. Although black jazz artists today recognize his music as jazz-influenced, what would make Gershwin a "classical" composer are his orchestrations.
European Modernism came not to New York in any event, but to where the two great American orchestras of the era were — Boston under Koussevitsky, and Philadelphia under Stokowski. And it was in New England that an independent, American Modernism was founded.
Oja omits American Modernism's deep roots in 18th century Shape Note (the method that taught the nation to sing in churches and schools), which lent a strong, rhythmic current to the South where it had a fundamental influence on gospel music and thence on jazz and rock 'n' roll. Equally interesting is the politically incorrect but musically correct counter-influence of Euromusic on jazz. The blues, after Miles Davis, was no longer a 12-bar folk item but "Kind of Blue."
Politically correct without rudely correcting anybody, Oja also supplies a wealth of previously closeted foibles among Modern Musicians — misogyny, anti-Semitism, arrogance, homophobia, homosexuality, careerism, stinginess, bitchiness, fussiness and self-promotion — giving bite to an already spicy text.
Readers will find the work both enlightening and challenging. Hard to believe, but Modernism is rapidly receding into the past, and Oja makes her point: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Neo-Classical, and now Neo-Romantic?
* Richard Dey rates the books he reviews for the Source on a scale of 1 to 5 stars:
5 stars – Beyond serious criticism
4 stars – A fine read
3 stars – Good, fascinating, with caveats
2 stars – Interesting or shows promise
1 star – Cautionary tale

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