Posts Tagged ‘ Charles Ives ’

America’s Greatest Composer

In a few days it will be 40 years since Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington passed. (He died on May 24, 1974. He didn’t get to live to see Nixon resign.)

There is nothing magical about these anniversaries, of course. It only occurred to me because I have been thinking about the state of American music for a couple of days. I won’t reveal my thoughts here, for fear of being dismissed as an old crank. But I can suggest that it would be difficult for anyone to make the case that someone other than the Duke can claim the title of America’s greatest composer.

There’s no doubt that Carter, Wuorinen, Babbit, Varese and Ives made important music that we will study for years to come. But America has never produced art music, in the European tradition, as a natural matter. In terms of vital, organic and innovative music, America has only produced jazz and blue grass. Blue grass, however, has never been written in a wide enough variety of forms to be considered a serious art form. Jazz, however, has had quite a number of original composers, something of a perceived anomaly for a music mostly known for improvisation covering pop music. It is true that it is difficult to isolate a jazz “composer” (such as, for example, Monk, Gillespie, Mingus and Coltrane) from an “arranger” (such as Henderson, Basie and Evans). But there is no doubt where Duke Ellington stands on that divide. For more than forty years he produced one marvel after another, which he not only wrote, but arranged and conducted.

It’s difficult to pick a period that best displays his genius. But “periods” he certainly has, as assuredly as Picasso did. From the “Jungle Music” of his Cotton Club days, to the “classicist” of the 30s and 40s (with the Carnegie Hall music), during which time he had the outstanding performers Ben Webster on sax and Jimmy Blanton on bass, which RCA Victor used to sell its compilation of Ellington recordings. The ’50s were a difficult time for Big Bands but Ellington used it to write one of his most startling pieces, “Satin Doll,” which was never better interpreted than by his own quirky original piano treatment. The 60s saw him attempt “serious” compositions/arrangements with suites (including a version of the “Nutcracker”) that did not stack up to his earlier efforts. But at the same time he was exploring the avant-garde. Possibly the best of these efforts was Money Jungle with Coltrane and Mingus. The efforts of the 60s paid off with a renaissance in the 70s, when he himself was in his 70s. And it was listening to an album from that period that got me thinking in this vein. The album was Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.

That album ostensibly offers a “fusion” with what Ellington calls “oriental” music. You can safely ignore the Duke’s explanation; in fact it’s somewhat embarrassing to listen to. I have never understood the thinking of the A&R flacks at Columbia Records, who seemed to relish self-indulgent and often patronizing blather. But once you get past the first 10 seconds or so of this album, you will find the music undeniably superb. Admittedly, the effects are largely owing to block orchestral forces and the open voicings of the brass at climaxes. But pitting block forces was the mainstay of someone as orthodox in Germanic art music as Bruckner. And if you object to open voicings, then you probably have no interest in big band jazz anyway.

That said, if you have a half hour, it could be spent in many worse ways than listening to Afro-Eurasian Eclipse:

Memorial Day

John A. and Mary Logan with Mary Elizabeth (“Dollie”) and Manning Alexander circa 1870 (Library of Congress).

When General John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, on May 5, 1868, proclaimed that May 30 should be Decoration Day, it was “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion . . .” He was not concerned with national reconciliation. And why should he have been? He was acting solely as commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the goal of which (he reiterated in General Orders No. 11, which proclaimed the day) was “preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.”

Logan was not then much for national reconciliation, although he was once stirred by the orator who spoke of “malice towards none” and “charity for all.” But that was before the lingering hatred of the rebels had killed that me=an. Logan had very definite views of how the conflict started: it was a Great Conspiracy that in many ways continued well past Appomatox.

Logan had been a Douglas Democrat, but seeing how the Southern Democrats acted on the election of Lincoln was eye-opening. When it was clear Lincoln was elected, the “‘Fire Eating’ Southrons” (as he called them) in South Carolina danced in delight at the news because they would use it to justify their long-held desire to secede. Horace Greeley described the scene:

To great public acclaim in Charleston, the South Carolina legislature declares for secession on December 20, 1860. (Library of Congress.)

There was great joy in Charleston, and wherever “Fire-Eaters” most did congregate, on the morning of November 7th. Men rushed to shake hands and congratulate each other on the glad tidings of Lincoln’s election. Now, it was felt, and exultingly proclaimed, the last obstacle to “Southern independence” has been removed, and the great experiment need no longer be postponed to await the pleasure of the weak, the faithless, the cowardly. It was clear that the election had resulted precisely as the master-spirits had wished and hoped. Now, the apathy, at least of the other Cotton States, must be overcome; now, South Carolina—that is, her slaveholding oligarchy—will be able to achieve her long-cherished purpose of breaking up the Union, and founding a new confederacy on her own ideas, and on the “peculiar institution” of the South. Men thronged the streets, talking, laughing, cheering, like mariners long becalmed on a hateful, treacherous sea, whom a sudden breeze had swiftly wafted within sight of their longed — for haven, or like a seedy prodigal, just raised to affluence by the death of some far-off, unknown relative, and whose sense of decency is not strong enough to repress his exultation.*

Logan himself saw how the Southron politicians acted in Washington. President Buchanan, who had long been a water-carrying tool for the most extreme of the Southern Democrats, delivered his a remarkable message to Congress on December 3. Secession, he said, was illegal. But so was any resort to coercion by the federal government. And he even explained who was to blame for the situation:

The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects. The different sections of the Union are now arrayed against each other, and the time has arrived, so much dreaded by the Father of his Country, when hostile geographical parties have been formed.

Of course the “natural effects” of this finger wagging would be insuperable demands by the Southern representatives that would prevent any sort of reconciliation. Logan described their actions:

[T]he debates in both Houses, in which the most violent language was indulged by the Southern Fire-eaters, as well as other events, soon proved that there was a settled purpose on the part of the Slave-Power and its adherents to resist and spit upon all attempts at placation.

In the Senate also (December 5), a Select Committee of Thirteen was appointed, to consider the impending dangers to the Union, comprising Senators Powell of Kentucky, Hunter of Virginia, Crittenden of Kentucky, Seward of New York, Toombs of Georgia, Douglas of Illinois, Collamer of Vermont, Davis of Mississippi, Wade of Ohio, Bigler of Pennsylvania, Rice of Minnesota, Doolittle of Wisconsin, and Grimes of Iowa. Their labors were alike without practical result, owing to the irreconcilable attitude of the Southrons, who would accept nothing less than a total repudiation by the Republicans of the very principles upon which the recent Presidential contest had by them been fought and won. Nor would they even accept such a repudiation unless carried by vote of the majority of the Republicans. The dose that they insisted upon the Republican Party swallowing must not only be as noxious as possible, but must absolutely be mixed by that Party itself, and in addition, that Party must also go down on its knees, and beg the privilege of so mixing and swallowing the dose! That was the impossible attitude into which, by their bullying and threats, the Slave Power hoped to force the Republican Party—either that or “War.”†

Harvest of Death (July 4, 1863): Timothy O’Sullivan’s iconic photograph the day after the end of Gettysburg. From his collection Incidents of War.

When war nearly reached the doorsteps of Congress, Logan voluntarily attached himself to a Michigan regiment and fought in the First Bull Run. After that disaster, Logan gave up his seat in Congress and organized a regiment of volunteers from Illinois. He fought throughout the war with Grant in the West and with Sherman in the Deep South. He was at the second turning point in July 1863: the day after Lee fled Gettysburg, Logan, commanding a division of McPherson’s XVII Corps was among the first to enter Vicksburg. The twin victories the first week of July 1863 showed that the rebels could not win the war. The Vicksburg victory divided the south and deprived them of the use of the Mississippi. Texas would no longer participate in the rebellion. The victory in Pennsylvania ended thoughts of a desperate invasion into the North. From then on, for two more years, the war would be nothing more than a bloodbath, pursued out of irrational fury by delusional Confederate politicians who never conceived of any compromises when they participated in the federal government, and now they faced at best the destruction of their economic power and possibly worse when the inevitable end came.

Birth of a Nation: D.W. Griffith’s 1915 contribution to the Lost Cause Myth

Just as they did not believe Lincoln in his first inaugural when he offered to work with them on their grievances (even foregoing almost all the hardline positions of the platform of the Republican Party, which had just won the election), they did not believe him in 1864 when he held out the olive branch in the second inaugural. The decision to sacrifice men and allow the destruction of their lands would sow seeds of hatred, disunion and paranoia that exist to this day. Witness attempts to “honor” Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate war criminal and founder of the KKK, with license plates or incorporating the Confederate Flag in state flags or recently Texas Governor Rick Perry’s ridiculous posturing on the right and willingness of Texas to secede today. At the time, the virulent passions resulted in the assassination of the man who offered “charity for all” and the near assassination of Secretary of State Seward. And despite the fact that he feared the worst when he attempted to escape capture rather than honorably surrender, Jefferson Davis began his long career of fabricating the myth of the “Lost Cause.” This myth would bury the South in a heap of violence, self-pity and reactionary politics for generations.

So needless to say the former Confederate states did not participate in Logan’s Decoration Day, although not only did the Grand Army of the Republic participate that year, informal memorials were held at cemeteries throughout the North beginning that first year. Northern states soon began to officially recognize it. Southern states established separate days to celebrate the confederate dead. Some states even had multiple celebrations, such as Texas which had official state holidays on the birthdays of both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. (They combine it in one now.) Almost all the former Confederate States still celebrate Confederate Memorial Day (although Virginia tastefully combines it with Memorial Day.) I can’t help but feel that the continued celebration of the Lost Cause has been the single-most powerful instrument of the perpetual disunion of this country along both regional and party lines. Memorials mean something for the next generation (otherwise they wouldn’t be practiced). They perpetuate traditions and in some cases, like this one, prejudices. And they give a story to those too lazy to discover history. Consider Frank Horne’s observations on a school teacher’s “instruction” of small children at the Confederate Memorial in Stone Mountain, Georgia:

“She is telling them of the great soldiers to whom this mountain is dedicated, of the glory of southern manhood, of the honor of these heroes who defended what was theirs …… their wives, their children, their homes, their property, their slaves ……. and standing there, I seem to see the shadow of this great mountain already falling upon these little white minds, a shadow that makes them feel that they are of the blood of the greatest and noblest beings on earth, that the South was theirs to own, that they were the masters of the land, that the blacks were ever slaves and theirs to hold . . and I looked down the valley and saw the mountain shadow lengthen and reach into far away Atlanta, and clutch with inky fingers the hearts and souls of those fine dark people I had come to know. As I looked again, I could see the great shadow flow throughout the South, and settle like a shroud about my heart as I realized that this great darkness pervades and tinges the very existence of these people of my blood. My soul seems to tremble at the thought that living here would make me not only bitter but less a man.”‡

After World War I Southern states began accepting the day, now converted to one honoring all war dead, but they never gave up their celebration of the Lost Cause. In the North, over time, the great bitterness subsided. The day was marked by quiet memorials at grave sites, usually with someone playing Taps.” I remember such memorials, way back when civic traditions were solemn affairs to remember what actually happened. (Often the cornet player would wear a Union uniform.) Today of course Memorial Day is now a celebration of IndyCar formula race cars. (Ironically, the great race is held in the city that was for a long time the headquarters of the KKK in the North; and it and similar NASCAR events have become the near official “sport” of the current ideological descendants of the Lost Cause myth-makers.)

Charles Ives, who as a child played “Taps” at the memorial in Danbury, Connecticut, recalled the earlier, perhaps purer version, of the Memorial Day remembrance in the North. The second movement of his New England Holiday Symphony is titled “Decoration Day.” It evokes the mood of solemn reverence for the young boys who gave their lives for the Glorious Cause. It has some hints of martial glory but they are drowned out eventually by the same chromatic harmonies used to describe the feelings of loss and honor that were the original basis of the holiday. Here is Zubin Mehta leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Ives’ Decoration Day:

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*Horace Greeley, The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America, 1860-65 … (Hartford: O. D. Chase & Co: 1866), vol I,  pp. 332-333.

† John A. Logan, The Great Conspiracy: Its Origin and History (A.R. Hart & Co: 1886), Part 2, pp 107-08.

‡ “I am Initiated into the Negro Race,” Opportunity (May 1928), pp 136-37 at 137.