19th- and 20th-Century American Classical Music

Jake at Edward and Marian MacDowell’s gravesite, Peterborough, NH

One of my main areas of research is American classical music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My dissertation, “Constructions of New England Identity and Place in American Music, 1885–1935,” examined constructions of New England identity and changing perceptions of urban and rural by investigating the history and reception of four American composers between 1885 and 1935: George Chadwick, Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Edward MacDowell. Using the concept of place as a critical lens, I investigated how each composer engages, consciously or not, with regional identity myths and narratives, often present in other New England literature, poetry, art, and music.

In the Chadwick, Ives, and Ruggles chapters, I focus on how one representative work both reflects and constructs the composer’s sense of place drawn from their experience of Boston, Massachusetts, Danbury, Connecticut, and Arlington, Vermont, respectively. In the MacDowell chapter, the focus is on the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Future work in this area includes an article examining how Carl Ruggles embraced a Vermont identity because it distanced him from notions of feminized gentility in American musical culture, as well as an article exploring how the MacDowells and their eponymous Colony cultivated a myth of rural solitude in New Hampshire.

As a long-term writing project, I will expand the historical timeframe of this dissertation research into a monograph-length study, tentatively titled Composing New England, that continues the argument set forth in my dissertation, namely that classical composers throughout New England history have engaged with regional geographical narratives and aspects of a mythologized white, Protestant, elite cultural identity for a variety of social, aesthetic, and political purposes. These include promoting a myth of Puritan antecedence for American identity, maintaining geographic status quo in Boston in the face of an increasingly immigrant population, and idealizing the New England village as a metonym for American values during the Cold War.

See below for past work in this area, including chapter summaries of the dissertation.

George W. Chadwick

For Chadwick, the reception of his Symphony no. 2 was homologous with changing demographics of late-nineteenth-century Boston, when previous class, ethnic, and cultural hegemonies, related to political power, were breaking down and re-arranging themselves along new geographic lines.

For Ives, Washington’s Birthday was a way to remember a forgotten and mythologized New England town by idealizing the rural barn dance. By contrasting his imagined rural past with his realistic urban present, Ives grappled with his own grievances against what he perceived to be an emasculated and genteel cultivated music culture.

Carl Ruggles

For Ruggles, Men and Mountains became a way to articulate an image of a resurgent rural Vermont after years of perceived social decline. Ruggles embraced a Vermont identity that local author Dorothy Canfield Fisher created for him that made him into an icon of local artistic achievement and imbued his music with traits of a “typical” rural Vermonter. But those traits themselves were tied to regional myths about education, culture, and ethnicity.

For MacDowell, the establishment of an artists’ colony modeled on his own experience of New Hampshire “wilderness” allowed him to glorify and perpetuate an image of rural New England solitude for future generations of artists. In doing so, he and especially his wife Marian helped Peterborough’s socioeconomic elite craft an identity for the town as a retreat for urban tourists that fit with their aesthetic tastes and beliefs about social reform. Each case study reveals how similar aspects of a place-based New England identity, and its associated myths and historical narratives, affected these disparate composers and locations. Often the choices made by these composers have ramifications, intended or not, that reveal certain ideological positions reflective of their experience of place.

Aaron Copland

Other past work on twentieth-century American composers includes my master’s thesis on, which explores how Aaron Copland’s piano trio Vitebsk, written using a Jewish melody sung in Yiddish and featuring quarter tones, reflects the composer’s sense of place growing up in Brooklyn, NY. For Copland, Brooklyn was a place caught between old world Jewish communities like the Russian city of Vitebsk and the new world secularism of Manhattan. His piece therefore becomes a statement on his own Jewish identity, caught between the religion of his ancestors and his twentieth-century urban American lifestyle.

Ruth Crawford

I have also done extensive research on Ruth Crawford Seeger’s art songs on texts by Carl Sandburg, investigating the relationship between these songs and Crawford’s embodied sense of place while working at the MacDowell Colony in the summer of 1929. This will form the basis of a future article.