Music in Twentieth-Century America: A New Lens
Throughout the twentieth century, America experienced decades of immigration and conflict, prompting the search for a new musical identity. One that would suit the country's civic nationalism while accommodating its rich cultural heritage. Many believe it was found by Aaron Copland, who captured the Western frontier and a spirited folk sentimentality in his compositions. Others, that it existed in the roots of jazz, from Tin Pan Alley to George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The dawn of the modernists presented yet other persona within the growing spectrum of American music, led by Charles Ives, John Cage, and Steve Reich. However, the impact of one particular medium in the twentieth century has been repeatedly overlooked. Film music. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, studios were producing over 500 feature films a year, with some 80 million Americans attending the theatre every week, nearly 65 percent of the population (Mast, 267). Overnight, film had become a major piece of American culture, supporting art, promoting industry, and giving thousands the chance to pursue the American dream. Seasoned and budding composers alike were pouring into Hollywood by the hundreds, and before the turn of the century there would be over 20,000 film scores credited to their names (McCarty, cover jacket). What if the musical identity that America was searching for had been developing in the cinema? Music in film may not conform to the same objective as concert music – that is, to be heard – but it is what people were hearing all the same. American composers writing original music for American pictures. The voices of Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin, and the great forerunners of the art together fashioned a quintessentially American sound. Music that began with imitative roots and quickly matured into its own distinct and creative form of expression, using overlapping musical genres that found structure in the formal narratives provided by film. Perhaps this musical subculture, as it has long been perceived, is far more significant than we ever thought. Especially when one considers that film music and concert music were never as removed from one another as we might suppose. Several prominent composers (and many more versatile musicians besides) practiced both professions. Leonard Bernstein, the beloved champion of twentieth century music himself, wrote music for film, along with the aforementioned Aaron Copland, George Antheil, Miles Davis, Philip Glass, and a host of other well established figures principally associated with concert repertoire. This is not to say film music was the definitive musical innovation in America during the twentieth century. Neither, of course, was concert music. Rock and Roll, along with other popular musical genres of the age, charged through each passing decade with roaring zeal. Indeed, much of the beauty of music in America was the diversity to which it aspired. But, Hollywood's productivity suggests that film music, rather than being a mere by-product of the concert music influence, substantially influenced new music at home and abroad while uniquely reflecting the American experience. As a testament to its appeal film music has received more attention in the twenty-first century than ever before. Beloved scores of the past fill today's concert halls, accompanying live cinematic viewings, and its influence on contemporary repertoire continues to grow. To think that the oh so frequently asked question of the twentieth century, "What is American music?", may yet have found an important missing piece to inform its colourful progress, and it was only a ticket stub away (Morton, 104).
Mast, Gerald and Kawin, Bruce. A Short History of the Movies. 10th ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2008. McCarty, Clifford. Film Composers in America : A Filmography, 1911-1970. 2nd ed. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2000. Morton, Lawrence. "Film Music in the Mainstream: Composers in America. Claire R. Reis."
Hollywood Quarterly 3, no. 1 (1947): 101-104