Sunday, September 21, 2014

For Better or Worse: Born an American

In the early seventies, to be an American was to still be full of hope. Those bright expectations for the future were everywhere evident on the campus of Sam Houston State University, during my initial college days. And yet, some of what we wanted to accomplish was inextricably tied to the past. Those expectations for the future remained linked to earlier realities...

For instance, many music students "pined" for music which once existed in a world quite different from our own: the classical music which often represented "frivolous" projects on the part of royalty and the elite of earlier times. To a music student's way of thinking, classical music could feel more "evolved" than the music of the present. Of course a similar complaint has been lodged by baby boomers such as myself, about the music which followed that of the seventies and eighties! Fortunately, "frivolities" on the part of royalty remain with us today, caught as they are in the artwork and earlier music from the Old World.

Something about the love for classical music (on the part of music students), could be likened to a hidden desire for the old homelands of one's forebears. I once dreamed of flying (and dancing in the air) above an old warehouse full of the keyboards from Beethoven's time. Had a degree in music composition become a reality for me, the result probably would have been lots of modern day versions of Beethoven wannabee piano sonatas.

Consequently, it seems unusual that the symphony which stood out most in my mind during those college years, had little to do with sentimental concepts about the Old World, at all. Instead, someone "grabbed my arm" (and the arm of countless others) and said "Look at this". THIS is what's been happening in the world of the more recent present. Wow! In a single musical stroke, Antonin Dvorak generated a unique musical memento for the new realities starting to take shape, during the later years of his life when he lived in the U.S.

One might say that Dvorak made many of us proud to be Americans, by emphasizing in the most dramatic way possible, the feel of what was actually going on, through the New World Symphony. He was in a unique position to paint the reaction of all citizens to modernity, for he had aptly represented the folk music of the Old World as well. Dvorak was able to express - in musical form - the broadening economic horizon which was beginning to embrace not just the elite and the fortunate, but populations as a whole.

As a result, he could interpret not only the excitement of the new economic dynamism, but also the comforts and fears which resulted from the inevitable aftermath of creative destruction. This is why the template of Dvorak's New World Symphony provided such a rich mother lode for the American music which was to follow. It turned out to be one of those rare pieces of music which provides a centering point for individuals from all walks of life.

Perhaps most importantly: this still relevant piece of music manages to convey - in the space of  just under 43 minutes - more about the earlier economic dynamism of my country, than many a formulated school history textbook was ever able to describe. Fortunately, the New World Symphony provided a brief time capsule, for those of us who didn't experience firsthand what those tumultuous times must have felt like. Often, we never really know where our more valuable lessons about life might actually come from.

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