Sunday, December 21, 2014

"American music is not jazz. Jazz is not music."

Paul Rosenfeld
Paul Rosenfeld, photographed by Alfred Stieglitz (image source: George Eastman Archive, Still Photograph Archive)

Today these words shock.  They were probably even shocking to some who read them at the time in 1929.  But they were written by one of America's most esteemed music critics, Paul Rosenfeld, who wrote at various times for prestigious publications like The New Republic, Vanity Fair, and The Nation.  That he was a recognized figure in America's cultural life is attested to by his being the subject of the portrait above by famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

The Library owns six books of Rosenfeld's writings about music.  The notorious quote above comes from An Hour With American Music.  This book was part of publisher J.B. Lippincott's "The One Hour Series" which commissioned introductions to a variety of topics "by an expert in the field."  For instance, Ford Madox Ford wrote "The One Hour" title for the English novel, Samuel Eliot Morison wrote the title for American history, and Gilbert Seldes wrote An Hour with the Movies and the Talkies (the Library still has a reference copy of the latter, but has not owned the former two books for a long time - but you can request them using Link+).

A closer look at the entirety of of An Hour With American Music will show that Rosenfeld set up this polemic not so much to run down jazz as to introduce and advocate for other contemporaneous American music.  The composers he discusses and extols read like a roster of what our San Francisco Symphony's music director Michael Tilson Thomas would call "American Mavericks."  He devotes parts of chapters to composers like Leo Ornstein, Dane Rudhyar, Carl Ruggles, Aaron Copland, and Edgard Varèse.

What we get with this book (after a not fully comprehending, but nevertheless interesting and opinionated put-down of jazz) is an informed look at some of the most daring classical composers of the roaring twenties.  In the the twentieth first century both kinds of American music can be found together in our concert halls, but it's informative to know one critic's reaction to them when they were current.

An Hour with American Music by Paul Rosenfeld (J. B. Lippincott Company, 1929).

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