The Weimar Years: A Culture Cut Short by John Willett (1984)

This is a large format Thames and Hudson paperback (27 cm by 23 cm) which is designed to foreground large black and white historic photos and images rather than text.

After a short 10-page introduction, almost the whole book consists of assemblies of original images from the avant-garde of the Weimar culture, with only a small amount of accompanying commentary. It is a visual history. Just to recap the main events, the period falls roughly into three parts:

  1. 1918-1923 Post-war economic and social chaos
  2. 1924-1929 Peace and stability
  3. 1929-1933 Wall Street crash prompts more economic and social chaos, leading to the appointment of Hitler chancellor in January 1933, at which point the republic ends

The three periods of the Weimar Republic

1. The First World War ended in November 1918. The Kaiser abdicated to be replaced by a civilian government. The two commanding generals Ludendorff and Hindenberg made sure that this civilian government signed the peace, thus allowing them forever afterwards to blame civilians for stabbing the army in the back. In the same month there were coups in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere to try and set up revolutionary councils and soldiers and workers, which is how the Bolshevik revolution started.

For the next three or four years the Communist International in Moscow held out high hopes that Germany would fall to communism and trigger a Europe-wide revolution. In the event all these insurrections were put down by Freikorps or locally organised militia. Right from the start the left-liberal government had to rely on the army to keep it in power, and this was to prove a fatal weakness.

In March 1920 some of the Freikorps tried to overthrow the Berlin government and the army did nothing; it was only a general strike and popular armed resistance which restored the government. In 1922 Freikorps elements murdered Walter Rathenau, the Republic’s Foreign Secretary who had negotiated a trade treaty with the USSR and was Jewish. This led to outbreaks of anti-republican and communist agitation in the streets.

The terms of the Treaty of Versailles, announced in summer 1919, caused great resentment. It blamed Germany entirely for the war, seized over 10% of Germany’s territory in the east (given to Poland) and west (Alsace-Lorraine returned to France), took away all Germany’s colonies and imposed a punishing reparations bill. In 1922 failure to keep up repayments led the French to send in troops to reoccupy the Ruhr industrial area.

The government replied by ordering a go-slow by German workers. This undermined an already weak economy and exacerbated inflation. Mid- and late-1923 saw the famous hyperinflation where a loaf of bread ended up costing a billion marks, where people carried bank notes around in wheelbarrows and eventually stopped using money at all. In November Hitler and his infant Nazi Party tried to mount a coup against the Bavarian government, in Munich, which was quickly quelled by the authorities.

2. The Americans drew up a plan devised by Charles G. Dawes to give Germany huge loans which it could use to invest in industry. Higher taxes from increased industrial productivity could be used to pay off the French (and the French could then pay off the huge war debts they’d run up with the Americans). The deal was finalised in the autumn of 1924.

The point is that as a result of the stabilisation of the currency and the confidence given to business by the certainty of American investment, the entire country underwent a great feeling of relief. Street fighting disappeared, strikes and industrial unrest diminished, the government could proceed with coherent economic policies. Leaders of the Soviet Union reluctantly abandoned the dream they’d been nurturing since 1919 that Germany would fall to communism. There were political ups and downs over the next five years but economic stability and increasing employment meant that extremist parties on both sides (Nazis, communists) lost support.

3. In October 1929 there was the Wall Street Crash. American banks withdrew all their loans in order to stay solvent and that included the loans to Germany. The German economy crashed, companies large and small went bust, and there was a phenomenal growth in unemployment. The effect was to revive the social unrest of the post-war period, to polarise political opinion and to encourage extremist parties to opt for street violence.

In the September 1930 Reichstag elections, the Nazis won 18% of the votes and became the second-largest party in the Reichstag after the Social Democrats. Hitler ran for President against the incumbent Hindenburg in March 1932, polling 30% in the first round and 37% in the second against Hindenburg’s 49% and 53%. By now the Nazi paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung, had 400,000 members and its running street battles with the SPD and Communist paramilitaries (who also fought each other) reduced some German cities to combat zones.

At the July 1932 Reichstag election the Nazis polled 37%, becoming the largest party in parliament by a wide margin. The Nazis and Communists between them had won 52% of the vote and a majority of seats. Since both parties opposed the established political system and neither would join or support any ministry, forming a majority government became impossible. The result was weak ministries forced to rule by decree.

During the second half of 1932 there was much behind the scenes manoeuvring. Chancellor von Papen, his successor Kurt von Schleicher and the nationalist press magnate Alfred Hugenberg, spent December and January in political intrigues that eventually persuaded President Hindenburg that it was safe to appoint Hitler as Reich Chancellor, at the head of a cabinet including only a minority of Nazi ministers – which he did on 30 January 1933. Hitler was Chancellor of Germany but still restricted by democratic forms.

The Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933 gave Hitler a pretext for suppressing his political opponents. The following day he persuaded the Reich’s President Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended most civil liberties. On 23 March, the parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave the cabinet the right to enact laws without the consent of parliament, in effect giving Hitler dictatorial powers.

Now possessing virtually absolute power, the Nazis established totalitarian control – they abolished labour unions, all other political parties and imprisoned their political opponents at the first, largely improvised concentration camps. The Nazi regime had begun.

The three periods of Weimar arts

1. The Expressionist years 1918-23

Before the war German art was dominated by Expressionism. This had two key elements: it was an art of personal expression; and this personal expression was influenced by current ideas about the spirit, about a great spiritual awakening, about a new world of art and culture about to be born etc, as a glance at the writings of Kandinsky or Franz Marc make clear. Paradoxically this highly personal view of the world could easily tip over into grand paranoia, fear, a sense of brooding catastrophe, anxiety, terror etc.

Unsurprisingly, it is these elements of the grotesque and nightmarish which artists felt and expressed during and immediately after the Great War. Thus the works made by artists like George Grosz or Bertolt Brecht in 1919 to 1923 can loosely be called Expressionist. Similarly the immediate post-war years in film were the high point of Expressionism, with horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922) famous for their jagged Expressionist sets.

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Extreme emotion was exacerbated by disillusionment with the failure of the 1918 revolution by many of the artists involved in it such as Piscator, Brecht, Carl Zuckmayer, George Grosz. For the next few years their Expressionism was given extra bite by savagely satirical disillusionment, by the realisation that the SPD’s socialism was only skin deep and that the army would always step in to crush any revolt, any rebellion, any revolutionary forces. Hence the talismanic meaning, for years to come, of the murder in the streets by thuggish Freikorps of the two heroes of the Spartacist or communist party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on 15 January 1919.

Blood is the Best Sauce from the portfolio God with Us by George Grosz (1919)

Blood is the Best Sauce from the portfolio God with Us by George Grosz (1919)

The Bauhaus, a kind of bellwether for all these developments, was in its Expressionist phase. Although the director was Walter Gropius, the introductory course and much of the tone was set by the eccentric Johannes Itten, a believer in mystical Eastern religions, who imposed vegetarianism and breathing exercises on his students.

2. The high point – New Objectivity 1924-29

Around 1924, as the economy and political situation stabilised, the Expressionist wave in the arts was exhausted. Instead this is the golden era of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. The term was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub as the title of an art exhibition staged in 1925 in Mannheim to showcase artists working in the new spirit, namely Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. At the Bauhaus, the spiritualist Ittens was sacked and replaced by the tough-minded Hungarian émigré and polymath László Moholy-Nagy. Willett hesitates over the translation of Sachlichkeit – his 1978 book on the period prefers to translate it as ‘objectivity’. Here he suggests it means ‘matter-of-factness’ (p.81). It represented a completely new mood and approach. Hard edges and technology. Design for the machine age.

  • Instead of self-involvement – objectivity, interest in the social world, the masses.
  • Instead of art promoting the artist – artists sought collaboration, both among themselves (thus Grosz’s collaborations with John Heartfield on photomontages) and with the public (in the new forms of agit-prop or street theatre, often performed in factories and workplaces and calling for audience participation). From among hundreds of examples, Piscator’s 1929 production of A Merchant of Berlin had a set designed by Moholy-Nagy and music by Eisler.
The photojournalist Egon Erwin Kisch as depicted by photomontagist Otto Umbehr aka Umbo (1926)

The photojournalist Egon Erwin Kisch as depicted by photomontagist Otto Umbehr aka Umbo (1926)

  • Instead of vague romantic idealism – hard-headed practical engagement with the problems of the age. Hence a slew of movements with ‘time’ in the name Zeitoper, Zeitstück.
  • Instead of the ‘demented’ Expressionism of Caligari – the purposeful social criticism of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

Or, as the pioneering stage director Erwin Piscator said, in 1929:

In lieu of private themes we had generalisation, in lieu of what was special the typical, in lieu of accident causality. Decorativeness gave way to constructedness, Reason was put on a par with Emotion, while sensuality was replaced by didacticism and fantasy by documentary reality.

Scene from Hoppla wir Leben, directed by Erwin Piscator, Berlin, 1927

Scene from Hoppla wir Leben, directed by Erwin Piscator, Berlin, 1927

This is the period Willett loves. This is the heart of his enthusiasm. This is the moment Willett claims that artists, designers, architects, theatre and film directors in the Soviet Union and in Weimar Germany converged in a period of hyper-experimentalism, making massive breakthroughs in adapting their respective media to the demands and possibilities of the machine age. New media called for new ideas and the creation of photojournalism, documentary cinema, broadcasting, radio, and gramophone records. El Lissitsky and Rodchenko devised new styles of graphic design, magazine and poster layout. Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925) rejected the crazy fairy tale sets of Expressionism, and instead used thrilling new technical techniques like montage, shock close-ups, setting the camera at high angles to the action and so on to tell an entirely realistic, in fact brutally graphic tale of revolutionary insurrection.

Brutal close-up from the massacre of civilians scene of Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Brutal close-up from the massacre of civilians scene of The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Crucial to Willett’s view is that there was a tremendous amount of cross-fertilisation between the avant-garde in Russia and in Germany, though that idea is explored much more in The New Sobriety – this book focuses exclusively on the German side of the equation.

In 1925 the Weimar government withdrew funding from the first Bauhaus, which accordingly moved to Dessau, into purpose-built modernist buildings designed by Gropius. The buildings remain classics of modernism to this day, and the new, industrially-focused school dispensed with the arty farty flummery of the Itten years and began designing all kinds of practical fixtures and fittings which would suit the modern, stripped-back architectural style. From this period date the famous tubular steel and leather chairs, along with sets of tables, chairs for factory canteens and so on. Practical, sober, industrial.

Bauhaus Building, Dessau on opening day, 4 December 1926

Bauhaus Building, Dessau on opening day, 4 December 1926

It is during these years that Willett feels the collective effort of creative people in all media took modernism to ‘a new level’ (a phrase he uses several times) and stood on the brink of creating an entirely new civilisation. Willett’s passion convinces you with an almost science fiction feeling that a completely new society was trembling on the brink of appearing.

This explains his contempt for the workaday, wishy-washy, luxury goods associated with Art Deco in France. For Willett French culture sold out, compromised and abandoned the quest for a truly new world. This was because the economic and social structure of French society (as of British society) had remained unchanged by the war so that aristocrats kept on buying Lalique jewellery and holidaying on the cote d’azur decorated by tame artists like Dufy or Derain. French culture was both a) more centralised in Paris only and b) still reliant on the patronage of the rich.

By contrast German society was turned upside down by the war and the intense political upheavals of the post-war. An important factor was the way the last aristocratic principalities became fully part of the German nation, often turning over art galleries, schools, theatres and opera houses to the new state. The (generally socialist) regional governments took over funding for the arts from aristocrats and often lent a sympathetic ear to avant-garde experiments.

Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition by Joost Schmidt

Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition by Joost Schmidt

While French designers created Art Deco ink stands adorned with scantily clad nymphs, Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus designed a completely new typography for the German language, rejecting all capital letters and serif styles, as well as designing the famous leather chair. Gropius and colleagues designed entirely new style of council estates for workers at Stuttgart. Moholy-Nagy oversaw his students’ new designs for lamps and chairs and tables, while the Bauhaus wallpaper department devised coolly objective, undecorative wallpaper designs which still sell to this day.

The pioneering Bauhaus chair of tubular steel and leather

The pioneering Bauhaus chair of tubular steel and leather

While Paris was staging the arch neo-classical works of Stravinsky and Les Six, politically committed German composers like Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler were working with communist playwright Bertolt Brecht to write songs for a new kind of play designed to convey powerful communist propaganda messages, and these were staged in an entirely new style by the revolutionary director Erwin Piscator, using bare, undressed sets, with the lights exposed and projecting onto bare walls relevant bits of movie footage or headlines or facts and figures and graphs showing the economic situation. The composer Paul Hindemith became associated with the notion of Gebrauchmusik i.e. music that was socially useful and Eisler took this to mean propaganda music, marching songs and the like, which could be widely disseminated among Germany’s many community music groups.

Not all these innovations worked or were very popular, but it was an explosion of talent experimenting in all directions. As Willett emphasises, many of their innovations are still used today – stark, exposed, non-naturalistic sets in the theatre – street theatre – abrupt cuts and high angles in experimental film – and a lot of the language of architecture and design developed by the Bauhaus architects went onto become a truly International Style which dominated the 20th century.

In 1925:

  • the Bauhaus moved to Dessau
  • Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush)
  • Ernst May is given the opportunity to deploy socialist architecture in a grand rehousing scheme begun by Frankfurt council
  • in Mannheim the artistic exhibition Neue Sachlichkeit
  • Bertolt Brecht moves to Berlin
  • December, Alban Berg’s opera Wozzek has its premiere
  • elementare typographie, was an influential supplement of Typographic Notes, the journal of the Educational Association of German Book Printers in Leipzig. The supplement was laid out by Jan Tschichold using innovative principles he’d picked up on a visit to the Bauhaus and included contributions from Bauhaus staff such as Bayer, Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy and so on
elementare typographie designed by Jan Tschichold (1925)

elementare typographie designed by Jan Tschichold (1925)

3. The final crisis 1929-33

All of which was cut short by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Throughout 1930 the Germany economy went into a tailspin and unemployment climbed out of control. During these three years of mounting crisis, 1930, 31 and 32, many of the artists he’s discussed reached new heights of commitment, especially Brecht who produced a series of his most stingingly anti-capitalist works.

But Willett shows how a reaction had already set in in Russia where, from about 1928, the chilly winds of Stalin’s influence began to blow through the arts. The suicide of the famous communist poet Mayakovsky in 1930 is often heralded as a tipping point. In 1932 the official doctrine of Socialist Realism was proclaimed and experimentation in the arts came to a grinding halt, to be replaced by kitsch paintings of happy smiling workers and the beaming features of the Great Leader, Stalin.

For completely different reasons a similar chilling came over the avant-garde in Germany. In 1930 nationalists took control of the state government in Thuringia and secured the resignation of the Bauhaus’s overtly communist director Hannes Meyer (who had replaced Gropius in 1928). Meyer quit and went to Russia, taking with him a dozen or so of the most politically committed students. He was replaced by the noted architect Mies van der Rohe, who was given the job of depoliticising the Bauhaus, especially the radical students. He did his best but the Bauhaus was on the list of institutions the Nazis considered enemy, and in 1933 they secured its final closure.


This is a visually powerful portfolio to support Willett’s thesis that a new fully modernist civilisation trembled on the brink of realisation in the uniquely innovative and experimental artistic culture of the Weimar Republic. This is more accessible and makes its points more viscerally than the often very clotted New Objectivity book, but probably both should be read together, not least to make sense of the Soviet connection which is omitted here but explored in numbing detail in the other book.

In passing I noticed that there’s no humour whatsoever in this book. Nothing for children, no book illustrations or cartoons. A handful of political cartoons radiating bitter cynicism but, basically, not a laugh in sight.

The other absence is sex. In the popular view Weimar is associated with the ‘decadence’ of the Berlin cabaret, with openly lesbian and gay bars and vaudevilles. Willett is having none of it. His Weimar is a puritan republic of high-minded artists, designers and architects devoted to bringing into being a better world, a fairer world, a workers’ world. There is a one-page spread about a volume of short stories whose cover showed a man groping a fully dressed woman but this is included solely to tell the story of how it was censored by the Weimar authorities. Sex is a bourgeois indulgence which undermines the dedication of the committed worker and intellectual.

Once you start pondering this absence, you realise there is little or nothing in either of Willett’s books about fashion, haircuts, dresses, about style and accessories, about new types of car and motoring accessories (gloves, goggles, helmets), about cartoons, popular novels, detective stories (this was the decade of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers). He mentions jazz, of course, but only as it inspired painters and German composers to include it as a theme in their serious works about social justice – not as a thing to relax and enjoy

Only by looking at other books about the same period and reading about the explosion of pastimes and leisure activities, of ways to have fun, does it dawn on you how very intense, very urban, very cerebral and very narrow Willett’s view is. His dream of a ‘new civilisation’ is just that, a dream.

Which also makes you realise how thin and brittle this layer of hyper-inventiveness in the arts turned out to be, how little it had spread, how little it had influenced or changed the minds or lives of the vast majority of the German population. When the crunch came, they followed Hitler, and acquiesced in the burning of the books, the banning of the plays, and the ridiculing of ‘degenerate art’.

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The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (2007) – the American chapters

Alex Ross’s the Rest is Noise is by far the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to the classical music of the long difficult twentieth century that I know of.

Born in 1968, Alex Ross studied classical composition, but was also a rock DJ at Harvard. He was just 28 when he was appointed classical music critic for New Yorker magazine, combining formidable technical and historical knowledge with a wonderfully clear and expressive prose style. He has a modern, unstuffy, relaxed approach to music of all sorts and sounds.

Having recently visited an exhibition of art from 1930s America and read the book of the exhibition, I decided to reread the relevant chapters of Ross’s masterwork to shed light on the musical highlights of the period. In the event this also requires reading one of the earlier chapters in the book, the one which describes the beginnings of 20th century American music.

Chapter 4 – Invisible men: American composers from Ives to Ellington

African American music

Slavery. Blacks. African Americans. The chapter opens by describing the way prescient critics and composers grasped that the one truly new and different element in American music was the black African element. It’s amazing to learn that when the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák went to New York in 1892 to teach at the new National Conservatory, he met a black composer, Harry T. Burleigh, who introduced him to African American spirituals, prompting the European master to write an article on ‘the Real Value of Negro Melodies’ in 1893 and predict that:

the future music of this country must be founded upon  what are called the negro melodies.

The early part of the chapter lists black composers who struggled to reconcile the European tradition with their background, and coming up against prejudice, racism, the difficulty of getting a full classical training and, if they did, of writing in a foreign idiom and getting performed. Ragtime classic Scott Joplin wrote an opera which was never performed. Harry Lawrence freeman founded the Negro Grand Opera Company and wrote two tetralogies of operas in the Wagner tradition, but which were never performed. Maurice Arnold Strohotte who Dvořák thought the most gifted of his pupils had a piece titled American Plantation Dances performed at the National Conservatory in 1894, but then couldn’t get any subsequent works performed and languished in obscurity. Will Marion Cook managed to get into one of the few colleges which accepted blacks and became a world class violinist, moving to Germany where – surprisingly – he was respected and taken seriously. Back in America he found his career blocked, began work on a classical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but never completed it, and found himself driven to orchestrating and directing blackface musical revues, and then a bandleader founding the New York Syncopated Review, and hiring the young genius clarinettist Sidney Bechet as star soloist.

Cook’s career shows how the exclusion of black ‘serious’ composers from the mainstream pushed them again and again towards music halls, revues, popular music – and indirectly fuelled the creation of jazz. Once this had crystallised as a form, a completely new style of music, towards the end of the Great War, there was an explosion of long-suppressed talent. The Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein had predicted, back in 1893, that within 25 years Negro musicians would form ‘a new musical school’.

Neither he nor Dvořák nor many of the wannabe black classical composers could have anticipated just how revolutionary the advent of jazz would be. As Ross puts it, with characteristic eloquence:

The characteristic devices of African-American musicking – the bending and breaking of diatonic scales, the distortion of instrumental timbre, the layering of rhythms, the blurring of the distinction between verbal and nonverbal sound – opened new dimensions in musical space, a realm beyond the written notes. (p.122)

Just reeling off the names of some of the masters of jazz is dizzying – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman. As is the list of Broadway masters who came to fame in the 1920s – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin. They invented rhythms, styles, timings, structures, tones and timbres, and wrote thousands of compositions which changed the nature of music all round the world.

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Histories of modern American classical music generally begin with Ives. The son of a traditional marching bandmaster in New England, he grew up surrounded by the music of brass bands and church music but, after a successful university education, decided to work for an insurance company, composing in the evenings and weekends completely revolutionary works which experimented with novel musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements and quarter tones. An immediate flavour is given when you learn that Three Places in New England requires the orchestra to play orchestrated versions of two popular Victorian songs at the same time. That said, compared with most of what follows, a lot of Ives still sounds reassuringly familiar.

Edgar Varèse (1883 – 1965)

Whereas Ives was American through and through and incorporated snatches of hymn tunes, popular songs and classical references in works still titled Violin concerto and so on, Varèse was French and determinedly avant-garde. He travelled to New York during the Great War and pioneering a highly experimental sound, latterly involving tape recordings, which earned him the sobriquet ‘the father of electronic music’.

Coming from the world of Dada and cubism, Varèse was keen to incorporate non-musical sounds in a futurist attempt to capture ‘the sound of the city’ – look out for the fire siren in Amériques. His key works are Amériques (1918–1921), Offrandes (1921), Hyperprism (1922–1923), Octandre (1923), Intégrales (1924–1925), Arcana (1925–1927), Ionisation (1929–1931), Ecuatorial (1932–1934), Density 21.5 (1936), Dance for Burgess (1949), Déserts (1950–1954) Poème électronique (1957–1958).

Varèse broke down language and form into a stream of sensations, but he offered few compensating spells of lyricism. His jagged thematic gestures, battering pulses, and brightly screaming chords have no emotional cords tied to them, no history, no future. (p.137)

I like the YouTube poster who describes Amériques as like The Rite of Spring on crack.

George Antheil (1900 – 1959)

Antheil was born American, to German immigrant parents, who went to Paris determined to be the most avant of the garde, wowed modernist writers with his Dadaist/Futurist ideas, caused a riot at one of his premiers in the approved avant-garde style and brought back to New York his notorious Ballet Mécanique. This was originally intended to accompany an experimental film by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with cinematography by Man Ray and which you can see on YouTube. To the kind of fire siren sounds Varèse pioneered Antheil added the use of several airplane propellers onstage. Sadly these tended to blow the audience’s programmes around and wreck ladies’ hairdos. The critics were underwhelmed at his ‘bad boy’ antics, and his reputation went into decline. After a spell in decadent Berlin writing for the stage, by the 1930s he was back in the States, writing film scores in Hollywood. Although it’s loud with four pianos and plenty of percussion, it’s striking how prominent the three xylophones manage to be. Xylophones suddenly appear in modernist music and have never gone away.

The Wikipedia article has a musical analysis of Ballet Mécanique.

Carl Ruggles (1876 – 1971)

A difficult, obstreperous, loudly racist and self-taught composer, Ruggles devised his own form of atonal counterpoint, on a non-serial technique of avoiding repeating a pitch class until a generally fixed number such as eight pitch classes intervened. He wrote painstakingly slowly so his output is relatively small. His longest and best-known work is Sun-Treader (1926–31) for large orchestra, a weighty 16 minutes long. As Ross sums him up:

If Varèse is like early Stravinsky with the folk motifs removed, Ruggles is like Ives without the tunes. (p.138)

Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965)

Cowell was another  highly experimental; American composer. He was the centre of a circle which included Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee, Varèse and Ruth Crawford. In the 1920s he founded new music magazines and organisations, published much new music, and reached out to incorporate South American composers such as Villa-Lobos. Among his many students were George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and John Cage.

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

The most glaring thing about Gershwin is how tragically young he died, aged 38 of a brain tumour. How much he had accomplished by then! A host of timeless songs, a pack of shows and revues, and then some immortal concert hall – Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). He grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family on the lower East Side of Manhattan, was intrigued by the music-making of some relatives, wangled piano lessons, got a job very young in Tin Pan Alley while the Great War was still on, churning out popular tunes and songs incorporating the latest sounds i.e. the arrival of jazz from the great mash-up of syncopated sounds which were in the air. His biggest money-spinner was the early song Swanee which Al Jolson heard him perform at a party and decided to make part of his black-face act.

As success followed success Gershwin took to the party high life of New York like an elegant swan. And beneath the stylish surface there was an enquiring mind, always questing to improve his musical knowledge. He continued to take musical lessons throughout his life and made several trips to Europe where he sought out the masters. He was particularly impressed by the serialist composer Alban Berg in Vienna. In Paris he studied with Maurice Ravel, who ended their lessons, supposedly by telling him, ‘Why be a second rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?’

Many commentators then and now have noticed how many of the popular ‘composers’ of 20s and 30s America were Jews – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin – and how thoroughly they co-opted and expressed the African American idiom. This allowed a field day to anti-Semites like some of the Regionalists and ruralists. Scholars have pointed to the similiarities, both were ‘outsider’ groups liable to harsh discrimination. In our own censorious judgmental times, how would they have avoided the block accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’?

Ross is more relaxed and points to the notion of the Melting Pot – New York in particular was a massive mash-up of hundreds of influences, everyone – writers, poets, painters, composers, singers, comedians – was stealing from, remixing and contributing to a mass explosion of creativity. Also, as I read in a history of jazz decades ago, it is commonplace to say that jazz – and the vast ocean of sounds which come out of it, rock’n’roll, pop and the rest of it – is entirely due to African rhythms, syncopations and the blurring of voices and timbres Ross describes. But this history pointed out another truth so obvious nobody sees it – there isn’t a single African instrument anywhere in a jazz band. All of the instruments were invented by white Europeans as was the system of music notation used by all the big bands. Seen from this point of view, African American music ‘appropriated’ 500 years of European tradition – and gave it a good shake from which it’s never recovered.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

One of the prime shakers was Duke Ellington, the jazz big band leader who broadened its style and appeal into a large band capable of projecting a well-organised, full sound while still giving space to many of the greatest soloists of the day. With Ellington jazz moved out of low dives and bars and into the swellest of must-see nightclubs. His impeccable personal taste and style, his good manners and slyly intelligent way with reporters and interviewers made him a star, as did a steady stream of jazz standards. From the 1930s to the 1970s his band undertook wide-ranging tours of Europe and Latin America, helping to make him a household name around the world.

Chapter 8 – Music for All: Music in FDR’s America

A host of things led to decisive changes as the 1920s turned into the 1930s.

1. The Depression wrecked the country, destroying middle class savings and crushing the rural population. Somehow, eerily, there continued to be a market, in fact the market grew, for shiny escapist Hollywood fantasies of the high life, starring a new generation of movie stars Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow. As the country got poorer the Hollywood fantasies got shinier, the stars more glamorous.

2. Talkies And now they were in talking pictures. Sound completely transformed movies, in the obvious respect that you could hear the movie idols speak, but also because they could now carry extended soundtracks. Music. Short songs, extended show pieces or just background music. This music had to be accessible and comprehensible immediately. No place here for modernist experimentation – Varese, Ives, Ruggles, Virgil Thompson – no thank you. Opportunities opened for thousands of hack composers to mash up all the sounds they heard around them, jazz, swing, along with any useful bits of classical music, with a few geniuses standing above the crowd, most famously Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a child prodigy who produced the scores for many of Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers in the 30s, and Bernard Hermann (1911-65) who kicked off his career spectacularly scoring Citizen Kane (1941) before going on to score a host of famous movies, including a clutch of Hitchcocks, most famously the shower scene of Psycho (1960). Both the children of Jewish immigrants.

3. Politics Stalin’s Communist International issued the call for a Popular Front to be formed against the fascist powers at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 but the whole of the 30s are sometimes seen as the Popular Front decade, when working men and women, some politicians, as well as the intelligentsia all became politicised, all asked themselves how such poverty and misery could come to the greatest country on earth and, not irrationally, concluded there was something very wrong with the system. More than one composer decided to reject the intellectual allure of modernism – indelibly associated with ‘abroad’, with the big city specially New York – and realised it was their ‘duty’ to write about their own country, about its sufferings, in music which would be understandable to all.

4. The Exodus Also Europe came to America. The advent to power of Hitler in 1933 drove a wave of European emigrants – Jews or socialists and communists, or just people the Nazis described as ‘degenerates’ – to flee to the Land of the Free. And so half the great composers of the day landed up in America – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Rachmaninov, Weill, Milhaud, Hindemith, Krenek, Eisler and many others. As Ross puts it, entire communities from Paris or Berlin settled en masse in New York or the Hollywood Hills (p.260). they were all welcomed into the bosom of Roosevelt’s New Deal America although, arguably, in pampered America none of them produced work of the intensity which brought them to fame in troubled Europe. But it had another impact: in the 1920s artists and composers went on pilgrimage to Europe to sit at the feet of the masters and bring their discoveries back to breathless audiences. But now the masters were here, living among us and regularly putting on concerts. The special role of the artist as privileged messenger from the other world evaporated. They had to find another role.

5. The Federal Music Project was set up as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935. It created employment for a small army musicians, conductors and composers and led to the thousands of concerts, music classes, the establishment of a Composers Forum Laboratory, as well as scores of music festivals and the creation of 34 new orchestras! An estimated 95 million Americans attended presentations by one or other FMP body. A huge new audience was created for a type of accessible culture which increasingly came to be defined as ‘middle-brow’ (p.278).

6. Radio and records These new regional orchestras were able to reach beyond concert halls into the homes of many more people as radio stations were set up across America and mass production made radios available to even the poorest families (like television a generation later). Music (as well as news, drama, features and so on) now reached far beyond the big cities. Radio made stars of some of the big name conductors, namely Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini, whose regular radio broadcasts brought Beethoven and Brahms to huge numbers of new listeners. Simultaneously the plastic discs, 78 rpm records and then long players, were a whole new medium which could bring recordings of all sorts of music into people’s homes to be played again and again. A massive revolutionary switch from live to recorded music began to sweep the country in this decade.

How as the American composer, struggling to find a voice and a role, to respond to the clamour and confusion of this new world?

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Copland was another New York Jew who went to Europe to study music and composition for three years, returned and got only small audiences for his advanced pieces until, swayed by the changing social scene around him, and participating in communist meetings and agitation, he realised he needed to devote his talents to the common man, making his music as accessible, as uplifting, as optimistic as possible. His breakthrough came after a visit to Mexico (which often helps American writers, poets, composers, painters see their own country in a new light) and the syncopations of the Spanish tradition helped him escape from both the prison house of modernism but also the sounds of jazz and Broadway which dominated his native New York.

The result was the complex syncopations of El Salón México (1936) and there quickly followed the tide of his most popular works, which used big bold motifs, lots of brass and grandiose percussion, clear harmonies and slow-moving, stately themes which somehow convey the sense of space and openness – Billy the Kid (1938), Quiet City (1940), Our Town (1940), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944).

(Although he’s associated with soft American landscapes, if you look closely you’ll see that his most programmatic music is actually about the desert and the prairie, a distinctly non-European landscape. For me this echoes the way that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings inspired by the deserts of New Mexico – for me – emerged as the most distinctive works in the recent exhibition of 1930s art, America after the Fall.)

Copland created a way of sounding big and brash and bold and confident, often poignant and moving, which somehow didn’t seem to owe anything to the stilted European tradition. To this day his sound lives on in the movie music of, for example, John Williams, the most successful Hollywood composer of our day. Copland is always mentioned in the company of other populist composers like:

Samuel Barber (1910-81) remembered for his haunting Adagio for strings (1936)

Roy Harris (1898 – 1979) From Wikipedia: “Johana and Roy Harris were a tour de force in American music. Their collaboration has been compared to that of Robert and Clara Schumann. The Harrises organized concerts, adjudicated at festivals, and in 1959 founded the International String Congress. They promoted American folksong by including folksongs in their concerts and broadcasts.” Harris wrote 18 symphonies in an accessible style and on grand patriotic subjects – Gettysburg Address, West Point, Abraham Lincoln. This passage from Ross gives a good sense of his easy confident often amused style:

The work that won Harris nationwide attention was his Third Symphony of 1938 – an all-American hymn and dance for orchestra in which strings declaim orations in broad, open-ended lines, brass chant and whoop like cowboys in the galleries, and timpani stamp out strong beats in the middle of the bar. Such a big-shouldered sound met everyone’s expectations of what a true-blue American symphony should be. (p.280).


To most of us the period was dominated by the form of jazz known as swing and the big band jazz of Duke Ellington (formed his band 1923) and Count Basie (formed his big band in 1935) alongside white bandleaders like Ted Lewis (1919), Paul Whiteman (1920) the rather tamer offerings of white band-leaders like Tommy Dorsey (1935), Benny Goodman and latterly Glenn Miller. It was an August 1935 concert at the Palomar Ballroom by Benny Goodman which is sometimes hailed as the start of ‘the Swing Era’ and the band’s ‘s confident smooth big band sound earned Goodman the moniker ‘the King of Swing’, a status when his band went on to play the prestigious Carnegie Hall in new York, previously the domain of the most high-toned classical concerts, and took  it by storm. After twenty years of hard work by black and white musicians across the country, it felt like their music was finally accepted.

The highbrows weren’t immune. Stravinsky, the great liberator of rhythm in classical music, had incorporated sort-of jazz syncopations right from the start and now, in exile in California, wrote a Scherzo a la Russe  for Paul Whiteman’s band (1944) and an Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman’s, Woody later commenting that the Maestro hadn’t made any concessions at all to the idiom of the big band – it was Stravinsky through and through.

But Stravinsky’s adventures in America belong to the next decade, the 1940s (he came from Paris to do a U.S. concert tour in 1940 and then the Germans invaded France, so he was stuck).

Imagine you were a student in 1938, what would you listen to? Copland’s serious but consciously patriotic and possibly left-leaning orchestra panoramas of the Big Country? Would you subscribe to Henry Cowell’s New Music and followed the ongoing experiments of Varese, Ruggles and Ives? Would you dismiss all that as European rubbish and tune into Toscanini’s Saturday night broadcasts of the old classics, dominated by Beethoven and Brahms? Would you know about the efforts of the Seegers and others like them to track down and record the folk songs of rural folk before they died out? Or would save your dollars to take your best girl to go see each swing band which came through your mid-Western city, and have an impressive collection of discs by the Duke, the Count, Benny, Tommy and Woody?

Another world, other tastes, other choices.

Related links

Reviews of books about America

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