The turn of the calendar year is a study in contrasts. As we reflect on the events of the previous year, we look ahead to the year to come, in all its shining possibility.
Author E. Douglas Bomberger begins his book Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture (Oxford University Press, 2018) with some thoughts about how, at the end of 1916, some musicians in America might have looked ahead at 1917 – a year that, according to Bomberger, was more eventful than most in the musical history of the United States.
Arriving a century after the close of that fateful year, Making Music American traces the careers of eight musicians month by month through 1917.
That year saw jazz achieve nationwide popularity, heralded the release of the first jazz recordings and the creation of some landmark classical music recordings, saw some major concert musicians forced from the international stage and witnessed the complication of issues of race and nationality in the American cultural landscape – all within a political context that led the United States to enter World War I.
One of the most important musical events to unfold over the course of 1917 in the U.S. was the firm arrival of jazz on the national cultural landscape. At the beginning of the year, jazz was still in many parts of the U.S. – a curiosity few could define in words.
During 1917, Dominic LaRocca and his Original Dixieland Jass Band took jazz into the recording studio, making the first-ever commercial recordings of jazz music and disseminating jazz across the country by selling the recordings on the open market. By the end of the year, jazz had achieved awareness, if not always acceptance, on the national level.
Despite the firm footing that jazz found in American culture during 1917, jazz musicians, as Bomberger points out, were confronted daily with the realities of racial injustice.
Racism would also be a factor in how the life of the African-American conductor and military bandleader James Reese Europe came to a violent and untimely end, despite Reese’s success creating and leading the band of the Fifteenth Regiment (Colored) of the New York National Guard (later called 369th Infantry Band and, eventually, the Harlem Hellfighters), and despite the band’s enthusiastic reception in wartime France.
As anti-German sentiment increased in the U.S. during the early months of 1917, some German and Germanic musicians living in America came under close scrutiny by the U.S. government.
Walter Damrosch – the German-born conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra who, from age 9, had grown up in America – took every opportunity publicly to proclaim his stalwart allegiance to the U.S. flag, and to inspire American patriotism in others.
At the same time, Karl Muck, a German-born citizen of Switzerland who served as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, charted a far less shrewd course – one that aroused the suspicions of American government authorities and eventually got him deported from the U.S.
Even two of the world’s most noted classical music concert artists were not immune to the vagaries of America’s position in the geopolitical climate of 1917. Austrian-born concert violinist Fritz Kreisler – one of the world’s most famous classical musicians of the day – had served in the Austrian Army for a year during World War I, then returned to the U.S.
Reports of the first U.S. soldiers killed in the war in Europe came out in American newspapers and brought about an uptick in anti-German sentiment.
Kreisler, whose national association was with a country among the war’s Central Powers, came to be presented in the media with such a suspicious light that some U.S. concert-presenting organizations canceled his scheduled performances.
Kreisler marshaled the power of the media in attempts to refute the rumors. When those attempts were unsuccessful, he retired from the concert stage through the duration of the war.
German-American concert singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink managed to straddle the German-American divide with public proclamations of her love for the United States and her concern for the lives of her sons, all five of whom were serving in the war – four for the U.S., one for Germany.
Bomberger leaves the principal figures in his study – which also includes the famed pianist Olga Samaroff, a person less victimized by the politics of her day than by her unsatisfying marriage to conductor Leopold Stokowski – on New Year’s Day 1918, primed for a year that would see the end of World War I but the continuation of racial and nationalistic tensions in America.
Some of these musicians would continue successful careers stateside or in Europe, others would see only moderate success and still others would perish. In his Afterword, Bomberger traces the stories of all of these musicians into strands of the narratives of later U.S. and global history.
Bomberger’s Making Music American lives up to its title with delicious irony. For certainly, no one would question the American cred of jazz. And how can European art music performed in America not be part of “making music American?”
But, as Bomberger points out, concerts of “art” music in America in 1917 featured precious little music by American composers, and then usually on special concerts of American music marketed as such.
So in a year that saw much historically notable music-making in America, and likely a good number of composers making American music, what was actually Making Music American in 1917 was jazz and classically trained musicians giving U.S. performances of European – largely German – masterworks.
History, when done well, should look backward and forward at the same time. Bomberger’s Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture is a rich look at a pivotal moment in American political and musical history.
The study’s interwoven narratives of musical lives encourage viewing America’s present cultural landscape with one eye to how we got here and the other eye to what might come next, all the while with engaging stories of some of the artists who contributed most to shaping culture in America and around the world.