The New World of American Classical & Popular Music

by Roy “Futureman” Wooten

51KZXP4G5CL._SY445_I want to begin wrapping up my blog series for Black Music Month 2016 by sharing insights to popular music, that were foreshadowed by the Bohemian composer Dr. Antonin Dvorak‘s written words about the importance of Negro melodies. When I reflect on the future arc of Dvorak’s views about the impact of black music I can see from hindsight that even though his viewpoints were shocking to a lot of classical music critics, Dvorak seemed to be speaking for the development of a modern American classical music with the same compelling national and international power of its popular music. When I listen to many of the modern popular music superstars around the world talk about their musical influences, their influential cross cultural inspirations reflect Dvorak’s revolutionary ideas about the importance of black music. Whether it is Elvis Presley, who would sing negro spirituals after his shows and would practice the blues on his guitar until his fingers bled and Bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe‘s love for the Blues, Bonnie Raitt‘s love for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf for Black Bluesmen, The Beatles love for Chuck Berry and Little Richard…Dvorak’s statements reflect the hearts and minds of modern popular music even more so than modern classical music.

cd-sweet-inspirations-buy_1In a recent interview in regard to the opinions he has formed regarding a national school of musical composition in this country, Dvorak, who has been put at the head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, and has given the music of this country especial study during his residence here, is quoted as expressing himself as follows:

“I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year I was impressed with this idea, and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. I would like to trace out the individual authorship of the negro melodies, for it would throw a great deal of light upon the question I am most deeply interested in at present. These are the folk songs of America, and your composers must turn to them. All of the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people. Beethoven’s most charming scherzo is based upon what might now be considered a skillfully handled negro melody. I have myself gone to the simple, half-forgotten tunes of the Bohemian peasants for hints in my most serious work. Only in this way can a musician express the true sentiment of his people.”

'The Sweet Inspirations', four girls from New York.

‘The Sweet Inspirations’, four girls from New York.

He gets into touch with the common humanity of his country:

“In the negro melodies of America, I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him. They appeal to his imagination because of their associations. When I was in England, one of the ablest musical critics in London complained to me that there was no distinctively English school of music, nothing that appealed particularly to the British mind and heart. I replied to him that the composers of England had turned their backs upon the fine melodies of Ireland and Scotland, instead of making them the essence of an English school. It is a great pity that English musicians have not profited out of this rich store. Somehow, the old Irish and Scotch ballads have not seized upon or appealed to them. I hope it will not be so in this country, and I intend to do all in my power to call attention to this splendid treasure of melody which you have. Among my pupils in the National Conservatory of Music, I have discovered strong talents, such as this one young man upon whom I am building strong expectations. His compositions are based upon negro melodies, and I have encouraged him in this direction. The other members of the composition class seem to think that it is not in good taste to get ideas from the old plantation songs, but they are wrong and I have tried to impress upon their minds the fact that the greatest composers have not considered it beneath their dignity to go to the humble folk songs for motifs. I did not come to America to interpret Beethoven or Wagner for the public. That is not my work, and I would not waste any time on it. I came to discover what young Americans had in them and to help them to express it. When the negro minstrels are here again I intend to take my young composers with me and have them comment on the melodies.”

And saying so, Dvorak sat down at his piano and ran his fingers lightly over the keys. It was his favorite pupil’s adaptation of a southern melody.

In my next blog, I will be wrapping up my insights surrounding this blog series in Black Music Month.

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