When I was a teenager, visiting some relatives in upstate New York, we decided to go to the opera. Now, upstate New York does not have many opera houses to choose from – I think we ended up about 45 minutes to get to what I now realize was the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown. My parents didn’t tell me anything about the opera we were going to see, and, having grown up on Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi, I was expecting to see something I knew. Then the overture started…
Like something out of a strange dream, The Mother of Us All is awkward but memorable and insanely American. It has been ten years (maybe more) since I saw the performance at Glimmerglass and I have chosen to not go out of my way to hear the opera by Virgil Thomson again… until this evening. And it wasn’t any more enjoyable than it was the first time, even with a much more thorough understanding of what music is and can be. The music is dry and uber-patriotic, complete with militaristic snare drum and quasi-minimal vocals. I’m still not surprised it took me over ten years to run into this work again – I struggle to find any real substance within this music.
I was surprised, however, about Roy Harris’s Symphony No. 3, a piece previously unfamiliar to me. Symphony may be a poor label for the work as it fails to live up to the grandiose nature the symphonic tradition that had been developing for the past two hundred years, however the work has nice layers of color and line and its overall affect is rather intriguing. There is an American optimism in this music that I’ve only really heard in works by Aaron Copland and it was interesting to hear this sound, although notably different, created by the pen of a different composer.
In many ways, listening to these two works, it feels as though the floor fell out from beneath the American composer’s feet – the music feels much more introverted and significantly less experimental. The stock market crash in 1929 is distinctly audible when comparing American music from the 1920s and the 1930s.