I often begin a talk or lecture about American Century Music with a quick survey of the audience: “With a show of hands, how many of you are familiar with the phrase, The American Century?”
Occasionally one or two hands sheepishly go up, but more customary is a collection of blank looks, impish grins and expectant eyebrows.
With my audiences primarily consisting of college-educated adults, I’m always a bit surprised that more people aren’t at least a little familiar with the phrase or concept of The American Century. After all, so much of our current world and what the United States is currently dealing with politically and socially – proper size of global military presence, global economic responsibility, domestic inequality, an increasing feeling of general stagnation – had its roots in the previous century. Granted, we Americans have always had a penchant for forward-focus, but still, America became AMERICA in the last century.
I usually give audiences the Wikipedia definition – that the American Century is defined as “a characterization of the 20th century as being largely dominated by the United States in political, economic, and cultural terms” – the simplest description I’ve encountered so far. Audience members then often nod – perhaps some were prompted to remember that once our citizenry did not write our nation’s name in capital letters.
“The American Century” was the title of a February 1941 editorial published in Life by the magazine magnet, Henry R. Luce (1898-1967). The essay, written at a critical moment during World War II and prior to America’s official entry into the conflict, intended to shake the country from its isolationist tendencies and summon it to a new role as the leading nation of the world.
Henry Luce, born in 1898 in China to American missionary parents, went to college at Yale where he met his alter ego and future business partner Briton Hadden. Together they created Time, Inc. in 1923. With Hadden’s unexpected death in 1929 at the age of 31, Luce took over full control of the enterprise and went on to found the magazines Fortune (1930), the aforementioned Life (1934), House and Home (1952), and Sports Illustrated (1954). Republican (of the Grand Old Party variety) and famously antagonistic towards FDR, Luce wielded enormous political and social power through his pen and those of his employees; the thousands for photographs appearing in Life helped define an era.
Luce’s essay is a stimulating read. Even when he becomes completely untethered in the final section (cue the clichéd image of a WASP power broker sitting at mahogany table engulfed by cigar smoke, Scotch in hand practically choking on the possibilities…) it is an exciting and a passionate opinion about the potential he believed America to have as a world power.
In 2009, when I was mulling over the potential of creating an organization to focus on America’s classical music, Henry Luce helped frame my thinking:
“Once we cease to distract ourselves with lifeless arguments about isolationism, we shall be amazed to discover that there is already an immense American internationalism. American jazz, Hollywood movies, American slang, American machines and patented products, are in fact the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common.”
Writing in 1941, he’s referencing the Golden Age of Hollywood with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the Roaring 20s with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and the incredible boom of products that became available for the average consumer – Kraft macaroni & cheese and the nylon-bristle toothbrush, among them – that appeared during the Depression era of the 1930s.
In 2009, with the passing of over 60 years, to me, Luce’s list remained remarkably consistent as a descriptor of where America shows international dominance, even as new Hollywood personalities, different types of popular music, and more products to make our lives easier were added to his original list. However, the close of the 20th century has historians asking if, in fact, America’s prominence as the world’s leader had come to an end. That is a debate I will leave to others.
As great nations in history are often remembered in part for their contributions to things that we would generally define as Fine Arts, I came to this central question: What did America’s composers have to say (through music) about the 20th-century American experience?
For example, if we briefly consider the likes of Mozart as conveying the idealized perfection of Enlightenment principles, Beethoven and Berlioz in the context of early 19th-century revolutionary fever, and Sibelius and Nielsen as sonically codifying their national identities, did the astonishingly wide swath of America’s classical composers – reflecting both the geographic-scope and cultural melting-pot of this country – perhaps have something to share about our collective psyches and souls? Were they able to capture something about the “American century” in sound that could transport and inspire us to a better, or at least, more complete version of ourselves?
Through my own study of 20th-century American composers and the performances given by American Century Music to date, I have come to believe that yes, they did (and still do) have quite a lot to say, often in very beautiful ways. The sheer number of compositional voices reflects the diversity that is, at its very core, America.
Whether or not America’s art music will ultimately be included in the narrative of contributions to the human collective during America’s “hour on the stage” remains to be seen.
The point is we won’t know unless we hear it.
From the purview of the country’s art music, the 20th century was without a doubt the “first great American Century.” The century produced hundreds of magnificent creations – chamber music, orchestral music, choral music, songs, ballet and opera. Henry Luce was prescient in more ways than he likely suspected, as these compositions were American – composed in the spirit of self-reliance, and high resolve, “by trial and error, by enterprise and adventure and experience. And by imagination!”
Whole museums are dedicated to the experience of American visual arts. Entire publishing houses and libraries are dedicated to the experience of American literature.
And to the experience of American music?
Try American Century Music.