By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Common Ground performed on April 15, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
It is astonishing that the music of such a good and historically significant American composer as Louis Gruenberg (1884-1964) has drifted into obscurity. Credit must be given to Gunther Schuller and Gruenberg’s daughter Joan Cominos who have worked to revive interest in Gruenberg’s work. They were both enormously helpful to the American Symphony Orchestra in the process of realizing the project to complete the orchestral of Harlem Rhapsody.
The facts of Gruenberg’s life and career include a brilliant early phase as a pianist, including a tour accompanying Enrico Caruso and performances under Arnold Schoenberg’s direction. Gruenberg was a protégé of Ferrucio Busoni, with whom Gruenberg studied and collaborated on a variety of projects. Gruenberg’s opera The Emperor Jones starred Lawrence Tibbett and ran successfully at the Metropolitan Opera for more than one season. It can be considered one of the landmarks of American twentieth-century opera repertoire. It even made the cover of Time Magazine. Gruenberg wrote a number of acclaimed film scores (several of which received Academy Award nominations) and a violin concerto for Jascha Heifetz. As David Noble has written recently, perhaps “a generation now making its own quest for musical romanticism” will rediscover Gruenberg’s music.
Gruenberg was born in Russia. His father became a musician in the Yiddish Theatre in New York. Gruenberg’s family was beset by poverty. Gruenberg supported his family by playing in hotel orchestras before he went to Europe to study with Busoni. Apart from Busoni, as Noble has correctly pointed out, it was the example of Dvorák that most influenced Gruenberg. The main tenet of Dvorák ’s approach to music in American was the advocacy of the use of African-American and Native American musical materials. This was the authentic route to a truly American music; one that would be more than a pale imitation of European models.
Most of Gruenberg’s most acclaimed compositions utilized African-American materials. His setting of James Welles Johnson’s sermon God’s Trombones, and his Creation, Jazz Suite, and The Emperor Jones from the 1920s and 1930s all testify to this fact. Harlem Rhapsody was written in 1953, relatively late in Gruenberg’s career. He realized that his work had already fallen out of favor with critics. He refused to bow to fashion and returned to his aesthetic and political commitments from earlier decades. In 1924 Gruenberg, in an almost exact echo of sentiments written by Dvorák thirty years earlier, wrote, “It becomes my firm conviction that the American composer can only achieve individual expression by developing his own resources…these resources are vital and manifold, for we have at least three veins indigenous to America alone: jazz, Negro spirituals, and Indian themes.”
Thirty years later, with Harlem Rhapsody, brilliantly orchestrated by the distinguished American musician Jonathan Tunick, Gruenberg made this point once again. The score was complete in a piano reduction with specific but incomprehensible indications of the intended instrumentation.
The central dimension of Gruenberg’s politics with respect to art and culture was faith and the idea of America as a nation which could create a shared identity out of the many streams of cultures which made up its history. The domination, either subtle or overt, of one stream was not at issue. Crucial to Gruenberg was a fierce commitment to social justice and a respect for the African-American tradition without condescension or exploitative instinct. At the end of his life Gruenberg wrote, “Since the blood lines of all nations have created this nation, I still visualize the day that this stream will eventually crystallize in an American expression of all the arts…”
Gruenberg shed the Yiddish and Jewish cultural heritage not out of any sense of shame but rather on account of an enthusiasm for the possibilities of creating something new and particularly American. Faith in the future as opposed to an allegiance to a romanticized past governed Gruenberg’s aesthetic quest. He grew up within a poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto. From the perspective of his politics, African Americans were allies whose experience most nearly resembled the European context from which his parents had fled.
As Harlem Rhapsody makes plain, Gruenberg’s affinity, respect, and creative embrace (within the context of European and American concert music strategies of the twentieth century) of the music of the African-American community of his day were singular expressions of solidarity and homage.