The book purportedly tells the story of classical music in America, how Old World traditions were transformed and revitalized, and how concert music came to interact with popular trends. I flipped to the chapter on film music, and to his credit the author makes some very defensible claims for the genre, at it's best, as being the equivalent of incidental music written for plays, or even singspiel music composed by Purcell, Telemann, Mozart and others. (Opera would be a little more of a stretch, since the film composer cannot ordinarily manipulate the "libretto" -- in this case, the screenplay -- where he would be able to, in the case of the genuine article.)
However, despite these commonsensical claims and pleas for critical tolerance, the author doesn't seem to know very much about his subject matter. He's got the "sense" right, but his facts are all wrong. I read maybe a dozen pages and, over the course, found at least four factual errors. He claims that Erich Wolfgang Korngold quotes thematic material from his score to the "Sea Wolf" in the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 2 (when, in reality, it is the Quartet No. 3); he claims the same composer's Symphony in F#, while reminiscent of his film music, is comprised solely of original material (when, in fact, the melody of the slow movement was lifted from his score for "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex;" and the finale uses a motif associated with the Maria Ouspenskaya character in "Kings Row" -- something I have never seen mentioned by any annotator); and that Dimitri Tiomkin wrote the score for Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" (it was actually Miklos Rozsa, who won an Oscar!). On top of it, I suspected his claim that Victor Herbert wrote the score for D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" was equally false, but THAT I had to double-check. The score is mostly a hodgepodge of pre-existing classics, like "Ride of the Valkyries," anyway. As it turns out, I was right -- it was written by Karl Breil. In any case, it's not my job to research these things. You'd think Yale University Press would hire a fact-checker.
Breil aside, I could have written the chapter off the top of my head, virtually complete, right down to the historical dates, and not made so many errors. I don't know if it was sloppy note-taking or faulty memory, but the book never should have gone to publication in this state. What if someone comes across this thing in a university library somewhere and takes it as fact? We'll have all these theses on film music that reiterate the heinous error that Dimitri Tiomkin wrote "Spellbound!"
For a good general survey of American music, you might try Wilfred Meller's now-classic "Music in a Newfound Land," or even H. Wiley Hitchcock's "Music in the United States." However, film music is a weak link in both studies. For that, I would refer you to "Film Score: the Art and Craft of Movie Music," by Tony Thomas. Thomas highlights most of the major composers, and many of them contribute in their own words. It's an interesting read, and you learn a lot about the unique challenges faced by the composer in Hollywood.
Classical New Jersey Society Journal
The influence of American culture on European composers has been extensive, shaping the course of music history. Author Jack Sullivan, a faculty member of Rider University in New Jersey (of which the famed Westminster Choir College is a part), has traced this connection in an illuminating book which should give Americans pause when considering their own cultural history. Though Sullivan's point of view is one of exploring how Europeans drew on American sources, what becomes increasingly clear to the astute reader is the lack of enthusiasm Americans had and continue to have for their own creative history.
In a first chapter, which is alone worth the price of the book, he traces the route of African-American sorrow songs from the Black experience back to Europe through Dvorák and Delius to Debussy and to the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor, who was considered by most Americans to be the greatest composer alive a century ago.
We learn that many of the ideas of W. E. B. DuBois grew from Dvorák's defenses of his assertion that the basis of American music should be Black Spirituals. The Czech composer's letter to the New York Herald were often quoted by DuBois (sometimes credited, sometimes not) and are here quoted by Sullivan.
We also learn the impact on Delius of hearing songs from the African-American shanty towns in Florida's orange plantations as they drifted on the air to the porch of his house. Simple though it is, the photograph of the house where Delius lived in Florida carries with it a sense of the space in which he could hear songs from afar.
Other chapters elucidate the effect on European composers of Poe, Whitman, the landscape, cities, and jazz and pop music. Sullivan's research is strong, his ability to connect disparate facts is engaging, and his writing is clear and lucid. Wonderful anecdotes occur throughout the book.
For anyone who (like Sullivan) writes program notes or is interested in the roots of much 20th century European music, this book is a must. I found it difficult to put down and refer to it often as I write articles and reviews.
Classical New Jersey Society Journal
The one-star review of New World Symphonies made me take a closer look at it. In addition to a fact-checker at Yale UP, the book could have profited from a firmer editorial hand. Redundancy is encountered too often. The book could easily be reduced to less than 200 pages.
The subject of the book is fascinating. Some of the opinions sought by the author are good to have, such as the comments from Robert Shaw (the choral conductor, not the actor). It appears to be a book aimed at the general reader, since no musical examples are included. Some musical examples would have added
interest for many readers. Given that many compositions discussed are unlikely to be in most home CD collections, including a CD with excerpts from some of the works under discussion would have augmented the reading experience. The photos are superb.
The reading experience presents us with examples of writing about music that made me squirm: "swelling cadences of black spirituals"; "cadences with exotic trappings" (the trappings remain unidentified); "fruity alto saxophones" (fortunately nothing tutti-fruity emerged); "hearty diatonic chords" (more food on the mind?); "the claustrophobic organum of [Debussy's] The Sunken Cathedral" (was the cathedral too tiny for the chancel choir, or sunk so deeply that the choir could scarcely come up for air?); "the piano reaches unto icy, celestial dissonances" (were the performer's fingers cold?); "Varèse exploded clichés about American prairies and open spaces" (this probably refers to, among other things, Copland's ballets, which may now seem clichéd to some, but have not yet been obliterated by any detonations, self or other); "snakelike polytonalities" (I am seeing Jennifer Lopez modulating with an anaconda); "knotty polytonality" (rope or wood?)
One can learn much from this book about its subject matter. It could, however, have been much better.