From Psalm to Symphony

Modern audiences often wonder at the distinctive character of American music. Its native composers, whether of the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth centuries, seem to prefer broad lyric statements, open orchestrations, and an apparent plainness even amid what may be very complex technique. As examples, George Chadwick, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein certainly are different in their appeal, yet all were born in New England and have comparable recognizably American musical voices.

Nicholas E. Tawa's From Psalm to Symphony: A History of Music in New England argues that New England functioned almost as an aesthetic prism through its early articulation of composition guidelines, publication of American composers, and establishment of music institutions. Tawa proves that there was always music in America, and that to some degree it was always distinctive. Its plainness derived, at least partly, from its Puritan origins, but just as clearly from priorities of needs and the simple logistical problems of a new country. Europe as well as its traditions was far away. Its composers were difficult to perform for musicians with few resources and often little formal training.

Tawa establishes several watershed periods for American music. The Bay Psalm Book (1640) marked American music's Puritan beginnings. The Revolutionary War period signaled its infancy and the same focus on a secular Promised Land that one sees in American literature of the late-eighteenth century. The period from 1830 to 1850 saw the emergence of New England's first cultural institutions. They strived for an American identity that many New Englanders believed was lacking in the more international musical venues of New York, New Orleans, and Charleston. The Civil War and industrial expansion after 1865 helped them succeed.

Music, as life itself, always evolves, yet the American character of its music remains. It has gone far beyond America's borders, and its Puritan severity has become minimal mysticism. Even so, it remains a distinctive product of the American mind.