American Indianists

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

In their efforts to create long-form, serious, identifiably American music, American composers in the first half of this century turned to jazz. George Gershwin was particularly successful at this, but Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and other American composers all used jazz syncopations in their symphonic compositions.

But there was another group of 19th/20th Century American composers who tried to write recognizably American music by incorporating Native American tonalities and rhythms. In recognition of their efforts, these composers were almost totally forgotten. The one exception was Edward MacDowell, but his most famous work, the "Piano Concerto No. 2," sounds totally European, and his fame does not stem from his use of Indian themes.

Marco Polo, "the label of discovery," and Swiss pianist Dario Müller have rescued these "American Indianists" from obscurity and issued two CDs of their music (8.223715 and 8.223738).

In addition to MacDowell (1861-1908), the compositions are by Arthur Farwell (1877-1952), Charles Wakefield Cadman 1881-1946), Charles Sanford Skilton (1868-1941), Preston Ware Orem (1865-1938), Henry Franklin Belknap Gilbert (1868-1928), Harvey Worthington Loomis (1865-1930), George Templeton Strong (1856-1948), Blair Fairchild (1877-1933), Carlos Troyer (1837-1920), and Lily Strickland (1887-1958).

Of the pieces on these two discs, only those by MacDowell are likely to be recognized by serious CD collectors. His well-known "Woodland Sketches, Op. 51" is there, represented by a piece called "From an Indian Lodge." Also included is a piece called "Indian Idyl" from his "New England Idyls, Op. 62" and the "Dirge" from his "Indian Suite, Op. 48." But it would be hard to tell that these works were Indian-influenced if you didn't look at their titles first. They sound much more like Grieg than Geronimo. And I adore Grieg, so I'm not complaining.

My own introduction to the "American Indianists" came not from these albums, but from getting to know two very interesting, articulate Ashland, Ore., residents: nationally-known actor/singer/director Jonathan Farwell and his older brother, retired IBM executive Bryce. They both are familiar with the subject because they are the sons of the chief of the American Indianists -- their animating spirit -- composer Arthur Farwell.

Bryce has a collection of recordings of his father's music, and he gave me the opportunity to hear some of it as performed by a full orchestra. I found it colorfully orchestrated and rhythmic, with some nice melodies. Perhaps Marco Polo will discover it some day and devote an entire album to Farwell's orchestral compositions.

For now I have to be content with the six piano pieces represented on these two CDs. Volume 1 features the "Navajo War Dance" from Farwell's "From Mesa and Plain," and the "Song of Peace" from "Impressions of the Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas, Op. 21." The "Song of Peace" was inspired by the sacred pipe ceremony. It is a charming, short (1:43) Debussy-like ballad. Its Indian inspiration is not obvious. In contrast, the dark, heavy, short (1:54) "Navajo War Dance" evokes the more violent side to Indian nature. Its main feature is a tom-tom-like beat.

"Too many people think of the American Indian only as a savage," Farwell wrote. "I have depicted in my Indian music many phases of Indian life which were far from being savage, but true to its quaint, poetic and picturesque aspects as well as to its mythological conceptions. Being criticized because of these matters as being untrue to this 'savage' Indian nature, I wrote the 'Navajo War Dance' in the hope of gratifying my critics in this respect..."

I don't know when Farwell wrote those words, but I presume it was before the Holocaust demonstrated clearly that whites had no business calling people of color "savages."

Vol. 2 includes the MacDowell-like "Song of the Deathless Voice" from "American Indian Melodies, Op. 11," the playful "Pawnee Horses" from "From Mesa and Plain, Op. 20," the impressionistic, seven-and-a-half-minute "Dawn, Op. 12," and "Ichibuzzhi, Op. 13." "Ichibuzzhi" is a mythical warrior, known for his love of practical jokes. Farwell's music is rhythmic, tuneful and happy to start, slower and more serious in the middle, returning at the end to the very enjoyable melody which started this delightful piece.

Farwell wrote a vast array of pieces based on Indian sources. But what makes a piano piece sound Native American? Three things, I guess. An imitation of the Indian drum beat, an approximation of their chants, and use of their distinctive tonal combinations.

I attended an Apache coming-of-age ceremony once. I heard that drum beat all night long. Although it kept me up, I found it tiring then, and I find it tiring now as it reappears so frequently throughout these pieces by Farwell and the others.

As for the imitation Indian melodies found in much of this music, they don't satisfy me like a good tune by Gottschalk or Gershwin, but now that Gregorian chant is "in," maybe the Native American variety will be the vogue next year. In my case, I personally find that the less Indian a piece sounds, the better I seem to like it.

Thus my favorite pieces on these two CDs are Cadman's "From the Land of the Sky-Blue Water," which begins Volume One, and which is impressionistic, romantic and melodious, and "Before the Sunrise," which is from the "Thunderbird Suite, Op. 63," which starts Volume Two. This is also an impressionistic, melodious piece, very Grieg-like, which nevertheless reflects an Indian theme. It's lovely. Cadman also wrote my favorite war dance of this collection, "Wolf Song," which is also from the "Thunderbird Suite."

Carlos Troyer's "Traditional Zuñi Songs" are very sweet, too. They sound more like MacDowell than anybody else. Do traditional Zuñi songs really sound anything like this? Troyer's "Kiowa-Apache War Dance" has the only percussion accompaniment of the two discs, in addition to the ever-present piano. It makes for interesting effects, but...

I can't help wondering what American Indians would think if they heard this music on the radio. Would they detect the influence of their culture? Would this music sound American to them? I have a feeling that most of them would switch quickly to the nearest country music station.

Now there's American music -- without question. Yet very few long-form composers have taken to using it as source material. I wonder why.

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