“Beating My Head Against the Wall “: Legitimacy, Authority, and the Canon in American Music and Dance (19th-21st Centuries)

deadline for submissions: 
February 7, 2022
full name / name of organization: 

At first, America was convinced of its utter illegitimacy as a purveyor of “art” music. In the 19th century, as musical life developed in the United States, and while large American cities built concert halls to house their newly-formed symphony orchestras, the repertoire and the most popular artists remained overwhelmingly European: thus, the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (1820-1887) – a friend of Felix Mendelssohn, a collaborator of Giuseppe Verdi, and a key figure of the Bach Renaissance – made a deep impression when she toured the country in 1852-2. In New York, Walt Whitman enjoyed Italian opera; later in the century, Wagnerian music drama had a major impact in the United States and made numerous high-profile converts, including Willa Cather whom Alex Ross describes as a major American advocate of Wagnerism. At that time, homegrown musical traditions were already emerging, but Europe was still regarded as the fountainhead of all artistic legitimacy; born in New Orleans, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) had to train in Paris in order to be regarded as a composer worthy of the name, prefiguring the many American musicians who later studied with Nadia Boulanger. African-American composers were at a double – or, as far as women were concerned, at a triple – disadvantage and were all too often regarded as “mere” entertainers. Despite his solid training and interest in canonical forms (as exemplified by his 1911 opera Treemonisha), Scott Joplin (1868-1917) achieved fame for his ragtime compositions, suggesting that a Black musician from America could not possibly aspire to the same cultural status as the great European masters. Several decades later, the African-American composer Florence Price (1887-1953) succeeded in attracting the attention of major American orchestras, but her works were soon forgotten and she did not begin to achieve the recognition she deserved until the early 21st century.  

Still, what developed in the shadow of Beethoven and Wagner is notable for its originality and, very often, for its spirit of irreverence. This is exemplified by the answer John Cage is said to have given Arnold Schoenberg when he studied in California with the great Viennese master: “I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, ‘In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.’” In 1969, Philip Glass wrote Music in Fifths as an ironic reply to Nadia Boulanger who once chastised him for his inadvertent use of parallel fifths. Later still, John Adams pointedly gave the Schoenbergian title Harmonielehre to a neo-tonal piece (1985). Performers are similarly irreverent; soprano Anna Russell (1911-2006), pianist Victor Borge (1919-2000) are remembered for their comedy shows, in which they parodied the stuffy ritual of the classical concert. Meanwhile, Harry Partch (1901-1974) rediscovered just intonation, thus turning his back on the entire Western classical tradition since the time of Bach. All share a healthy skepticism regarding the supposed legitimacy/authority of the European tradition.

At the start of the 21st century, an American canon has finally emerged; the international success of minimalist and post-minimalist composers is largely responsible for this state of affairs and the most conservative American institutions now promote the works of American composers: John Adams, Carlisle Floyd, and, most recently, Terence Blanchard have been performed at the Met. Still, the European canon remains firmly in place; in 2010-1, the four most frequently performed composers in America were Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms. This inevitably raises numerous questions at a time when more and more people are calling for a broadening of the repertoire, pointing out that women/BIPOC composers are not given the attention they deserve. What place do musicians such as Amy Beach, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Pauline Oliveros actually occupy today in American musical culture? These and similar issues are hotly debated today, as the Covid pandemic forces musical institutions to question their own practices and to seek new ways of connecting with their audiences. As a result, the very idea of a musical canon – American or otherwise – is no longer to be taken for granted since present-day modes of performance and consumption tend to downplay the difference between “art” music and “popular” music, the “monuments” of musical culture and supposedly ephemeral forms of musical entertainment. In addition, the experimental practices of musicians such as John Luther Adams have tended to liberate music from the rituals and traditions associated with the concert hall.

If the arrival of Romantic ballet on American stages was met with enthusiasm when Fanny Elssler first introduced it during her American tour (1840-42), classical ballet had a bit of a choppy start in the United States: without the cultural structures and institutional support ballet had in Europe, the art form did not immediately find a place in the American cultural landscape. There was little formal training available to dancers, no real ballet tradition, and the Puritan mindset was a redoubtable obstacle to ballet as a profession; as a result, ballet survived in the second half of the 19th century mostly in the form of ballet acts in vaudeville shows, until the arrival of the Ballets Russes revived American interest for ballet. Not only does this raise the question of the “legitimate” place of ballet in the American cultural landscape – as a European importation (and everything it implies in terms of national culture, the relations with the Old Continent during the American Renaissance,…) and as an “illegitimate” profession for women in a Puritan country – but it also leads us to consider the question of the legitimacy of American artists as such: when they started out in their native country, Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan’s legitimacy as artists was often questioned, and they struggled to be seen as more than sexual objects or commodities on the entertainment market, which led them to go seek artistic recognition in Europe, where their artistry was appreciated.  

The European origins of classical ballet also raise the issue of the canon, especially in an American context: how can the American canon be defined? If there is an école française, a ballet tradition in place since the reign of Louis 14th and the creation of the Académie royale de danse, what are the contours and specificities of the American school? How does one define American ballet? Balanchine created a style, a technique, an American repertory, and a tradition that Robbins and his other heirs inherited: we therefore invite contributors to investigate that notion of an American canon, especially for classical and neo-classical ballet, through maybe the evolution and the rep of major American companies (ABT, NYCB, Miami City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Ballet West, …), the work of American choreographers and how they approach Americanness in relation (or not) to the école française or any other European ballet tradition, and the careers of the great American ballet dancers. This will also lead, necessarily, to the question of race associated to the ballet tradition – which could be interrogated through the work of African-American companies like the Dance Theatre of Harlem (and their Creole Giselle, for example), the careers of Arthur Mitchell or José Limón, or the visibility of Native-American ballet dancers (the famous “five moons”, Maria Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief, Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin and Yvonne Chouteau, and the Five Moon Dance Festival in Oklahoma).

When it comes to Modern dance, we invite contributors to think about the new canons established by the pioneers of American dance, but also about the issue of legitimacy, by interrogating dance practices that moved from the individual work of some modern choreographers to mainstream practices in contemporary dance training – like Steve Paxton’s contact improvisation technique, for example.

Finally, we invite contributors interested in music and dance to propose a reflection on these questions of legitimacy, authority and canon(s) through the perspective of choreographic and musical research, by submitting creative projects that combine research in dance and/or music and academic research.

Please send abstracts (200-300 words, + a short bio note) to Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau and Mathieu Duplay (achevrier.bosseau@gmail.comMathieu.Duplay@univ-paris-diderot.fr).