Gershwin, Ellington and the Search for the American Sound

Anna Celenza – Georgetown University

American Sound and Music

What characteristics define “American” music? Is the American sound determined by a set of ideals, or a specific instrumentation? Must the source material be native to the US, or can it be imported from abroad? Can purely instrumental music evoke an American sound, or are lyrics needed to define the music’s national character? Although questions such as these have been contemplated by scholars, artists, and audiences since the 19th century, it wasn’t until WWII that US politicians and public intellectuals began to ponder the essence of an “American Sound.”

What is the American Sound?

What is the American Sound? Does such a thing exist in the realm of concert music? During the 1920s and 30s, composers, music critics, entertainment executives and audiences believed in the idea of an American Sound, and they worked hard to promote their various points of view in the concert hall, via newspaper articles, through advertising and on film. This course explores the origins of two quintessential American masterpieces — George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Duke Ellington’s Symphony in Black — and their relationship to contemporary American culture. As participants will discover over the course of the presentation, Gershwin and Ellington knew one another, and they each looked to the music of the other when composing.

What Makes Music American?

Both Rhapsody in Blue and Symphony in Black were composed in an attempt to capture the essence of the “modern” American experience and blur the lines between classical music, popular music, and jazz. Using film clips, music excerpts, and popular dance steps from the 1920s and 30s, Professor Celenza will introduce participants to the wide range of musical genres and styles that influenced Gershwin and Ellington (from spirituals, blues, and Klezmer music to Tin Pan Alley songs, opera, symphonic forms and Ragtime) and facilitate an open discussion concerning music’s current role in defining American culture.

The American Sound

Using congressional debates and the Pulitzer Prize in Music as touchstones, this multi-media lecture explores the power of “American-made music” in the US and abroad. The search for an American sound is a never-ending quest, filled in equal measure with joy, heartbreak, victory and loss. It has fueled reforms in everything from foreign policy and copyright laws to public rituals and race relations. But above all else, the American sound is music, and as Professor Celenza demonstrates, by listening closely we can drown out the noise and hear a new world.

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