Sound and vision blog

23 June 2015

Classical Music of the Jazz Age

Current Edison Fellow Paul Bevan writes about the influence of jazz on classical composers working in the period between the Wars.

George Gershwin is perhaps the name that most often springs to mind when a fusion of classical music and jazz is mentioned. However, important as his music is, and despite its ground breaking nature at the time of composition, Gershwin is not one of the composers explored in my current research project as Edison Visiting Fellow at the British Library. Two other composers whose music might fall into the same category as Gershwin, i.e. music composed for the symphony orchestra by popular music composers, are Dana Suesse (once known as “Girl Gershwin”) and James P. Johnson.

James P Johnson

Johnson is often cited as having been the first performer to have recorded a piece for jazz piano in 1921 and he was to compose his Harlem Symphony, a work of real note, the following decade in 1932. These three composers are the major exponents of what might best be described as “symphonic jazz.” Symphonic jazz is not the focus of this project which has specifically set out to explore the music of classical composers, during the interwar years, who used elements of jazz in their compositions. These include some of the most famous names of early twentieth-century music: Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Martinů and Milhaud as well as some equally important but less well-known names, such as Erwin Schulhoff and George Antheil.

One of the major aims at the outset of the project was to use historical recordings to compare styles of playing from different periods and to explore regional variants by country. However, it was soon discovered that there was one serious obstacle to this – namely, that the sample of existing recordings for any one composition in this repertoire is far too small to make any meaningful comparison. The few notable exceptions to this, for example, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and his Violin Sonata no. 2, have proved to be rich sources of material, but due to the quantitative limitations described above, the research was forced to take a natural turn towards a broad exploration of repertoire.

The repertoire in question has often been shunned by jazz enthusiasts as being failed attempts by classical composers to write successfully in the jazz idiom and is also an area often ignored by those in the classical music world who have thought it to be in some way lightweight, unsophisticated or even corny. Neither of these views does justice to the rich and diverse repertoire that the use of jazz has spawned in classical music, a phenomenon that may best be compared to the way folk music has been used, not just in modern times in the music of Bartok and Kodaly, but also in previous centuries with, for example, the chamber music of Haydn and Beethoven.

The music of the American, George Antheil, self-styled “Bad Boy of Music”, and his use of jazz as a central compositional element in some of his works, notably his Jazz Symphony of 1925, is a good example of the type of music studied in this project. As with so many young composers of the time, Antheil was greatly influenced by Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s early contributions to this genre can be seen in his Ragtime for 11 Instruments and The Soldier’s Tale (both of 1918). These pieces were composed at the start of a period of worldwide dissemination of jazz following WWI. However, they were written at a time when Stravinsky had not even heard ragtime and were composed with reference only to sheet music. 1918 was also well before the term “The Jazz Age” was coined, with the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story collection of that name in 1922. The “Jazz Age” is often said to have ended with the coming of the Great Depression although in reality it can be seen to have continued for much longer and was far more widespread than is often acknowledged. Indeed, in some parts of the world it was only at this time that jazz was becoming popular. This has led me to the devising of a new term, “The Universal Jazz Age,” a broad term covering trends in music, fashion, art, photography, architecture etc., that refers to a period which was both more widespread and longer lasting than the “Jazz Age” has often been seen to be. The reach of this popular cultural phenomenon in the 1930s and 1940s could be found as far afield as Shanghai, Bombay, Rio and Mexico City and important work in this area has been done by, amongst others, Naresh Fernandes in his Taj Mahal Foxtrot and Andrew F. Jones in Yellow Music.

Ragtime, the tango, the foxtrot and the waltz are perhaps the most frequently seen forms of dance music adopted in compositions by classical composers at the time in question. However, some of these are often not thought of as typical “jazz” genres at all, and the question might be asked why they were so prominent. The answer lies firmly in their inclusion as part of the repertoire of the dance halls, the type of venue where jazz was most frequently heard worldwide.

The composition of classical music inspired by jazz grew at much the same time as the worldwide spread of jazz itself following WWI. Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano rolls were not made until 1916, the first “jazz” recordings were recorded only the following year and J. P. Johnsons piano solo Carolina Shout was not recorded until 1921.

112px-Schulhoff_Mayerova_1931By this time, one of the central figures explored in this project, Erwin Schulhoff, had already composed his first piano pieces inspired by jazz, Fünf Pittoresken (1919), which were dedicated to his close friend, the artist George Grosz. Schulhoff used jazz in his compositions in a distorted and grotesque manner in much the same way as Grosz (a jazz fan himself) was doing in his artistic representations of Berlin nightlife; both doing so as part of the phenomenon of Berlin Dada. 

Composer Ervín Schulhoff (1894–1942) and dancer Milča Mayerová (1901-1977), ca 1931

“Classical Music of the Jazz Age,” fits into a wider project which follows the spread of jazz around the world, focussing on East Asia and the Universal Jazz Age. The project seeks to show how jazz, a music with its roots in America, following WWI, spread rapidly around the world, in each place taking on a life of its own. By the 1930s, as part of the Universal Jazz Age (a broad cultural phenomenon which included art, literature and fashion) jazz had become a many-faceted jewel reflected in the mirrors of numerous cultures worldwide. 

 

Dr Paul Bevan is a Research Associate in the Department of Languages and Cultures of China and Inner Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. His book: A Modern Miscellany: Shanghai Cartoon Artists, Shao Xunmei’s Circle and the Travels of Jack Chen, 1926-1938 will be published by Brill later in 2015.

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