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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Tone Poem Tuesday

American music before the rise of jazz -- roughly, prior to George Gershwin's rise to prominence -- presents a kind of odd musical landscape. The musical culture here was still greatly steeped in European traditions and formal approaches, and attempts to create a kind of "national" American music by grafting Native American songs and black spirituals onto European forms mostly resulted in works that are often interesting and even quite good, but never really great. There was good work being done in the USA in the late 19th century, but the work almost never rises above the level of the second tier of European composers of the day.

The most famous of these composers was likely Edward Macdowell, whose work was regarded highly in his day but faded as it became clear that MacDowell's work really did not advance music much at all, but rather looked backward toward traditions that were already fading. Still, MacDowell's music is hardly worthy of complete neglect, and gradually his work has seen more exploration and appreciation over time.

Here is Hamlet and Ophelia, a tone poem that began as two separate pieces that were later edited into one by the composer. MacDowell may not have been a terribly original composer, but he was a fine creator of moody Romantic music that is often tinged with idealistic views of old legends and beloved literature, and one hears all of that in Hamlet and Ophelia.

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