The careers of eight musicians reveal dramatic changes in American culture.
Bomberger (Music/Elizabethtown Coll.; Very Good for an American: Essays on Edward Macdowell, 2017, etc.) posits 1917 as a watershed year, marked by the nation’s entry into World War I, unleashing passionate patriotism and the ostracism of German composers and performers and the release of the first jazz record, which popularized the genre throughout the country. The author claims that the musicians he follows “actively changed the musical hierarchy of the time,” but, interesting as they are, that claim seems overblown. Half were foreign-born: Fritz Kreisler, Viennese, was a beloved violinist; Swiss native Karl Muck was the conductor of the distinguished Boston Symphony Orchestra; Walter Damrosch, who had emigrated with his family from Germany when he was 9, led the New York Symphony Orchestra; and Ernestine Schumann-Heink was a renowned Austrian-born contralto. The rest were American: Pianist Olga Samaroff, a Texan who changed her name to appear more sophisticated, was the wife of conductor Leopold Stokowski; Freddie Keppard was a famed jazz cornetist; Nick LaRocca led the Original Dixieland Jazz Band; and James Reese Europe, who aspired to create a National Negro Symphony Orchestra, was a popular band leader whose musicians played for wealthy socialites. Following their performances month by month, Bomberger underscores a growing demand for ostentatious displays of patriotism. By the time the first soldiers entered battle in September, “flag-draped opera singers” and an obligatory rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” were ubiquitous. Damrosch began concerts with a statement asserting “earnest avowals of patriotism.” Muck, refusing to perform the anthem for aesthetic reasons, was barred from Providence, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Schumann-Heink, whose sons were serving in the military, was suspected of being a German sympathizer. Europe, an officer in charge of a regimental band, faced segregation and racism. Bomberger contrasts the tribulations of these performers with the increasing popularity of jazz, which promoted the “anti-authoritarian message” that music “can and should challenge the musical establishment.”
Not entirely convincing but marked by thorough research and a lively narrative.