The European/American Cultural Divide
newmusic box November 18, 2007

I realize I didn’t fully address an important issue Chris raised: the rejection of American neo-Romanticism by continental Europeans. As I mentioned, they often associate romanticism with forms of radical will that gravitated toward grandiose, demagogic patriarchy, and dangerous forms of social conservatism mostly revolving around cultural nationalism. Strauss was President of the Reich’s Music Ministry, Orff wrote a non-Jewish “Mid Summer Night’s Dream” at the request of the Nazis, Pfitzner was a rabid anti-Semite and advised the regime on racial cleansing in the music world, Resphigi was a devotee of Mussolini and an entire section of the “Pines of Rome” is a portrayal of Il Duce’s march on Rome, etc., etc. And to make matters worse, nationalist anti-Semites like Wagner were easily appropriated by the National Socialists, as were orchestras like the Berlin , Munich , and Vienna Philharmonics. The extent to which Fascism corrupted the European music world was astounding. Vienna discretely practices racial/ethnic ideologies to this day.

It is thus surprising how clueless Americans can be about why their neo-Romanticism has been rejected by the Europeans – though if I hadn’t lived here for the last 28 years, I wouldn’t understand either. Americans simply do not surround romanticism with the same associations. A striking example was Alex Ross’ commentaries about the negative Viennese reaction to the premiere of John Adams’ “A Flowering Tree.” In one commentary, Ross was so exasperated and confused by the negative Austrian reactions to Adams’ work and the festival organized by Peter Sellers (of which the Adams was a part) that he literally wrote, “Come on people!” Since Americans have very little understanding about how Europeans frame romanticism, they have trouble understanding why Europeans hold so strongly to objective, modernist approaches like Spectralism and the so-called International Style.

I think there is currently a wider gap between continental European and American music than has ever existed in history. This needs to be examined. As for my own views, I am caught in the middle, perhaps because I am an American, but have lived here in Europe for so long. I can understand the European view, but I can also see how Americans would have a very different association with Romantic music. Through my many years of contact with the Munich and Vienna Philharmonics, I have seen first hand how deeply these conflicts run in the European soul. Unfortunately, I am much more interested in using my time to compose than for musicology or journalism. This would be a tough article to tackle. I hope someone knowledgeable will try it.

William Osborne

Sunday, November 18, 2007, 11:51:55 AM