American-born composer Elie Siegmeister is best remembered for his lifelong mission to forge a distinctive American compositional idiom consistent with his unwavering political and social commitment—an embracive and pliant idiom that was heavily reliant on American folk music and Americana, but which could be expressed, especially in his mature period, within the framework of conventional concert and theatrical forms. Perhaps even more so than some of his circle—who during the 1930s gravitated with nearly blind faith to varying degrees of the far left in America, but later distanced themselves as “establishment” composers—Siegmeister remained throughout his life an emblem of artistic social consciousness and an advocate of art and serious concert music for the common folk.
Siegmeister was born in New York City, where he spent his youth in Brooklyn, commenced piano studies at the age of eight, and studied music at Columbia College (Columbia University) from 1924 to 1927. Originally intending to focus on philosophy as his primary academic pursuit, he began composing while at Columbia, and he studied composition there with Seth Bingham and counterpoint privately with Wallingford Riegger during the summer of 1926. After graduation he joined the procession of many aspiring composers of that time that led to Paris for study with the legendary mistress of composition and counterpoint studies, Mme. Nadia Boulanger—although he later said that his original intention had been to study with Arnold Schoenberg. He remained in Paris for more than four years, but unlike many others in Mme. Boulanger’s class, such as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Walter Piston, he grew disenchanted with her pedagogic approach, methods, and predilections, and he resisted what he later described as her attempt to “force the neoclassical style” on students. He even attributed to her influence a temporary loss of self-confidence as a composer. Moreover, his already leftward perambulating political views, which reflected some of his father’s early anarchist orientation, did not endear him to her. Those views were certainly shared by some of her other students, but it seems that Siegmeister was less discreet than they were, at least in her presence.
He returned to New York to find the United States in the throes of the Great Depression—a setting that provided potent fertilizer for what quickly became his obsession with the Marxist rhetoric of so-called class consciousness, not only in purely political terms, but vis-à-vis music. In 1933 he published two articles in the sharply left-leaning journal Modern Monthly—“Social Influences in Modern Music” and “The Class Spirit in Modern Music”—in which he considered the engagement of contemporary composers in political and social issues and followed the typical Soviet attitude of the day toward art by defining new music as either “bourgeois” or proletarian (viz., purposeful and thus worthy). That same year, he wrote his proletarian-infused song about social struggle The Strange Funeral in Braddock, for baritone and piano, which followed earlier works of his related to social issues and music of “the people” (jazz, for example) and attracted far greater public attention than anything he had yet written. It is based on a text by Michael Gold, a visible personality in the American Communist Party and a columnist for its propaganda organ, The Daily Worker, and it concerns “management’s” indifference to fatal working conditions in a factory. The song reflects in its musical stridency the mood at typical mass meetings and rallies. It received many performances in New York during the 1930s, beginning with its 1934 premiere in connection with International Music Week Against Fascism and War.
In that same time frame, Siegmeister became associated with the Young Composers Group, an organization loosely shepherded by Copland, whose members included such significant or eventually significant composers as Vivian Fine, Henry Brant, Arthur Berger, Bernard Hermann, and Lehman Engel. The organization was short-lived, but it provided a communal forum for young composers, and four works by Siegmeister were premiered at its sole public concert in 1933. The Young Composers Group became known for its rebuff of French influence (including, specifically, Mme. Boulanger’s) on American music—a rebuff that of course resonated well with Siegmeister—and for its “discovery” and championing of the music and modus operandi of Charles Ives (1874–1954). Ives’s rejection of slavish dependence on European traditions, his revolutionary harmonic and textural treatments, his incorporation of fundamentally American populist (albeit largely New England–centered) rituals and themes, and his interest in American folksong—though hardly the proletarian social-political brand (Ives entered the insurance business and retired a wealthy man)—all offered a composite model for composers such as Siegmeister who were seeking to build upon indigenous American melos and, in the future spirit of 1960s–1970s jargon, to address “relevant” subject matter.
Also important to any consideration of Siegmeister’s artistic life is his membership in the Composers Collective, which was connected to the Workers Music League—an outright affiliate of the American Communist Party. Among the Collective’s founders were Jacob Schaefer—who had organized the first left-wing workers’ Yiddish chorus in Chicago and then later directed the communist-oriented Freiheits Gezang Verein (Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus) in New York—and Henry Cowell. Housed at the Pierre Degeyter Club—so named after the French worker and wood-carver who, in 1888, composed the tune (to Ezhen Pot’ye’s [Eugène Pottier’s] words) for “The Internationale,” the hymn of revolutionary and communist movements for more than six decades, the theme song of the Bolsheviks, and the state anthem for the Soviet Union from the October Revolution until 1944—the Composers Collective sought to identify as well as create music that would advance the economic and social struggle of working classes in America. For its members, that quest represented a social and political artistic responsibility, in the context of the times, as opposed to the pursuit of music for the sake of abstract art, which some of them viewed as inherently bourgeois and even self-indulgent. At the same time, the Collective’s Performing Unit offered eminently affordable concerts and postconcert discussions of its composers’ works for “the masses”—taking music out of the supposedly elite venue of the concert hall and bringing it directly to workers’ organizations.
In 1934, Siegmeister collaborated with other Collective members in publishing Workers Song Book 1, introduced as the first collection exclusively devoted to “original revolutionary mass, choral, and solo songs with English texts to be made in America.” His music appeared in that book under a pseudonym, L. E. Swift, as did the work of the trailblazing folksong collector Charles Seeger [Carl Sands]. Schaefer, who was better known in Yiddishist circles as a composer of proletarian and social protest choral cantatas, contributed songs as well, along with others. A second (1935) volume had an expanded roster of composers, including Copland, Riegger (under the pseudonym J. C. Richards), Stefan Wolpe, and—probably the most ideologically committed and, later, the most openly unrepentant communist sympathizer of the group—the Viennese Jewish refugee Hanns Eisler, who went to live in communist East Germany after the war.
During those years, Siegmeister also conducted the Daily Worker and Manhattan choruses, and he was one of the editors of Unison, the newsletter of the American Music League—the renamed Workers Music League of the Communist Party.
In view of his visibility in the Collective, as well as his outspokenness, the political agenda of his choruses, and some of the company he kept, it is not difficult to see how Siegmeister—along with other prominent American composers of similar leanings—landed himself in trouble by the early 1950s in the wake of congressional committees and investigations.
Knowing what we now know about the Soviet Union’s role in support of the American Communist Party, about its brutality vis-à-vis the very proletariat it supposedly championed, about its murderous campaigns against minority groups and entire populations, and about its treatment of composers and writers who flinched at confining their art to the service of changeable Party doctrine, post–Soviet era and post–Cold War judgments about such American artists can flow easily. It is admittedly simple in retrospect to condemn their naïveté in allowing themselves to be seduced by overt as well as subliminal communist propaganda. The hardships and suffering of the Great Depression, which the Communist Party line identified as emblematic of the inherent and inevitable failure of the capitalist system, are frequently cited as the magnet that enticed sensitive and socially conscious artists.
Not all such American artists under communism’s sway suffered equally even during the Great Depression, and some had known the benefits of middle-class and professional families with expectations of yet further rewards of free enterprise for the succeeding generation, even in the arts. (Beneficiaries of American society who flirted with communist rhetoric but declined to put their lives or means on the line could be dismissed as “parlor” or “armchair communists” by their acquaintances.) Also, injustices, inequities, and racial bigotry within American society—in the North as well as in the South—were not new to Depression-era America. Those circumstances had attracted some American artists and intellectuals both to internationalist or pan-national fantasies and to the misperceived model of the young Soviet Union before 1929. So one must look beyond the Depression to understand the communist beguilement.
Moreover, there were politically formal, patriotic, and less radical (including specified anti-Soviet) Socialist and related spin-off or third-party alternatives for addressing societal injustice and heightened Depression-related ills—fully within the framework of the Constitution and, one might argue, in a patently American tradition of progressive reform efforts. Noncommunist socialist-oriented groups spawned choruses too, but their anthem remained “The Star Spangled Banner”—sometimes paired with Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”—not “The Internationale.” In the American Jewish context, the nonreligious fraternal organization known as the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) provides an instructive illustration. Much of its agenda, as well as that of responsible socialists in general, wound up in New Deal legislation, and in the succeeding string of labor, welfare, and civil rights laws of subsequent decades.
Most voters responded to the dire condition of the nation by resting their hopes on the Roosevelt administration, whose social and economic programs were designed not to dismantle, but to revive and save the capitalist structure, in part by providing relief for the masses. Others voted for Socialist candidates. But some could resist neither the communist lure of utopian pan-national equality and brotherhood, nor the propaganda organs, which often presented the Soviet Union as a the bulwark against Fascism and the instrument of pacifism. It is understandable that especially those creative artists who equated populism with democratic social ideals, and who wanted to emancipate art from privilege, could be drawn in. The enchanting message cannot be discounted altogether, the more so since in most cases the artists’ innate humanity, compassion, and sensitivity to injustice was not necessarily matched by academically rigorous studies of political science, government, economics, or history. Still, there were many such artists who, after revelations began to emerge, genuinely disavowed earlier communist sympathies. There were a also those who did not. Any post-1980s judgments must take that factor into account.
After the mid-1930s, as members of the Composers Collective began to refocus their energies from the composition of rallying chants to actual American folksong as a logical and appropriately resonant basis for a new national “music of and for the people,” Siegmeister took his cue and began collecting, transcribing, notating, and arranging folksongs from a variety of sources. Apart from notated documents, most of his work with informants was accomplished in the New York urban environment—not, as in the case of other collectors, through cross-country travels to various communities. He did, however, make a few such trips, most notably one to Alabama, where he notated songs as sung by workers on a track gang. He published a series of American song anthologies—some devoted exclusively to anonymous folksongs and others that incorporated songs of a folk nature by identified composers going as far back as the Colonial period. The first of these was his Negro Songs of Protest (1935), but his most voluminous contribution to the field was his 1940 A Treasury of American Song, on which he collaborated with Olin Downes for the text. Unlike both scholarly compilations by ethnologists and more narrowly functional propaganda tools, that volume was intended as a source of viable, organic song repertoires for contemporary singing by the general public. His American Holiday (1933) was one of the first compositions to treat and integrate American working songs and common street tunes within an orchestral guise.
In 1939, he was the founder of an ensemble known as the American Ballad Singers, which toured the country with programs of American music—mostly folk or folk-type vocal music, but sometimes early instrumental pieces as well. Meanwhile, his concern for “the people” also manifested itself in his 1943 Music Lovers Handbook, which not only addressed American music but also tried to acquaint the average layman with the classical canon in terms he would understand.
Yet despite all his work outside the conventional so-called classical or concert music arena, Siegmeister did not abandon or neglect his aspirations as a serious concert composer. To the contrary, he experimented successfully in synthesizing his sociopolitical leaning with concert music, injecting it with American folk themes, and then developing those themes with the arsenal of devices available to the experienced composer. The way had been pointed by Ives and Thomson, and was followed not only by Siegmeister but by composers such as Copland and Roy Harris. Ozark Set (1943) was the first of Siegmeister’s successful orchestral pieces based on American folk sources, and it marked a new phase in his acceptance by the mainstream music world when it was performed in 1944 by the Minneapolis Symphony conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Among his other folk-based works from the same period are Prairie Legend (1944); Western Suite (1945), which received its premiere under Arturo Toscanini’s baton with his NBC Symphony on a radio broadcast; Lonesome Hollow and Sunday in Brooklyn (1946); and his first symphony, completed in 1947 on a commission from Leopold Stokowski. In a 1944 statement in a program booklet, he articulated his conviction that “there is no fundamental difference between folk and classical music.”
Eventually Siegmeister stretched his canvas beyond the confines of overt folk tune expression, but much of his later music still reflected his populist predilection in its exposition of memorable melodies and programmatic parameters. His orchestral textures and colors, too, tended to bow to the melody. And as he embraced more traditional forms in the postwar period, he further developed and refined his American idiom into what critics have called a “heightened Americanism.” Whatever genre or form he addressed, he retained his fundamental concern for direct communication with the audience and for the music to speak to them on its own merits—without necessary recourse to theoretical justification. Nonetheless, by the 1960s some of his music was betraying a noticeably greater sophistication than his earlier, more transparent folk reflections. A 1984 retrospective concert that presented his works from the 1960s and 1970s evoked from critic Edward Rothstein the observation that although some of those pieces exhibited “elements of jazz and folk rhythms and recall the cinematic urban sounds of 1930s composition,” Siegmeister had by the 1960s “sublimated Americana into the substance of his work, with a language that is generally tonal and provocative.” What Rothstein heard that night was a composer “at ease with his craft and his past—and sounding distinctly American.” Not all composers achieve their missions so fully.
Lest his passion for musical Americana and his quest for a specifically American idiom be seen as an expression of the very nationalism upon which the universalists of his political bent were expected to frown, he once explained his distinction between cultural and political nationalism—between “nationalism as a political movement and nationalism as the root of art in each particular people.” For him, the greatest art came from an artist who “responds to his own environment, people and tradition.” Certain that this stance would not preclude universality in an artist, he nonetheless thought that a writer, painter, poet, or composer must be “rooted to a time and place.”
Siegmeister’s large catalogue of works includes a clarinet concerto (1956), which mirrors blues elements; a double concerto for violin and piano (1976), which, like the last movement of his 1965 sextet and many other pieces throughout his creative life, leans audibly on jazz features; eight operas; Shadows and Light (1975), a five-movement orchestral suite programmatically expressing his reactions to paintings by Degas, van Gogh, Klee, and others; Fantasies in Line and Color (1981), similarly inspired by five American paintings; Five Fantasies of the Theater (1967), in which each movement portrays the style of a particular playwright; musical theater and stage works such as Doodle Dandy of the U.S.A. (1942) and Sing Out, Sweet Land (1944); numerous songs and song cycles, of which at least fifty are settings of poetry by Langston Hughes, famous for his capture of many aspects of American black experience (the two commenced a Broadway show together in 1952, but later abandoned it); many choral settings; seven additional symphonies and many other orchestral works; numerous solo and chamber pieces for various combinations—among them a string quartet (no. 3) on Hebrew themes; and a Hollywood film score, They Came to Cordura (1959).
In 1949, Siegmeister began his long tenure on the faculty of Hofstra University as a professor and composer-in-residence, where he remained until his retirement in 1976. At the start, this position might have been chiefly a practical necessity, but in a 1980 interview he explained that while one must make a living somehow, “teaching was more than that to me. It helped me clear my mind, articulate and define my art.” After his retirement from Hofstra, he became the first composer-in-residence at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina.
Siegmeister was fond of pondering the abstract nature of music in terms of relating to an audience. “For some reason, the creation of music seems more mysterious than writing or painting, which offer people recognizable objects,” he said in 1980. “But the musical idea seems effervescent and mysterious. Laymen . . . think music is a translation of a literal or verbal scene: a representation of something. They’re always asking me, ‘What does this sonata mean?’ or ‘What did you want to say?’ And I tell them that if I could put it into words, I wouldn’t put it into music.”
In the midst of his postwar partial focus on traditional concert forms and more independent, self-contained artistic expressions, his humanistic political concerns continued to surface. Two works that illustrate that undiminished sense of the artist’s obligation to society are I Had a Dream (1967), a setting of the most famous speech by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, delivered at one of America’s ultimately proudest and noblest moments in its history, the 1963 civil rights march on Washington; and Faces of War (1968), a protest against America’s continued military campaign in Vietnam.
In addition to his folksong anthologies and writings on music for the layman, Siegmeister published two important pedagogic volumes, Invitation to Music (1961) and Harmony and Melody, two volumes (1965–66). He served on the board of directors of ASCAP and received awards and commissions from the Library of Congress and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (of which he became a Fellow in 1989), as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship.
In a 1988 retrospective examination of the socially and politically conscious underpinnings of Siegmeister’s American idiom, Carol J. Oja observed that, whereas the so-called new Romanticism had become a recent fashion, Siegmeister had been “Romantic” all along, letting electronics, dodecaphony, and chance [aleatoric music] go their way.” Indeed, in an earlier esssy of his own, he rejoiced that he had lived to see the day when what he called the “orthodoxy of the avant-garde” had capitulated to the neo-Romanticism of the new generation of composers.
By: Neil W. Levin