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New Dad’s New World

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 12, 1999. All rights reserved.

Christopher Columbus notwithstanding, Europe discovered

America, musically speaking, in 1892, when the Czech composer Antonin

Dvorak crossed the Atlantic to New York City and wrote his symphony,

"From the New World." Now author Jack Sullivan, in his book,

"New World Symphonies," shows that the impact of American

culture on European composers since that time has been deeper and

wider than was previously suspected. The book is a sleek and scholarly

volume, at the same time gracefully written and amply, though unobtrusively,

footnoted. Sullivan talks about "New World Symphonies" and

signs copies on Friday, May 14, at 7 p.m. at Micawber Books.

Sullivan’s book is infused with insight about what it means to be

exposed to another culture. "I was traveling with my wife in Italy

in what I call my `BC period’ — before children," he says.

(Sullivan’s first child was born four years ago.)

"We were in Trastevere, in Rome, in a cathedral. It was like a

Henry James story when the idea for the book came to me. I had just

come to realize that Whitman influenced a lot of people. I had heard

the story that Dvorak had a copy of Longfellow’s `Hiawatha’ on the

music stand while he was composing his `New World Symphony. Then I

thought of jazz. It was the first glimmering of the book. Later, I

asked myself how come I got the idea when I was in Europe. And I realized

that traveling to another culture is a way of getting new ideas. It

was what happened to Dvorak in New York."

By "new world symphonies" Sullivan means the music that Europeans

wrote because of their fascination with things American. At the turn

of almost every page is a revelation of the deep-seated and dramatic

appeal of American life and literature for numerous European composers

since the end of the last century.

"I thought there was a book there, but I didn’t know the richness

of the material," says Sullivan. Those drawn into the American

orbit included Dvorak, Delius, Ravel, Debussy, Holst, Vaughan Williams,

Stravinsky, and Rachmaninoff. What attracted them was not only the

Negro spiritual and African-based jazz, but America’s leading literary

figures — Longfellow, Poe, Whitman, and others — America’s

openness and spontaneity, its scenery, and its movie industry.

Sullivan uses the term "idolatry" to describe the rapture

of European composers with America. He assembles a massive collection

of material to show how that "idolatry" played itself out.

British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata "Hiawatha"

required 1,000 performers and, with the exception of Handel’s "Messiah,"

was the most popular choral work in England at the turn of the century.

"The subject was never treated before," Sullivan says. "Americans

are so obsessed by Europeans, but Europeans appreciate Americans.

Ravel said, `You Americans take jazz too lightly.’ Dvorak said the

same thing about Negro spirituals. Korngold [the German-born movie

composer] said, `Film music is the American opera.’ These composers

were being vindicated as I was finishing the book. All of a sudden

maestros were putting out movie music CDs with their pictures on the

cover. And the New York Philharmonic, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra,

and the Philadelphia Orchestra were all doing classical concerts of

movie music with the movie projected at the back of the orchestra."

Now that the book is out, Sullivan can see its deep roots in his life.

"One of the first pieces I fell in love with as kid was Dvorak’s

`New World’ symphony," he says. "It was a Bernstein recording.

I still remember the cover art. There was a lot of green. I was in

seventh or eighth grade. Then, when I was putting together my anthology

`Words on Music,’ I read a piece by Ned Rorem. Rorem quotes Ravel

as saying that he was more influenced by Poe than by any musician.

I found that mysterious and enticing. Also, I was reviewing a new

translation of Debussy’s `Letters’ for the Washington Post. Debussy

said `I live in the House of Usher,’ and I thought that this was worth

looking into. I did some research. My mentor Jacques Barzun encouraged

me.

Sullivan, 53, the son of a mathematics professor father, and a piano

teacher mother, was born in Greenville, South Carolina. "I was

a piano banger as a kid, and took guitar lessons," says Sullivan.

"I was a music piano major in college. I was at Furman. My dad

taught at Clemson next door. About half way through I knew that I

wanted to teach, but not music. I thought it would be fun to teach

literature."

He is currently professor of English and chair of American Studies

at Rider University and lives in New York. The field of American studies

gives Sullivan a chance to pursue film, music, and cultural history,

in addition to literature.

Sullivan’s formal training was in literature at Columbia. His Ph.D.

thesis, a study of supernatural stories in 19th-century England, was

the basis for his book "Elegant Nightmares." Sullivan has

also published "Words on Music: from Addison to Barzun," an

anthology of writing about music. Comparing preparing an anthology

with writing a book, Sullivan says, "I enjoyed writing `New World

Symphonies’ more than anything I ever did. With `Words on Music’ there

were 70 pieces and I wrote an introduction for each. In an anthology,

everybody has to be interesting and everybody has to be different.

Anthologies are harder to do than people think."

Sullivan and his wife, Robin Bromley, a freelance editor, have two

boys, 4 and 3. An enthusiastic father, Sullivan dedicates his new

book to "my sons Geoffrey and David, two New Worlds."

"People have asked, `How can you write a book when you have two

new babies?’" Sullivan says. "But I found it inspiring. I

was in an optimistic, expansive frame of mind, dealing with new lives

and a new endeavor. Maybe if I hadn’t had the babies it would have

been a longer book, but with them, it was a better book"

Currently, Sullivan is the academic advisor for a PBS documentary

"Sweet Chariot," a history of spirituals in America. He is

seriously considering writing about music in the films of Alfred Hitchcock,

yet another emigre drawn irresistibly to the New World.

— Elaine Strauss

Jack Sullivan, Micawber Books, 114 Nassau Street,

609-921-8454. Free. Friday, May 14, 7 p.m.


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