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