Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup Blog Video Facebook Twitter Instagram
Spring 2007 Newsletter

Music and The American Twenties


Austin Symphony Orchestra Conductor and
Music Director Peter Bay.
Photo by Todd Wolfson

Inspired by the Ransom Center's upcoming exhibition The American Twenties, Austin Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor Peter Bay created a concert program centered around a Twenties theme. "The Roaring 20s and Beyond" takes place February 2 and 3 at 8 p.m. at Bass Concert Hall and features percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Bay spoke with the Ransom Center about the role of music in the '20s and the importance of George Gershwin, who will be represented in The American Twenties exhibition.

Q: Can you explain why the "Roaring Twenties" was chosen as a concert theme for the Austin Symphony?

A: When I learned from Austin Symphony Orchestra and Ransom Center Advisory Council member Jeanne Hoisington about the Ransom Center's '20s project I immediately began to think about a concert that would relate to it.

Q: Tell us about your musical program on February 2 and 3 and why you chose these pieces.

A: Two of the works on the program, Milhaud's "La Création du monde" and Respighi's "The Pines of Rome" were written in the '20s, 1922 and 1924 respectively. The Milhaud was inspired by the jazz performances he heard in Harlem, and the Respighi was written in the context of a Nationalist movement, which took hold of the imagination of many European composers during that decade. The other two works played by percussion soloist Evelyn Glennie were not written in the 1920s but feature percussion instruments that came to prominence in the '20s thanks to the jazz movement.

Q: George Gershwin is featured in the Ransom Center's The American Twenties exhibition. What is the importance of Gershwin in musical history?

A: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is important in the history of classical music because it was the first work written in the jazz idiom to be played in "formal" concert halls to be generally accepted by the public. In the '20s, jazz music had been generally regarded as low-brow music, and certainly not music to be played by symphony orchestras. But Gershwin managed to break that stereotype with his Rhapsody because he treats the solo piano and its orchestral accompaniment in a concerto-like setting, and the melodies that flowed from his pen were and still are unforgettable.

Q: Can you discuss the role of music in the '20s? What significant things were happening in the music scene of that era?

A: In the world of classical music, the '20s were a time for new directions and innovations. Following the tragedies of World War I, high spirits and renewed feelings of nationalism took hold around the globe. Composers like Bartók (Hungary), Respighi (Italy), Vaughan Williams (England), and Villa Lobos (Brazil) turned to their indigenous folk music as a source of inspiration for their new compositions. Milhaud, Copland, and Gershwin turned to jazz for a spark. Igor Stravinsky looked backward to music from earlier centuries when he entered a Neo-Classic compositional phase. American avant-gardists George Antheil and Charles Ives gave concert goers something new to cheer or boo. French impressionist composers Ravel and Debussy wrote as their painter counterparts created art.

Q: I've heard there's been a resurgence of interest in music from the '20s. Is this something you've observed as well?

A: My feeling is that classical music from the '20s has remained popular with most audiences. The wide variety of styles composers used in that decade allowed them to create colorful, rhythmic, individual, and exotic works. More and more orchestras and conductors have been digging deeper into the library lately to unearth or revive lesser known works from that era. Many new recordings of music from that decade are testament to that new interest.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

A: Composers in the 1920s had a wealth of new popular music to inspire them too, and that fusion of pop and classic worlds created such exciting music that to this very day the notion of "crossover" music hasn't left us over the last 80 years.

Read more about the Austin Symphony Orchestra's Roaring Twenties concert at http://www.austinsymphony.org.  

Table of Contents