Friday, September 7, 2018


Mrs. Ernst Bacon, who, as chairman of the Ernst Bacon Society, helps sponsor The American Prize Ernst Bacon Memorial Award for the Performance of American Music, writes about the essential conductor's role in expanding the repertoire.

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Ernst Bacon as a young man.
I’d like to make an imperfect analogy between the falling trees and various categories of under-performed composers.

If a woman composes a piece of music and no one ever hears it, in effect it doesn’t exist.  The same is true of a black composer.  A third category is living composers, whose music has been receiving more performances in recent decades to balance the works of “dead Europeans” still preponderant on most concert programs.

In the past few years, many performers - including singers, chamber musicians, and conductors - have begun to champion women composers, both dead and alive, and also black composers, whether male or female, living or not living.  This new trend gives voice to whole forests of composers whose music has been too long neglected and in many cases totally unknown to the general public.  These additions enhance and enrich the repertoire to the benefit of all.  The singers, chamber musicians, and conductors who perform music in these three categories are vitally important in bringing this music alive and assuring its continued existence.

The opposite of “dead European composers” is "living American composers."  My late husband, Ernst Bacon, was a strong advocate of the latter. Now, in addition to the three categories of living, black, and women composers, there is a fourth category that mostly continues to be neglected:  the category of “forgotten dead Americans.”  As Bacon's widow, I have been trying to revive the music of this once well-known American.  But as is true of so many other things, “It takes a village,” and my personal efforts can only succeed as part of a team.

This summer I’ve been greatly encouraged by the advocacy of one of our CODA members, James Tapia of Syracuse University, who performed Bacon’s “Erie Waters” with the Syracuse Summer Festival Orchestra last night and is planning to perform his Pulitzer-winning “Symphony in D Minor” as part of his championing of “forgotten Americans.”  At last night’s performance of “Erie Waters,” I was unexpectedly asked to give a short talk about my husband and then - even more unexpectedly - given a framed certificate in appreciation for “Outstanding Advocacy of American Music.”  I felt deeply honored by this recognition - but I think that Jim deserves his own special certificate!  He believes, as I do, that there are fine works by many Americans no longer living, such as Robert Helps and Howard Hanson, that are in danger of sinking into oblivion, and he is dedicating himself to reviving this music, primarily written between the 1930s - 1970s. Ernst's “Symphony in D Minor” was written before I was born, and I will be thrilled to hear it for the first time conducted by James Tapia!

The dead Americans who have NOT been forgotten had their own personal champions - among them, of course, Copland, whose music became widely known and deservedly loved through Bernstein.  As we celebrate Bernstein in his centennial year, I think one of his greatest accomplishments is putting Copland and others on the map.  Even Copland needed a champion, and Bernstein was that vital link to his future fame.

In my case, now that Ernst is gone, I’m married to his music and am doing what I can to get it on the map before I too am gone.   He himself had a deep love of the “dead Europeans,” having been born to a Viennese mother and having studied and heard their music throughout his growing up years in Chicago.  But after returning from a period of study in Vienna, he felt the youth and vitality of our own country and realized that America should find its own musical voice, just as the transcendental authors had found a literary voice.  He took to heart the suggestions of Dvorak earlier in the century that American composers embrace our country's folk songs, including the music of native Americans and black people.  Carl Sandburg, who was a guitarist and collector of folk songs, as well as a poet, was a good friend of the Bacon family, and he too encouraged Ernst to incorporate folk materials into his own music.

Since Ernst is no longer here to advocate for American music, I myself have tried to continue his advocacy.  But I am not a performer, and I salute all of you conductors who perform the works of living composers, women composers, black composers - and forgotten American composers.  All of you are making important contributions in furthering the cause of American music; and because of you, all of the diverse trees in the forest of American music will be preserved for posterity.

Best wishes,
Ellen Bacon