- Counter-Currents - https://counter-currents.com -

John Powell & the Soul of American Classical Music


John Powell

3,292 words

The history of American classical music has been shaped by the quest to define the nature of American identity. Lacking the rootedness and history of Europe, we have been forced to mold a new identity as a nation. Likewise American composers have been faced with the task of creating an authentically American sound.

A number of American composers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries held the view that American music must necessarily reflect America’s racial and cultural inheritance. Among them was the pianist, composer, and ethnomusicologist John Powell. He was well-known internationally during his lifetime but today is an obscure figure in American music history, in part due to his views on race.

Powell was born Richmond, Virginia in 1882. After graduating with honors from the University of Virginia, he left for Europe to study the piano in Vienna with the famous pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky and composition with the Czech composer Karel Navrátil. He was a virtuoso pianist of the first class, according to contemporary newspaper reviews of his performances.[1] He toured Europe for eight years following his debut in Berlin, performing in solo recitals as well as with orchestras, including the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch. He was also an amateur astronomer and wrestler.[2]

As a composer, his output cannot be compared to that of the greats, but his works nevertheless stand out for their time and place. His greatest work is perhaps his hour-long Symphony in A, which incorporates motifs from Virginian country dances and folk ballads on a grand orchestral scale. The influence of Anglo-American folk music runs throughout his works. (He did write a few character pieces incorporating themes from negro spirituals, most famously his Rhapsodie nègre, but ultimately did not believe that “negro music” could form the basis of a genuinely American musical tradition.)[3]

Many of his piano works similarly combine post-Romantic stylistic conventions with American folk melodies (often with Lisztian pianistic flair, such as in his piano suites). One notable example of this is his Sonate Noble, completed in 1921. The prevailing mood of the sonata is one of nostalgia (the direction following the tempo marking of the first movement reads “nel modo antico”), and a few folk themes are utilized throughout. The sonata is prefaced by a quotation from a poem by the Southern poet Sidney Lanier: “Vainly might Plato’s brain revolve it,/Plainly the heart of a child could solve it.”[4] This theme of simplicity characterizes the work. Powell believed that the sincerity and simplicity of folk music gave it a pure and noble character (hence the title).

Lanier, a skilled flautist, was known for his attempts to evoke music in his poetry through various metrical innovations, articulated in his book The Science of English Verse, in which he explains metrical techniques using musical notation. In the poem “The Symphony,” (the source of the quotation that prefaces Powell’s sonata), he attempts to invoke different instruments of the orchestra in his defence of Southern ideals of honor and chivalry and aligns music with these ideals. His defence of Southern culture and condemnation of materialism and commercialism make him a precursor to the Southern Agrarians. Powell also can be seen in the context of this tradition.

Powell’s most ambitious work is perhaps his Sonata Teutonica, a work rather unlike his Sonate Noble that was completed eight years earlier (premiered in 1914 by Benno Moiseiwitsch).[5] In a lecture accompanying a performance of this sonata, he stated that the work was an attempt to invoke the soul of the “Teutonic race” in the spirit of Edward MacDowell’s Celtic Sonata.[6] It was composed as a gesture of friendship toward the German people, and its dedication reads: “Der deutschen Jugend/insbesondere/der Jungmannschaft der D.W.T.” (“To German youth, especially the comradeship of the D.W.T.”).[7] The D.W.T. refers to the Deutsche Wiener Turnerschaft, one of many athletic clubs modeled on the ideas of the gymnastics educator and German nationalist Friedrich Ludwig Jahn. As a member of the Turnerschaft while in Europe, Powell experienced the comradery of German men through wrestling and other athletic pursuits. There was a nationalistic element to such clubs, as Jahn believed that the cultivation of physical fitness among young Germans would raise the morale of the German people and contribute to national pride. The original program notes of the sonata are said to have contained a cross-like symbol composed of four Fs, a reference to the “four Fs motto” espoused by Jahn: “frisch, fromm, fröhlich, frei,” accompanied by the Latin phrase “in hoc signo vinces.”[8] The work also contains variations on a theme from the early nineteenth-century German folk song “O alte Burschenherrlichkeit” (this last word can perhaps be roughly translated as “the glory of brotherhood”), an ode to comradery that laments the passage of a “golden era” and exhorts those remaining loyal to strengthen the “holy bond” of friendship between them.

Powell was also inspired by the ideal of “Oneness” and “all-consciousness,” reflected in the motto on the sonata’s title page: “The Ocean is in the Drop as the Drop is in the Ocean.”[9] His attempt to instill the Sonata Teutonica with structural and thematic unity unfortunately renders it a bit repetitive and overwrought, even listening to the pianist Roy Hamlin Johnson’s abridged interpretation, but the work is nonetheless an heroic effort and was praised by the eccentric Anglo-Indian composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji.[10]

The ideal of “Oneness” and unity between art and life was a core tenet of the Fresh Air Art Society, an organization Powell founded in 1913 with a few others that preached the importance of vitality in art. Powell believed that modern art was becoming increasingly self-reflexive and was thereby sapped of life and health. Members of the society (which included Auguste Rodin) were encouraged to take part in athletic pursuits, as he believed that such would imbue one’s art with health and vitality. He articulated the society’s aim thus:

The aim of the Fresh Air Art Society is to make artists realize that life itself is the greatest thing. An artist who lives only for art cuts himself off not only from life but eventually from real art as well, because he becomes narrow and eccentric. The result is that his art degenerates into a mere struggle for self-advertising instead of being a generous and free gift of one mind to many minds which hunger. Art, being one with life, can only thrive, therefore, when it has health for its basis. A healthy mind depends upon healthy intercourse with life. One cannot be healthy in art, unless one is healthy in mind. One cannot be healthy in mind unless one is healthy in body.[11]

Powell saw Anglo-American folk music as the ideal foundation for an American musical tradition that would combine the language of European classical music with a distinctly American spirit. He dedicated much of his efforts toward preserving the folk melodies of Appalachia, recording folk songs as he hiked through the mountains. These songs had their roots in the British Isles and had been passed down orally over the course of centuries. In 1931, Powell helped found the White Top Folk Festival. The festival, which was open to whites only, ran for seven years and grew to become a significant event in the world of American folk music, drawing 4,000 people at its height.[12]

One of his influences was the English ethnomusicologist and folklorist Cecil Sharp, who much like Powell himself traveled throughout rural England and the Appalachian mountains collecting local folk tunes, which he published in English Folk Song: Some Considerations. Sharp also contributed to the preservation of English country dances, Morris dancing, and the rapper sword tradition (the last of which he recorded in a three-volume work entitled The Sword Dances of Northern England) and is generally considered to be the founder of the folk revival in England that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century. Both Powell and Sharp were greatly influenced by the ideal of “Merry England.” Powell rejected the idea that England was a country bereft of musicality (“das Land ohne Musik,” as the Germans sometimes referred to it), saying that in the days of “Merry England,” “not only did the population as a whole take the keenest delight in the song and the dance, but almost every gentleman could read fluently at sight his part in a sixteen-part madrigal.”[13]

Many English composers during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century similarly sought to write in a distinct musical language that reflected the national character of England. Thus a number of them were influenced by the English folk revival, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger (though he was Australian), George Butterworth, and others. The influence of folk song and music of the Tudor period is heard in such works as Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Dark Pastoral for Cello and Orchestra, and English Folk Song Suite, Butterworth’s Two English Idylls, Ivor Gurney’s A Gloucestershire Rhapsody, etc. (Conversely Edward Elgar derided folk music and most English music in general, though his music is still very English in nature.)

Folk music is often dismissed as childish, coarse, or sentimental. Yet its power was recognized by many of the great composers, including Brahms, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Haydn, Grieg, Sibelius, Bartok, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and others who looked to folk melodies for inspiration. Even a number of great works not of an overtly “folk” character incorporate elements from folk music (e.g., the jocular second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata no. 31 in A flat major, op. 110 is based on a German folk song, and the opening theme of the finale of Haydn’s “London” Symphony is said to be based on a Croatian folk song), or at least embody a distinct national sensibility.

Powell saw folk music as “the consummate expression and synthesis of all that is most deep-rooted and enduring in a race.”[14] In a lecture entitled “Music and the Nation” he describes the six main schools of American music during his era: music influenced by negro spirituals, music influenced by native American traditional music, Stephen Foster’s minstrel music, popular dance music, “ultra-modern” music, and Anglo-Saxon folk music respectively.[15] Of these, he regarded the last as being most consonant with American identity (which he equates with being white: “we are not even Americans; we are Europeans in race and language”) and thus most suited to serving as the basis of a lasting musical tradition.

Powell rejected both the notion that American music should be stylistically eclectic and that America likewise ought to aspire to the “melting pot” ideal. He viewed miscegenation as a threat to the white race, stating that “if we, in America, allow this contamination to proceed unchecked, our civilization is inexorably doomed.”[16] In his view, this process was already far underway (and this was in 1923). He places the blame upon industrialists and their desire for cheap labor and remarks on the destructive effect of immigration on the American working class:

In the light of this thought we must recognize the folly and wickedness of those industrialists who, demanding a large and cheap supply of labor, use all of their power and influence to cause an immense influx of the lower elements from the European and other continents, which not only debases the average level of intelligence and character of our population, but brings our own laboring classes into competition with a lower standard of living, and so seriously hampers their progress and development.[17]

With the preacher and political activist Earnest Sevier Cox and the physician Walter Plecker (the first registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics) he founded the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, a group open only to white males whose mission was to preserve America’s racial and cultural heritage. This was to be accomplished, in Powell’s words, “first, by the strengthening of Anglo-Saxon instincts, traditions, and principles among representatives of our original American stock; second, by intelligent selection and exclusion of immigrants; and third, by fundamental and final solutions of our racial problems in general, most especially of the negro problem.”[18]

Although Powell emphasized America’s “Anglo-Saxon” character it is unlikely that he harbored prejudice toward those of, say, Italian or Irish descent. Unlike the Ku Klux Klan, his group was not anti-Catholic and accepted as members “all white native-born Americans, regardless of religion or creed.”[19] Powell’s bias toward Anglo-Saxons was a consequence of America’s particular historical identity as an Anglo-Saxon nation. Thus he argued that American composers should not seek to wholly ape the German tradition, despite the superiority of German music.

Powell also condemned racial hatred toward blacks. He maintained a correspondence with Marcus Garvey, whom he described as “a man of the highest idealism and the noblest courage and the profoundest wisdom; a man dedicated to a noble and a sacred cause—the cause of the independence and integrity of his race.”[20] Garvey likewise considered Powell an ally and supported his organization. In 1925, Powell delivered a speech to members of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and was met with applause. In the speech he states that blacks will never achieve true freedom until they are able to live under their own civilization in their own land, saying that “No race can develop, no race can evolve unless it is standing on its own feet and is supported by its own backbone.”[21]

The Anglo-Saxon Clubs’ political proposals were to become the basis of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. These included requiring each citizen to be assigned a certificate upon birth proving his racial identity, granting marriage only under the condition that both parties possessed valid birth certificates, strictly prohibiting interracial marriage, and defining who was “white” in terms of the one-drop rule.[22] The purpose of this was to eliminate loopholes in the existing miscegenation laws, which had existed in Virginia since the colonial era but were not as strongly enforced and were based on a less strict definition of “whiteness.” The group also played an instrumental role in persuading the Virginia General Assembly to pass the act, which remained in effect for more than forty years and was only repealed in 1967 following the Loving v. Virginia ruling.

The Racial Integrity Act was accompanied by the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924, which institutionalized the compulsory sterilization of feeble-minded individuals. This act was famously upheld in Buck v. Bell three years later (with an eloquent ruling written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who concluded that “three generations of imbeciles are enough”). Thousands were sterilized under the act, and it also influenced sterilization laws in other states. The Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act), which set strict restrictions on immigration, was also passed later that year.

Despite its relatively small membership (400 men), Powell’s group was more politically influential and effective than the much larger Klu Klux Klan. But ultimately such measures as the Racial Integrity Act were stop-gap solutions to the race problem. They merely postponed the inevitable. Powell perhaps recognized this, as he supported the idea of deporting blacks to Liberia.[23] Furthermore excessive preoccupation with the finer points of racial purity arguably distracts from the bigger picture, akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. A political campaign that lacks higher ideals beyond racial purity is devoid of the vital force that is the ultimate impetus behind political change. Powell realized this but many of his political associates did not.

He was silent on the topic of Jews, but a lifelong friend of his, the American composer and critic Daniel Gregory Mason, made a few remarks on the subject. Mason’s views on race and music were similar to Powell’s. In his book Tune In, America: A Study of Our Coming Musical Independence, he addresses the question of the destiny of American classical music. Mason similarly believed that American music must be rooted in an authentic folk tradition. He opposed the Jewish tendency toward superficiality and exaggeration in music, which he saw as gradually coming to dominate American musical life, and contrasted it with the “Anglo-Saxon” sense of proportion, dignity, and restraint.[24]

Powell’s mission to create a lasting American musical tradition as he envisioned it ultimately failed. He imagined that such would lead to a national “Golden Age” that would be “unparalleled in the annals of all time,” and Mason similarly believed that a musical renaissance had begun to take shape in America.[25] But this tradition had mostly evaporated by the 1930s, and by the time of Powell’s death in 1963 America had entered a state of complete cultural upheaval from would never recover. Powell himself has likewise been forgotten despite the honors he received during his lifetime (a “Powell Day” was even created in Virginia in 1951, and his obituary in the New York Times praises him as “an American virtuoso performer” and “a composer of distinctively American music”).[26]

Powell was convinced that music was the most emotionally powerful art form and possessed the greatest potential to shape minds and thus cultivate a sense of national consciousness. This view recalls the discussion of music’s ability to influence politics in the fourth book of Plato’s Republic: “For never are the ways of music moved without the greatest political laws being moved . . . .”[27] The state is analogous to the soul; that which can mold the character of one’s soul likewise can mold the character of the state and vice versa. The ultimate purpose of music is of course to create beauty, but its power to mold the soul on a primal, fundamental level should not be underestimated either. Schopenhauer explains the power of music in terms of its ability to evoke the primal will that underlies reality, whereas the representational arts can only do so indirectly. For this reason music has played a role in nearly every great revolution.

Our quandry is that most of us as modern Americans are entirely deracinated and rootless. Powell at least grew up around folk music and could draw upon the culture of his home state, but folk songs are alien to most young white Americans and therefore their use in modern compositions is likely to be characterized by artificiality and insincerity (to many the classical tradition is equally alien). This can be counteracted first by cultivating a sensibility characteristic of our racial soul through perpetually immersing ourselves in great music and art; the challenge then is to create a musical language that gives authentic expression to this. Political change must necessarily be preceded by a revolution of a spiritual and cultural kind. Thus a future revitalization of American music could contribute to the awakening of our people.


1. Karen Adam, “‘The Nonmusical Message Will Endure With It:’ The Changing Reputation and Legacy of John Powell (1882-1963),” (Ph.D. diss., Virginia Commonwealth University, 2012), 31.

2. David Z. Kushner, “Powell’s Racial and Cultural Ideologies,” Israeli Studies in Musicology Online, vol. 5, no. 1 (2006): 2.

3. John Powell, “Music and the Nation,” Rice Institute Pamphlet, vol. 10, no. 3 (1923): 149.

4. John Powell, Sonate Noble, op. 21, for piano (New York: G. Schirmer, 1921), 2.

5. Roy Hamlin Johnson, John Powell: Sonata Teutonica/Sonata Psychologique. Composers Recordings, Inc., 1977, CD. Liner notes.

6. “John Powell Plays His ‘Sonata Teutonica,'” Musical Courier, February 1, 1917, 18.

7. Kushner, 4.

8. Adam, 31.

9. Johnson, liner notes.

10. Paul Rapoport, Sorabji, a Critical Celebration (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 25.

11. “Powell’s Mission for Fresh-Air Art,” New York Times, July 20, 1913.

12. David E. Whisnant, “The White Top Folk Festival: What We (Have Not) Learned” (Virginia Highlands Festival, Abingdon, Virginia, August 6, 1998).

13. Powell, 155.

14. Ibid., 160.

15. Ibid., 146.

16. Ibid., 135.

17. Ibid., 131.

18. Paul A. Lombardo, “Miscegenation, Eugenics, and Racism: Historical Footnotes to Loving v. Virginia,” University of California, Davis Law Review, vol. 21, no. 421 (1988): 429.

19. Adam, 15.

20. John Powell, “An Answer to the Appeal to White America” (Liberty Hall, New York City, October 28, 1925).

21. Ibid.

22. Lombardo, 429.

23. Adam, 35.

24. Daniel Gregory Mason, Tune In, America: A Study of Our Coming Musical Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), 160-61.

25. Powell, 163.

26.”John Powell, 80, Pianist-Composer,” obituary, New York Times, August 16, 1963.

27. The Republic of Plato, 2nd ed., trans. Allan Bloom (New York: HarperCollins, 1968), 424c.