Recently, in writing of Leonard Bernstein, I mentioned Bernstein as a composer who bridged an admittedly arbitrary (but sociologically real) divide between “high art” music and “popular” music.
Bernstein was not the first or only composer to do this. On further reflection I realized that there at least three types of ways in which different composers have bridged or blended the “high” and the “popular.”
One important side issue is that there are at least two different ways of conceptualizing the popular, the popular in the sense of folk culture and music or in the sense of modern “pop culture” or “mass culture.” While this can be an important distinction, as I said, here it is a side issue. Whether thinking about folk or pop music, these musics can be incorporated or combined with art music in a number of ways.
First, some composers have drawn on popular music as source material for the production of art music. In some cases, this takes the relatively straightforward form of simply arranging or orchestrating folk or pop songs, such as with Berio’s “Folk Songs” or the arrangements and orchestrations of Duke Ellington songs by Luther Henderson, as performed by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on the album Classic Ellington. In other cases, the melodic and other content of folk or pop material might be thoroughly varied and transformed to produce art music with less clear (though not to say unclear) connection to the popular source material, e.g. some of Bartok’s use of Hungarian folk music, or the use of folk melodies in Dvorak’s Symphony #9 “From the New World.” Of course, the use of one sort of music as source material for another sort of music is a two-way street. Think of Malcolm McLaren’s “Madame Butterfly,” Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” or David Shire’s “Night on Disco Mountain” (the latter two from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack).
Second, some composers have also drawn on popular music as source material but in ways that present popular music in recognizable form but in collage with other material. Charles Ives was an early master of such music. For example, in “Central Park in the Dark,” written as a sort of musical evocation of a place, recognizable bits of popular tunes occasionally enter and fade upon the theme of the piece, just as one might catch momentary passages of music coming from neighboring saloons while on a stroll through the park in the early 20th century. (There’s one musical moment in particular where, through the indelible influences of other elements of pop culture, the recognizable strain of an early 20th century pop tune inevitably evokes for me the thought of the singing frog from the old, but later, Warner Brothers cartoons, “Hello, my baby, hello, my darling, hello, my ragtime gal…”) Some of contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov’s music works in a similar vein, e.g. the use of Latin American folk music in his “St. Mark Passion.”
Third, some composers draw on popular and art music traditions (rather than particular pieces as source material) simultaneously to produce music that is ambiguously new popular music and new art music. This is where much of Bernstein’s work fits, most famously West Side Story (though I tend to think of his Mass in the prior category). Another example would be Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. (Today, though still popular in the sense that large numbers of people still enjoy them, the genres of Broadway-style showtunes and jazz are no longer typically thought of as “pop music,” and they tend to always occupy an ambiguous position between art and popular music. What Bernstein and Gershwin succeeded in doing that was a bit different was creating new music that was simultaneously taken seriously [even if not by everyone] as opera and/or art music and as popular music, as opposed to participating in a genre that today resides fuzzily between popular and art music.)