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The Sound of the Big Apple

Where does the music performed at the »New York Stories« Festival come from?

We can only speculate what songs the American Indians sang as they walked the Wickquasgeck Trail on a long and narrow peninsula of this huge continent’s east coast. Traces of the music of the first peoples here, who gave the peninsula the name Mannahatta,  may still live on, like other elements of »Red Indian« culture, in music ranging from Dvořák to Robbie Robertson. But for the most part, the European settlers took little interest in the melodies and rhythms of the people that the country originally belonged to.

Die ersten Einwanderer in der Neuen Welt, 1914
Die ersten Einwanderer in der Neuen Welt, 1914

A New City

At first, in the early 17th century, it was the Dutch who disputed the right to the territory claimed by the dozen or so native tribes. Legend has it that they paid 60 guilders for the land – a sum that was more symbolic than anything else. After the British had conquered the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in 1664, they renamed the area New York. And they turned the Wickquasgeck Trail, which ran through Mannahatta for many miles from north to south, into Broadway – now a well-known street in Manhattan. For countless years, it was the culture of the colonists’ former home that set the tone in New York music – the culture of Europe.

New York, 1873
New York, 1873

Musical Boom

New York City, to which four more so-called boroughs belonged from 1898 on in addition to Manhattan – the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, underwent a huge boom in the 300 years after the British settled here. A boom that was musical as well as economic. 1842 saw the foundation of the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York, whose orchestra, it goes without saying, has had a permanent place among the big five US orchestras ever since. The New York Philharmonic gave the first performance of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony »From the New World«, and also premièred George Gershwin’s »An American in Paris«.

Gustavo Dudamel

The LA Philharmonic performs »An American in Paris« by George Gershwin under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel.

Steinweg Becomes Steinway

In 1853, the immigrant Heinrich Steinweg from Wolfshagen in Germany’s Harz region set up the piano factory Steinway & Sons in New York together with his sons. The piano factory then opened a branch in Hamburg in 1880.

Steinway Flügel

The Beginnings of Jazz

From the dawn of the 20th century onwards, musicians of all styles, composers and songwriters, instrument-builders and publishers, record companies and recording studios all began to gravitate to New York: the rapidly growing East Coast metropolis provided a springboard for many a musical career. As big bands emerged, and large-scale shows, for example, taking place in Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the Big Apple became the pulsating centre of jazz. Farther south, at late-night jam sessions in the clubs of 52nd Street, it was mostly African American musicians who pushed ahead the evolution of jazz at a rapid rate after playing for the evening shows on Broadway.

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong – When the Saints go Marching in

Major Careers

The musical theatres produced world stars like Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand, as well as a huge repertoire of songs that, together with big film tunes, formed the basis of the Great American Songbook. Artists like Bob Dylan found their first opportunities to appear on stage in the little cafés of Greenwich Village. And the optimism inherent in the line »If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere« from the title song to Martin Scorsese’s film »New York, New York«, performed with unforgettable panache by Frank Sinatra, gives proof of the unshakeable confidence that (not only) showbiz has in the city’s musical career chances.

Bob Dylan, 1963

Bob Dylan – Mr. Tambourine Man, live at the Newport Folk Festival 1964

New Art

Just what close cousins art and music often are in New York is shown by the example of Andy Warhol’s Factory, which produced Lou Reed and Velvet Underground, as well as other acts that veered more towards the avant-garde. Later, CBGB in the Bowery became the rough creative home of punk rock made in NYC, and everyone met up at the Knitting Factory who was looking for radical new sounds – from performance artists with a musical basis like Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk to members of the avant-garde jazz circle around John Zorn. The festival »New York Stories« brought a few representatives of this turbulent musical history to the Elbphilharmonie to tell their own stories.

John Zorn
John Zorn © Olivier Heisch