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The Jazz, Art, and Culture of the Roaring '20s that Influenced Albert Barnes and Leopold Stokowski

JP Jazz Archive/Getty Images
Ma Rainey Georgia Jazz Band in 1924

In the 1920s, French classical composers were traveling to New York to hear jazz. Albert Barnes was going to Paris to buy paintings and African art, and Leopold Stokowski was conducting innovative new works in Philadelphia. WRTI's Susan Lewis reports on the cross-fertilization of art and music in that era.

In the early 1920s, French composer Darius Milhaud wrote his ballet La Creation du Monde, about the creation of the world, after a trip to Harlem where he listened to jazz."Jazz was the new big thing everywhere," says conductor Stéphane Denève, and nowhere more so than in Paris. "It was just something that totally fascinated the French."

Milhaud's ballet music references African myths and uses elements of jazz, with oboe blues, syncopated solos, and a cakewalk for violins and bassoon. "La Creation du Monde indeed sounds very idiomatic," says Denève.  It sounds very close to what Milhaud heard in Harlem, "but, of course, with the little French touch and a little bit more symphonic construction."

For the Frenchman Denève, who is principal guest conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra, and incoming Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony, "that's the really successful piece that can mix the real sound of  America with indeed a French imagination."

During The Philadelphia Orchestra festival celebrating the cultural contributions of Albert Barnes and Leopold Stokowski, playwright Didi Balle's symphonic play dramatized the way the art collector and conductor were also breaking with convention."

It was a time when Barnes [was] collecting his African art and tribal masks," says Balle. Meanwhile,  Stokowski was also in Paris trying to get  permission from Stravinsky to perform The Rite of Spring in Philadelphia. Stokowski was successful and led The Philadelphia Orchestra in the U.S. premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1922.

On Sunday, January 26th at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1,Stéphane Denève leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in a program that includes Milhaud's La Creation du Monde and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The concert, which incorporates a symphonic play by Didi Balle, is the second part of a two-week celebration of Albert Barnes and Leopold Stokowski.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.