Kauffman, Deborah

Committee Member

Bellman, Jonathan D.

Committee Member

Reddick, Carissa A.

Committee Member

Luttmann, Stephen


School of Music


University of Northern Colorado

Type of Resources


Place of Publication

Greeley (Colo.)


University of Northern Colorado

Date Created



378 pages

Digital Origin

Born digital


Even though America’s musical elite undertook a veritable boycott of American talent during the nineteenth century, efforts to define concert life along Germanic lines did not prevent the development of a distinctly American sound. The groundwork was laid in the first half of the century in folk songs, national airs, and popular tunes from minstrel shows. It came to fruition after the Civil War, and by the 1920s, all of the elements were in place for an easily recognizable “American Style.” The development of musical topics to evoke the idea of “American” was essential in establishing this style. Most topical studies focus on European art music. This study explores the roots of the topics and gestures that underlie the music of the United States — through an examination of popular songs, folk music, social dances, salon music, and orchestral works — that demonstrates how specific gestures were transformed into topics: signifiers of various peoples, regions, or social classes. It also details barriers to the establishment of a uniquely American style, including the nation’s cultural inferiority complex with regard to its European artistic heritage, the systematic dismissal of native-born talent, and the impact of critics, conductors, and patrons on the development of an American school of composition. Racism and classism are also addressed, as they too were factors in the nation’s search for its artistic identity. A “Dictionary of Topics” specific to American music and a topical analysis of Scott Joplin’s 1911 opera Treemonisha demonstrate not only how African-American topoi, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and European art music traditions combine in America’s classical music, but also how this combination led directly to the formation of an authentically American sound. The identification of previously overlooked racial and religious topics in the opera deepen our understanding of Joplin’s life, his beliefs, and ultimately contribute to a more nuanced understanding of Treemonisha.

Degree type


Degree Name


Local Identifiers


Rights Statement

Copyright is held by the author.