DeCora and Indian Art
American Folk Music
and the Indian Fantasy
The Indian themes Curtis published caught
the attention of other musicians and composers interested in folk
music, including Percy Grainger, Kurt Schindler, and Ferruccio Busoni.
Grainger and Curtis became good friends, and Grainger continued
to use Curtis's arrangements in his concerts and lectures throughout
his career. In Europe as a teenager, Curtis had studied briefly
with Busoni, and he had continued to follow her work. In 1911, Busoni
asked Curtis to send him a selection of Indian melodies that might
serve as suitable themes for an experimental composition. He used
the melodies she sent as themes for his Indian Fantasy.
Curtis heard this piece performed for
the first time in 1915 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction
of Leopold Stokowski, with Busoni himself at the piano. Sitting
with Curtis there at the initial rehearsal at the Academy of Music
in Philadelphia was Percy Grainger. Busoni, Grainger, and Curtis
were all interested in the use of folk themes in composition. "With
the first bars of the orchestral introduction ...," wrote Curtis,
"the walls melted away, and I was in the West, filled again
with that awing sense of vastness, of solitude, of immensity."
At least two themes Curtis recorded in The Indians' Book are readily
discerned in the Indian Fantasy -- The Pima "Bluebird Song"
and one of the Cheyenne "Hand-Game" songs.
Curtis called the Indian Fantasy "...
by far the most important effort ever yet made in any use of our
native musical material." Busoni made sure to retain the character
of the original music. "Indian music," Curtis explained,
"... compels its own treatment, remaining unalterably Indian,
standing out with its own sharp rhythmic and melodic outline on
the background of the composer's thought like sculptured bas-relief."
She praised Busoni for his skillful use of native themes. "Before
he put pen to paper he said that he would not overlay the Indian
themes with any feeling of European culture nor 'develop' them according
to the usual standards of composition."12
Curtis hoped that Busoni's Indian Fantasy would have an enduring
impact on music and advance the cause of Indian culture. The piece,
however, has proved to be one of Busoni's lesser-known works, although
it has been performed and recorded occasionally.
|Left-to-right: George Curtis,
High Chief, and Natalie Curtis, playing the Hand Game