A century on from Rhapsody in Blue, debates about cultural ‘theft’ rage still | Kenan Malik

Societies are robbed of subtlety and depth when racism is conflated with the borrowing of ideas

‘The future music of this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” So wrote the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, in an 1893 essay, a year after he had moved to America to teach at the newly created National Conservatory in New York.

Almost half a century later, a precocious Harvard student by the name of Leonard Bernstein wrote his undergraduate thesis on “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music”. Searching for a “national” basis for American music, he found it in “Negro music”. “If an American is a sensitive creator,” Bernstein wrote, “jazz will have become an integral part of his palette, whether or not he is aware of it.”

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