Top Five Works about New York City by its Composers

Thursday, July 12, 2012

As you can see on our map of composers’ homes in New York City, Gotham has played host to its share of great musical minds. And several of its current and former denizens have rhapsodized about the city in their music. Here our five great works New York composers have written about the Big Apple.

1. On the Town

Perhaps no composer better depicted the textures of New York City than Leonard Bernstein, whose West Side Story and score for On the Waterfront show the metropolis’ myriad delights as well as its seamy underbelly. However, the 1949 musical On the Town — a collaboration with Adolph Green and Betty Comden — depicted New York City as a veritable playground for a few sailors on 24-hour leave from the Navy. (Who can forget that the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down). The musical was based on Bernstein’s 1944 ballet suite Fancy Free, which marked Jerome Robbins’s first work for ABT.

2. Charles Ives’s Central Park in the Dark

Charles Ives composed his 10-minute tone poem “Central Park in the Dark” as a counterpoint to his Unanswered Question, describing the latter as a “cosmic drama,” and the former a “picture-in-sounds.” The work depicts a hot summer night on one of the park benches, and true to his form you can hear the normal passersby: a group of singers, busking musicians, fire engines and some revelers returning home after a night from a bar. Not much has changed.

3. Gershwin’s Concerto in F

When Walter Damrosch commissioned George Gershwin to write a work for the New York Symphony (later the New York Philharmonic) the composer started work on what he originally titled “New York Concerto.” He eventually changed the name to Concerto in F so that it would represent “absolute” music. Still, the piece still retains the throbbing pulse of the city streets, from its Grandioso first movement to its bluesy second movement to its ragtime-inflected finale.

4. Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint

Native New Yorker Steve Reich’s music doesn’t just describe his home city, but more specifically the downtown scene which embraced his minimalist style, which is manifest in “New York Counterpoint.” The original work required a clarinetist to play along with ten prerecorded tracks (though latter renditions have staged the work completely live).

5. Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park

In response to the 9/11 attacks several composers wrote elegies for the fallen towers. Bang on a Can founder, Michael Gordon’s contribution, commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, was the 30-minute The Sad Park. Gordon wove recorded comments from nursery school students who attended school with his children two blocks away from the World Trade Center. The result is an authentic sense of what it meant to be in the city on Sept. 11 2001.

Weigh in: What piece best captures New York to you?


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Comments [11]

Stephen Victor

What about Manhattan Towers by Gordon Jenkins?

Jul. 17 2012 09:45 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

Thanks to Bill Sanders' comment, this got me thinking about an 1897 "fantasie" for band compiled by John Philip Sousa entitled "Over The Footlights In New York." 1898 programme notes listed the following order:
Paderewski At Carnegie Hall; "El Capitan" At The Broadway Theatre; "Lucia" At The Metropolitan Opera House; "The Belle Of New York" At The Casino; "The Girl From Paris" At The Herald Square Theatre; "Faust" Ballet At Koster & Bial's; "Trovatore" At The Academy Of Music; and "Sousa's Band At Manhattan Beach."

Jul. 16 2012 10:05 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

For me, it's "On The Town" all the way, and not just those selections that are sung that mention places and restaurants. I think the instrumental sections, specifically, "Lonely Town" No. 7b, "Times Square Ballet" No. 12, "The Great Lover Displays Himself" No. 21a, "Pas de Deux" No. 21b evoke New York City like nothing else. For a close second (if not a tie for first place), is Gershwin's "Concerto in F" with the Charleston rhythm after the four-bar percussion solos.

Jul. 15 2012 09:53 AM
bill sanders

For evoking an era, nothing beats the, "tripped the light fantastic," lyric of "The Sidewalks of New York." And some others from that era, "The Band Played On,' "My Gal Sal," etc. [Hint: you could put them in a bonus cd.]
Just got the NYC music bonus for my recent, first, contribution. It too is a great compilation. My preference for Gershwin's Rhapsody is the composer's solo on piano rolls, a 20th Cent. Fox release of several decades ago, but this one is very good.

Jul. 14 2012 02:18 PM
Mary Angela from Ocala, FL

All great choices, but I definitely have to say "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin (1924). Wikipedia: Although Gershwin himself spoke of the rhapsody as "a musical kaleidoscope of America", Rhapsody in Blue has often been interpreted as a musical portrait of New York City..."

Jul. 14 2012 09:22 AM
Ad Pollé from Haarlem, Netherlands

For me that would be a fascinating work from Dutch composer Johan de Meij (*1953). His Second Symphony, appropriately called "The Big Apple" is a thrilling, vibrating piece of music that really captures the many facets of your great city. I had it on my iPod together with music (piano concerto's) by Gershwin, Ravel (the Left Hand!), Nyman and Shostakovich, a wonderful soundtrack to accompany me on my walks through the city.
De Meij's Second Symphony is (in his own words) "an ode to New York: not strictly programmatic music but rather a musical interpretation of the spirit, glamour and indifference of one of the most fascinating cities in the world. The first movement, (Skyline) depicts the massive facade, the ‘global’ contours of New York; in the second movement (Gotham) the brutal, chaotic aspects of the metropolis are introduced. Listening to this symphony is perhaps as enervating as an actual visit to Manhattan. The listener is scarcely granted a moment of calm: even the more subdued passages are invariably accompanied by an obstinate rumbling in the background - the music never really quietens down..." Have a look at his website for more on this wonderful music unknown to too many:
BTW: the composer now lives in New York!

Jul. 13 2012 03:40 AM
Ken Kriheli

Philp Glass' Glassworks. When I visited the 9/11 memorial giftshop at Ground Zero, a documentary playing on a large TV used this piece as a montage of people's comments on the longterm effects of 9/11 played out. Nothing seemed more poignant or made more sense at that moment than that piece.

Jul. 12 2012 09:29 PM

Wonderful Town!

On your right, Washington Square
Right in the heart of Greenwich Village
My, what trees, smell that air
Painters and pigeons in Washington Square

On your left, Waverly place
Bit of Paree in Greenwich Village
My, what charm, my, what grace
Poets and peasants on Waverly place

Here you see Christopher Street
Typical spot in Greenwich Village
Ain't it quaint, ain't it sweet
Pleasant and peaceful on Christopher Street?

Life is gay, life is sweet
Interesting people on Christopher Street
Such interesting people live on Christopher Street
Such interesting people live on Christopher Street!

Jul. 12 2012 09:18 PM
Diane Dugan

Gotta have Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind".

Jul. 12 2012 04:01 PM
Josh Simka from New York, NY

Leonard Bernstein all the way! West Side Story, On the Town, his Symphony No. 2 (which is based on Auden's Age of Anxiety, a work set in New York City), and at night--all cozy at home in the suburbs out on Long Island or up in Ossining or across the Hudson in New Jersey: A Quiet Place. Bernstein captured in his music the most boisterous and public as well as the most introspective, private, torturous aspects of city life.

Jul. 12 2012 02:23 PM
Mat Dirjish from New York, NY

For me personally, On the Town. You can't be a real New Yorker if you don't love Leonard Bernstein and, even though he hailed from Jersey, Frank Sinatra.

Jul. 12 2012 01:39 PM

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