Top Five Visions of America in Classical Music

Tune in to WQXR on July 4th for Americana and Music for the Summer Season

Monday, July 01, 2013

Statue of Liberty (Flickr: eschipul)

In honor of our nation’s birthday, we present five pieces of classical music that are both American in sound and in subject matter.

1. Charles Ives: Fourth Symphony

Carnegie Hall called Charles Ives the George Washington of American composers, as he was among the first U.S.-based composers to create music that was independent from European traditions. That said, much of Ives's work quotes precise sounds and scenes from Americana—a football game, a holiday celebration, life in a small New England town, His Fourth Symphony, often considered his masterpiece, is no different, weaving together myriad influences from American culture and daily life. References to Nathanial Hawthorne, Pilgrim’s Progress, July 4th, ragtime, “Turkey in the Straw,” and Yankee Doodle all come in an out of focus as Ives’s patches together a soundscape of the American experience.

• Listen to the Detroit Symphony play Ives's Fourth at the Spring for Music Festival

2. John Alden Carpenter: Skyscrapers: A Ballet of Modern Life

While cattle ranches and open prairies inspired composers such as Aaron Copland, modern cities with their engineering marvels moved others. The later are present in Skyscrapers: A Ballet of Modern Life by the American composer John Alden Carpenter. Commissioned by Serge Diaghilev but never performed by the Ballets Russe, Skyscrapers premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1926. Carpenter's piece incorporated the sounds of the Jazz Age and the contemporary American city. With New York as its model, the piece depicts scenes of the busy city streets, amusements on Coney Island and seedy vaudeville theaters.


3. Elliott Carter: A Symphony for Three Orchestras

Music writers often said that late Elliott Carter composed European music: intellectual and sophisticated in style, and undoubtedly influenced by his French teacher Nadia Boulanger. But Carter could also write distinctly American music such as in A Symphony for Three Orchestras. Based on the poem The Bridge by Hart Crane, the work was written in honor of the American Bicentennial. The orchestra is split into three distinct groups, and all three eventual coalesce to create one cohesive piece: an idea that Matthew Guerrieri, writing in the Boston Globe, proposed may have been inspired by the United States’ three branches of government. In his obituary of Carter in The Guardian, Ivan Hewett wrote, “this piece evokes all the conflicting energies of America.”

4. William Grant Still: Afro-American Symphony

William Grant Still and his Afro-American Symphony inserted frequently neglected black culture into American classical music. When the Rochester Philharmonic premiered the work in 1931, it marked the first time that an American orchestra played a piece by a black composer. The symphony introduced an African-American vernacular taken from the blues, jazz, and spiritual music into the classical concert hall, providing a multicultural rendering of American music.


5. Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein: The Mother of Us All

The opera The Mother of Us All by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein has been called the most American of all operas by no less than the critics Andrew Porter (The New Yorker), Anthony Tommasini (the New York Times), and Mark Swed (the Los Angeles Times). About American suffragette Susan B. Anthony, the opera surrounds the protagonist with a number of notable countrymen and women— John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, and Lillian Russell—and narrators Virgil T. and Gertrude S. Though the narrative isn’t a faithful retelling of American history, it does celebrate the American spirit through Anthony’s crusade for women’s rights and Thomson’s score, which borrows liberally from parlor songs and church hymns.

Weigh in: What classical pieces are quintessentially American to you? Should they evoke skyscrapers and open plains? Or more abstract ideals? Leave your comments below.


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Comments [10]

Ian from England

I immediately think of Copland as the archetypal American composer. When I first heard Appalachian Spring I was spell bound. Even years later it still works for me. It was a new sound for me and I loved it.

Jan. 08 2017 02:13 PM
Roger Wortham

Absolutely love and agree that William Grant Still be included for its expression of souls of Americans, which internalizes so much about all Americans. His Kaintuck "does" Kentucky well. Berstein's overture to West Side Story deserves mention, if not inclusion.

Aug. 19 2013 11:22 PM
Teresa Rolfe Kravtin from LaGrange, GA

Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man.

Jul. 04 2013 03:35 PM
Dick Blumenthal from Pomona, NY

To stretch your definition of "classical" a longer piece of Duke Ellington would surely be relevant, since Jazz is quintessentially an American music.

Jul. 04 2013 07:03 AM
Diane Mahoney from Sacramento, California

I always associate George Gershwin with American classical music. His Rhapsody in Blue just evokes the skyscrapers of New York City for me, as does his Piano Concerto in F. I'd love to hear one or both of those pieces on July 4th.

Jul. 02 2013 07:55 PM
harold braun

Surely something by Aaron Copland should be included.I find it so remarkable that he ,the son of russian jewish immigrants almost single handedly created what is forever definitive as the sound of the american west,the great outdoors,the open wide prairie.His influence on composers who deal with these subjects has been(and still is)overwhelming,as you can experience in thousands of western movie scores.And I would have liked something by Gershwin,Bernstein and John Williams included,too,for having contributed so much to american music at its best.

Jul. 02 2013 06:49 PM
Billy Baker from Northbrook, Illinois

Your five piece program is terrific. Don't change a thing. But some tine on the 4th you gotta, gotta play Jimmy Cagney's on film performance pf I'm a
Yankee Doodle Dandy. No, it's not classical music. But it is a classic. Thank you.

Jul. 02 2013 05:44 PM
Gisele Schierhorst from Long Island, NY

Thanks for suggesting the Grofé. Have a Happy Fourth, Miriam!


Jul. 02 2013 02:49 PM
Miriam Eldridge from San Jose, California

I think Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite is an admirable piece of program music that really invokes the unique American setting. Also, Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid; in fact, almost anything of Copland's. I agree with Gisele about his music for Our Town. The brief, haunting interval called Quiet City invokes an almost visceral response in me.

Jul. 02 2013 01:45 PM
Gisele Schierhorst from Long Island New York

I've always considered Aaron Copland's score for the film version of Thornton Wilder's play, "Our Town," as an American tribute to the human experience.

Jul. 02 2013 09:36 AM

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