Are American Orchestras ‘Blatantly Ignoring’ American Music?

Listen to the full conversation in the audio player below

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Aaron Copland with Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti in Bernardsville, NJ, 1945 Aaron Copland with Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti in Bernardsville, NJ, 1945 (Victor Kraft/Library of Congress)

Barber’s Violin Concerto, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Copland’s Appalachian Spring are among a small handful of American works that have become staples of the orchestra repertoire.

Since the United States has nurtured a good century-and-a-half of orchestral compositions, there are those who feel that this is not just an oversight, but a disgrace. Earlier this month, a group of composers and academics decided to confront the issue where it starts: with the major orchestra in their city. They wrote a letter to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer accusing the Cleveland Orchestra of “blatantly ignoring music of its own country” by programming only one work by an American composer next season.

“We looked at this and said, this is approximately one percent of the programming and really, we have to say something about this,” said Keith Fitch, head of the composition department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, who was one of the letter’s co-signers.

Fitch argues that the problem is not limited to Cleveland, nor is it even confined to living composers. There is a wide swath of “diverse and compelling” American repertoire, he says, that is seldom represented on orchestra programs, including pieces by William Schuman, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Walter Piston and even Charles Ives – “the music that has defined us as a culture.”

The Cleveland Orchestra did not respond to invitations to participate in this segment, nor did it respond to the letter, which has been widely circulated on social media.

Ed Harsh, the president and CEO of the advocacy organization New Music USA, notes that a number of orchestras are making an effort to program American works, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and Albany Symphony. The upcoming Spring for Music festival of American orchestras at Carnegie Hall is due to feature major works by Hanson and John Adams (WQXR will broadcast the six-concert festival live). "It’s by no means a blanket problem,” Harsh said. “But in some ways this is such an old, agonizing story.”

In 2011, the League of American Orchestras, a national service organization, reported that just two out of the top 20 most-performed composers were American that year: Barber and Leonard Bernstein (at numbers 17 and 20, respectively). A ranking of the top 20 works performed did not bring up a single American piece.

Harsh believes that living American composers should be essential to orchestras' community outreach and audience-building efforts; they can personalize and talk about the music in a way that long-dead composers can't. “It may seem expedient to become a museum of immutable masterpieces that everyone loves,” he said. “That’s long-term suicide.”

To some extent, orchestras must persuade audiences to try unfamiliar music of whatever era or nationality, said Simon Woods, the executive director of the Seattle Symphony, in the second part of this podcast. Seattle has recently launched an in-house record label with an album of music by Ives, Gershwin and Elliott Carter.

But Woods also believes there are no absolutes. "I start getting nervous when I hear discussions about whether there should be some kind of moral imperative to play American music," he added. "What's interesting about orchestras in this country is this huge diversity of repertoire that they play, and each one has a different personality."

Listen to the full segment above and share your comments below: should orchestras program more American works? Why or why not?


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Comments [39]

Kevin Scott from Middletown, New York

Of all the American composers listed, not a single responder listed any African-American composers who have written for the concert hall, including William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, William Dawson, George Walker, Hale Smith, David Baker, Adolphus Hailstork, Bill Banfield, Jeffrey Mumford, Anthony Davis and countless others who are still unknown to the general public.

Though there have been two attempts to educate the public and expose them to this music through concerts and recordings in the 1970s and 1990s, much of their music for orchestra, chamber groups, opera companies and choruses is rarely encountered when sized up against other American composers. Hopefully with a dearth of younger performers coming to the fore, perhaps they will explore this chapter of American music where the words shamefully neglected doesn't even begin to describe the injustices put on this music.

Apr. 05 2015 01:17 PM

I was pleased to hear Symphony No. 2, Op. 132, "Mysterious Mountain," by
Alan Hovhaness yesterday. I wasn't overwhelmed (I felt it rambled a bit) but I was glad to hear American music on WQXR.


Apr. 14 2014 07:03 PM
Jennie Greene from Brooklyn, NY

I want to hear more classical music from American male & female composers. This would allow Americans to get to know these works and realize that classical music didn't just come out of Europe.

Apr. 14 2014 01:42 PM

I'll get back to you in 2030. If you're still alive.


Apr. 14 2014 01:23 AM
David from Flushing

In 16 years when the present audience is deceased with no one to replace them, will it matter what is being played?

Apr. 13 2014 01:53 PM
Peter Sachon from New York City

Here's my blog post at about why this keeps happening, and why it must change:

Apr. 13 2014 11:39 AM

I read the comments above, and the first thing I have noted is that the period of American music from the turn of the 19th/20th century is totally ignored. Not even once in these comments did I see the names Chadwick, Foote, Hadley, Bird, (Maurice) Arnold, or even MacDowell mentioned. A whole era of our music completely neglected and ignored. And these composers have written music that is completely listenable and accessible, and most importantly, enjoyable. Overall, these composers are fully the equivalent of say Elgar and Sullivan, both of whom are extolled in their own country.

But it is a matter of exploration and doing much listening on one's own to determine what is personally valuable and what is not. A landmark groundbreaking work regarded as historically significant many of us may find revolting, even after a century has passed, whereas a heavily derivative work, solidly on the beaten track, can move many of us to our very roots. It is a totally individual thing, and there is no hard and fast rule about it.

Therefore, when someone tells me that such and such a work "is considered to be" whatever, that means absolutely nothing to me. I have to find out one way or other for myself. Such people are not experiencing music personally, they are following the crowd or getting their information second hand, what they receive from others or read in books rather than making a self determination, which is the only way to go.

American music? There is plenty of worthwhile music from other nationalities that is grievously neglected because it happens not to fall within the category of "The 101 Greatest Masterpieces of All Time." Even with this latter, one has to personally experience the music rather than go purely by hearsay.

A sad commentary on our musical outlook in general. Good American music is only one small part of this picture.

Apr. 13 2014 09:16 AM
Suzanne Brown from Everett, Washington

I suppose more American composers could be played, especially Leonard Bernstein as well as more Aaron Copeland and Charles Ives. They are also great female composers, especially in choral music. Research should be done to find out more about American composers. In my opinion, not all the music is very "listener friendly", being very dissonant to sensitive ears. It's not easy to be picky enough to find great music, but it is there.

Suzanne Brown

I lived Back East for many years. When I moved Northwest, I was, and am, able to listen to WQXR online.

Apr. 11 2014 09:51 PM

@ Morty from Teaneck NJ

Great idea. Bernstein: Chichester Psalms. Copland: Music for the Theater.


Apr. 11 2014 07:42 PM
Mark from New York City

I couldn't agree more wtih the sentiment of this article. Our local orchestras and ensembles here in New York City, along with this radio station, can and should help lead the way -- what they do so far, while admirable, is not nearly sufficient (Thanksgiving Day and July 4th notwithstanding.) While the upcoming "Spring for Music" festival at Carnegie Hall showcases American orchestras, it doesn't particularly showcase modern or contemporary American composers (...and I believe this is the last year for it as there's no future funding to continue it?) Also, whatever happened to the American Music Festival that WQXR's sister station WNYC used to present annually in February between the Presidents' birthdays? It was great and something I always looked forward to!

Apr. 11 2014 05:34 PM
Morty from Teaneck NJ

Here's a partial list of pieces which are accessible and should be programmed by WQXR. I invite everyone else to list your own favorites. Let's create a base and hope WQXR takes a hint: Adams: Harmonielehre, Violin Concerto; Hansen: Romantic Symphony; Harris: Sym # 3; Ives: Syms 1-3; Copland: Clarinet Concerto, Piano Concerto; Barber: Sym # 1 (a one movement gem), Piano Concerto; Corigliano: Sym #1; Korngold: Violin Concerto; Higdon: Blue Cathedral. These pieces are all tonal, tuneful and very accessible. I have avoided Elliot Carter and the like for the obvious reason that it is an acquired taste which I have not yet acquired!

Apr. 11 2014 04:39 PM
Jay Shulman from Hudson Valley NY

Composer, cellist, arranger Alan Shulman (1915-2002)

Apr. 11 2014 03:17 PM
James Roe, Founding Member from The Big Apple

Yes! And not just Americans...I direct your attention to contemporary
FILM SCORES, which makes up a HUGE percent of my collection, going back to
Barry Lyndon era; Morricone, Horner,all art film crossover are
sitting on a mountain of gold that many persons will suddenly realize, Where Have I Heard That? Red Violin, Cinema Paradiso, Tea with Mussolini, Enchanted's endless.

Maybe then we would not have to listen to Mav Las (sp) chronically!

Apr. 11 2014 03:13 PM

I would love to program more pieces by twentieth/twenty-first Century American composers, but they just costs way too much for our orchestra. We had a few success by asking our friend composers, but that's about it. If we play Lincoln Portrait, our budget is gone for the year.

Apr. 11 2014 03:13 PM
Dave H. from Maryland

Like many, I also don't believe in listening to music solely based on its country of origin. And a lot of people have a prejudice against the more modern styles of music. I even choose to believe that few modern foreign composers get played in this country. But I have to wonder if my ignorance of American music is due to the fact that it doesn't get played very much. If we heard more of the many different american works, would they not be as great as all the foreign classical stuff we're so used to? Of course they would because there is genius in this country that is going unrecognized. There were a lot of names of American Composers listed in these comments and in the comments of the show. I wrote down as many as I could, and I'm going to look them up, and hopefully find some music I love. I'm also going to seek-out women composers-another group that's terribly underappreciated.

Apr. 11 2014 01:57 PM

For me the issue is not so much as where it comes from as it is when it was written. I prefer to hear music written closer to my own timeline. Radio in general has dropped the ball (ugh, a sports' analogy). I refuse to use the media to reinforce what I already know (e.g. no satellite radio here). I look for the radio to help educate me as to what is new, rarely does it do so. What works very well for me is the latest release letters from Arkiv Music and the ability to find much of it with Internet resources. If I were to wait for the public media to address my needs they would never be cared for.

Apr. 11 2014 01:47 PM
Kenneth Barr from New York, NY

I could care less what the nationality of the composer is. Good music is that which is pleasing to the ear, bad music isn't. Let's not dictate the repertory of any musical or artistic organization. Rather, let us just listen to one language in this world that has no nationality, music.

Apr. 11 2014 01:46 PM
Kate from Seattle, WA

I was just listening to Aaron Copland's Rodeo yesterday. I'd love to hear more American composers at the symphony!

Apr. 11 2014 01:29 PM

Les from Miami Beach has hit upon one way to influence an orchestra towards programming more American music: through that orchestra's board. If those board members make it known to the orchestra's president that the programming of American music will not be penalized or looked askance at, then the music director/chief conductor would feel confident to add more American music throughout each season's programming and thereby increase the amount of our music of our nation we are able to hear, get to know and enjoy.

I also know from personal experience that if we, the patrons, write letters to, phone, and e-mail to the orchestra and implore, request and even 'nag' them to increase the amount of American music performed, we can directly influence programming. I've done that in the past and have had agreeable results therefrom.

Apr. 11 2014 10:53 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

correction: "at least one thriving radio orchestra"...

Apr. 11 2014 10:51 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

In Leonard Bernstein's first book, "The Joy of Music", (Simon and Schuster, 1959), he wrote a piece involving an imaginary set of documents exchanged between himself and someone called B.P. "Broadway Producer" about "Whatever Happened To That Great American Symphony?". Here we are, 55 years later, talking about much the same thing. I didn't think it would be a topic when I first read it, 55 years ago. The essence of the dialogue is that there will always be a museum element to us listeners as regards the supreme masterpieces and operas because we aren't in the homeland of most of the creations we love. And "B.P" wrote "And since he doesn't give a damn about whether anyone is writing new symphonies or not, there is no real vitality for him in our concert life, except the vitality of a visit to the museum." As was said in this "Conducting Business" program, a lot of music directors don't know the music to start with. If we had a thriving orchestra in this country as other countries do, (we did in the past, witness the NBC, CBS and WOR house orchestras), we could have regular exposure to and promotion of contemporary composers. And we'd all be sharing the bill. NBC and CBS threw in the towell years ago, to their shame. Where are you, P.B.S.? One of my great loves is what I consider a treasure trove of American symphonists who wrote in the early and mid 20th Century: Harris, Diamond, Schuman, Piston, Gould, Persichetti, Dello Joio, even Robert Russell Bennett, most widely known as a master orchestrator, but who also composed. I can't imagine by any stretch of the imagination that contermporary audiences would think any works by the aforementioned (without meaning to demean or disparage them) as being "hard to swallow", as we may still feel about 12-tone compositions. I know I'm in that category. Koussevitzky's championing of --- then --- contemporary composers as well as European composers is justifiably legendary. First, let's appoint board members and music directors who, if they aren't familiar with American composers' works, are at least interested in what's going on around them.

Apr. 11 2014 10:24 AM
kriss from Piscataway, NJ

Although there is certainly much good American music, not much of it is truly classical. Too much 20th century music was too modern, assaulting the ears with clashing dissonance.

I feel that the glorious music of many great European composers of earlier centuries has been neglected, and would love to hear more of it. How often do we hear performances of de Lassus, Palestrina, Purcell, Locatelli, Corelli, Gabrieli, Schutz, Couperin, Pergolesi, Lully, Franck, Busoni, Sati, even the Shumanns and Brahms?

Let's put quality before nationality and hear the very best.

Apr. 11 2014 10:13 AM
Bernie from UWS

Orchestras are custodians of artistic legacies. Just as the Met Museum wouldn't omit American art or contemporary works, orchestras shouldn't give short shrift to a whole nationality. The earlier comments that "it shouldn't matter" because "great music is great music" is reductive and simplistic. Unless an orchestra expressly states that its mission is to focus on one corner of the repertoire (i.e. a period-instrument group) then they should be playing works by Adams, Glass, Hanson, Ives, Reich, etc. So should a radio station.

Apr. 11 2014 08:57 AM
Daryn Kent-Duncan from New York

Orchestras, American or otherwise, should play the great classical music. (I personally would complain that the Romantics are not played enough -- Chopin, Lizst, in particular, while Bach is overdone.) However, the orchestras have to bring in audiences and I'm sure they are aware of what their public wants to hear.

Apr. 11 2014 08:49 AM
Bruce from NJ

Maybe it will just need a couple hundred years for history to decide if the American composers are as notable as we now consider those composers who've been gone nearly as long to be.

Apr. 11 2014 07:36 AM
J Foster from Philadelphia

I've cancelled my all my support of and subscription to the Philadelphia Orchestra because the Orchestra not only does not include American composers but also does not play mid-century composers like Hindemith and
Bartok. But then, neither does WQXR.

Apr. 10 2014 11:37 PM

Roger Sessions
John Harbison
Harold Shapero
Andrew Imbrie
Charles Wuorinen
Donald Martino
Meyer Kupferman
George Perle
Irving Fine
Arthur Berger
Samuel Adler
Ezra Laderman
Leslie Bassett
Irwin Bazelon
Henry Brant
Norman Dello Joio
Jacob Druckman
Robert Helps
George Rochberg
Gunther Schuller
Leo Kraft
Seymour Shifrin
Vincent Persichetti
Leon Kirchner
Ross Lee Finney
Carl Ruggles

Apr. 10 2014 11:05 PM
Marsha Ostroff from Mexico City, Mexico

A couple of tweaks to the list of American composers programmed by the Portland Youth Orchestra: Silvestre Revueltas is an important twentieth-century composer from Mexico, and Osvaldo Golijov is from Argentina.

Apr. 10 2014 09:52 PM
The Truth from LES

@David - the Portland orchestra approach looks like the exception to the rule. I bet a lot of American orchestras do some Gershwin or (God forbid) John Williams and call it a day.

The Brits are actually really good a promoting their own. If you read their news media, it's all about Elgar and Britten and Tippet and such. You'd think those composers are more important than Bach and Beethoven the way they go on about it. Americans should take a cue there. It might instill more pride in native-born music.

Apr. 10 2014 09:26 PM
maurice baroni from New york

I do not think that American composers are being ignored.

Apr. 10 2014 09:26 PM
William Kaplan from Forest Hills, NY

I agree that there must be a much wider availability of high quality American classical music in the domestic concert hall for the benefit of concert goers who are not music professionals. For example, in February, the NYP under Dudamel performeda work by an American I did not know, John Corigliano's Symphony No.1. It was thrilling, moving and stunning! I loved it. I'm hoping to hear more of his works. On the other hand, last year Dudamel conducted a mixed media religious work by John Adams, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, that was so grating, I left at intermission. But I may find in time, the qualities within it or other of Adams' works that the critics liked.

Apr. 10 2014 08:40 PM
Edie Zareck from South Carolina

Beautiful classical music is magnificent, doesn't matter who composed it!!! Can't we just enjoy it for what it is without looking for something else to complain about???!!!!!!!

Apr. 10 2014 08:26 PM
David Hattner from Portland, Oregon

The Portland Youth Philharmonic has programmed the following American composers over the last 6 seasons.

Leroy Anderson
Jacob Avshalomov
Samuel Barber (4)
William Bergsma
Leonard Bernstein
Kenji Bunch (3)
Aaron Copland (3)
Henry Cowell (2)
Stephen Dankner (2)
David Diamond
Osvaldo Golijov
Howard Hanson (2)
Charles Ives
Jennifer Higdon
Sylvestre Revueltas
Wallingford Riegger (2)
Jim Stephenson (2)
John Phillip Sousa (2)
Deems Taylor
Christopher Theofanidis (2)
Kevin Walczyk

The orchestra has a long tradition of supporting this repertoire. It has commissioned and recorded works of Diamond, Harris, Bergsma, Lees and Robert Ward, among others.

Apr. 10 2014 08:22 PM
Gregory Eaton from NYC

My most formative teacher gave me a talk at our final lesson. He reminded me that I am not only an American, but also (then) a 20th-Century American. As such, I should always champion the music of this country and the current time, just as European musicians champion the music of their countries. Since then, I have made it a point to perform American music of all periods. In the weekly concerts I have played for the last 15 years, this has proven to be very popular. When I did a request concert last year, American repertoire was high on the list of requests I received. This proves that NY audiences are not only ready for American music, but enjoy it when it is programmed. I am sure that the same would be true in other parts of the country.

Apr. 10 2014 08:13 PM
Ralph Di benedetto from Blauvelt, New York

The answer is yes! and I think WQXR should take the lead. This is not to say that WQXR should play only American Composers all the time but I think the WQXR needs to broaden its musical programing.

Apr. 10 2014 08:03 PM
Kimberly Crail from Long Island

Who really cares what country an artist or composer hails from? It's a rather trivial matter, imho. I love classical music, and most of what I love doesn't happen to be written by "Americans".

Let's enjoy great music, wherever it hails from.

Apr. 10 2014 07:40 PM
Linda Knapp from Sleepy Hollow, NY

Interesting to read this at this particular time. Westchester County's (NY) Hudson Chorale just performed the first in a series of concerts entitled, "American Voices" - which included not only the works of American composers, but the words of American poets. America boasts such a wonderful legacy of choral and orchestral music - and it is a shame that we don't perform it more often - with greater pride. Surely in the 21st Century we are past being enamored with only the imported product!

Apr. 10 2014 07:26 PM
John Marrazzo from Hackensack, NJ

A good article on a poignant topic. I tend to agree with Woods' apprehension of a forced collective "moral" imperative. This is about good music, not the nationality of the composer. Emphasis on "good". It is not the responsibility of orchestras, American or otherwise, to "persuade" listeners (and patrons) to like a certain style of music. (Picture a Clockwork Orange method of glued on headphones for modern compositions, most of which, grate on my brain.)
Maybe orchestras don't play much modern American music because much modern American music sucks.

Apr. 10 2014 05:39 PM
WILLIAM SANDERS from Williston Park NY

"A composer is not without honor, save in his own country." O.K., a prophet, but you get the point. So many great jazz muscians in the '30s and after, for instance, have headed for Europe and stayed there. America is so rich in so many ways that we tend to take home-grown stuff for granted.

By the way, I wish your announcers would stifle the guttoral Bach pronounciation. Nothing wrong with a soft "ach." When the first sound you hear in the morning is that "BaaaAHCKKK" you are off to a bad start.

Apr. 10 2014 05:35 PM

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