When I was growing up, New York 's best (now long-defunct) classical radio station, WNCN, played only American composers' music each Fourth of July. With the classical world dominated by Europeans, this was a welcome and educational corrective. In the history of American music, independence wasn't achieved until the 20th century; 19th century composers such as John Knowles Paine and George Whitefield Chadwick studied in Europe and blatantly imitated European models. Listening to their music "blind," few would guess they were Americans. There was Revolutionary War-era vocal writer William Billings, but his originality was more a lack of proper technique. Continuing WNCN's tradition, here's a look at true American classical music.
There is a bit of chauvinism in this article, as "American" here refers not to all the Americas (North, Central, and South) but rather the colloquial usage in the United States to mean that country's residents (hence, the Mexican Carlos Chavez, Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, etc. are absent). The list is also restricted to composers born in the U.S., thus passing over immigrants such as Edgard Varese, Kurt Weill, and Igor Stravinsky. Nor, finally, are composers primarily categorized as jazz considered, though arguably Duke Ellington towers above many of the chosen in both individuality and craftsmanship. Blues, jazz, and rock were invented here and thus didn't really have to declare independence -- they were born independent. My little survey of twenty composers, hardly definitive and more a matter of personal taste than anything else, will proceed in chronological order. (Written in 2006, this article has been updated a little, though with no major additions.)
Marches used to be a big part of American musical culture, and John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was "The March King." Don't be a snob: Though his art may be that of a miniature form, what he did with it remains masterful, and he seems to pack as much variety into his marches as other composers did into symphonies. The three-CD set Sousa Marches Played by the Sousa Band: The Complete Commercial Recordings (Crystal) collects all the recordings (made from 1897 to 1930) by his famous civilian band, conducted by him (seven tracks) or others, most of whom had played under Sousa's baton. "The Stars and Stripes Forever," his most popular piece, is heard in four versions, the latest led by Sousa himself in 1929. Patriotism never sounded better.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was the first important innovative American composer, and remains an icon of uncompromising modernism. He was too much of a loner maverick to be immediately influential -- he wasn't even a professional composer, really; he supported himself (quite successfully) in the insurance industry, and sometimes printed up his music at his own expense and gave it away to performers. But his imaginative use of polytonality and even atonality, and his clever and emotionally effective use of musical quotations eventually caught the attention of subsequent generations of composers. His three-movement, highly contrapuntal Symphony No. 3 "The Camp Meeting" is a good example of his use of quotations, full of hymn melodies illustrating an outdoor religious revival meeting. Leonard Bernstein, a fervent advocate of American music who'll reappear several times in this article, conducts the New York Philharmonic in an especially persuasive performance of this piece, along with Symphony No. 2.
Ives was also a good pianist and wrote frequently and imaginatively for that instrument, whether solo or accompanying a singer in one of his marvelously depictive songs. The New Englander's eccentric Piano Sonata No. 2, "Concord, Mass., 1840-60" (which includes parts for viola and flute!) is a must-hear, and a Warner Classics CD from a couple of years ago features a sterling performance by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who also accompanies mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in a selection of 16 songs, most notably the brilliant "The Housatonic at Stockbridge.
The ground-breaking techniques of Henry Cowell (1897-1965) in his early music, especially his piano works, were more influential than Ives's more private efforts. Largely self-educated, Cowell innovated tone clusters and playing inside the piano on the strings, indeterminacy, and alternative graphic notation, among other things. An album of Cowell playing 19 piano pieces on Smithsonian Folkways is revelatory, the place to start and perhaps all most people will need.
George Gershwin (1898-1937) straddled the worlds of pop, Broadway theater, jazz (though mostly by association), and classical. Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and the Piano Concerto in F major were written for the concert hall; look for an RCA disc with Arthur Fiedler leading the Boston Pops in all three, with Earl Wild the piano soloist. Porgy and Bess is specifically an opera, not a "show" -- but an opera in a new idiom, pointing the way towards future fusions. It's easily as important to American music as the development of verismo was to Italian opera, and similar in its use of members of the unprivileged classes as the main characters, sympathetically showing how the other half lives. On EMI, Simon Rattle leads a refined rendition featuring Willard White, Cynthia Haymon, and Harolyn Blackwell in the main roles, with the Glyndebourne Chorus and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Though Aaron Copland (1900-1990) studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris (a popular move in the 1920s) and was avant-garde in his early works, in the 1930s he adopted a folksy idiom that was immediately popular. It's especially clear in his ballet scores. The lovely Appalachian Spring was composed for Martha Graham in 1944; its orchestration was expanded (the original was for only 13 instruments) while its length was abbreviated by roughly 10 minutes a year later for the concert version that won a Pulitzer. It quotes the Quaker hymn "Simple Gifts," but it's Copland's distinctive harmonies that give it a frontier spaciousness. Copland recorded it himself, but Leonard Bernstein is a livelier advocate in a classic Columbia recording with the New York Philharmonic that's now combined with three other works in Copland's populist style. Rodeo (selections from the complete ballet) and Billy the Kid (orchestral suite) vividly depict the Wild West, though Copland, a homosexual Jewish New Yorker, was no cowboy. Fanfare for the Common Man (later used in the finale of his great Third Symphony) perhaps reveals something of the motivation for his populist style. That Third Symphony also needs to be heard, and once again, the best version's a Bernstein/NY Phil. Columbia recording.
Harry Partch (1901-1974) was largely self-taught and spent part of his career traveling the country as a hobo, collecting texts from graffiti and folk sources. He constructed a unique musical style with a microtonal, just-intonation scale of 43 tones in an octave (the normal octave contains 12 tones) and invented and built instruments that could play this music. Many of Partch's instruments were either percussive or plucked string instruments. The combination of plinks and plunks, the disconcerting effect of the unusual tunings (not always the 43-tone scale), and Partch's fascination with archaic cultures, especially ancient Greece, make the purely musical aspects of his work strikingly individual. Additionally, he reveled in the rhythms of everyday language, no matter how mundane the actual meaning of the words.
Volume 2 of New World Records' reissue series has Partch's later revisions of the four works he wrote, mostly in 1943, which established his reputation at a 1944 League of Composers concert at Carnegie Recital Hall. After revising them in subsequent decades, he grouped all four under the title The Wayward; the individual works are "U.S. Highball - A Musical Account of a Transcontinental Hobo Trip," "San Francisco - A Setting of the Cries of Two Newsboys on a Foggy Night in the Twenties," "The Letter" (a musical setting over which Partch reads a letter received from a hobo friend), and "Barstow - Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California." The speech rhythms are natural and unforced, with the music written to fit them, and both the composer's humor and his fascination with the transcendence of the everyday are evident in the way he raises the trivial texts to the level of musical poetry. The other work on Volume 2 is one of Partch's most famous instrumental pieces, And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, a 36-minute piece written in the mid-'60s. It was the first recording of his to not be issued first as a private recording, and its appearance in 1967 on CRI extended the Partch cult to a wider audience. It's considerably more complex rhythmically and sonically, piling musical material up in interweaving layers to achieve a dizzying interplay of rhythms, textures, and colors. In fact, the sheer colorfulness of the sounds of the Partch instruments makes the music immediately attractive.
Elliott Carter (1908-2012) was the grand old man of the American avant-garde, still actively composing at age 103. He worked with atonality, writing the sort of dissonant, mercurial music that routinely garners the label "difficult," yet it's so colorful, so full of surprises, that more people should give it a chance. Certainly it lacks tunes and the sort of regularity that comforts listeners with familiarity, but it is systematic (if complex and not easy to apprehend on that basis) and deals in patterns. It may seem abstract, yet the three-movement Symphonia (at 45 minutes, the longest piece Carter wrote) is inspired by a 17th century poem likening a bubble's existence to a human life. It's a kaleidoscopic joy. Oliver Knussen leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra in this work on a Deutsche Grammophon disc that also includes his Clarinet Concerto, with Michael Collins the soloist along with the London Sinfonietta. Carter's five String Quartets are crucial modernist works, uncompromising in their complexity but abundantly rewarding to careful listening. The Pacifica Quartet has made a habit of playing all five in a single night, and has recorded the cycle for Naxos: Volume 1 has Nos. 1 and 5; Volume 2 has Nos. 2-4.
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) produced some fairly jagged, modernistic works, but he is primarily thought of as a Romantic. His mellifluously mournful Adagio for Strings, which has been cited as the most-performed work by a "serious" American composer, reached a huge audience when it was played on radio for the announcement of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death. Similarly brooding melodiousness is also prominent in his cinematic Second Essay for Orchestra, while spicy dissonance and pointed rhythms characterize Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance and the Overture to The School for Scandal. All four were programmed on a much-loved 1965 Columbia LP with the New York Philharmonic conducted by one of Barber's finest advocates, the ill-fated Thomas Schippers. For the CD, a couple of other Barber works (and tidbits by Menotti, Berg, and d'Indy), also led by Schippers, are added: the Intermezzo from Barber's opera Vanessa and "Andromache's Farewell," a concert aria with text from Euripedes' The Trojan Women, sung magnificently by soprano Martina Arroyo.
William Schuman (1910-1992) was a major figure in U.S. music even on an administrative level: Director of Publications for G. Schirmer (1945-52), President of the Juilliard School (1945-62), and President of Lincoln Center (1963-69), just to hit the highlights. But he deserves to be remembered for his compositions as well; as a symphonist, he ranks especially high in a land where many have been a bit suspicious of the form as too European. Start with a Columbia disc containing three of his finest efforts -- his most popular, the Symphony No. 3; Symphony for Strings; and Symphony No. 8 -- all technically demanding yet accessible, all powerfully performed by the New York Philharmonic led by Leonard Bernstein.
There has arguably never been a more innovative nor more controversial composer than John Cage (1912-1992). On three CDs, The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage (Wergo) is a convenient introduction via a 1958 concert at Town Hall in New York City, offering a fine cross-section of Cage's work up to that point. "Williams Mix" drew boos for its drastic redefinition of music; the then-shocking extended techniques and microtonality of Concert for Piano and Orchestra provoked catcalls. Illustrating Cage's percussion phase is First Construction in Metal (1939) for orchestral bells, "thundersheets," prepared piano, 12-gong gamelan, cowbells, Japanese temple gongs, brake drums, anvils, cymbals, muted gongs, water gong, suspended gong, and tam-tam. Also included: Six Short Inventions for Seven Instruments (1934), Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1942, for two variable-speed turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano and cymbal), "The Wonderful Widow of 18 Springs," She Is Asleep (1943), Maro Ajemian performing the first half of the "prepared piano" magnum opus Sonatas and Interludes, and Music for Carillon No. 1 (1952). The booklet has a score page and discussion of each piece, the texts of Cage's essay "The Future of Music: Credo" from 1937 and his speech "Experimental Music" from 1957 along with his own notes on each piece presented, and producer George Avakian's reminiscences.
Cage changed his style considerably over the next three decades. For some representative pieces in his later, more sparely instrumented style, track down a Hat Art disc by the Ives Ensemble containing performances of Ten, Fourteen (both "number pieces"), and Ryoanji (inspired by the famous Japanese rock garden); failing that, Orchestral Works vol. 1 in Mode's huge, ongoing Cage Edition also contains Ryoanji, along with the massive 101 and the oddity Apartment House 1776 (a Bicentennial commission deconstructing Revolutionary-era music).
The talents of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) could not be confined to a single field: composer, conductor, writer, popularizer. His composing was often overshadowed by the rest of his image, and his classical composing unfairly overlooked in favor of his Broadway successes (West Side Story being the most famous). He was inherently drawn to depiction rather than abstraction, and a Columbia album on which he leads the New York Philharmonic, which he so famously helmed, shows this clearly. The Symphony No. 1 "Jeremiah" retells the story of the Biblical Jewish prophet (including excerpts from his Lamentations in the third, final movement, sung here by mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel). Symphony No. 2 "The Age of Anxiety" (for, unusually, solo pianist -- here Philippe Entremont -- and orchestra) is inspired by W.H. Auden's long poem and conveys well the uneasy mood of the post-WWII world. Finally, two early, humorous song cycles, I Hate Music! and La Bonne Cuisine, again featuring Tourel, show Lenny's light side.
Fermented in the highly charged atmosphere of mid-century New York City, where possibilities seemed endless (and often were), the colorful proto-Minimalism of Morton Feldman (1926-87) went through many stages. The 1971 piece Rothko Chapel comes from the end of his middle period, full of swathes of colors glinting out from shadows (much like Rothko's paintings). It's for chorus, solo soprano, viola, cello, and percussion and lasts 24 minutes, both of which strongly contrast with his next, final period, where the instrumentation and color were drastically reduced even as the time span was massively spread out -- an hour-long piece will be one of the shorter later works, which tend towards the three- and four-hour marks. On a New Albion CD, Rothko Chapel is paired with 1979's Why Patterns (for piano, flute, and glockenspiel), a transitional work where the textures have been thinned and motion nears stasis but the time span is still relatively normal (29-and-a-half minutes). For a full dose of late Feldman, there's 1984's For Phillip Guston, four hours and eight minutes of slightly varied patterns for flute, celesta, piano, and percussion that's actually quite fascinating.
George Crumb (1929- ) has written three pieces that rank among the most distinctive of the 20th century. He achieved his breakthrough to public recognition in 1968 when his Echoes of Time and the River received the Pulitzer Prize in music. Bridge Records has been working on a complete Crumb Edition for awhile now, and Vol. 6 has a superb recording of this and other evocative works. Crumb's trademark is his willingness to explore a wide range of timbres not normally found in classical music, but his works, for all that some of the techniques used seem allied to avant-garde ideas usually considered alienating to audiences, have a deeply communicative spirit. One of several song cycles by Crumb setting poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, Ancient Voices of Children was premiered October 31, 1970 in Washington, D.C. and immediately captured widespread attention. There are two vocalists, a boy soprano and a female adult mezzo-soprano; the latter (sung movingly on a classic Nonesuch recording by Jan De Gaetani) has strong avant-garde sonorities and techniques, including singing into the piano strings. The instrumental second movement exhibits a pronounced Oriental tinge. The unusual accompanying forces also include oboe, harmonica, mandolin, harp, electric piano, toy piano, musical saw, humming, and a variety of percussion instruments. The overall effect is quite magical and riveting. On the Nonesuch disc, it's paired with Music for a Summer Evening "Makrokosmos III" for two pianists and two percussionists, a continuation of a must-have series (its title borrowed from Bartok) that expanded the resources of the piano. Most crucial are the solo sets Makrokosmos I & II; a Mode disc featuring pianist Margaret Leng Tan is recommended.
Tod Dockstader (1932-2015) was one of the last and best electronic music pioneers before the synthesizer rendered tape manipulation out-of-date. Unlike most of his colleagues in electronic music, he was not supported by grants, but instead snuck his work in at odd moments while working as a recording engineer at a New York studio. His stunningly atmospheric and unacademic successes from 1960 to '62 (originally released on Owl Records) and a previously unreleased 1965 suite were collected on the 1993 CD Apocalypse, one of two Dockstader compilations Starkland put out. His attention to form and a physical delight in pure sound keep his painstakingly constructed pieces from sounding obsolete. At times somewhat anticipating the sounds of New Age but avoiding their lulling excesses, his music transports listeners to a unique sonic universe outside the norm: not the abstracts concocted in university sound labs, but nearly cinematic pieces that have a dramatic (but not melodramatic) flow. After he left Gotham Studio to work on other projects, he was unable for many years to continue his career in electronic music; due to his lack of academic credentials, he was denied access to the university centers. Fortunately, in his later years the greater accessibility of electronic gear in our culture in general had alleviated this situation and he became active again.
Morton Subotnick (1933- ) was one of the first computer-music composers to find a broad audience. His playful work for tape Silver Apples of the Moon came out in 1967 (originally on the Nonesuch label, now on Germany's Wergo), when people's minds were expanding, and helped them expand a little further. The first electronic composition commissioned specifically for the phonograph medium, it influenced everybody from the Silver Apples (obviously) to Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock (there's one section in Part B that sounds like a groove on one of Hancock's Mwandishi albums from the early '70s) to lots of techno types. The CD nowadays also includes another Nonesuch-commissioned work for tape, The Wild Bull (inspired by a Sumerian poem of mourning from circa 1700 B.C.) from 1968. At a time when electronic music was highly abstract, Subotnick broke with the avant-garde crowd by including sections with regular rhythms. Not only did this perhaps have something to do with both of these works being choreographed by dance companies around the world, it pointed quite presciently to the future of electronic music. Nor do these pieces sound at all dated; though influential, their musical gestures and materials have not become cliches in the way 1950s tape music sometimes quickly did. They still sound fresh and innovative.
Besides electronics, Minimalism was the other trend transforming classical music in the 1960s. The "big four" of Minimalism are Terry Riley, Steve Reich, La Monte Young (not included here because he controls his music rigidly and sells the few items he issues at exorbitant prices), and Philip Glass, all born in the space of three years.
Terry Riley (1935- ) brought Minimalism to the mainstream with his 1964 work In C the stylistic landmark. A seminal Minimalist composition that gets its title from the key it so determinedly and diatonically explores throughout its duration (a bit over 45 minutes here), it consists of 53 patterns written in open score -- it can be played by a single pianist or an entire orchestra. Sony returned Riley's original recording to print a few years ago. His 1968 album A Rainbow in Curved Air crossed over to the more adventurous section of the rock audience, its hypnotic aspects appealing to listeners in the habit of mind expansion.
Steve Reich (1936- ) started out with extreme "process" music in which the compositional aspect consisted in setting up a situation and then letting it play out, most infamously in his"Pendulum Music," where four microphones are set swinging past amplifiers, creating mild feedback on each pass; gradually the arcs shorten and the feedback lengthens. An Ensemble Avantgarde disc on Wergo focused on pieces from the period 1966-70 has three performances of "Pendulum Music" (showing how it can vary), along with "phase shift" pieces: Phase Patterns, Piano Phase, and Four Organs. He'd used tape loops earlier; here he uses live musicians and the same structures. In Piano Phase, the earliest of the three, two pianists play the same pattern, but gradually go out of sync. After this period Reich was influenced by Indian and African music, not only its rhythms but also its additive, cyclical structures., as heard on 1976's Music for 18 Musicians (Reich leads a fine version on ECM), with the majority of the musicians playing pitched percussion. Reich later applied the same ideas on a larger scale, most successfully on Desert Music, for chorus and orchestra using texts by William Carlos Williams (make sure to get the full-scale version on Nonesuch, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas).
Philip Glass (1937- ) had similar influences to his friend Reich's, as can be heard in his collection of solo piano music on CBS. But Glass also added aspects of popular music and worked on a larger scale much sooner. Notably, he frequently teams with colorful theatrical producer Robert Wilson; their collaboration on the monumental (2 hours 46 minutes) post-modern opera Einstein on the Beach and the resulting bulky album on CBS Masterworks raised Glass's profile considerably, though it may be more of a slog than the unconverted should dare for their first Glassian exposure. More accessible is his soundtrack to the environmental film Koyaanisqatsi (Nonesuch); he's done quite a lot of soundtrack work. But he's also composed ten symphonies (a surprise from a Minimalist), including two based on themes from Brian Eno-produced David Bowie albums (Low and Heroes), available together on a Philips album.
While Frederic Rzewski (1938- ) can be a fairly radical composer, in his 36 variations on "El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido!" (The People United Will Never Be Defeated!), based on a Chilean song by Sergio Ortega that became an anthem for the Chilean Resistance, Rzewski uses bits of the melodic and harmonic content of the song that resurface amid dazzling fragmentations that glint with kaleidoscopic brilliantness. On a Hyperion CD, Marc-Andre Hamelin exposes their broad range of moods and colors while imbuing the music with wit beyond mere political fervor. The Four North American Ballads selections offer additional vernacular derivations.
Ingram Marshall (1942- ), who became known on the West Coast in the 1970s and '80s and is now based in Connecticut (teaching at Yale), works in a distinctive and highly personal style of Minimalism influenced by his experiences with Indonesian music. Few have more seamlessly integrated sampling and electronics with modern composition. His best known piece, Fog Tropes (New Albion), utilizes samples of foghorns. Two especially emotional masterworks are paired on a 1990 Nonesuch CD. Hidden Voices mixes a "live" soprano, electronics, and digitally sampled voices from old recordings of Eastern European laments; Three Penitential Visions was inspired by an old German church and Alcatraz prison and conjures dark moods using a variety of samples, most notably digitally extended bells. Marshall also has an entire piece and CD dedicated to Alcatraz (New Albion).
There's so much more that could have been included here: the brashness of George Antheil, the exoticism of Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison, the muscular populism of Roy Harris, the well-crafted symphonies of Howard Hanson, the African-American perspective of William Grant Still, the knotty complexity of Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe, Charles Wuorinen, and Milton Babbitt, the early electronics of Vladimir Ussachevsky and Mario Davidovsky, the controversial George Rochberg (who abandoned serialism), additional Minimalists including John Adams and Harold Budd, younger generations including Ellen Taafe Zwilich, Tod Machover, David Lang, Evan Ziporyn, and Aaron Jay Kernis, and outsider rebels such as Moondog and Charlemagne Palestine. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.