An Introductory and Annotated Listening List From America’s Musical Heritage
I wanted to provide a list of pieces to help introduce my friends to the American classical music repertory. I’m very concerned that most people out there don’t know much about America’s classical music and its history. I can’t imagine that any school children in Russia don’t know the names Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, or Prokofiev. I heard an interview with Simon Rattle on the Charlie Rose show a few years ago. He made a statement that really spoke to me. To paraphrase it, he said “European countries define themselves by their classical music.” There are deep cultural reasons that this is so, but I think that our musical culture should be just as important to us. America has exported Jazz and Rock to all corners of the world, but there are aspects of musical expression that these two forms have a difficult time expressing. They tend toward a highly personal expression, often in simple terms. Jazz, and Rock to a smaller degree, have absorbed influences from classical music, and classical music around the world has certainly absorbed the influences of these forms. This is a process of cultural overlap, and exchange, which is too large a subject for me to discuss here. The lack of cultural education in our schools is appalling. The kids who are fortunate enough to participate in school music programs learn about some of the composers that I list below, especially in secondary school. I think that ALL children of school age should learn about these cultural figures just like they learn about Hawthorne, Thoreau, or Whitman. Cultural literacy is just as important as literacy in math and science, and without it we can’t be complete citizens.
The Art of the States website has recordings of many composers.
For most of the recordings I would recommend iTunes or Amazon.com to at least hear some audio clips.
Shown by category chronologically:
Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major (1886) by George W. Chadwick
This piece is very much a romantic work in the Brahms/Dvorak vein, and predates Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony of 1893.
Variations on America (1891) by Charles Ives, orchestrated by William Schuman
The tune “My County Tis of Thee” appears in many guises in this tongue-in-cheek romp. The work was for organ in its original version and really challenges the skills of the performer. Schuman also made a version for band.
The Unanswered Question (1906) by Charles Ives
This philosophical work was described by Ives himself as a “cosmic landscape.” Ives was very influenced by the Transcendentalist Poets, and this piece contemplates the question of existence using wordless music.
The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (1917) by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Griffes is America’s impressionistic composer, and this work reflects the impressionists’ fascination with exotic subjects and orientalism.
An American in Paris (1928) by George Gershwin
This travel fantasy is one of the great symphonic works. Gershwin provokes so many of the sounds, sights, and emotions of visiting a great city. A movie of the same name (1951) stars Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and Oscar Levant.
Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” (1930) by Howard Hanson
Hanson was unabashedly emotional in his music during a period when procedural modernism was dominating all the academic circles. This piece is a great introduction to his music and aesthetic.
Grand Canyon Suite (1931) by Ferde Grofé
This multi-movement tone poem (tone-picture would be more appropriate), reflects on America’s awe-inspiring natural wonder. Grofé’s colorful orchestration illustrates his skills gained as a jazz arranger. This iconic piece has drama and some humor in the solo violin depiction of the braying donkey in the third movement “On the Trail.” Other movements are I. Sunrise, II. The Painted Desert, IV. Sunset, and V. Cloudburst.
Overture to “The School for Scandal” (1931) by Samuel Barber
This is an amazing work, especially considering that it was written by such a young composer. This piece went a long way in launching Barber’s career as a composer. This is a concert overture and takes it name and influence of the comic play of the same name.
Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” (1931) by William Grant Still
Still draws on the melodic style of black culture, and brings to life a disciplined, knowledgeable, and heartfelt orchestral landscape. Gershwin drew on the same sources for Porgy and Bess and its hard not to relate Still’s work to Gershwin’s for this reason. However Still’s Symphony predates Porgy and Bess by at least 4 years. There’s no question that Still knew and performed Gershwin’s famous songs from the 20’s.
Cuban Overture (1932) by George Gerswhin
This is the composer’s symphonic portrayal of Cuban jazz. It is very high energy.
Compare this to other Latin American inspired works—El Salon Mexico by Aaron Copland, and “America” from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. Gershwin’s very “showy” style is obvious here.
Adagio for Strings (1938) by Samuel Barber
This emotionally moving music has become a famous work for expressing grief. It was performed at Ground Zero just after 9/11 and at the funeral of Princess Grace, just to name two occasions. The version for string orchestra is an expansion of the slow movement from Barber’s String Quartet.
Billy the Kid (1938) by Aaron Copland
This is a ballet about the gunslinger. This work is most often performed as a concert work, rather than staged.
Symphony No 3 (1938) by Roy Harris
This symphony is in one movement and shows Harris’ very open and shifting modal sounds and direct rhetorical style. This piece established his reputation, and reflects the vastness of the western landscape and spirit of the heartland.
Suite from “Rodeo” (1942) by Aaron Copland
These pieces incorporate several important cowboy songs. The “Hoe-Down” movement is always instantly recognizable because of its use in commercials and as theme music.
A Lincoln Portrait (1942) by Aaron Copland
It’s hard to believe that this work for narrator and orchestra was banned for performance at Eisenhower’s inaugural in 1952. Copland had associations with socialists in the 1930’s and was called forth during the Red Scare to account for himself before McCarthy’s committee. Copland was never really a political person, music was always the complete focus of his life. This is such an irony for someone who represented American culture all over the world during his lifetime.
Appalcahian Spring (1944) by Aaron Copland
This work is originally for chamber orchestra, but is heard more often in the version for symphony orchestra. It’s incorporation of the Shaker Hymn Tune “The Gift to Be Simple” is another iconic symbol in American culture.
Overture to “Candide” (1957) by Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein wrote his opera based on Voltaire’s farce Candide. His overture reflects on the youthful exuberance of the composer himself. This piece ranks very high on the appeal meter! This piece has also been transcribed for band by Clare Grundman.
Musical Theater and Opera
Treemonisha (1910) by Scott Joplin
Few know that Joplin, who was the king of Ragtime, wrote two operas. This opera was not performed in Joplin’s lifetime and his score only existed in piano form. It has been orchestrated into different versions by various composers and given many performances in the U.S.. Houston Grand Opera did a very important revival and recording of the work in the 1970’s. Treemonisha is a young black woman who fights to overcome the superstition and ignorance of her plantation community.
Porgy and Bess (1934) music by George Gershwin, libretto by Dubose Heyward, lyrics by Ira Gershwin
This opera was an affront to the cultural elite with its all African-American cast. The songs “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” have become song staples and the score is buoyant and full of energy. The opera had an important tour in the 1950’s. Houston Grand Opera did an important revival of it in 1976.
Regina (premiered 1949) by Marc Blitzstein
Based on the Lillian Hellman play The Little Foxes. Blitzstein was very outspoken with his leftist politics, like so many artists who went through the Great Depression. There is no denying his skill as a composer and this work has some brilliant and beautiful musical numbers. This work walks the line between Musicals and Opera.
The King and I (1951) music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
This musical should always be performed with the original full orchestration.
Contains the songs, “I Whistle a Happy Tune” “Getting to Know You” and “The March of the Siamese Children.” It also contains an incredible show within the show, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet.
West Side Story (1957) music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, script by Arthur Laurens
also Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”
A modern urban take on the Romeo and Juliet story of young love. Bernstein contributed a lot of songs to the repertory in this musical—“Maria”, “Somewhere”, and “Tonight” are just a few. The score is heavily jazz based, with a lot of Latin rhythm contained as well.
The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896) by John Philip Sousa
This iconic march was designated by Congress as the national march of the United States. It has represented America well around the world, and no 4th of July pops concert can happen without it. The trio section was actually given lyrics by Sousa. Others have done their own lyrics and the work has been parodied all around the world. This is a sign of just how iconic and well known it is.
George Washington Bridge (1950) by William Schuman
This is a starkly powerful work about a majestic landmark.
Psalm for Band (1952) by Vincent Persichetti
This is a very moving piece by one of our most skilled composers and makes a good introduction to his very personal style.
American Overture (1956) by Joseph Wilcox Jenkins
This is very appealing piece that features the horns in a big way. It has a lot of Americana contained in it and depicts, at least somewhat referentially, the American West, cowboys and Indians—and John Wayne is probably in there somewhere.
Variations on a Korean Folksong (1965) by John Barnes Chance
The composer was also a native of Texas. He was stationed in Korea and this work came as a result of his time there. He was himself a percussionist and his superb percussion writing is very much on display in this piece. This piece is also an example of the interest in exotic and Eastern influences for Western artists.
Sketches on a Tudor Psalm (1972) by Fisher Tull
A very different setting of Thomas Tallis’ music than the work for strings by Vaughn Williams. Tull was a Texas native and this is his most performed work for band and a staple in the band repertory. I include it here to pay tribute to my teacher and mentor.
Solo Works with Orchestra
Schelomo for cello and orchestra (1916) by Ernest Bloch
Bloch’s music gives voice to his Jewish heritage. In this moving work, the cello takes on the role of King Solomon (Schelomo) with the orchestra portraying the world at large. The piece was inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible, and reflects on the lamentations found there.
Poem for flute and orchestra (1919) by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Poem for flute and orchestra (1919) by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Griffes took a cue from Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in writing this piece for flute. The flute part is sensuous, expressive and virtuostic.
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) by George Gershwin, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé
Lush sounds, jazz age sensibilities, piano virtuosity—one of the great American contributions to the symphonic literature.
Concerto in F for piano and orchestra (1925) by George Gershwin
Like all of Gershwin’s concert music this one also has a lot of jazz influence. In the movie American in Paris, Oscar Levant humorously fancies himself as the piano soloist (as he really was), and also as playing all the instruments of the orchestra as well as being the conductor of this piece. It’s a funny tribute to egomania using a serious piece of music.
Clarinet Concerto (1949) by Aaron Copland
This piece is also dubbed the “Benny Goodman” concerto since it was commissioned by Benny Goodman and first performed by him. The last movement is colored with jazz figurations in honor of its famous dedicatee.
Sonata eroica (1895) for solo piano by Edward MacDowell
MacDowell is an extremely important composer for piano. His Woodland Sketches are still played regularly by young piano students.
Concord Sonata for solo piano (1915 premiered 1938) by Charles Ives
Each movement is titled in honor of the transcendentalists that Ives admired so much.
I. Emerson, II. Hawhorne, III. The Alcotts, IV. Thoreau.
Ives wrote a literary work, Essays Before a Sonata, which discusses and outlines his aesthetic ideas that go with this piece.
String Quartet in one movement (1921) by Amy Beach
This is a pensive work by this important composer of chamber music and art songs.
Quintet for Winds (1986) by Robert Muczynski
This is a fine piece written in a neo-classic style. The harmonies and rhythms are quite modern and adept. The composer recently passed away in May 2010. He was of Polish decent and born in Chicago.
Works by Living Composers
Tournaments (1965) by John Corigliano b.1938
This wide ranging composer has very keen skills in all areas of composition—concert music, films, chamber music and opera.
Also by John Corigliano: an opera The Ghosts of Versailles, Black November Turkey for string quartet, Gazebo Dances for both orchestra and band, and the film score to The Red Violin.
Symphony: Water Music [Symphony No. 1] (1985) by Libby Larsen b.1950
I imagine this piece as music for sailing on the Great Lakes, clear skies, wind in the hair, speed over the water. This is a very nice piece with fresh sounds and interesting orchestration!
Also by Libby Larsen: Songs of Youth and Pleasure
A Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) by John Adams b.1947
This piece is a good introduction to Adams’ whirling style.
Also by John Adams: an opera Doctor Atomic
Piano Sonata (1999) by Alex Shapiro b.1962
This piece has a powerfully self-contained and mystical sense to it, at the same time very robust and challenging.
Audio clips: http://www.alexshapiro.org/ASSonataCD1.html
Alex is a skilled and positive spokesperson, interviewee, and essayist for new music. Her musical experience is wide ranging in the commercial and serious music fields, which she bridges with ease.
Also by Alex Shapiro: Paper Cut for band, Introspect for string quartet, Bioplasm for flute quartet, Current Events for string quintet
blue cathedral (2000) by Jennifer Higdon b.1962
Higdon was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2010 for her Violin Concerto.
An American Place (2002) by Kenneth Fuchs b.1956
I was introduced to Mr. Fuchs’ music through this piece. For me it’s a tribute and updating of the grand rhetoric of the American composers of the 1930’s and 40’s; expertly composed and colorfully orchestrated.
Also by Kenneth Fuchs, String Quartet No. 4 “Bergonzi”
Te Deum (premiered 2007) by Mark Hayes b.1953
Mr. Hayes is a very active composer, pianist and performer. His prolific output of sacred music, both in arrangements and original works, has had a strong influence throughout the country. His distinct talents and uplifting message have inspired congregations and concert goers.
© 2010 Steve D. Matchett