America’s Next Top Mahler


The American Symphony: a Series

I’ve been wanting to use that line for so long, and I am positive someone’s used it somewhere but I haven’t even bothered looking because I’m so proud I thought of it.

In any case, it’s that time again.

(cover image by Jacob Creswick)

So far this year, we’ve only done the English symphony, which was an exciting, fulfilling, jam-packed and difficult series to prepare because of the volume of music that little corner of the world was responsible for, and good stuff, too.

But I started in earnest preparing for this symphony series close to a year ago, and had been thinking about it for far longer than that. A few big names (and maybe not the ones you’d initially think) were running through my head, and almost did a few times, but here we finally are. Even still, there are LOTS of people I won’t be including, at least a few of whom I really wanted to include. Just not this time.

I prepared for this series far more seriously than I have for any other. At least three books served as important references (and incredibly enjoyable reads) for this series, but I’ll get around to two of them in later articles. The first is unquestionably required reading for anyone interested in the topic at hand.

I am not patriotic in any sense of the word. Traveling and living abroad breaks down the misconception that the country of one’s birth is somehow “better” than all others; it’s just the most familiar, and the same holds true for classical music. That’s where I grew up; it’s the culture I know the most intimately. Granted, I hadn’t written a blog of over 1 million words about classical music at the time, nor did I go to many concerts, but in starting my research for this series, I was still curious about how the American  culture, or tradition, of classical music, or composition in a broader sense, got started, and how, and by whom. This is obviously more specific to the topic of symphonies.

Neil Butterworth’s The American Symphony is a phenomenal book. I was only a few pages into it (preface and introduction) before I’d had pages of notes (library copy so I couldn’t write in it). He goes back centuries, to the earliest arrivals of European settlers and their staunch stand on music, basically that hymns and religious songs were wholesome, but anything instrumental was from the devil, and it was from this religious background that music in America had to get its foothold.

Butterworth, himself an Englishman, discusses specific instances of the formation of musical societies, small orchestras, visits from European conductors. He gives some accounts of the introduction of the music of Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, etc. to the ‘New World’ and how that history developed, largely in New York, Boston, and the largest American city at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia. It seems, though, that for a time, Boston, the smallest of those three, was where music flourished, but Butterworth mentions, among others, the enormously influential Theodore Thomas, who spent some time in New York, and eventually established what is now the Chicago Symphony. A quote is included in the book (p. 8), from Anton Rubinstein, after his tour of America and his interaction with Thomas:

I had no idea that such a new country had an orchestra like Theodore Thomas’. Never in my life, although I had given concerts in St. Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and London, had I found an orchestra that was as perfect as the organization Theodore Thomas had created and built up.

After all this, the first inkling of compositional efforts was not anything that showed up in my research for the earliest American composer of a symphony. In fact, as Butterworth points out, and as I should have known, that door was first pushed open by immigrants, transplants from Europe, who were the first to write symphonies on American soil. They themselves were not Americans, but became so, in a sense.

Musical tradition of the United States is not only relatively brief in time but ineluctably heterogeneous. In terms of orchestral music, an identifiable ‘American’ style is less than a century old.

Butterworth p. 1

There are a few different milestones, or chapters, in the development of the American symphony that we’ll discuss, with composers who made monumental firsts in America, and I’ll do my best to talk about those.

Those stages or chapters can be divided basically into four parts:

  • Establishment of music in America, mostly by composers who were American-born and European-trained
  • Exploration of American culture, for example in use of folk influences (jazz, hymn, tunes from different sources)
  • Establishment of a true ‘American’ sound, as Butterworth mentions in the quote above, something that we listen to and say, “That’s American.” Think Copland, for better or worse.
  • Experimentation- the avant-garde, distinctly unlike Darmstadt in Europe, but still focused on accepting or even creating new forms and vocabularies in music

As mentioned in the second point above, these four stages, which aren’t directly delineated in the series, will borrow from the vast palette of American heritage, everything from Scottish or Irish folk tunes that those from Boston would call ‘theirs’ to the backgrounds of African American composers and the music they wrote. We’ll be discussing a number of firsts in this series, so you’ll want to remember these names if you have any interest in history or trivia.

The other thing I want to dispel, if I may briefly pull out my soapbox, is the notion that Copland and/or Barber are the greatest (or even more tragically only) composers America has produced (but real classical music aficionados already know that not to be true. Don’t you? Don’t you?!) It just so happened, as discussed here, that he and his ‘sound’ became the iconic example of an American sound, but he certainly wasn’t first. We’ll get there.

It’s going to be a big series. We’ll be doing three midweek works each week for about six weeks, through into November. Even then, we’ll still have a list of honorable mentions and apologies to dole out for those we couldn’t get to. I’m sure there’d be some fantastic stuff to find if I had even more time, energy, and resources to really go digging, but even as it stands now, I’m sure there’s going to be quite a bit of new music for most of my readers, and I feel good enough about that.

As we shall see, we owe a great deal to people like Gerard Schwartz, Leon Botstein, the Detroit Symphony (most often conducted by Neeme Järvi, who’s done a surprising number of recordings of American composers), Marin Alsop, the Naxos record label, and others for promoting and programming American composers. There are a few big-name American composers that ‘sell well’, generating album sales or filling concert hall seats, but for the overwhelming majority, they’re just not presented very often, so we should be thankful for having people like the above to work on promoting some of these unjustly lesser-known composers. I’m not saying they’re the greatest ever, but certainly worth knowing about.

While not all of the works in this series are undeniable, timeless masterpieces, some are! There are works in our lineup for this series that I feel to be some of the most exciting, well-crafted works I’ve heard, works I feel very strongly about. Others, though, are just glimpses, cameos, mentions of composers whose output I can only represent by including a single work in this series, and maybe not their best. In any case, I’ve picked a place to start with them, one that I hope is compelling enough to generate interest in not only the one work, but their others as well. That is what this series, as well as really everything on this website, intends to do.

I considered how overwhelming it might be to write three dozen articles about works from American composers in the span of only six weeks and how likely it is that very few readers, if any, will keep up with the posts, but the beautiful thing about it is that they’re not going anywhere. After this round of American composers, I’m not sure how long it’ll be before we get around to them again. We did the Swedish Symphony Series over a year ago and haven’t touched a Swedish composer since then. So this will be a busy series, but it’s all here in a nice little package to come explore whenever you want. Evergreen content. Enjoy!

I’m seriously so excited about this!


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