The American Symphony in Review

(cover image by Ian Dooley)

The series is available, in reverse chronological order, here.

This has been one of the most exciting series we’ve done. There has been such a wide spectrum of styles and approaches, but really just excellent music all around. As discussed previously, there were four rough sections, as below:

  • European influence
  • Application of American themes (hymns, folk tunes)
  • The establishment of an American sound (or more than one)
  • Experimentation (or avant-garde or whatever you’d like to call it)

And interestingly, some of those are interrelated. For example, Charles Ives famously made use of so much Americana in his music, but one of his students, Elliott Carter, after an early period, became one of America’s most famous modern composers.

I titled the introduction article to this series ‘America’s Next Top Mahler,’ not because I was actually looking for a candidate that I’d crown as such, but because, like with the English symphony earlier in the year, the average concertgoer or classical music listener may not have thought of America or England as a source of very much, very fine classical music across a wide span of styles, eras and ideas, and I must say, each time I plan one of these series, this one something like a year ago or more, I learn so much about composers I’d have never come across otherwise. The series is always inspired by a few pieces I really want to feature (Simpson and Bax for the English works; Pettersson and Atterberg for the Swedish; and Beach, Schuman, and Sessions for American), but the preparation for this is so enjoyable.

There are many highlights, but first, let’s get through some apologies and honorable mentions. As always, they are in two large categories. First, there’s the composers I’d already decided to feature, or even decided on a piece to feature, but eventually, for whatever reason, didn’t make the cut. Second is the group whose names I came across, read a bit about, but never really got around to considering seriously for no other reason than because my list was already so long. For the first group, as follows:

  • Alan Hovhaness- Sorry! He was actually probably one of the earliest people on my list to include, because he seems quite obscure and because of his enormous output of symphonies. I was determined to include him, but was ultimately a little overwhelmed by choosing a work and, in all honesty, never even listened to anything of his in preparation for this series. He studied, like Florence Price, under Frederick Converse, but he just didn’t make the cut this time.
  • William Bergsma- I’d actually decided on which symphony of his I’d feature, had it in my schedule, in my list, numbered and everything. Call me picky, but the quality of the recording (a broadcast or something) was so poor I really couldn’t get a feel for appreciating the piece, so it was quite last minute that I swapped it out, and that’s how Mrs. Zwilich made it into the roster, and what an amazing work that is!
  • George Perle
  • Bernard Herrmann- I swear his first symphony was on my roster somehow and I think I just forgot about it…
  • Lou Harrison

Those are the big ones in the first list. They were all close seconds. There are people like Jennifer Higdon, John Adams, John Corigliano, Leonard Bernstein (!), and some others who are quite popular, arguably the most popular, as American composers theses days, but they don’t need any more attention, and in focusing on symphonies and chamber works, I didn’t really find a place for them anyway. Bernstein showed up as a conductor here and there.

Next is the long list of people who didn’t really get a chance. I really wanted to get to know more about Wallingford Riegger, Elie Siegmeister, and Peter Mennin, but just didn’t get around to them. There’s also:

  • Don Gillis
  • John Harbison
  • Henry Kimball Hadley
  • Morton Gould
  • Ned Rorem
  • Ulysses S. Kay
  • Robert Ward

A very few of the works in this series were decidedly not favorites, but still merited inclusion. Hanson’s second symphony is a famous one that I almost feel bad about being very lukewarm to. Horatio Parker’s trio, while very pretty, isn’t my cup of joe. And I maybe could have chosen a more exciting Converse work, but those aside, there are some real gems here. The most surprising two may have been George Walker and Zwilich, which were kind of wildcard pieces, but were two of the most intense pieces of the series.

There’s Arthur Foote’s piano quintet, a really outstanding work from the Boston Bunch. which also includes Amy Beach, whose outstanding, marvelous Gaelic symphony is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the series. If there’s any Father of the American Symphony, I think it would be Ives, and his third is brilliant.

A few of my favorites, though, are works that tend maybe just a little bit outside that mainstream. It’s not Ives or Copland or Barber, that most readily identifiable, iconic American sound, but a lean, muscular, youthful, intensity from the likes of Roger Sessions, David Diamond and William Schuman. Roy Harris’s third symphony is a milestone, to be sure, and it’s those few works that I really find to be the most rewarding, spectacularly composed pieces in this series. I have big plans for some of them next year.

We couldn’t get through an American series without sneaking in Glass and Babbitt, though, and Babbitt’s fourth quartet almost got included on a weekend post, but while he didn’t actually write a symphony, I’d been waiting to get around to that piece of his for ages, and now is as good a time as any. And wow! George Walker’s sinfonia is certainly one of the highlights from a really epic career. That and the Zwilich work are such good examples of how accidental or last-minute musical discoveries can be so rewarding if you’re willing to do a little exploration.

I could spend more time rewriting and revisiting the works we just spent eight weeks discussing, but if it interests you, I cannot emphasize enough how wonderful a resource is Neil Butterworth’s The American Symphony. You’ll remember how much I quoted it. Anyway, I’m not saying any of these folks are America’s Mahler, but as for remarkable symphonists, Sessions, Diamond, and Schuman are my standouts, and maybe Piston. So much good music.

We’ve discussed lots of symphonies in the last few months, and next week is a bit of a breather, because we’re starting up another series right after this one, so please stay tuned and thanks so much for reading.

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