American Music, of the “Classical” Nature

It is sometimes confusing to see certain music labeled as “classical.” It’s easy to discern the music of J.S. Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms as examples of “classical” music. But what about George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Scott Joplin?

To categorize and generalize is always a risky venture. As any art form develops it adopts elements from other ‘categories’ and new elements are invented, revised and incorporated in an endless stream of creation, sometimes returning to roots, sometimes abandoning them.

I was interested to further explore this subject upon learning of a book published by Naxos Books titled: A History of American Classical Music by Barrymore Laurence Scherer.

The book is inexpensive; an additional inducement to buy it is that two CDs accompany the book, offering glimpses of several of the composers discussed. And, after purchase, one can access the Naxos website for further and more extensive samplings of composers and their music.

A logotype of The Grateful Dead

Before going further I must stipulate what everyone instinctively knows: de gustibus non est disputandum—”There’s no accounting for (or disputing) tastes.” I have listened to all manner of music over the years and have developed my own preferences. I will state my likes and dislikes, perfectly aware that you might have the opposite opinion, but I hope we will not become judgmental of each other as a result of this difference.

I enjoyed reading the book and was surprised that many, but not a majority, of the composers presented were unfamiliar to me, by name and by their music. Toward the end of the book the author presented a great many composers of more recent vintage. I felt one composer was slighted, given the size of his oeuvre and quality of his work: Alan Hovhaness. The last chapter, however, does acknowledge that he was unable to give proper due to a great many more recently born American composers in this kind and size of book.

The book discusses the issue of an authentically American sound in classical music. Many American composers of the 19th and very early 20th centuries emulated the sound and manner of the European classics which, in my view, made them overweight, ponderous, pompous and overly long. To my ear, the early American composer Stephen Foster seemed closer to the American soil than did most of his contemporaries and successors, until elements of the soulful “negro spirituals,” and blues and jazz idioms entered into writings of concert hall and chamber group composers.

Then another, a more Western American and rural sound developed, exemplified, in my view, by many of Aaron Copland’s compositions, especially his Billy The Kid ballet. Others followed suit in their own manner, such as Virgil Thompson and Ferde Grofé.

The early part of the 20th Century saw much experimentation and new ground broken, and the older European influence became less pervasive, or a two-way street where newer musical influences crossed oceans and continents in all directions, to include Asian idioms.

Entirely new sounds from such popular contemporary composers as Philip Glass and John Adams are uniquely American, as are the rich musical accompaniments of hundreds of Hollywood movies. I find that this latter source of music is neglected in the book. For instance, Dmitri Tiomkin is not even mentioned. Remember “High Noon, “Red River” and “The High and the Mighty,” for instance? There are many other “classical” composers of movie music, I feel.

There are tidbits of information throughout the book, two of which I find worthy of repeating here:

  • German organist Charles Theodore Pachelbel (1690-1750) performed at the first concert of record in New York City, 1736, and eventually settled permanently in Charleston, South Carolina. This was the son of Johann Pachelbel, famous for his Canon in D.
  • Benjamin Franklin invented the “glass harmonica” which Mozart and Donizetti, among others, used in their music. Mozart wrote, in 1791, his Adagio in C for Glass Harmonica, K. 617a. Gaetano Donizetti is most famous for his opera Lucia di Lammermoor in which there is a “mad scene”, a portion of which is an obbligato for glass harmonica.In sum, the book is very useful and informative. I recommend it without reservation, but such a relatively small book cannot be comprehensive.And now, on to the actual composers and their music on the two CDs accompanying the book. Below are notes taken during the 29 pieces and parts of pieces offered as examples of “American Classical Music”. I purposefully did not look to see who the composers were before I played the music. I have added the composer’s name after the commentary for each piece.

    Disc Number One

    Corny but evocative, having heard the music in my youth. [Beautiful Dreamer by Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864)].

    2. Heavy, drum rolls, ponderous. Stopped before the end. [Niagara, by William Henry Fry (1813-1864)].

    3. I immediately recognize Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s piano music, always welcome and delightful. This is his La gallina (“The Hen”), Op. 53.

    4. Slow beginning; not unpleasant but not moving; listened through; vaguely reminiscent of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). [Indian from Suite No. 2, Op. 48 of Edward MacDowell (1860-1908)].

    5. Nice, idyllic, romantic, gentle. [Melody for violin and piano, Op. 44 by Arthur Foote (1853-1937)].

    6. Energetic, not unpleasant, but can’t find the center or don’t appreciate it. Wanders around. Found the theme near the end, not interesting. [II. Allegretto Scherzando of Symphony No. 2 in B flat, Op.21 by George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931)].

    7. Pastorale, horns, flutes. Tedious intro, but short. Flutey, country dance. Tea party stuff. Too many musical characters, too long. [III. South (Allegretto giocoso) of Symphony No. 4 in D minor.Op. 64 by Henry Kimball Hadley (1871-1937)].

    8. Not unpleasant. Emulating Rachmaninov (1873-1943)? Perhaps I need to listen to the rest of the concerto to judge. [III. Largo of Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op. 45 by Amy Beach (1867-1944)].

    9. Interesting beginning, but fades away. [Prelude No. 2 of “Three Preludes” by Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)].

    10. Quiet beginning. Dissonance. Tone row? 12-tone? Too quiet to tell. [The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives (1874-1954)].

    11. March, OK but not great. Somewhat familiar. [Hands across the Sea by John Philip Sousa (1854-1932)].

    12. Scott Joplin, well played. [Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin (1868-1917)]

    13. American in Paris by George Gershwin (1898-1937).

    Disc Number Two

    1. Dissonant, energetic—John Cage? Playful, wild. Strange waltz! Abrupt end. [Wild Men’s Dance (Danse sauvage) by Leo Ornstein (1892-2002).

    2. Quiet, dissonant, growing slowly in volume but not too much to chew on. [Movement 1. The Banshee from “Irish Suite” for string piano and small orchestra by Henry Cowell (1897-1965]). Note: I can’t account for not having immediately recognized this as a favorite piece when exploring new music in the late 1950s.

    3. Sort of like Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). Good enough. [III. Presto from “Symphony for Five Instruments” by George Antheil (1900-1959)].

    4. Good rhythm, sort of like Gottschalk but more delicate. [Synthetic Waltzes by Virgil Thompson (1896-1989)].

    5. Dissonant, liquid sounds. Female voice, random? Don’t know the story. [No. 1 Rat Riddles from “Three Songs” by Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)]. Note: She married Pete Seeger’s father when Pete was twelve years old.

    6. Western sound, Copland? Horn solo, very pleasant. [Quiet City by Aaron Copland (1900-1979)].

    7. Booming timpani, horns, around an inchoate theme. Can’t find the center. Woodwinds get their chance for a while. Part of a larger piece? What theme? Sudden lapse into harp and softness and slowness, then strings. Wanders everywhere. Is this an exercise for the various sections of the orchestra? [1. We, the people from Symphony No. 9 by Roy Harris (1898-1979)].

    8. Portentous horn opening. Harp, etc. Woodwinds. Pleasant, flowing. Not much. [Intermezzo from “Vanessa” by Samuel Barber (1910-1981)]. Note: Barber is one of my favorite composers, but I don’t listen much to opera so I wasn’t familiar with this piece. Now that I see this music is an intermezzo, it seems adequate to the task.

    9. Programmatic? More wandering around. Orchestra sections seem to be talking with each other, but what? [II. Allegro vivo from Symphony No. 2 by David Diamond (1915-2005)].

    10. Interesting. Adams? Tight, rapid, unusual sounds. [Totem Ancestor by John Cage (1912-1992)].

    11. Violin concerto? Not movement #1, I think. Presto. Adams? Piano prominent. Duo? [Toccata for violin and piano player by Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997)].

    12. Piano adagio, voices, female, pleasant. Don’t know the story. Can’t discern the words. Seems coherent. [Act II, No. 23. Finale from “I was looking at the ceiling when I saw the sky” by John Adams (b. 1947)].

    13. Alternating quiet instruments with loud timpani. Walter Piston (1894-1976)? Sounds like an engine up and down. Elements of Bernstein. Too much bouncing around. [II. Profanation from Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah” by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)].

    14. Booming beginning, as with others, then quiet violin, slightly dissonant. Then conversation with violin and loud orchestra. Can’t find the center or theme. Inchoate drama. [ Introduction from “Violin Concerto” by George Rochberg (1918-2005)].

    15. Some kind of adventure, repeating theme. Philip Glass? I like it OK, but need the program. [Movement 4 from Symphony No. 3 by Philip Glass (b. 1937)].

    16. Percussion section play. Can’t find the center. Too much noise. [IV. Contests from “Rituals for five percussionists and orchestra” by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939)].

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate Californian living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles and creative writing.
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