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.
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.
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.
Disc Number One
1. Beautiful Dreamer by Stephen Collins Foster
2. Niagara, by William Henry Fry
3. La gallina (“The Hen”), by Louis Moreau Gottschalk
4. Indian from Suite No. 2, Op. 48 of Edward MacDowell
5. Melody for violin and piano, Op. 44 by Arthur Foote
6. II. Allegretto Scherzando of Symphony No. 2 in B flat, Op.21 by George Whitefield Chadwick
7. III. South (Allegretto giocoso) of Symphony No. 4 in D minor.Op. 64 by Henry Kimball Hadley
8. III. Largo of Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op. 45 by Amy Beach
9. Prelude No. 2 of “Three Preludes” by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
10. The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives
11. Hands across the Sea by John Philip Sousa
12. Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin
13. American in Paris by George Gershwin
1. Wild Men’s Dance (Danse sauvage) by Leo Ornstein
2. Movement 1. The Banshee from “Irish Suite” for string piano and small orchestra by Henry Cowell
3. III. Presto from “Symphony for Five Instruments” by George Antheil
4. Synthetic Waltzes by Virgil Thompson
5. No. 1 Rat Riddles from “Three Songs” by Ruth Crawford Seeger
6. Quiet City by Aaron Copland
7. 1. We, the people from Symphony No. 9 by Roy Harris
8. Intermezzo from “Vanessa” by Samuel Barber
9. II. Allegro vivo from Symphony No. 2 by David Diamond
10. Totem Ancestor by John Cage
11. Toccata for violin and piano player by Conlon Nancarrow
12. Act II, No. 23. Finale from “I was looking at the ceiling when I saw the sky” by John Adams
13. II. Profanation from Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah” by Leonard Bernstein
14. Introduction from “Violin Concerto” by George Rochberg
15. Movement 4 from Symphony No. 3 by Philip Glass
16. IV. Contests from “Rituals for five percussionists and orchestra” by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich