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:

About Ron Pavellas

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