top of page
  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

American Composers Part One

We live in a time when American culture is the dominant force in the western world; there’s even a McDonald’s in Venice. But it struck me as odd that, at a time when American accents are commonplace on our televisions, we music lovers know relatively little about American art music. Or “classical” music. Or whatever we call music that isn’t part of pop[ular] culture. I’m no lover of the fact that the tentacles of Americana reach more and more into our consciousness, but I do regret the fact that there is a lot of great music by American composers which never sees the light of day, especially outside the United States.

This post is the first in a series of three which aims to give you a whistle stop tour of American composers, dating right back to the early 19th century. My hope is that you’ll hear some music or be intrigued by some names that will make you want to follow up some of what I can only mention briefly. Certainly I’ve made some fascinating discoveries for myself in researching this absolutely enormous area of musical endeavour.

I’ve managed to track down nearly 30 American composers - many of whom I only knew by name, some of whom I had never encountered at all - and of course these names are only the tip of the iceberg. They do however constitute a sort of pantheon or line of continuity, but apologies in advance if your favourite American composer has been omitted. I’ll work through these composers in order of birth over three separate posts.

We start with Anthony Philip Heinrich, who was born in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in 1781 but who settled in the United States in the early years of the 19th century. He is regarded as America’s first “professional” composer even though he was largely self-taught in music and decided on a musical career only after the failure of several other business ventures. Heinrich settled in New York in 1837 and was dubbed “the Beethoven of America” by critics. He was chairman of the organisation which founded the New York Philharmonic in 1842 and he became famous in the United States and Europe. He toured Europe several times and was acquainted with Mendelssohn, among others.

Anthony Philip Heinrich

Heinrich was very interested in writing descriptive music on peculiarly American subjects. He composed a large number of songs and piano works, some choral music, chamber works and orchestral music. Some of his music was concerned with Native American subject matter, and others with American natural phenomena (such as in The War of the Elements and the Thundering of Niagara). He also drew inspiration from the commonplace; one of his piano works has the delightful title of Barbecue Divertimento.

Most amazing of all is Heinrich’s originality of texture, melodic invention and harmony, such as in his symphony, The Ornithological Combat of Kings, which he regarded as his greatest work. It originally involved choral forces but this version (completed in 1837) is lost; Heinrich’s reworking of the piece for orchestra alone is the version which survives. The work describes the flight and life-cycle of the Andean condor. [listen]

Heinrich died in New York in 1861, forgotten and in poverty. The next composer we encounter is much better known, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was born in New Orleans in 1829. Gottschalk was immensely famous as a piano virtuoso, making international tours throughout Europe, North and South America. In fact he died in Brazil in 1869 while on one such tour.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (c. 1860)

Gottschalk wrote operas, works for orchestra and band, and a number of songs. His principal compositional output though was, unsurprisingly, for the piano. He produced a huge amount of piano music, much of which is unashamedly “popular” in style, and some of which is now seen as a direct precursor of ragtime. His “American caprice” called Columbia dates from 1859. It’s a delightful reworking of Stephen Foster’s song My Old Kentucky Home, but to me there’s the unmistakable shadow of Schubert hanging over this music. [listen]

The father figure of what might be termed “modern” American music was Edward MacDowell, who was born in New York in 1860. In his late teens and for most of his 20s he lived in Europe, undertaking studies in piano and composition in Paris (where he was a contemporary of Debussy), Stuttgart, Wiesbaden and Frankfurt, He taught in Darmsradt but returned to America in 1888. MacDowell became America’s best-known composer at home and abroad, and was equally acclaimed for his skills as a pianist. He was also an important academic and teacher, becoming the first professor of music at Columbia University. He died in New York in 1908

Edward MacDowell

Perhaps MacDowell’s best-known orchestral work is the “Indian” Suite, dating from 1892. This finds its inspiration in describing the world of the Native Americans and using fragments of Native American music as the starting point for some of the melodic development. This work, completed in 1892, predates Antonín Dvořák’s encouragement of American composers to use American sources to create a truly national music, and it gives a good indication of MacDowell’s style. [listen]

Like Gottschalk, the majority of MacDowell’s output as a composer was for his own instrument, the piano. His works are generally arranged as sets of miniatures, often inspired by mythology, legends or fairy tales, or by poetry. Celtic legends were a special favourite, but the Twelve Virtuoso Studies which were completed in 1894 give a good indication of MacDowell’s own skills as a pianist. [listen]

Born in 1863, three years after MacDowell, Horatio Parker was born in Auburndale, MA. His background was the church, and his instruments were piano and organ. He studied organ and composition in Munich with Josef Rheinberger in the mid-1880s before returning to America. While this background led, as would be expected, to the production of a large amount of sacred choral music and music for the organ, Parker also wrote for the theatre, with incidental music and operas in his catalogue as well. His challenging organ sonata of 1908 is in the rather awkward key of E flat minor, but like Gottschalk’s and MacDowell’s piano music, I imagine Parker’s organ music gives a good indication of his style and technique. [listen]

Horatio Parker (1916)

The next composer in our survey is someone I confess I had only ever read about but whose music was totally unknown to me before doing this research, namely Amy Beach, who was born Amy Marcy Cheney in Henniker, NH in 1867. Prodigiously talented, even as an infant, she rapidly developed into a piano virtuoso of the first rank, making several acclaimed concerto appearances before her marriage to Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a lecturer in anatomy at Harvard, in 1885. Her husband required her to give up performing almost entirely, and her acquiescence to his wishes led her to take up composition. She had minimal formal training and was largely self-taught, but she rapidly produced an astonishing amount of high quality music. One of her early works is a Mass in E flat for choir, soloists and orchestra, a magnificent work lasting almost an hour and a half. [listen]

Amy Beach

Dr Beach died in 1910, and the following year Amy restarted her performing career, sailing for Europe in September 1911. The reminder of her long life (she lived until 1944) saw her continue both her careers as pianist and composer simultaneously. She wrote about 300 works and I have to say the discovery of Amy beach has been staggering for me. She was one of a number of composers who publicly rejected Dvořák’s call for American composers to look to Native American and African American music as the inspiration for the creation of a truly American ethos. She held the view - and said so in print - that America should look to its Anglo Celtic roots for inspiration, and proved her point by producing her “Gaelic” Symphony. Completed in 1896, it is exactly contemporary with Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. It’s even in the same key - E minor - but it takes the completely opposite side of the argument, with its melodies based on four traditional Irish folk tunes. [listen]

As might be expected, Amy Beach brought together her two lives - as pianist and composer - in the composition of a piano concerto. The C sharp minor concerto was composed in the late 1890s and premiered in Boston in 1900, with the composer as soloist. In subsequent years she performed the work to great acclaim in other American cities, as well is in major European centres as well. [listen]

In addition to the symphony and the concerto, Amy Beach wrote an opera, chamber works, piano works, choral music both sacred and secular, and a large number of songs. Her music really is something special.

One composer who did seem to take to heart Dvořák’s ideas about American music was Henry F Gilbert, who was born in Somerville MA in 1868. The turning point for Gilbert came in 1893 when he visited the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. There he encountered ragtime and other world music for the first time and this led to further studies in non-western music cultures, especially the music of Native Americans. His most popular works were influenced by African American music: the Comedy Overture on Negro Themes and The Dance in Place Congo. Gilbert’s music became popular in Europe and especially in Russia where it was championed by Glazunov. Here’s The Dance in Place Congo, composed around 1908 and revised in 1916. [listen]

Henry F Gilbert (1915)

Born in Danbury CT in 1874, Charles Ives is one of the best known American composers. Oddly enough though, his music is rarely performed outside the United States. His reputation as a pioneering modernist is well-known but his actual music is either ignored or despised. Certainly, Ives’s music requires some specialist understanding, but it’s not as alienating as his detractors would have us believe. I’ve decided to let someone else speak on Ives’ behalf, someone who conducted much of Ives’s music and who loved it to the core. This is part of a talk on Ives’s second and third symphonies given by Leonard Bernstein in 1966. I think it gives us some astounding insights into not only this work but much of Ives’s other music as well. [listen]

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when it comes to talking about music, Bernstein was the master. Certainly his recordings of Ives - and the symphonies in particular - are classic readings and well worth exploring.

Charles Ives

Ives has a connection with one of the composers I’ve already mentioned, namely Horatio Parker. Parker was Ives’s teacher, and like Parker, Ives was a highly-skilled organist. He had thorough training in composition, yet worked in insurance for 30 years, preferring to largely compose in his spare time and for a small group of admirers. His output comprising orchestral music, band music, chamber music, piano music, organ music and songs is a vast repository of astounding ideas which is still being assessed by the musical world at large. Charles Ives fits no pre-existing niche; he’s just himself.

Throw yourself in the deep end with Ives and have a listen to his fourth symphony. [listen]

Next we look at Carl Ruggles, who was born in East Marion MA in 1876. Like Charles Ives, Ruggles was an original who trod his own individual path. Unlike Ives he was largely uninterested in American folksiness or it melodic heritage; he was a modernist in the sense we would understand the word. His grandest work was begun in 1926 and completed in 1931. Called Sun-treader, this orchestral work draws its title from a poem by Robert Browning in praise of Keats. Ruggles is not at all interested in Keats; he just took the wonderful idea of huge, giant strides implied in Browning’s poem and used this as the inspiration for a work for orchestra lasting around a quarter of an hour. [listen]

Carl Ruggles

Ruggles died in 1971 and his career combined composition with teaching. His relatively small output is still significant, comprising an opera, orchestral works, songs and chamber music.

Of course, if Ruggles’s output was small then that of our next composer - the last to be looked at in this post - was minute. Edgar Varèse was born in Paris in 1883 and studied science and mathematics before turning to music. He studied under D’Indy, Roussel and Widor, and was a great admirer of Debussy. The upheaval of the first world war led him to base himself in the United States from 1915 onwards, and his fifteen completed compositions (yes, just fifteen!) are a testament to Varèse’s quest for new sounds. He was one of the first composers to incorporate taped sounds into a composition, and he coined the term “organized sound” in preference to “music” to describe his creations.

Edgar Varèse (1936)

I want to share two works by Varèse. The first is a large-scale orchestral work called Amériques. The first version of the piece, originally scored for an enormous orchestra of 142 players, was premiered in Philadelphia in 1926 under Leopold Stokowski. The following year the work was shortened and the orchestral forces reduced to 125 players. This final version was first performed in Paris in 1929, and then not heard again in public until 1965, the year of the composer’s death. While many saw a debt to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Amériques, the work is very much a child of Varèse’s own style, which in his words was designed to “give an effect of pulsation from a thousand sources of vitality”. [listen]

Within a few short years Varèse had changed tack markedly. Gone were the extensive, vast textures of Amériques. Instead he wrote much shorter works with much denser textures, the epitome of musical abstraction. Hyperprism, completed in 1923, is scored for just 16 players - nine winds and seven percussion - and lasts barely five minutes. [listen]

For those of you already lamenting the apparent demise of tonality so early in our journey, fear not. The course of American music in the 20th century is marked by a wide variety of styles happening simultaneously. In some quarters, diatonic harmony died a rapid death; in others it lived on. In the next post in this series we hear from composers who never left the tonal system, but who reworked it and reshaped it for their own purposes. The variety in American music is all part of its fascination, all the more so when you realise that the music I’ve mentioned in this article spans roughly a single century.

And the small but significant inclusion of minorities continues as well. In this post we encountered music by the first woman to be acclaimed as a major American composer. In the next in this series we’ll hear from the first African American to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2006.

67 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page