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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

American Composers Part Two

This is the second in our series of three posts in which we’re looking at American composers. In the first we covered nine composers from Anthony Philip Heinrich, who was born in 1781, to Edgar Varèse, who was born just over a century later. This group included Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Edward MacDowell and Amy Beach, some of the earliest composers to make a name for themselves as Americans in Europe. Of course the 19th and early 20th centuries saw the rapid and staggering development of music-making in the United States, with the establishment of orchestras and teaching institutions across the country which eventually rivalled those in Europe. The acceptance of American composition at home, though, was mixed and varied enormously depending on local circumstances.

I’ll continue to treat the composers under discussion in order of birth date, and this leads us to an influential figure in American music, Walter Piston, who was born in Rockland ME in 1894. After early studies in engineering and art, Piston enrolled as a music student at Harvard in 1911. He undertook studies in Paris in the mid-20s, and on his return to the US in 1926 joined the faculty at Harvard. He remained at his alma mater for the next 34 years until his retirement in 1960. He died in 1976.

Walter Piston

While Piston produced some choral and keyboard music, and a not insubstantial amount of chamber music, the majority of his output was for orchestra. He had the reputation for being a notoriously slow worker and joked that it would take him an hour to decide upon a note and then another hour to decide to erase it. His orchestral music bears testimony to his skill in writing for orchestra, and his famous book on orchestration dating from 1955 is still a standard text on the subject. This is his second symphony, dating from 1943. [listen]

The majority of the composers so far surveyed in this series were born in the north-eastern USA - Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Connecticut. All but one (Amy Beach) were men and all were white. In 1895, though, a composer was born who broke through some important barriers in terms of his geographical and racial origins: William Grant Still. Born in Woodville MS, Still had a mixed heritage which included Irish, Native American and Hispanic forebears, but his African American origins ensured that his country only defined him as a Negro. As a black American, therefore, Still had to deal with racial issues at every turn, and especially in his quest to make a living in musical genres hitherto the exclusive domain of whites. There were black Americans in jazz and popular music, but in classical composition and performance he was largely alone.

William Grant Still (1949)

Still’s output includes a number of operas and ballets, five symphonies, as well as symphonic poems and many other orchestral works, chamber music, and music for choir and for solo voice. The premiere of his Afro-American Symphony in 1931 (given by the Rochester Philharmonic) was the first symphonic work by a black composer to be played by a major American orchestra. The work is an amazing synthesis of folk, popular and “serious” musical idioms, much in the manner of Gershwin. Here’s the symphony’s third movement, fulfilling the traditional third movement role of a light-hearted scherzo. [listen]

One of Still’s most moving works is And they lynched him on a tree, scored for two choirs - one white, one black - and orchestra, dating from 1940. It tells of the lynching of a black man and the horror felt by his friends on discovering his body. The two choirs unite in the final movement in a plea for justice and a warning about the legacy of racism. [listen]

Two very different American composers were born a month apart in late 1896. Hailing from Kansas City MO, Virgil Thomson was not only a highly-respected composer, but a leading critic and writer on music. As a composer, Thomson’s style was largely tonal and on the more conservative side of the fence, but his influences were many and varied, from Gregorian chant to Satie. His studies in France in the 1920s introduced him to new developments in Europe, and he was based was Paris from 1925 to 1940.

Virgil Thomson (1947)

Thomson’s most famous work is the first of his three operas, Four Saints in Three Acts [listen], setting (and largely re-organising) a text by Gertrude Stein. This was composed in the late 20s and early 30s. During this period he also wrote the first of his three symphonies, known as the Symphony on a Hymn Tune. Based on the Scottish hymn melody often sung to the text, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord”, the work is a blend of symphonic structure and variations, with more than a shadowy sense of the spirit of Charles Ives hanging over the proceedings. Phrases of the children’s hymn “Jesus loves me, this I know” can also be made out as the music progresses. [listen]

Virgil Thomson had an important influence on the lives of at least two Australian composers. In the 1940s and 50s he was the senior music critic of the New York Herald Tribune, and from 1947 he was joined at the paper by Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-90), who wrote reviews and articles for the Tribune over eight seasons. Then, in the mid-1980s, he taught Graeme Koehne (b. 1956), who cites Thomson as an important influence on his style. Virgil Thomson died in 1989 at the age of 92.

A very different composer, Roger Sessions, was born a month after Virgil Thomson, in December 1896 in Brooklyn, NY. Sessions was an important teacher with an academic career spanning more than 60 years, and he influenced countless American composers. Highly honoured throughout his life (including two Pulitzer Prizes and 14 honorary doctorates), he tended to the more modernist side of the compositional spectrum. He was more of an internationalist in his style and unlike his more famous contemporary, Aaron Copland, he didn’t seek to cultivate overt “Americanness” in his music.

Roger Sessions

Roger Sessions wrote operas and incidental music, nine symphonies, concertos, vocal music, chamber works and piano music. Among this last category is the second of his three piano sonatas, which dates from 1946. It has a particularly fiery first movement. [listen]

Originally from Oklahoma and raised to be a farmer, Roy Harris was born in 1898. As a composer he is primarily remembered these days for his work in establishing the composition of symphonic music in America, and the backbone of his rather large output is a magnificent series of eleven symphonies, dating from 1933 to 1967. He also wrote many other orchestral works, theatre pieces, works for band, for keyboard, and for solo voice, as well as chamber music and a large amount of choral music.

Roy Harris

Harris’s third symphony dates from 1939 and was largely responsible for giving him important national prominence. Cast in a single movement lasting a bit under 20 minutes, it clearly reflects his skill - developed with patience and hard work - as a melodist, with an excellent sense of dramatic timing. [listen]

A very different and much better-known composer was also born in 1898, a few months after Roy Harris, this time in Brooklyn. Born Jacob Gershvin, he is known to the world as George Gershwin, the composer who started his musical life as a song plugger in Tin Pan Alley in New York in his teens. He rapidly progressed to writing songs for Broadway and then became famous for an experimental work dating from 1924 which attempted to blend jazz and classical idioms. The work, Rhapsody in Blue, needs no introduction.

George Gershwin (1937)

Gershwin became incredibly famous and wrote for both musical theatre and the concert hall. An American in Paris and the Concerto in F followed, as did number of hit musicals including Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy.

A holiday in Havana in 1932 led to the composition of the Cuban Overture, one of Gershwin’s lesser-known orchestral works. [listen]

Gershwin’s “American folk opera” Porgy and Bess premiered in New York in 1935 and heralded the start of new musical developments for the talented composer. Tragically these all ended with his death less than two years later, aged 38, the result of a brain tumour.

A composer born two years after Gershwin seemed to go out of his way to alienate his audiences; so much so that he titled his autobiography Bad Boy of Music. His name was George Antheil.

Born in Trenton NJ in July 1900, Antheil is these days most famously remembered for his early works inspired by machines - Airplane Sonata, Sonata Sauvage, Death of Machines and most notorious of all, the Ballet mécanique. These works grew out of Antheil’s meeting with Stravinsky in Berlin and his later time spent in the heady atmosphere of Paris in the 20s. Here’s the opening movement of the 1921 Airplane Sonata, marked by the composer to be played “as fast as possible”. [listen]

George Antheil

Antheil’s later life saw him based in Hollywood where he wrote many film scores, and in the decades leading up to his death in 1959 he espoused a new Romanticism in his music.

Also born in 1900 was probably the most important and influential American composer of them all, Aaron Copland. Some of Copland’s music is very well known (such as Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for the Common Man, and Rodeo) but there is a great deal of his music which rarely sees the light of day. How often do we hear the Piano Concerto, or the Duo for Flute and Piano, or any of the symphonies? I thought I’d represent him here, though, with some of the wonderful Old American Songs. These are masterful arrangements of traditional songs for voice and piano which Copland later orchestrated. There’s probably a good case for suggesting that it takes an American singer to really do them justice, too. Certainly Thomas Hampson fits the bill perfectly.

Simple Gifts [listen]

Zion’s Walls [listen]

Ching-a-ring [listen]

Aaron Copland (1970)

From Copland we jump ahead to Samuel Barber, who was born in 1910. Born in West Chester PA, Barber trained at the Curtis Institute. At the age of 18 he met Gian Carlo Menotti (one year his junior) and thus began a lifelong professional and personal partnership. Menotti became a prominent composer in his own right, particularly of music for the theatre, and he and Barber remained together until Barber’s death from cancer more than sixty years later.

Barber was a talented singer - a baritone - and he studied voice as well as piano and composition at the Curtis Institute. His career was dogged by the success of his Adagio for Strings, conducted by Toscanini in a broadcast in 1938. Nothing he wrote for the rest of his life came close to eclipsing the popularity of that admittedly beautiful work. This is a shame, because many of his works - I’m thinking of the violin concerto and the song-cycle Knoxville: Summer of 1915 in particular - are simply superb.

Samuel Barber (1944)

Barber wrote operas, orchestral works, choral works, chamber music and songs, as well as solo instrumental works. One of his most amazing works is the opera Vanessa, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York and first performed there in 1958. The story is touching and at deeply moving. The text was written by Menotti, and it’s a work which contains some truly glorious writing, such as this beautiful aria. [listen]

As we saw in the previous post on American composers - and will see again in the next - the variety of styles and approaches to composition in the United States has provided that country with a rich and varied musical legacy. There’s so much more music out there to enjoy; I hope this post has given you some ideas for further exploration and discovery.

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

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