Classical Music in the USA – 7 – the American sound


“Pineapple Bud,” by Georgia O’Keefe, 1939.

American composers born in the early 1900s, who came of age in the Roaring Twenties or during the Great Depression, were exposed to the music of Gershwin, Copland and Roy Harris while still young.


American classical music already existed for them. It was big, and wore its heart on its sleeve. Sometimes it could swing. It was tonal but unafraid of dissonance or modulation. This was their received music base.


Paul Creston (1906-1985) was sui generis. Born Giuseppe Guttoveggio, he took a new name from a character he played in a high school play, after classmates nicknamed him Cress. Self-taught – no Harvard, no Nadia Boulanger – he worked as a Manhattan church organist, composing at night. He wrote symphonies and tone poems but also worked in Baroque forms. His music was restlessly chromatic, yet sounded nothing like the restless chromaticism of Roy Harris.

One of my favorite 20th century classics is Creston’s Partita for Flute, Violin and Strings, 1937, in which the restless chord changes come to the fore because the timbre of the work is quiet and restrained.

Creston was one of the most frequently performed American composers of the 1940s, fell into obscurity in the 1970s and 80s, and has since benefitted from a series of new recordings of his work, including a surprisingly good piece for accordion.


Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was in one respect an even more successful American composer than Aaron Copland because, like Maurice Ravel, almost everything he wrote in any form entered the repertory.

Born in Chester, Pa., near Philadelphia, he decided in childhood to be a composer – there is a delightful letter to his mother on the subject – and entered Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. His instrument was his voice: he was a trained baritone.

From his first works to his last, Barber’s music had a singing quality no matter how dissonant it got. What American work is more frequently performed than “Adagio for Strings”? Starting as the middle movement of Barber’s only string quartet, he arranged it for string orchestra, for brass, even for a capella choir.

His overture “The School for Scandal” premiered in 1931 – for me it has one of the finest classical “tunes” of the entire 20th century – and the 1930s also saw the first “Essay for Orchestra” (Barber invented the form, a one-movement work on a single theme, which is stated, expounded upon, and then recapped, as happens in a written essay; he would compose three of them) and the First Symphony and “Adagio for Strings.”

The 1940s brought the Second Symphony, the “Second Essay,” the Cello Concerto, the Capricorn Concerto, “Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance,” and his one piano sonata, the finale of which is a fine fugue. He composed less after that but the masterpieces kept coming, including the 1956 “Summer Music” for winds and the 1962 Piano Concerto, the middle movement of which became, like “Adagio for Strings,” a breakout piece for its wonderful theme.


William Schuman (1910-1992) was no classical child prodigy. He played violin and banjo but he also played baseball. He led a dance band in high school, playing bass. When he was 19 his sister took him to a symphony concert. The next day he decided to be a composer.

He studied five years with Roy Harris, whose restless chord changes appeared in Schuman’s own music. By the late 1930s Serge Koussevitsky was programming Schuman symphonies at Roy Harris’s instigation.

Schuman became head of Juilliard in 1945, and president of Lincoln Center in 1961. His most famous works are the baseball-inspired 1939 “American Festival Overture,” the 1956 “New England Triptych” based on compositions of William Billings, and the 1941 Third Symphony.

Two composers of the 1940s owe much of their careers to radio.


Don Gillis (1912-1978) was born in Missouri but grew up in Fort Worth, Tex., studied trombone, found work in radio, and became producer for the NBC Symphony, working under Arturo Toscanini. In the 1970s he taught at the University of South Carolina.

Composing actively from 1936 to 1976 he wrote several symphonies and tone poems, striking in their flamboyant use of brass.


Morton Gould (1913-1996) was born in the Queens borough of New York and composed from the age of six. He played piano in movie theaters and was hired for that work when Radio City Music Hall opened. He did musical programming for the Mutual Broadcasting System, then for CBS.

He composed several “American Symphonettes” and other light classical music in the 1930s. His 1941 “Spirituals for Orchestra” shared a prize with Copland’s “Dance Symphony.” Still performed is the 1947 “Fall River Legend.” Gould varied his style frequently and sometimes seemed too willing to copy the latest fad, but his works hold up well. Gould was head of ASCAP for many years.

In the 1980s, when leading conductors often held posts on three continents devoting little time to any single orchestra, Gould remarked that the ideal conductor would be one who got airsick.


Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) was a second generation organist. His father was also a vocal coach at the Metropolitan Opera. He attended Juilliard and in 1941 studied with Paul Hindemith.

He wrote scores for Martha Graham and scores to television documentaries including “Air Power.” His most famous pieces, both from the 1940s, are “Variations, Chaconne & Finale,” and “Fantasies on a Theme by Haydn.”


David Diamond (1915-2005) was born in Rochester, N.Y., and studied at the Eastman School as well as the Cleveland Institute, He also studied with Roger Sessions and Nadia Boulanger. His tonal music became more chromatic as he aged.

His most famous work is the 1944 “Rounds for String Orchestra.” He wrote 11 symphonies and 11 string quartets. Diamond was a famously irascible person, whose star may actually rise now that he is no longer around the spoil it.

ca. 20th century --- A half-length portrait of Lou Harrison. --- Image by © Oscar White/CORBIS

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was born in Portland, Ore., and studied in California under Henry Cowell, who with Harrison did much to bring Charles Ives’ music to the public.

Harrison’s own music is very different, influenced by the music of Indonesia and Asia, an ur-world music the best of which is delightful to hear. The 1949 ballet suite “Solstice” is my favorite Harrison piece.


Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), five when “Rhapsody in Blue” premiered, proved to be a Gershwin inversion: a classical musician who proved he could be successful on Broadway.

Born in the Boston area to parents from Ukraine, Bernstein played piano, and studied music at Harvard under Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston, and later at the Curtis Institute.

Bernstein took up conducting and composing. In 1938 he met Aaron Copland and became friends for life. In 1943 Bernstein conducted a New York Philharmonic concert without rehearsal when Bruno Walter got flu. The concert, live on CBS, was a triumph, and established Bernstein as a star conductor.

The next year his ballet “Fancy Free” was a hit. “Prelude, Fugue & Riffs” came out in 1949. In 1954 he became a TV host. “Young People’s Concerts” on CBS ran to 53 episodes. His operas “Candide” and “West Side Story” premiered in 1956 and 1957.

Bernstein was infamous for fast tempos. But in his sixties, suffering from emphysema and still smoking, he re-recorded a lot of works at unusually slow tempos. It was impressive how often both extremes worked. Bernstein was a great promoter of American classics but also did a lot to make Mahler better known.


Peter Mennin (1923-1983) was born in Erie, Pa., composed his first symphony as a teenager, then studied at Oberlin and, following Air Force service, the Eastman School. He became president of Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory in 1958 and president of Jiulliard in 1962, holding the post until his death.

Mennin’s 3rd Symphony, a doctoral dissertation at Eastman, was premiered by the New York Philharmonic. His Fifth Symphony was recorded by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra in 1950.

Much of his music sounds suspenseful and propulsive. A propensity for syncopated 16ths mostly straddling the second and third beats, and a lack of variety in tone color, give his works a sameness that has prevented a wide range of performances, but the Fifth Symphony is a masterpiece and his Canzona is a popular piece for bands.


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