Americans on Summer Listening

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While we take a quick break from Summer Listening today, and celebrate our Independence Day, it’s a good time to remember some of the great classical music created on our own continent. Some say “Jazz is America’s classical music,” and while jazz is certainly one of America’s native art forms, we have our own classical music tradition that goes as far back as the revolution.

William Billings (1746-1800) was trained as a tanner, but is known as one of the earliest American composers. He wrote hymns and “fuging tunes,” like this one. Centuries later, William Schuman (1910-1992) adapted three of Billings’ hymns for his New England Triptych for orchestra.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is well-known for his Adagio for Strings, but during Summer Listening we’re listening to his Violin Concerto, composed in 1939. Barber is one of the few composers who has won the Pulitzer twice. His violin concerto begins with a lush, lyrical movement, but ends with a blistering, Olympic race for the violin and orchestra. Here is a performance with Anne Akiko Meyers.

Arnold Eagle. Appalachian Spring (1945)

If you hear any classical music that sounds “American,” there’s a good chance it was written or inspired by Aaron Copland (1900-1990). It’s hard to describe the exact qualities that make it so, but when you hear it you know it.Appalachian Spring was written for Martha Graham (and was actually called “Ballet for Martha” before she gave it its actual title). Copland was always amused that people would tell him they “heard spring and the Appalachian mountains” in his music, since he wasn’t thinking of that when writing it. Like Schuman’s New England Triptych, Copland uses an old folk song, Simple Gifts, within this music. It provides the basis for a set of variations about halfway through. Earlier this year, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performed Appalachian Spring with choreography, in one of the most unique performances to date.

And here’s a fun video of Aaron Copland’s Hoe-down from Rodeo!

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