The Great American Symphony

Years ago, before I knew a thing about classical music, word was that new symphonies were no longer being composed. That, of course, was utter nonsense. Indeed, the term "classical music", was a misnomer. A more correct term, is symphonic music. The following is a review of four American symphonies, each of which, in my opinion, are candidates for the honor of being The Great American Symphony.

1. SYMPHONY NO. 1 "AFRO-AMERICAN" by William Grant Still.

This is distinctively American music: a synthesis of blues and jazz coupled with the expansiveness of Copland's populist music; yes, truly American music, big as the city, wide as the prairie, by turns gentle, playful and serious, and spiced with plenty of Yankee swagger.

William Grant Still's Symphony No. 1 is the first symphony by a black American composer to be performed by a major American orchestra. It was premiered by Howard Hansen and the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931 (Hanson was a noted champion of contemporary American music). Once Hanson paved the way, others moved in to take up Still's cause; four years later, in 1935, the New York Philharmonic gave the New York premier at Carnegie Hall.

A classically-trained musician, Stills said of his first symphony: "I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level."

The version I have was performed by conductor Neeme Jarvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in the early 1990s, and is available on Chandos Records.

2. "GAELIC" SYMPHONY by Amy Beach

Amy Beach was a child prodigy who, unlike several American composers, was not trained in Europe. Originally, she was one of the "Boston Six" composers who had their 15-minutes of fame around the turn of the century. She wrote but one symphony. Named by the composer as the "Gaelic" symphony, Beach drew much of her inspiration from a collection of old Irish melodies. "Their simple, rugged, and unpretentious beauty led me to . . . try to develop their ideas in symphonic form," she wrote. While not exactly "American," it is a lyrical work that in recent years has been making a comeback among concert goers. The version I have comes on Volume 1 of Chandos' American Series, featuring Neeme Jarvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

3. SYMPHONY NO. 1, by Charles Ives

Ives' Symphony No. 1 is essentially the work of a college student. All of Symphony No. 1 (and much of Symphony No. 2) was composed while Ives was an undergraduate at Yale University.

Ives began composing his first symphony as a college freshman, which took shape over his four years at Yale. The symphony would become his senior thesis, which his music tutor, Horatio Parker, did not fully grasp nor appreciate. Parker's harsh criticism led Ives to make a number of changes, which he did in order to graduate. The symphony languished unplayed for 50 years, as did nearly everything Ives composed. It is essentially a conventional work (thanks to Parker), exquisitely orchestrated (thanks to Ives' special genius at composition), sounding more of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, especially compared to the dissonant music Ives would compose later, and be famous for.


I chose this as something of a sleeper among American symphonies. Armenian-American Alan Hovhaness composed over 50 symphonies, of which symphony no. 2 is by far the best known. Much to everyone's surprise, the symphony enjoyed startling success, after its debut in 1955, with a performance by the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The fact the performance was conducted by the renowned Leopold Stokowski, and broadcast by NBC to a nationwide television audience, didn't hurt. The performance I have is by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was recorded at a time when the sound engineers at RCA Victor were making astonishing breakthroughs in recorded sound, particularly in their partnership with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Their recording of Hovhaness's Symphony No. 2 was among their landmark achievements from this time (1958).

The score, on the other hand, does not break new ground. If anything it sounds more of the orient than of America. Writes one critic: "The real beauty of 'Mysterious Mountain' is that it should be so simply, sweetly, innocently lovely in an age that has tried so terribly hard to avoid these impressions in music."

End note: the reason for not mentioning the symphonies of Aaron Copland (he composed three) is because his best work was for the theater: ballet music, in particular "Rodeo", "Billy the Kid" and his magnum opus, "Appalachian Spring".

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