4 minute read

Composing America

Composer Wynton Marsalis
Clay McBride


By Kristin Cleveland

What makes classical music American? Ask any number of people and you’re likely to get an equal number of different responses.

Even Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, and Irving Fine—titans of twentieth-century American composition—couldn’t agree on a defining characteristic. In a boisterous roundtable discussion recorded in 1950,* their attempts to describe it ranged from “digested jazz,” Mixolydian mode, and “down notes” to a certain “unfussiness” or the “open air” quality (sometimes suggested by octave spacing) of works like Copland’s Billy the Kid to a sense of “freshness and naïveté,” drive and optimism, and sometimes even the pessimism of “the young composers” of the time.

Nearly sixty years earlier in 1892, Czech composer Antonin Dvořák had come to the United States to direct the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Already well known for the compositions he based on the folk melodies of his native Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), Dvořák argued that an American school of composition should be based on African American spirituals, Native American melodies and America’s folk music. Inspired by those melodies, Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, “From the New World” (July 10) became one of the most recognizable “American” works in the classical music cannon.

By the 1920s, America’s rapidly growing jazz tradition had become an important influence for Gershwin, a native New Yorker and son of Russian émigrés, but so was the city he called home. In a 1926 essay for Theatre Magazine titled “Jazz is the Voice of the American Soul,” he wrote that his music came from “old and new music, forgotten melodies and the craze of the moment, bits of opera, Russian folk songs, Spanish ballads, chansons, ragtime ditties combined in a mighty chorus in my inner ear.”

Composer George Crumb in the Aspen Music Festival and School's Bayer-Benedict Tent.
Charles Abbott

The map on the following pages (28 and 29) offers a glimpse at the origins of the American composers whose works will be presented this summer at the Aspen Music Festival and School.

“American music made classical music a plurality,” says Asadour Santourian, the AMFS’s vice president for artistic administration and artistic advisor. Whereas European composers of previous eras followed clearly defined conventions in composition style and method, American classical music expanded the art form exponentially.

Alan Fletcher, a composer himself and president of the Aspen Music Festival and School, points out that American classical music has grown out of a wide range of influence and inspiration. “America’s first great orchestras were made up almost entirely of émigré musicians,” he says. “Eastern European Jews who fled the pogroms brought us the Coplands and Gershwins, and brilliant émigrés who fled Fascism transformed American composition.” Walt Whitman, whose literary works have been set to music by so many American composers, found inspiration in the “Italian Opera” he so loved. Fletcher points out these European traditions combined with the American melodies that so fascinated Dvořák to form the development of ragtime and jazz, Broadway, American ballet, popular song, and the American tradition of classical music.

For example, one of the new works performed this year will be American trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis’s Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra—composed for and performed by Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti (Aug. 7). Classically trained as well as one of the nation’s premier jazz artists, Marsalis has continually worked to expand the conversation about music. In an interview about the new concerto, he noted the relationship between the Anglo-Celtic and Afro-American music he drew upon. “One of the major roots of Afro-American music is Anglo-Celtic music— Scottish music, jigs, Irish music,” says Marsalis. “People who heard Negro spirituals in the nineteenth century always said they sounded like Irish music.”

Concert-goers will have the opportunity to hear seminal works such as Gershwin’s Catfish Row: Suite from Porgy and Bess (June 28); the James Sinclair arrangement of Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England (July 19); Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, op. 38; Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Dances (July 26); and Aaron Copland’s quintessential Appalachian Spring (Aug. 15).

If anything, “a mighty—and ever-changing—chorus” might be a fairly accurate description of American classical music.

Other works are by composers who draw inspiration from the American environmental landscape, such as John Luther Adams’ Sila: The Breath of the World (July 21); our frontier history— Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up (July 30); American popular culture—John Adams’s Road Movies (Aug. 7); or American literature, such as Jake Heggie’s Suite from Moby-Dick (July 14).

Still other works reflect the composers’ unique American experience. Returning composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s Three Latin American Dances (July 3) allude to her Peruvian heritage as well as the work of Bernstein, Bela Bartók, and Alberto Ginastera. There will be two works (July 31 and Aug. 15) by Grammy-, Academy Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Italian American composer John Corigliano, whose father, John Paul Corigliano Sr., was the first U.S.-born concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic.

Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer’s Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi (July 27) draws on his Indian and Tamil heritage in a chamber work inspired by India’s colorful celebration of spring and originally commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Aug. 4).

And in the season-opening recital (June 27), The Pacifica Quartet performs Lyric for Strings by George Theophilus Walker. In 1945 alone, he was the first African American pianist to play a recital at New York’s Town Hall, the first black instrumentalist to play a solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In 1996 Walker became the first African American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize.

As the Aspen Music Festival and School explores the theme, Being American, these works and many others reflect and celebrate the sweeping diversity of American culture and its landscape, and the heritage and experiences of the musicians who created it.

* “A Chorus of Conversation: What Is American Music?” Annotations: The NEH Preservation Project, NEH and WNYC, February 11, 2013, wnyc.org/ story/217199-what-american-music

Visit www.aspenmusicfestival.com/ events/calendar to discover when you can hear these and many more American classical works.