Inventing an America

I have no idea why I plan out dream courses I could teach, when it’s the middle of the summer. One of my great regrets (there are so many) is that I’ve never taught an American music course. It just doesn’t fit our curriculum. To do it the way I want to, it really ought to be a graduate seminar somewhere, because I’d want to get into Riegger’s Study in Sonority and the Becker Third and Martirano’s L’sGA, which I can’t do if they don’t know who Ives is yet. I taught a History of the Symphony once and I’ll never do that again because it was waaay too much material. But I had an idea the other day for an “American Symphony” course, one symphony per week, sort of creating the idea of America through symphonic form:

Anthony Philip Heinrich: The War of the Elements and the Thundering of Niagara (c. 1845)
George Frederick Bristow: Arcadian Symphony, Op. 50 (1872)
George Chadwick: Third Symphony (1894)
Amy Beach: Gaelic Symphony (1896)
Charles Ives: First Symphony (1899)
Charles Ives: Third Symphony (1911) [might ought to do the Fourth, but sentimental about Third]
Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1928)
James P. Johnson: Harlem Symphony (1932)
Roy Harris: Third Symphony (1938)
Florence B. Price: Symphony No. 3 (1940)
George Antheil: Symphony No. 4, “1942” (1942)
Aaron Copland: Third Symphony (1946)
Leonard Bernstein: Second Symphony, “Age of Anxiety” (1949/65)
George Rochberg: Second Symphony (1956)
Roger Sessions: Third Symphony (1957)
William Schuman: Eighth Symphony (1962) [Sixth would do, too]
William Bolcom: Fifth Symphony (1989)
Glenn Branca: Symphony No. 6, “Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven” (1989)
Philip Glass: “Low” Symphony (1992)

This is a few too many. Chadwick could go, kind of a dutiful inclusion. Everything would hinge on being able to get a score to the James P. Johnson Harlem Symphony – that’s key, and I won’t do that without a score. The archive seems to be at Rutgers. Still’s Afro-American Symphony, nice as it is, would be a disappointing second choice. I don’t know how to get Bristow’s Arcadian, either, whereas I can get the earlier Jullien – but the Arcadian is significantly better, and more evocative of the American wilderness. The Florence Price 1st and 3rd symphonies are published, and either would provide a piquant highlight. And I need an analysis of the Sessions Third, I’ve tried and can’t do it myself. Blitzstein’s 1946 Airborne Symphony might be a wild, corny substitute for the Antheil.

I should set up one of those web sites that fly around on Facebook: “Which American Symphony Are You?” And of course it’s rigged so that no matter kind of wine you like, everyone gets Morton Gould’s Latin-American Symphonette. (Which I used to enjoy.)

UPDATE: Actually, I’ve always thought the relatively unknown Bristow was the best of the 19th-century American symphonists (admittedly, not saying a lot), and the reason he was on my radar screen at all is because I heard his music in a course on American music at the University of Texas, from Delmar Rogers. I got to looking around, and found that Prof. Rogers’s doctoral dissertation was on Bristow, which I hadn’t known. Couldn’t find anything else about him, I suppose he’s no longer around. But he left me with a strong impression of Bristow and I appreciate it. That class also occasioned my first attempt at an analysis of Emerson from the Concord Sonata, and I still have it.


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  1. says

    Kyle, any university music department that has no room for an American music course (or experimental music, or any free choice by its faculty) is a poor university music department. No exceptions.

    KG replies: Well, Virginia, any *university*, I’d agree. But we’re a small college with a small but diverse population of music majors, many into jazz, and some only into singing Italian opera. It’s my choice, and I could teach such a course – but when I start planning my curriculum, the choice sort of boils down to, Do I teach an American music course (Ives, Cage, Bristow) or a 20th-century course (Ives, Cage, Stravinsky)? And the little thrill I’d get going from Billings through 19th-century America seems kind of self-indulgent considering what the students need to get their three required history or theory courses. Do I want them to leave here knowing Bristow but ignorant of Stravinsky to satisfy *my* vanity? Also, I don’t really want to teach history, I want to analyze the music, so I’m after a rather quixotic American theory program. I did just fine with undergrads for years, but I’ve reached the point at which I need to be in a large university where I can practice my focused specialty, and with grad students. (And I think our students get a good smattering of experimental music.)

    • says

      Well, Kyle, I did my undergrad and grad work at the University of Redlands, which was primarily a performance school (a very small liberal arts college), but the electives included musical aesthetics, intermedia issues, and experimental music. There was always at least one option per lecturer per year. The students still got the history sequence and upper-division period literature, jazz arranging, Shenkerian analysis (normal and advanced), etc. plus special projects in performance. Nottingham may be different, being English, but we also had specialist courses. Students could take Music & Violence, experimental notation, even music in dream sequences in film (the last two mine).

  2. Derek Bermel says

    Fantastic list, Kyle!! Would love to see the even bigger list from which you culled this.

    KG replies: Thanks, Derek, but there wasn’t one. I hate deleting things. Though I have neglected the neoclassicists, and am considering adding Shapero’s Symphony for Classical Orchestra as the extreme exemplar.

  3. says

    Surprised not to see a Hanson symphony on the list. Randall Thompson’s 2nd is a personal favorite, but probably doesn’t merit inclusion.

    KG replies: Thompson certainly wrote some wonderful music, but he seems too obscure today (except in the choral area) to stand in for American Romanticism. I considered Hanson, and probably left him out for the not-very-good reason that for years I’ve tried to buy scores to his symphonies without success; the only one I could find online was permanently back-ordered, and never arrived. But I can get a few of them on inter-library loan, and I would certainly do some more research before omitting him for good. In my American music book I refer to his style as “clear to a fault,” but he crystallized a certain point in American music, and is sort of our Sibelius. (My impression is that I prefer his piano concerto to his symphonies.)

  4. Phil Vandermeer says

    Great choices. How about one of Walter Piston’s (the 2nd is my favorite)?

    KG replies: Thanks for the recommendation. I’m listening to it now online. I only have his nos. 4, 5, 7, and 8 on disc, but the 2nd sounds familiar – I bet I once had it on reel-to-reel. And I can get the score from nearby Vassar. As I say, I have neglected the neoclassicists, and it’s difficult, if there’s only one slot, to choose from among all of them. But this is a contender.

  5. says

    How about John Adams’ “Harmonielehre?” (A symphony in all but name) and Lowell Liebermann’s Walt Whitman Symphony to represent the living Neo-romantics?

  6. Mark van de Voort says

    Don’t forget the intensely beautiful Second Symphony by Lou Harrison

    KG replies: Oooo, thanks for the reminder. I forget that Lou was a symphonist, and the Elegiac is not only gorgeous but in five movements (like the symphony I’m writing). Plus, it’s not a token of a stylistic movement, but sui generis. Thanks, you’ve helped me more than you know.

  7. says

    Well, course or no course, it’s a good summer playlist. I’ve started working my way through it, especially the unfamiliar ones. And since everyone is making suggestions, is there no room for Cowell? The Sinfoniettas, 4 or 5?

    KG replies: It seems to me that one criterion should be that the symphony represents its composer’s best work, and I think to teach the Cowell symphonies would be to dwell on his less impressive side. I like a couple of them, but scores are hard to find, and they’re not distinctive. There isn’t a symphony, I think, through which I could get across the idea of why Cowell was so important.