Tom Huizenga, who presides over Classical Music for National Public Radio, recently initiated a discussion thread on “The Great American Symphony” – and invited me to contribute something about early lineage. Keying on a superb new Naxos recording of John Knowles Paine’s Symphony No. 1, on my idiosyncratic enthusiasm for Dvorak and Chadwick as quintessential “American” composers, on my passion for George Templeton Strong’s Sintram Symphony (with the most beautiful slow movement of any American symphony), and on my conviction that Charles Ives composed the (only) two Great American Symphonies, I contributed a little essay.
After 1920, Serge Koussevitzky predicted that “the next Beethoven vill from Colorado come” – and embarked on a fruitless interwar quest for the Great American Symphony. No one realized the magnitude of Ives’s symphonic achievements. Finally, in 1951, Leonard Bernstein premiered Ives’s Second Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. Leopold Stokowski premiered Ives’s Fourth 14 years later. In retrospect, the Americans championed by Koussevitzky were more in thrall to Europe than they realized. If Ives remains the great American symphonist, it’s partly because – like Melville, like Whitman, like Mark Twain, like Gershwin – he disdained attending “finishing school” in Germany or France.