Jul 4, 2016

America loves celebrating its own. For evidence, one need not look further than the countless patriotic displays from this past Fourth of July weekend or to the upcoming Olympic Games, where as is every-few-years tradition, we will find ourselves enthralled by sports we would never willingly watch were national pride not on the line.

But as proud as we are of our home grown success stories, several have made the case that US classical institutions tend to ignore some of the great American composers of the last century. Yes, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein or Samuel Barber are easy to find on concert programs, but how often do you see Walter Piston, Peter Mennin, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris or William Schuman? Are those names even remotely familiar to the American concert-going public?

These composers were well respected in their day (particularly by fellow musicians and composers), but they’ve largely become invisible to modern concert repertoire. Composer Alan Fletcher recently penned a piece for the Guardian Newspaper wondering why that is. Fletcher is the CEO of the Aspen Music Festival, which will feature works by many of these “all but forgotten” mid-20th century American composers.

“A British colleague observed that American works, highly celebrated in their own time among musicians, contrast in their current obscurity with comparable works by UK composers that are increasingly celebrated in the UK,” Fletcher writes. “This got me wondering: have US musicians and presenters unjustly ignored their own symphonists, or have audiences voted against them?”

When dealing with something so subjective as art and whether artists from one country to the next are getting their fair shake, it’s all but impossible to find an apples to apples point of comparison. You could argue about whether any of these potentially neglected composers had as accessible and compelling a harmonic style as Copland or whether they were lacking that breakthrough, popular piece like Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” that provides enough name familiarity that audiences want to explore their broader work.

Regardless, the numbers suggest these composers — who are considered important and influential by musicologists or other composers — are a rarity in concert halls. Fletcher says that “Harris, Mennin, Piston, Schuman and Elliot Carter (who together wrote more than 100 concert symphonic works) had, in the past five years, a total of just 20 performances by US orchestras.”

Looking at the numbers collected from 89 of the largest American symphony orchestras last season, William Schuman had the most success having four orchestras perform three different works. Walter Piston had his The Incredible Flutist Suite performed by Detroit and Kansas City symphonies, and Mennin, Harris and Carter didn’t see a single piece performed.

However, from a purely numerical point of view it is probably unfair to say that American orchestras are ignoring American composers as a whole. The aforementioned numbers on the 2015-2016 season show that almost a full two thirds of music written by living composers that was performed last year was by American composers.

Still, there is certainly a peer group of American symphonists who are rare sights and hard sells at the concert hall. Even mentioning the prospect of a Piston/Schuman/Carter concert program is enough for an orchestra marketing director to wake up in a cold sweat.

In an interview from 2014 about the creation of the American Music Project, an initiative to bring more of this American music to audiences, Lawrence A. Johnson said the fear that audiences won’t come to hear these composers is self-fulfilling.

“It's a vicious cycle. They don't know the music because it's not performed. It's not performed because they don't know the music,” said Johnson. “There has to be some sort of break in the logjam at some point… If we heard one piece by Walter Piston, David Diamond or Peter Mennin for every 50 performances of the Candide Overture or Appalachian Spring, I don't think it would hurt anybody.”

If, as Johnson said, the problem is familiarity, perhaps we could all stand to take in a few more of these composers, learn a little more about some of our own. With the patriotic afterglow of our Independence Day, take a listen to some of the music below and see if it grabs you.

Walter Piston (1894-1976)

Piston was a prolific composer whoe wrote for almost every genre. The Maine native played piano and violin in dance bands before joining the U.S. Navy as a musician during WWI. There he taught himself to play almost every wind instrument because “they were just lying around” and “no one minded if you picked them up and found out what they could do.” After the war, he studied at Harvard where he would eventually become a professor of music, authoring numerous textbooks on music theory and harmony, and where he trained any number of prominent American composers including Leonard Bernstein, John Harbison, Elliot Carter and Irving Fine. He earned many awards in his liftetime, including two Pulitzers and eight honorary doctorates.

While writing many notable symphonies, one of his most-performed pieces today is the only dance work he composed, The Incredible Flutist, which was commissioned and premiered by the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1938. The libretto describes a busy marketplace with a circus at its center. The flute soloist plays the role of a snake charmer who also charms women (we’ll let you draw your own conclusion on that one.)

William Schuman (1910-1992)

Growing up in Manhattan, Schuman was interested in business, baseball and popular music. In high school, he formed a dance band that played local weddings and bar mitzvahs. When he was 19, he attended a concert by the New York Philharmonic, where he was blown away by the sound and scale. Schuman decided the next day he wanted to train to be a composer. He went on to win the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1943. In 1945 he became the president of the Juilliard School and became the first president of Lincoln Center in 1961.

Schuman was greatly respected by his composing colleagues. While presenting him with the MacDowell Colony Medal, Aaron Copland said, “In Schuman's pieces you have the feeling that only an American could have written them. … You hear it in his orchestration, which is full of snap and brilliance. You hear it in the kind of American optimism which is at the basis of his music.”

George Antheil (1900-1959)

Antheil led the kind of life that makes you grudgingly wonder if some people are blessed with too many talents. The New Jersey native spent most of the 1920s in Europe before returning to the United States in the 1930s where he composed for film and television. He was also an author who wrote newspaper and magazine articles as well as a mystery novel. In 1941, Antheil made an unusual partnership with actress Hedy Lamarr. The two were interested in the radio frequencies used to control Allied torpedoes. Technology of the day allowed a single frequency to guide a torpedo after its launch, but that made it vulnerable to jamming. The two worked on and patented a frequency-hopping algorithm, which was controlled by a mechanical piano roll with 88 frequencies (corresponding to the 88 keys on a piano.) A later version of the invention was not adopted by the U.S. Navy until 1962, but it as seen as a predecessor to modern “spread-spectrum” technology. Antheil and Lamarr were inducted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

Antheil’s work with Lamarr was in part based on his best-known work, Ballet Mécanique. The piece was conceived for 16 player pianos synchronized in four parts, two regular pianos, bells, sirens, airplane propellors and various percussion. Antheil writes of the piece that it is intended to be “All percussive. Like machines. All efficiency. No LOVE. Written without sympathy. Written cold as an army operates. Revolutionary as nothing has been revolutionary.”

Roy Harris (1898-1979)

Harris was raised by poor parents in rural Oklahoma before his father moved the family to southern California. He began his career writing music as a virtually self-taught composer who supported himself as a truck driver and delivery man for a dairy farm. Eventually he got formal lessons at the University of Santa Barbara and earned the recommendation of Aaron Copland to study with the famed Nadia Boulanger.

Harris became an active force in the American classical music scene. He co-founded the American Composers Alliance, founded the International String Congress (meant to fight a shortage of American string players), served as a cultural ambassador to the Soviet Union and organized many conferences and contemporary music festivals. While intrigued by traditional European forms like the fugue, Harris was adamant about creating an independent American style. His third symphony, for which he is best known, aims to do this by breaking out of traditional symphonic forms and instead using a single-movement structure that is often described as “organic.” As Gramphone’s Michael Oliver wrote, “Harris's Third became a benchmark against which later American symphonies were measured.”

Howard Hanson (1896-1981)

Hanson was the son of Swedish immigrants in Nebraska. As the first winner of the Prix de Rome in Music award, he studied in Italy where he said he was free to focus on the art of composing and conducting. Upon his return to the United States, he conducted the New York Philharmonic and earned the attention of George Eastman, who chose Hanson to direct the Eastman School of Music. He held the position for 40 years and is credited with helping to raise the school to be in the top ranks of American conservatories.

Hanson was a fierce supporter of American music. He made many recordings of American composers, established the American Composers Orchestral Concerts as well as the Festivals of American Music. He estimated that more than 2,000 works by more than 500 American composers were premiered during his tenure at Eastman. As a composer, Hanson is best known for his second symphony, the “Romantic,” which is the source of the “Interlochen theme” (that is performed at concerts at the Interlochen Center for the Arts) and also was used (without permission) during the end credits of the 1979 film Alien.