By Ricky O’Bannon
There is something satisfying about musical traditions.
After all, an annual musical favorite doesn’t become a favorite without it being quite good. So this Fourth of July, enjoy the holiday’s musical traditions like Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” Copland’s Lincoln Portrait or the curiously adopted Overture for 1812.
But if you’re looking for a something a bit off the beaten path in your Independence Day classical playlist, you might try some offerings from the following list, all of which either express something of American life and history or might serve as companion works to regularly programmed July Fourth entries.
“The Promise of Living” – Aaron Copland
Copland figures heavily into almost any discussion of composers who manage to musically capture an intangible “American-ness.” Many of his most beloved works that regularly appear in Fourth of July celebrations like Lincoln Portrait, Fanfare for the Common Man or Appalachian Spring were written in the decades following the Great Depression when Copland and other intellectuals became increasingly concerned about the condition of the poor and middle class and hoped to portray the nobility of common life. “The Promise of Living” is from Copland’s opera The Tender Land, which was inspired in part by photographs from Walker Evans of Midwest farm families during the depression.
Zion – Dan Welcher
Dan Welcher’s Zion is dedicated to the memory of Aaron Copland, and there are stylistic and thematic links between Zion and Copland’s works — including the use of the hymn tune “Zions Walls,” which Copland used in the above “The Promise of Living.” The piece is the third of a series of compositions Welcher wrote that were inspired by national parks in the American west. Welcher wrote that the piece is more than a physically description Zion National Park in Utah, but instead he hoped to convey the feelings he had there: “Zion is a place of unrivaled natural grandeur… but it is also a place with human history having been inhabited by several Native American tribes before the arrival Mormon settlers in the mid-nineteenth century.”
Afro-American Symphony – William Grant Still
Afro-American Symphony is the first symphony written by an African American to be performed by a major orchestra. Much like Copland in the 1930s wanted to portray lower and middle class American life, William Grant Still said he hoped to portray the “sons of the soil,” the common black American “who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress.” Similarly, Still avoided the modernist harmonies he had been trained in and used an accessible musical language colored in blues.
The American Four Seasons – Philip Glass
There is nothing overtly American about Philip Glass’ take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The violin concerto stemmed from a request by Robert McDuffie to write a counterpoint to Vivaldi’s best-known work. McDuffie calls Glass the “American Vivaldi” for what he sees as a similar use of driving rhythms and arpeggios, their prolific output as well as the two men’s popular acclaim and occasional dismissal by critics. While not thematically American, arguably there is something characteristically American about Glass reinterpreting the cultural heritage of Europe through a compositional style that blends both East and Western ideas.
“Chester” – William Billings
For the most part, little music remains that was written in the United States during the years of the American Revolution, which is the same era in which Mozart worked in Salzburg. Some of the earliest classical instrumental concerts in America date back to 1730 in Boston, which included original compositions for violin, but the main music published and recorded were political ballads (supporting both the patriot and loyalist cause) and sacred psalms. William Billings is hailed as one of America’s first prolific composers who wrote mainly choral psalms. Billings, who was a friend of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere composed “Chester” as a patriotic song, which served as the unofficial anthem during the Revolutionary War.
Variations on “America” – Charles Ives
Paul Serotsky rightly described Charles Ives as “both a pillar of the community and a vandal.” Few pieces better exemplify Ives artistic originality and irreverence than his Variations on “America,” which is believed to be the first polytonal work recorded. At age seventeen, Ives composed and performed Variations on “America” on organ for a July Fourth celebration, and was later scored for orchestra by William Schuman.
Metropolis: A Blue Fantasy – Ferde Grofé
Ferde Grofé’s Metropolis serves as an interesting companion piece to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Grofé orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band and greatly admired the piece. In his own compositions, Grofé often wrote tone poems depicted scenes and places, the most famous of which is his Grand Canyon Suite. Metropolis is a tone poem written for piano and orchestra meant to encapsulate the feelings of 1920s New York.