Beyond the1812 Overture


Americans love the booming cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Many Americans can imagine a great conflict on American soil (bombs bursting in air, and all that).  Except the 1812 Overture is not about America.  Tchaikovsky was referring to another War of 1812: the one where Napoleon’s forces were knocking on the door of Russia and where the tide of the invasion was turned back.  (Yes, that’s why he employed are all those French and Russian tunes).  But despite that, it’s a great example of how Americans adopt a composer and piece to make it something truly their own. It is a deeply patriotic piece.  Just not in the way most Americans think.

Tchaikovsky used more than cannons to get the point across.  He also used tunes that everyone of the time knew, familiar national songs.  American composers in the first half of the 20th century also were quite adept at using folk material to garner a sense of music for the people.

Re-crafting something that we intimately know and identify with is a way that artists can establish and maintain a creative connection.

You may be familiar with the most famous and successful of these composers, Aaron Copland.  But there were many more.  In the spirit of July 4th and American music, I offer the following examples of music of the people, by the people and for the people.   These composers tapped into the creative energy of a diverse nation to define their music and connect with their audiences.  Check these out on YouTube, Spotify, or ITunes.

William Schuman: New England Triptych

William Schumann was a major figure in the American music scene of the mid 20th century.  New England Triptych is an interesting and thoroughly listenable re-imagining of tunes originally written in the 1700s by William Billings, New England’s first important composer.

Charles Ives: Variations on America

While Ives’ music can be challenging, this piece is a good introduction to an important American voice.  Check out both the original organ version and the orchestral or band arrangements by William Schuman (the same as above).  As a boy, I would listen to a Boston Pops recording of this work, imagining it as a tapestry of America.

Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune

Once considered on par with Copland in terms of importance as an American composer, Thomson’s music has fallen off the radar in recent years.  I was honored to play a PBS program in Iowa honoring his 90th birthday in 1986.  While we didn’t play this particular piece, it soon became a favorite of mine.  The hymn tune, Yes, Jesus loves Me, is presented and interwoven into a truly symphonic fabric throughout.  The work was his first symphony, written in 1928.

Roy Harris: Symphony No. 4 (Folksong Symphony).

Like Ives, Copland and Thomson, Harris was drawn to the folk music of America.  This work, for chorus and orchestra, is a wonderfully colorful presentation of American classics.  Also recommended is his Symphony No. 3. Although it is not as tuneful or based on folk music, it is an expansive concept which represents the hope and optimism of America as it sat on the brink of war in 1939 and has been called “the quintessential American symphony.”

William Grant Still: Afro-American Symphony (Symphony No. 1)

This is a work that infuses the traditional symphonic form with the sounds and soul of the Blues.  It is a postcard of Still’s America in 1930.  He was W.C. Handy’s arranger and, like Gershwin, was committed to bringing popular sounds into the concert hall.  Often called the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” his entire output reminds me of a sonic reflection of Langston Hughes.

Ernest Bloch: America, An Epic Rhapsody

Composed in 1926, ten years after Bloch emigrated to America, this work tries to encapsulate all of American history as Bloch imagined it, from pre-history to his present day.  The work includes American Indian melodies, Pilgrim hymns, songs from the south, and popular American patriotic and folk music.  The audience is invited to sing at the end, although most recordings add a chorus for this effect.

Happy Exploring!

Copyright, 2012  Robert Baldwin