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October 8, 2019

Composing America’s Sound: Past and Present


Guest contribution from U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance Associate Dean Mark Clague, who will lead a free public discussion on America’s sonic identity before Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s performance on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019.

Composers, listeners, and historians alike have struggled to give voice to a signature dialect of art music characteristic of the United States. On one hand, so-called “classical” music aspires to a transcendent human universalism, while being grounded (literally and figuratively) in particular places and times. Music, like all art, gains its meaning from the interaction of a broad expression and a local specifics of place — how particular symbols and gestures engage with a socio-political moment. Rather than being reduced, music gains layers of meaning as it travels across time and place.

Often to the detriment of engagement with their art, U.S. composers have been heard against the “norm” of the Austro-German tradition, and thus of either being unoriginal and imitative or falling short of the canonical masterworks. It was only in the mid twentieth century—not coincidentally as the US became a global superpower—that composers such as Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Philip Glass began to be heard and rightly celebrated as unique compositional voices with a characteristic dialect distinct from the European tradition. More recently, women composers and composers of color as well as composers who engage with American popular music have been similarly reconsidered, leading to the rediscovery of such artistic visionaries as Amy Beach, Ruth Crawford, William Levi Dawson, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin.

Here are six works to know that have shaped a uniquely American sonic identity:


Francis Hopkinson (1737–1791), “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” (1759)
A signer of the Declaration of Independence and arguably America’s first “classical” composer, Francis Hopkinson wrote this simple song as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. It expresses both a brilliant innocence and a nascent revolutionary spirit. Although dedicated to President George Washington, Hopkinson’s early set of eight songs was all-but unknown until the twentieth-century.


William Billings (1746–1800), Jordan (1778)
An iconoclast and original musical pioneer, William Billings is known as the father of the American choral tradition. He published the first-ever collection of compositions by a native-born U.S. composer in 1770, but would be rejected by musicians as untutored in the felicities of the European tradition by his musical competitors in the early 1800s. His music is both powerful in expression and a lot of fun to sing and reflects an era of American sacred music that was both democratic and participatory. His raw, open harmonies will echo in the Americana accent of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.


Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World”
As one of Europe’s most illustrious living composers, Dvořák was presented with a superstar salary he simply couldn’t refuse to move to New York City to serve as director of the National Conservatory of Music in America (1885–1952). As a nationalist composer who had put Czech music on the aesthetic map by quoting indigenous melodies, Dvořák was in effect charged with discovering America’s music and teaching native composers how to create it. The composer heard a distinctive American voice in the African American spirituals sung by his assistant Harry T. Burleigh and in the music of Native Americans, arguing that these melodies should be woven into a new school of American composition. Such an idea was not well received by the American musical establishment, but audiences immediately embraced his “New World Symphony” written as an exemplar for this new American school. The original, mournful “Largo” melody of the second movement speaks as a lament of a Native American mother for her son but was later adapted as the spiritual “Goin’ Home.”


John Cage (1912–1992), Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946–48)
Musical experiments with compositional techniques and instrumental timbres helped American composers silence accusations of offering simply a derivative echo of European music. The experiments of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford, and John Cage each opened new creative horizons. Inspired by Cowell, Cage created the “prepared piano” by inserting metal screws and bolts, rubber, plastic, and erasers between the strings of the instrument to modify the sound colors of the instrument. Its invention was initial a practical one to create the sonic palette of a percussion orchestra in a more limited space to accompany modern dance.


Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932–2004), Blue/s Forms for Solo Violin (1972)
Inspired in part by the success of George Gershwin who created a compelling alloy of popular song, jazz, and classical music, black composers too incorporated the sounds of African American popular music into the classical tradition, once they got the chance to be heard in the concert hall. Named for Afro-European composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Perkinson became a composer. He wrote Blue/s Forms for the violinist Sanford Allen, the first African American musician to hold a regular, full-time contract with a major American symphony. Allen performed with the New York Philharmonic from 1962 to 1977.


Gabriela Lena Frank (1972–), Ritmos Anchinos (2006)
In a globalized sonic word in which the sounds of all nations mix on-line and off, some U.S. composers have embraced the nation’s if not their own personal, multi-cultural heritage. On such composer is University of Michigan graduate Gabriela Lena Frank who was born in Berkeley, California to parents of Lithuanian Jewish and Peruvian Chinese heritages. In Ritmos Anchinos, she composes for traditional Chinese instruments, but embraces a personal history in sound that led her Chinese great-grandfather to settle at the foot of the Andean Mountains.


Mark ClagueMark Clague researches all forms of music-making in the United States, with recent projects focusing on the United States national anthem (“The Star-Spangled Banner”); American orchestras as institutions (especially in early Chicago and San Francisco); the Atlanta School of composers; Sacred Harp music and performance; critical editing; and the music of George and Ira Gershwin. His interests center on questions of how music forges and shapes social relationships: the art of sound as simultaneously a transcendent emotional expression and an everyday tool for living.