Independence Day

Independence Day

I’m not a jingoistic patriot—these days, it’s almost unconscionable to be. And while I advocate for the music of American composers on these pages, I listen to music from all over the world every chance that I get. But tomorrow, since it’s the 231st anniversary of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence, I’m keeping it all-American. We need to celebrate the things we can be proud of, and music ranks pretty high on my list. Besides, it won’t really cramp my style; there’s plenty of great music to choose from. Yet, for some reason, many American orchestras still haven’t figured that out.

Orchestras all over the country traditionally celebrate the annual marker of our sovereignty with a bombastic concert, replete with fireworks and all sorts of other extra-musical hoo-ha. But while our native Sousa frequently gets trotted out for this special occasion, more often it’s Tchaikovsky’s historically inappropriate 1812 Overture. In fact, according to the Washington Post‘s Tim Page, 1812 is the only bonafide orchestral composition being played in our nation’s capital during the National Symphony Orchestra’s official July 4 D.C. Mall concert, amidst myriad onstage cameos by various television personalities.

Do those bombastic cannons really evoke something innately American? It would be difficult considering the fact that Tchaikovsky’s overdone kitsch compendium was written about a war that happened 36 years later, as well as somewhere else in the world (the Russian defeat of Napoleonic forces). And besides, shouldn’t national pride demand homegrown music instead? By ignoring our own music on our own day of independence and instead playing music created on another continent, and indeed the one from which we seceded, aren’t we acting like we’re still a colonial territory?

Of course, as Tim Page rightly pointed out, the United States has articulated its independence from Europe through jazz and rock, two American-born musical genres which are now emulated throughout the world. But Americans have also created an enormous amount of worthwhile orchestral repertoire and what musical entity captures the metaphor of disparate colonies coming together as effectively as the multi-timbred union of sonorities that is the orchestra? At least in New York City—despite the fact that New York had actually abstained from supporting the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776—the NY Phil will be playing Sousa tomorrow along with works by fellow Americans Bernstein and Gershwin. Plus they’re doing a world premiere by Kevin Puts: now that’s independent. What is your local orchestra playing tomorrow?

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6 thoughts on “Independence Day

  1. philmusic

    I always found it odd that we celebrated our independence day with a composition by a Russian, lately our adversary, that describes a victory over the French, our original allies, by the British, our original oppressors.

    Perhaps we Americans need a better sense of self.

    Phil’s Page

  2. philmusic

    “Do those bombastic cannons really evoke something innately American? It would be difficult considering the fact that Tchaikovsky’s overdone kitsch compendium was written about a war that happened 36 years later,”

    Frank, are you sure? I think 1812 was composed in the 1880’s?

  3. bob schneider

    There is more American music being performed today ,than meets the eye.
    In Cincinnati,the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is celebrating America’s birthday with a “Red,White& Blue “concert. The United states Army Field Band and Soldier’s Chorus are guest artists.
    In Wurzburg Germany,my daughter and son in law-Duo46 are celebrating with a concert featuring works by some of their American commissioned composers(Dan Asia,Kenneth Froelich,Geoffrey Gordon,Brian Hulse).

  4. Frank J. Oteri

    History Time Line
    Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture may have been composed in the 1880s but that doesn’t change the fact that it was “written about a war that happened 36 years later” than the American Revolutionary War since 1812 is 36 years after 1776. Sorry if that sentence was oblique… Happy July 4th!

  5. greyfeeld

    Last year I finished writing a comic classical music murder-mystery (email me at greyfeeld @ if y’all want to see a few chapters) in which the same “why are we playing 1812 when it’s about a British victory” question gets asked. The “good” conductor — the bad conductor is the one who gets murdered — programmes Ives’ Second on July 4th, so that the fireworks go off during the last two minutes of the symphony, when several different ‘Americana’ strands are going triple-forte. I’d like to live to see a live performance with that going on; I think Ives would’ve been pleased.
    — robert bonotto


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