To Shape a Nation

To Shape a Nation

Earlier this week, NPR broadcasted an illuminating story about an exhibit at the Library of Congress titled “Books That Shaped America.” For the exhibit, the LoC has gathered 88 books—ranging from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos—which in some way “encapsulated and reflected a moment of time in America that Americans understood and recognized in themselves.” Historians, curators, poets, scientists, and literary experts all took part in the culling and selecting of the titles, and during the segment it doesn’t take long for the host to bring on a book critic from the Washington Post to point out what books did not make it onto the final list.

In any case, a story like this immediately begs the question: “What about music?” One could argue that music has had as strong of an impact on this country and its people as books have had, and over the years there have been quite a few attempts at addressing that question. In 2000, for instance, NPR went through a similar process as the Library of Congress and put together an initial list of 300 works that they subsequently reduced down to the “100 most important American musical works of the 20th century.”

On that initial list of 300, the selected concert works were as follows:

1. Adagio for Strings (Barber)*

2. African-American Symphony (Still)

3. Amahl and the Night Visitors (Menotti)

4. Appalachian Spring (Copland)*

5. Ballet Mechanique (Antheil)

6. Drumming (Reich)*

7. Ebony Concerto (Stravinsky)

8. Einstein on the Beach (Glass)

9. Fanfare for the Common Man (Copland)

10. “4:33” (Cage)*

11. Grand Canyon Suite (Grofe)*

12. Hymn and Fuguing Tunes Series (Cowell)

13. In C (Riley)

14. The Incredible Flutist (Piston)

15. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (Barber)

16. Moby Dick (Mennin)

17. Nixon in China (Adams)

18. Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord Sonata” (Ives)

19. Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin)*

20. String Quartet No. 3 (Carter)

21. Susannah(Floyd)

22. Symphony No. 1 (Zwilich)

23. Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” (Hansen)

24. Symphony No. 3 (Harris)

25. Symphony No. 3 (Riegger)

26. Symphony No. 3 (Schuman)

27. Symphony of Psalms (Stravinsky)*

28. Symphony of Rage and Remembrance (Corigliano)

* works that were selected for the 100 top works list

During the NPR segment I mentioned above, they took several calls to hear about how this or that book affected a particular person’s life, and it’s here where I think this exercise might be valuable and/or enlightening. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that a very few of these pieces actually resonated with the majority of the country as a whole (Appalachian Spring is probably as close to a publicly recognizable national concert work as we have). However, I would think that at least a few of these works (and many others) were important in shaping the lives of individual composers and performers here in the U.S. today.

To take that one step further, the idea of discovering what works of American origin have become shared experiences between American composers that transcend generation, education, and environment is an interesting one. Yes, one could rightly open up such an exercise to works from outside the U.S., but, as with the Library of Congress’s exhibit, there is value in discovering what effect art has on the native population where it was created—especially in such a heterogeneous population such as ours. We in the arts have prided ourselves on being so open to influences from around the world that I’m afraid we haven’t taken enough time to look at how we are affected, with certain exceptions (various popular/vernacular genres, etc.), by home-grown influences.

When I speak of influences, there are many different ways that a musical work can influence a composer or performer. In my own career, I can distinctly remember listening to Michael Torke’s CD Javelin in 1996 and being very surprised by it, especially the chamber work Adjustable Wrench. I had primarily had experiences in jazz and I was living in Los Angeles becoming immersed in the film music scene, so my concept of what concert music was at that time was till pretty “crunchy.” After listening to the CD several times, I realized that all those angular, dissonant associations I had with concert music might not be the only option any more. Soon I came across other composers who were writing more diatonically—Lauridsen, Pärt, Gorecki—and while most of my music today has no relationship to any of those works or composers, discovering those works did ultimately help to convince me that I might want to try my hand at being a concert composer.

Below are two questions to readers—feel free to answer either one or both. I’m not looking to create a ranking or a “Best Of…”, but rather to begin to build a picture of which American works have been influential to composers and performers active today. Thanks in advance for taking part!

1. What American concert work or works have somehow influenced you personally, artistically, or otherwise?

2. What American concert work or works would you add to NPR’s list of music that you think has had an important impact on the country as a whole?

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19 thoughts on “To Shape a Nation

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    I’m not an American performer nor composer, but there are pieces that I missed on the list:


    (and all of the above have been a PERSONAL influence!)

  2. Frank J. Oteri

    Actually I must point out a seeming gaffe, not in Rob’s excellent post, but in NPR’s list of 28 pieces.

    Included on that list are two works by Igor Stravinsky who spent the last three decades of his life in the United States and became a naturalized American citizen. It is perfectly understandable and appropriate that his 1945 Ebony Concerto, a work composed after his arrival here and deeply informed by American musical idioms (it was written for jazz great Woody Herman), should be featured on this list. However, the inclusion of Symphony of Psalms from 1930 doesn’t sit well with me. While it is one of my all-time favorite Stravinsky pieces and was in fact commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony, it was composed by Stravinsky in France while he was still a resident there, and long before he had relocated to the USA. It also actually received its first performance, not in Boston, but in Brussels a week earlier under the baton of the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet. Symphony of Psalms is one of the towering works of early 20th century European neo-classicism, but it has little to do with our own musical history.

    A much more appropriate choice of a Koussevitzky BSO commission from a European émigré who relocated to the United States around the same time as Stravinsky did would have been Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a work composed completely in the United States in 1943 and premiered here the following year. Of course, there are many other extraordinary American works by composers who emigrated here from war-torn Europe during that era–including Paul Hindemith’s deeply moving When Lilacs Last in the Doorward Bloom’d – A Requiem for Those We Love (a setting of Walt Whitman composed to honor the memory of FDR and all who died in World War II), the final string quartet and the two concertos (violin and piano) of Arnold Schoenberg, and all of the symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů–all works that we frequently forget are actually ours!

    1. mclaren

      Excellent and admirably erudite points by Frank Oteri. I’d also like to nitpick another tiny issue. If the list is going to include Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland, why not substitute Copland’s Symphony No. 3 which includes a reworked version of Fanfare for the Common Man? Copland’s third symphony is a more substantial piece than the Fanfare and looms larger in his oeuvre IMHO.

      Since we’re blue-skying it here, I’d ditch lightweight fluff like the Menotti opera and dump the naturalized Europeans like Bartok and Stravinsky from list and add some electronic pieces to the list of 100 most influential American compositions. There’s also a grotesque and inexplicable lack of women composers, who as a group are producing the best American music today.

      William Schottstaedt Colony V (arguably the greatest American composition of the last 50 years)
      Tod Dockstader Luna Park
      Conlon Nancarrow Player Piano Studies (Nancarrow completed a lot of them before 1955, when he finally became a naturalized Mexican citizen)
      Harry Partch Plectra and Percussion Dances
      Ivor Darreg Excursions In the Enharmonic
      Easley Blackwood Twelve Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media
      Alice Shields The Transformation of Ani
      Mikel Rouse Quorum
      Maryann Amacher Sound Characters I and II
      Kyle Gann Nude Descending an Escalator
      Michael Gordon Yo, Shakespeare!
      John Chowning Turenas
      Joan Tower Silver Ladders
      Aaron Jay Kernis Symphony In Waves
      Michael Daugherty Route 66
      David Diamond Symphony No. 3
      Pull the fun but lightweight Henry Cowell Hymn and Fuguing Tune on the list and substitute Cowell’s much better Concerto for Rhythmicon and Orchestra from 1933
      Henry Brant
      Meteor Farm
      David Tudor Rain Forest
      Pauline Oliveros Sonic Meditations
      Ussachevsky & Luening Fantasy In Space (actually this just by Luening, I think)
      Alan Hovanhess Symphony No. 2 (Mysterious Mountain)
      Lou Harrison Suite for Violin and American Gamelan
      Pull the crackpot schlockmusik by the Coin-Flipping Kook (call the silence between pieces that “composition” if you like) and substitute Barbara Benary’s Mother of Lion
      Susan Rawcliff Mastodon Stew
      Tom Nunn Black Lightning
      Charlemagne Palestine Schlingen Blaengen
      Tom Johnson An Hour For Piano
      Wendy Carlos Beauty In the Beast
      Skip LaPlante Glyptodont
      Ruth Crawford Seeger Study In Mixed Accents
      Zoe Keating Natoma
      Gloria Coates Symphony No. 7
      Pamela Z Echolocation
      Meredith Monk Dolmen Music
      Elodie Lauten Music for the Trine
      Laurie Spiegel Expanding Universe
      Frances White Birdwing
      Richard Karpen Il Nome
      Eleanor Hovda Borealis Music
      Johanna Beyer Three Movement For Percussion
      James Tenney Noise Study
      Kenneth Gaburo Lemon Drops
      Warren Burt (he’s a dual Australian-American citizen, even though he became a naturalized Aussie) Portrait of Erv Wilson in Saws
      Cindy McTee Metal Music

  3. Matthew

    A late-summer wrangling with musical lists? OK, I’m in. But I think I’ve reached the point where I find wrestling with the taxonomy of such lists more fun than making a list itself.

    For example, that NPR list has its moments, but it too often commits the sin (as almost all such lists do) of confusing fame—either the fame of a particular piece, or the piece that first made a particular performer famous—with influence. “All or Nothing at All” is a great record, but how much of the musical landscape ended up sounding like Harry James? The sound of Sinatra’s later collaborations with Nelson Riddle have been far more influential, and for a longer time. Likewise, to my ears, Sondheim’s Follies and Company have had more influence on the sound and the style of subsequent musical theater than A Chorus Line, for all its success, ever had.

    Then again, sometimes fame does result in influence: mclaren might not like John Cage much, but I would think that, if you’re talking about the musical life of the country as a whole, he’s been way more influential than mclaren’s entire list put together, just because he’s almost always the first—and possibly only—experimental composer most people encounter. (I learned about Maryanne Amacher in college; I learned about John Cage when I was six, because 4’33” was in the Guinness Book of World Records.)

    And then there’s the difference between lists of influential pieces, and lists of personally influential pieces, which really just tend to be lists of favorite pieces. But, if I try to exercise a little bit of self-awareness when I make them, lists of personal influence, I’ve found, can go in three directions: those pieces that made me want to be a composer, those pieces that I stole the most from, and those pieces that best epitomize whatever subculture(s) where I felt most at home. There’s some overlap: for me, Scott Joplin and Gershwin figure in all three categories, Sondheim and Carter in the latter two, for instance. But there’s plenty of composers that would only figure in category #1, without which, nevertheless, there wouldn’t be categories 2 or 3. How does one rank that sort of influence?

    In terms of large-scale influence, I also find it fun to think in three different ways:

    Semiotic permanence. Copland is the obvious example: that sound—the Appalachian Spring sound—will forever be used to evoke America. Think of any musical dialect that can immediately, effortlessly be stylistically categorized by even non-musicians, and there will be somebody, or some piece, similarly influential behind it. (A lot of the NPR list is kind of like this, although the list of 300 is better than the list of 100, which tends to opt for pieces that leverage the semiotic signaling rather than establish it.)

    Stylistic cartography. Those pieces that influence other composers in their musical trajectory, either positively or negatively. Or both. Example: if you add up the number of composers who were inspired to imitate it and the number of composers who were inspired to completely reject it, I’d bet Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations (just because it’s the most widely anthologized piece of total serialism I know of) has got to be a pretty influential piece.

    Generational DNA. Then there’s that music that is so ubiquitous that it becomes influential by osmosis among those of an impressionable age. I find this the hardest one to pick out in previous generations—you almost have to live through it to notice it. But, for example, if you’re a composer who was living in America and hitting puberty anytime between, say, 1975 and 1990, whether you choose to admit it or not, John Williams has influenced your musical thinking.

    This doesn’t even get into influence outside of music, the sort of thing that landed “We Shall Overcome” on the NPR list. This too, I realize, can work on the personal level as well: Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” has had a pretty negligible influence on my musical development, but those three minutes of my 8th-grade dance were pretty sweet.

  4. Brighton

    Most of those pieces are derivative of European music. The only original American classical concert music I can think of came from Ives. “Three Places in New England” is far and away the finest expression of American culture in the symphonic literature. Except maybe Varese “Ameriques,” but he was technically French.

  5. Scott

    I don’t quite have time to go into this fully, but I’m always bummed out at how these lists are pretty much 100% orchestral music. How about we add some things like:

    “The Lordly Hudson” – Rorem
    “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” – Rzewski
    “Alleluia” – Thomson
    spiritual arrangements – Moses Hogan
    “Concord” sonata – Ives
    “…and the mountains rising nowhere” – Schwantner

    and so on. Piano music, chamber music, vocal music, choral music, band music… always these things get almost entirely excluded from such lists, and I think it’s a crying shame.

      1. Alvaro Gallegos

        That Rzewski piece is definitely a masterpiece. Along with the Concord Sonata, may well be the greatest American piece for keyboard.

        And let’s not forget the fact that it is based on a theme by the Chilean composer Sergio Ortega (1938-2003), a name that deserves more worldwide attention (and he already have a lot of attention).

  6. Rob Deemer

    Just a note – I put up the NPR list simply as a comparative model to the LoC exhibit. My interest is to see what works have influenced current composers and performers, not to set about criticizing the list (which would be too easy). Let us know what works have affected, inspired, or changed you in some way – thanks!


  7. david toub

    Invariably, lists like this end up being pretty inane and immaterial. Generally, they tend towards being more “music that I personally love” than music that is “the best” (whatever that means, and I’d argue it doesn’t mean much of anything).

    In terms of actually “shaping the nation,” I would argue that while many of these works are great, it’s hard to see how most of them really had any effect on the US listenership. I love An Hour for Piano and nearly everything Palestine has written as much or more than the next person. But ask most people about either Palestine or Tom Johnson and they will have no idea about whom you speak (indeed, they will think Palestine refers to the occupied country, not the composer). And no offense to the Carter supporters out there, but I’m not seeing how his third string quartet shaped our nation’s music.

    But if you’re interested in the top US music (which, sorry, doesn’t include Bartòk or Stravinsky or Varése), how is it that the person who is arguably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, composer anywhere in the past 50 years is not on this list: Morton Feldman?

    And yeah, what’s with the hate directed at John Cage? Love his music or not, he was one of the few original composers ever (the others, I’d say, include Bach, Feldman, Partch, Ives and maybe Glass).

  8. David Toub

    Agreed. That’s because prettying everything Feldman wrote, to use his own words, was “a fucking masterpiece.”

    I would still respectfully nominate his String Quartet 2 and Piano and String Quartet.

  9. Philipp Blume

    Classical music does not shape this nation and never has. Classical music is far too tied up with the status quo, socially speaking. That does not mean to say that Americans never wrote inspiring, groundbreaking works of music, though. It’s just that these have subsisted in a very limited social context.

  10. Pingback: The 100 Most Important American Musical Works of the 20th Century | Classical 101 - WOSU Public Media

  11. Chaz

    While this excerise is overwhelmingly subjective, I am disappointed that folks like Feldman, Crumb, Babbitt, Rouse, Higdon, and certainly dozens of others were overlooked (I haven’t seen David Lang’s name on this thread at all).


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