You Gotta Know These American Composers

  • George Gershwin’s (1898–1937) music blended classical traditions and genres with jazz and popular idioms. His “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924) and “Concerto in F” (1925) both feature solo piano and orchestra, while “An American in Paris” (1928) and “Cuban Overture” (1932) were inspired by his trips abroad. The lyrics for his vocal works were often written by his brother Ira; two of his best-known songs, “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm,” appeared in his Broadway musical Girl Crazy (1930). His opera Porgy and Bess (1935), which included the song standards “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” featured an entirely African-American cast.
  • Aaron Copland (1900–1990) was one of a litany of American composers who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, for whom Copland wrote the solo keyboard part in his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924; revised as Symphony No. 1 in 1928). “El Salón México” (1936) was the first of his highly successful “Populist” works based on folk or folk-like themes, which also included his three major ballets: Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944). His opera The Tender Land (1954) included the chorus “The Promise of Living.” Copland utilized modified serial techniques in his later works; he composed very little in his last 25 years.
  • Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) was a prolific composer and conductor who gave numerous televised “Young People’s Concerts” during his eleven-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic (1958–1969). His concert works include his Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah” (1942), and a jazz clarinet concerto premiered by Benny Goodman: “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” (1949). Bernstein is best known for his works for the stage, which include the musical West Side Story (1957), the ballet Fancy Free (1944), and the operetta Candide (1956; revised 1989). He also composed the score for the 1954 film On the Waterfront.
  • Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) was an Austrian composer who emigrated to the U.S. in 1934. Schoenberg was the leading figure and mentor of the “Second Viennese School,” which also included Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who were Schoenberg’s students. In 1908, Schoenberg began composing atonal music, which has no tonic pitch or key center. He also developed the twelve-tone method of composition, one of the most influential musical styles of the 20th century and first fully realized in his Suite for Piano, Op. 25 (1923). His other musical innovations include the technique of klangfarbenmeoldie (“tone-color melody”), which was used in the third movement of his Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909).
  • Philip Glass (1937–present) was a minimalist composer who is best known for his trilogy of “Portrait Operas,” which include Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagraha (1979), and Akhnaten (1983). Einstein on the Beach is particularly notable for its use of solfege syllables and numbers in place of a standard libretto. Glass’s style is heavily influenced by Indian musical traditions, and focuses on additive processes; this focus can be seen in his early minimal works “Strung Out” (1967) and “Music in Fifths” (1969). Glass is a prolific composer of film scores; his most prominent include his scores for The Truman Show, The Hours, and Notes on a Scandal.
  • Samuel Barber (1910–1981) was a classicist composer best known for his “Adagio for Strings” (1936), which he adapted from his String Quartet, and which was premiered under the baton of legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini. Other major orchestral works include his Piano Concerto (1962), his ballet score Cave of the Heart (1947) based on the Greek tale of Medea, and his single-movement “First Symphony” (1936, revised 1943). His vocal works include “Dover Beach” (1931) and “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (1947). For much of Barber’s life, he maintained a romantic relationship with opera composer Gian-Carlo Menotti. His first opera, Vanessa (1958), won the Pulitzer Prize; his second major opera, Antony and Cleopatra (1966), was a flop.
  • Charles Ives (1874–1954) was a modernist, experimental composer whose programmatic works often utilize polytonality (more than one active key center at a time), quote extensively from folk songs and earlier classical works, and have distinctly “American” themes. Ives, who worked in the insurance industry, was not widely-recognized as a composer until late in his life. His Piano Sonata No. 2 (1915), the “Concord” sonata, depicts four leading figures of the transcendentalist movement. His Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting” (1947), was awarded the 1947 Pulitzer Prize. Other notable works include the suite Three Places in New England (1914) and “The Unanswered Question” (1906).
  • John Cage (1912–1992) was an experimentalist composer whose works are known for aleatoric (chance-based) composition and other forms of indeterminacy. His best-known piece, 4’33” (1952), is created from the ambient sounds of the concert space while the performer(s) sits silently on stage. His Music of Changes (1951), as well as numerous other works, were written utilizing the Chinese I Ching to determine musical content. Cage’s other innovations include works for “prepared piano,” a piano which has had various objects inserted into its strings. A 639-year-long organ performance of his “As Slow As Possible” (1987) is currently underway in Germany, having begun in 2001.
  • John (Coolidge) Adams (1947–present) was a minimalist composer whose music, like that of Charles Ives, often features an “American” program. Adams may be best known for his opera Nixon in China (1987), which dramatizes the 1972 presidential visit and meeting with Mao. His other operas include Doctor Atomic (2005), which is about the Manhattan Project. He composed “On the Transmigration of Souls” (2002) to memorialize the September 11th attacks; that work received the Pulitzer Prize. Other major works for orchestra include Harmonium (1980), Harmonielehre (1985), Shaker Loops (1978), and his Violin Concerto (1993).
  • Stephen Sondheim (1930–present) is one of the most celebrated lyricists and composers in musical theater. Sondheim’s career has included 8 Tony Awards. He was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rodgers and Hammerstein), and was the lyricist for West Side Story, working alongside composer Leonard Bernstein. Musicals for which he was both lyricist and composer include Company (1970), a series of scenes about an unmarried bachelor and his married friends; Sweeney Todd (1979), about a barber’s murderous quest for revenge; Into the Woods (1987), a dark mash-up of several fairy tales; and Sunday in the Park with George (1984), which portrays a fictionalized version of painter Georges Seurat and won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

This article was contributed by NAQT editor Jason Thompson.

Back to the You Gotta Know homepage.