Michael Daugherty – Metropolis Symphony (1993)

Michael Daugherty (b. 1954) is one of America’s most well known contemporary composers. Daugherty, who studied with such greats as Milton Babbitt, Luciano Berio, and György Ligeti, was personally encouraged by Leonard Bernstein, who heard some of his music during a summer at Tanglewood, to find a way to integrate popular culture into his music. Daugherty has written a number of pieces which attempt to do this, but the one that launched him to international recognition was his Metropolis Symphony.

Metropolis Symphony is a five movement work based on the Superman comic book series. The piece was written between 1988 and 1993 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in comics. Each of its five movements – in order: Lex, Krypton, Mxyzptlk, Oh, Lois!, & Red Cape Tango – was commissioned by a different ensemble, and each one is a response to a specific aspect of the Superman comics. Initially, the first four movements were conceived as separate (but related) works, but after he finished them, DC Comics released a book in which Superman was killed. David Zinman, the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra urged Daugherty to write a final movement. After finishing this movement, Daugherty united all of the movements under the title Metropolis Symphony.

The Metropolis Symphony, in Daugherty’s own words, “evokes an American mythology that I discovered as an avid reader of comic books in the fifties and sixties.” Daugherty has compared his music to that of Charles Ives, except that instead of small-town America during the early 1900s, the America that he is trying to capture is the urban America of the late twentieth century. He has also drawn parallels between his work and the “pop art” of Roy Lichtenstein, because he combines popular genres with serious art, creating a serious form of expression that is still relatable to the average person. Like many other pieces of American music (and American art in general), this piece attempts to make high art accessible to members of the general public by incorporating aspects of popular culture. This is achieved not only by using Superman as the subject matter, but through the styles of music that are integrated into Daugherty’s own personal style. In the piece, Daugherty utilizes “idioms of jazz, rock, and funk”, and in the last movement, tango, combining them with his typical avant-garde symphonic compositional style.

The Metropolis Symphony is also notable for injecting greater emotional depth into a subject which had previously been seen as largely superficial, something it does particularly well in the fifth movement, which is entitled Red Cape Tango, and which Daugherty claims is the only truly programmatic movement. In this movement, Daugherty depicts Superman’s death in a fight with the supervillain Doomsday – in the form of a demonic tango that is based heavily on a quotation from the famous Latin Dies Irae chant from the Gregorian mass.

Daugherty’s work serves as an example of the movement by a group of East Coast and Mid-Western composers away from the extremely popular minimalistic styles that have dominated the West Coast from the 1960s until the present. Instead, Daugherty and his colleagues, such as William Bolcom and Evan Chambers, both of which are currently, like him, composition professors at the University of Michigan, focus on counterpoint and polyphony, and compared to minimalism, a lot more on writing melodies. Their compositional technique, which they have passed on to many of their students, is quickly becoming a dominant style in contemporary American music.

Sources/Further Exploration:

Advertisements

John Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)

Short Ride in a Fast Machine is one of the Two Fanfares for Orchestra written in 1986 by John Adams (b. 1947), one of America’s most noteworthy composers. The piece, which is Adams’ biggest popular success, is quite short (as is customary for a fanfare), with a total duration of only about four minutes. However, it manages to pack a lot of content into those four minutes. It is an example of yet another new style of American music, known as postminimalism, which Adams was largely responsible for helping to introduce. Postminimalism is based heavily on many of the same concepts as minimalism, including its iconic pulsing, and the repetition of short motifs, however it is different in that the music tends to be more melodic, and features more changes in the patterns. Adams has described his music as a “rather strange marriage of the driving pulse of American minimalism and then the sensuous and emotional and expressive world of the great European masterpieces.”

John Adams was raised in New Hampshire, and learned to play and write music on the East Coast of the United States. However, as someone who appreciated both popular and art music, he found the increasing experimentalism and atonality that was prevalent among Eastern composers to be dismaying. So, drawn by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and the many other composers of the minimalist movement, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Adams drew inspiration from their works, but unlike Reich and Glass, who formed their own groups specifically for the purpose of playing their own works, he prefered to write for existing ensembles, especially the symphony orchestra. Adams became the composer in residence for the San Francisco Symphony, which premiered many of his pieces. In this way, Adams’ music, like the music of Reich and Riley, is a product of the cultural split between the American East and West that took place in the twentieth century.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine was written in the 1980s, a time of rapid technological advancement. According to Adams, the piece was inspired by an early morning ride in a sports car that he took with his brother-in-law. He has said that the piece has the “idea of excitement and thrill, and just on the edge of anxiety or terror”, which embodies how Americans may have been feeling about the developing technology during the 1980s. According to Stanley Kleppinger of Indiana University, the music evokes the feeling of a struggle to maintain control over a powerful machine, something Adams achieves through the use of rhythmic dissonance, or polyrhythms (the creation of tension by juxtaposing contrary rhythmic figures). With machines becoming increasingly powerful, it is understandable that Adams might feel motivated to write a piece like this. However, the work is very clearly not entirely about fear; it was commissioned to be the opener of a music festival, and has a celebratory character. The piece seems to predominantly convey a feeling of wonder about technology, rather than a fear of it.

Indeed, even the instrumentation of the work incorporates an aspect of the “digital revolution” of the 1980s. Two synthesizers are included in the score, and play important roles in the creating the specific color of the piece. Adams was far from the first composer to use for electronics in his music (in fact, Charles Ives called for an “ether organ”, often interpreted to mean a theremin, in his fourth symphony), but he was among the first to integrate synthesizers into the orchestra, not as soloists, or to produce unusual sounds, but as normal members. This is something that was made possible by the rapid development that took place in the field of computers.

Sources/Further Exploration:

Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians (1976)

Terry Riley’s works might be some of the first examples of minimalist music, but of all minimalist music that of Steve Reich (b.1936) definitely best embodies the movement, and none of his work does this better than Music for 18 Musicians. Published in 1976, Music for 18 Musicians is an hour-long piece written for a minimum of eighteen percussionists, vocalists, pianists, clarinetists, and string instrumentalists. However, because of its length, and the fact that all of the parts play nonstop for the entire duration, it is usually played with multiple players taking turns on each part.

In Music for 18 Musicians, Reich builds on the techniques used by Riley in In C, but also adds his own distinctive style. Like in In C, the performers are given a set of repetitive figures (called “cells”) to play, but much less is left to their discretion, as they are given directions on how and when to enter and drop out to make their parts interlock in the desired fashion. Instead of a conductor, Reich calls for specific musical cues in the vibraphone to indicate to the ensemble when major changes in the music are supposed to occur, as well as visual cues among the musicians. The piece is based on a cycle of eleven chords, and is broken into eleven sections, or “pulses”, each of which is based on a single chord.

Music for 18 Musicians was extremely important for minimalist music, and helped redefine the boundaries between American and European music, as well as the direction of contemporary art music. Music for 18 Musicians represents a milestone in the development of the minimalist movement, and in the attempts by many American composers to create genres of art that are purely American. However, for music that is supposedly so distinctly American, Reich used a lot of international influences, such as the coöperative group mentality and repetition of musical fragments from Indonesian gamelan ensembles and West African drumming, about which he learned during a trip to Ghana in 1970.

In writing this piece, Reich aimed to create what he called “beautiful music”, exemplifying yet again the common theme of public relatability in American art music. This is something in which he was apparently successful, as the original recording of the piece sold over 100,000 copies in the first two years, and even gained popularity among rock musicians, being named one of the best pop albums of 1978. Another way in which Reich makes this piece more relatable is by incorporating the sound of human breath into the music itself, making it seem more human. This and the repetition of material contribute to the piece’s hypnotic (or psycho-acoustic) texture, which can be associated with the hippie counterculture of San Francisco, where Reich lived, working closely with Terry Riley and Philip Glass.

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is recognized as one of the most important works of music written in the late 20th century. It was an extremely important piece in the development of the minimalist movement, and helped determine the direction of American art music. It was largely responsible for introducing much of the public to minimalist music, and it remains quite popular today.

Sources/Further Exploration:

Terry Riley – In C (1964)

In C, published in 1964, is the most famous piece of music by the composer Terry Riley (b.1935). It is a fascinating work in that, in a similar fashion to the music of Ives and Copland, it manages to be fairly accessible despite the fact that it is an innovative piece of contemporary art, something it does through the extensive use of simplicity. In fact, In C is considered to be among the first examples of minimalism, a brand new style of American art music which Riley helped found and popularize, along with La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Tom Johnson. Minimalist music is based on the expansion of a small amount of material into an entire work, often through the repetition of a few motifs, the use of a steady pulse, or the composition of music based on a specific set of rules. In C does all of these things.

In C isn’t written out like most pieces are, and it doesn’t even have a set instrumentation. Instead, Riley supplies a series of 53 short phrases, and a set of basic instructions on how to play them. At first, a single performer (usually on a piano or mallet instrument) provides a steady pulse of eighth notes played on a high C. Then, the other instrumentalists are instructed to play all of the given patterns consecutively, choosing on their own how many times to play each one, until all of the performers reach the final pattern, at which point each one gradually drops out. The performers are also given various directions on how to collaborate with the ensemble to produce the desired effect, but overall, they are given quite a bit of freedom. This introduces an element of chance into the music, and ensures that no two performances will sound the same.

Riley’s music, which was written during an increasingly globalized era, was influenced heavily by both American and foreign cultures. Apparent in In C are influences such as the repetitive structure of North African music, and the improvisatory elements of John Coltrane and Miles Davis – musicians whose work Riley admired. Perhaps the most substantial influence on Riley’s work was that of the growing hippie culture, which took many ideas from eastern philosophy, and sought to explore altered states of consciousness. Riley was living in San Francisco at the time that he wrote In C, and was involved in the hippie movement. He used both LSD and marijuana. The piece evokes a blissful and psychedelic feeling, stemming from its simplicity and repetitive nature. By giving the performers the freedom to play the piece the way they want, and collaborate with the rest of the ensemble to achieve a specific effect, In C also emphasizes personal freedom and responsibility, as well as coöperation within a group, which are ideals that were common among youth throughout the 1960s.

In helping found the minimalist movement, In C did a few things. First, it was a factor in creation of what was one of the largest original American art movements since transcendentalism. The foundation of minimalism represents a cultural shift within the United States from the East to the West coast, and especially California, which continues to attract new innovators, making it a spawning ground for new cultural ideas. Also, minimalism managed to make avant-garde art accessible and even enjoyable to the general public, bring art music back into popularity among the public.

Sources/Further Exploration:

Leonard Bernstein – Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp, and Percussion (1954)

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) is probably best known as one of the greatest American conductors and musical scholars of the 20th century, but he was also an influential composer. Among his many works are pieces such as the wildly popular musical West Side Story, the operetta Candide, and three symphonies. His Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”), which is generally categorized as a violin concerto, is perhaps his most famous non-theatrical work, and has been performed by many great violinists, including Joshua Bell, Gidon Kremer, and Isaac Stern. The piece, scored solo violin with strings, harp, and percussion is based on the Plato’s Symposium, the text in which he introduced the concept of Platonic love. Plato’s work takes the form of a set of speeches by seven different men, each praising a different aspect of love. Bernstein condensed some of the speakers, resulting in a five movement structure.

Bernstein did not intend to literally follow the text of Symposium, saying, “There is no literal program for this serenade.” Instead he followed the general form of the dialogue, with each movement derived from the preceding movement’s material, like a speaker addressing what the previous speaker has said. Rather than a summary of Plato’s work, the Serenade can be seen as Bernstein’s personal reaction to it. The Serenade is one of Bernstein’s more experimental and dissonant works, integrating some aspects of twelve-tone compositional techniques. In some ways, its orchestration even foreshadows Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14. In its last movement it also includes elements of jazz, much like many other prominent American works.

The Serenade seems to be an expression of Bernstein’s own moral and political views, although it is slightly cryptic, and it is hard to derive the true meaning. Bernstein was a pacifist and an advocate for international peace, and during the 1950s, there was a constant threat of war with the Soviet Union and its allies. Bernstein devoted a number of his major compositions, including as his MASS (yes, it’s actually capitalized like that), to spreading his ideals about peace. For much of his career, Bernstein was even under surveillance by the FBI, because they feared that he was a communist sympathizer.

At the time that Bernstein wrote his Serenade, he was struggling with his sexuality. Bernstein was homosexual, at a time long before this was considered acceptable by the general population. Hoping to dispel rumors about his homosexuality, he eventually married a woman only a few years before he wrote his Serenade. It is worth noting that Plato’s Symposium contains passages that argue that homosexuality should not be considered morally wrong.

Overall, Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade is a prime specimen of American 20th century music, and it is a shame that it is not more popular than it is.

Sources/Further Exploration:

Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring (1944)

Appalachian Spring is one of the most decisively American pieces of classical music ever composed. Written in 1944 for the Martha Graham Dance Company by composer Aaron Copland (1900–1990), Appalachian Spring is a short ballet which depicts a newly married Shaker couple building a home in Pennsylvania during the 1800s. Copland famously incorporated a set of variations on the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts towards the end of the ballet. Of course, by the time Copland wrote Appalachian Spring, the Shaker movement in New England had largely subsided, but something about the Shakers spoke to Copland. Later composers, such as John Adams were influenced by them as well.

Appalachian Spring was commissioned by influential modern dancer Martha Graham for her dance company. The original version, written for Graham, which was first written and performed in 1944, was scored for only 13 instruments, as this was the maximum number of players that could be fit into the Coolidge room at the Library of Congress (where the work was set to premier) while leaving room for the dancers. In 1945, Copland arranged the work for full orchestra, removing sections of music in the process which he considered to be solely choreographic. It is this version which is most often heard in concert today.

Copland did not give Appalachian Spring its title; he originally called it Ballet for Martha, which now stands as the work’s subtitle. Graham proposed the title Appalachian Spring, taking a phrase from a poem. Copland did not intend to write a piece of music symbolizing the Appalachian mountains, however this is how the piece is often interpreted. Instead, Copland was writing to tell the story of a pioneer family. The era depicted in Appalachian Spring had been over for a long time when Copland wrote the music. What inspired Copland about the Shakers was the apparent simplicity of their lives, which was something that was hard to find during the 1940s. Copland was already famous for writing profoundly simple music at a time when things were becoming complex at an increasing rate. When Copland wrote the ballet, World War II was coming to a close. Politics was becoming more unavoidably global, and the United States’ traditional individualistic philosophy, which was perfectly embodied by the Shaker pioneers portrayed in Appalachian Spring, was becoming much harder to maintain. Appalachian Spring was Copland’s way of reminiscing to what seemed like a simpler, happier time.

By writing such simple music, Copland contributed to the American tradition of simplicity. However, as in Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the apparent simplicity covers an inner complexity. There are a multitude of meter and tempo changes, and the piece contains a lot unorthodox chordal structures. In this way, Appalachian Spring is original despite its heavy reliance on tradition. Copland was able to make traditional music innovative anew. His use of the folk hymn, Simple Gifts, and melodies based on traditional American music is similar to Ives’ use of folk music and Gershwin’s use of jazz. All of these things continued the important American custom of making art music relatable to the common citizen. Copland was far from the last American composer to utilize these themes.

Appalachian Spring became one of the most popular compositions from the United States because it captured the imaginations of the people who listened to it, and embodied some of their most central values at a time when they were being tested still more extremely than before. A truly timeless work of art, it continues to have this effect today, and will likely continue to do so far into the future.

Sources/Further Exploration:

Samuel Barber – Adagio for Strings (1938)

The 1930s saw a great number of important pieces of classical music published, despite the Great Depression. In Europe, among the pieces published were Maurice Ravel’s two Piano Concerti, Dmitri Shostakovich’s iconic Symphony No. 5, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, and Carl Orff’s secular cantata, Carmina Burana. In the United States, Roy Harris published his Symphony No. 3, Roger Sessions released his Violin Concerto, and Samuel Barber wrote Adagio for Strings.

Samuel Barber (1910–1981) was one of the greatest American composers, and his Adagio for Strings is one his best loved pieces, as well as one of the most important pieces of American classical music. It was originally published in 1936 as the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, but Barber was so satisfied with it that he arranged it for string orchestra, which is the version most commonly heard today.

Adagio for Strings is a mixture of simplicity and complexity. American classical music scholar Joe Horowitz said during an NPR feature about the piece, “It sounds like Bach. Somebody who didn’t like this piece would call it ersatz Bach. I don’t think it sounds particularly American.” It’s true that a lot of the piece draws on older classical European customs. The music is very clearly tonal, and is rhythmically simple, consisting only of note values of quarter notes and longer. However, while Adagio for Strings seems conservative at first, closer investigation reveals a truly unique piece; the seemingly traditionalist surface masks a much more intricate novel structure. In a way, this reflects a long trend in American culture. The meter in the Adagio changes constantly, making it quite difficult to find a pulse within the piece. The piece, which is written in B-flat minor (a traditionally dark key), also ends on an unresolved dominant chord, which leaves the listener without closure and not fully satisfied. Both of these effects give the piece a feeling of ambiguity which adds to its emotional expressiveness. The emotion of remorse and melancholy the Adagio expresses is also appropriate for the national and worldwide situation during the Great Depression.

Nearly as important as the structure of the piece itself is the overwhelming reaction it has received since its publication. Barber realized the value of his piece before he published it, writing to a friend after he finished the original string quartet version, “It’s a knockout.” The piece was an immediate success, and continues to be one of the most popular pieces of music from the twentieth century, and has become associated with sadness and mourning. The list of people who had Adagio for Strings performed at their funerals includes Franklin D. Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein, and many members of the military. The piece has also been used in countless films. Somehow, Barber’s Adagio has managed to capture the imaginations of people from throughout the world. In fact, during the Cold War, the Adagio for Strings was one of the only American pieces allowed to be played in the Soviet Union.

Adagio for Strings is a complex work, but it in no way represents all of America during the 1930s. It only really represents a single emotion, even if that emotion was more common during this time than normal. However, Barber’s Adagio for Strings does an astonishingly good job of representing the one emotion it is meant to represent.

Sources/Further Exploration:

George Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

Rhapsody in Blue, written in 1924 by George Gershwin (1898–1937) is a pioneering piece in the development of a uniquely American style of classical music. The piece represents a dismissal of European tradition. It is essentially a short piano concerto, but it barely conforms to any of the customary parts of piano concerto form. Gershwin came out of Tin Pan Alley, where he wrote popular songs and Broadway musicals with his brother, Ira, writing the lyrics. In fact at the time when Gershwin first published Rhapsody in Blue, he didn’t know how to orchestrate music for any ensemble beside the “theater orchestra” – basically a large jazz band (also containing instruments like the banjo and accordion) with a small added string section. For this reason, he relied on Ferde Grofé, a prominent American arranger (as well as prolific composer), to do the arrangement for full symphony orchestra. Grofé made three total orchestrations of the piece: one each in 1924, 1926, and 1942. The 1942 version is the one that is most commonly performed today.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue reflects city life in the United States during the 1920s. Gershwin told a biographer that he originally conceived the work during a train ride to Boston. He said, “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang that is so often so stimulating to a composer… I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” Gershwin achieves these effects in a number of ways. One noticeable thing about the piece is that it rarely comes to a cadence, and never comes to a full stop until the end of the piece. Like an American city during the 1920s, it never completely comes to rest. Also, the piece has a distinctly mechanical character. From the two-octave clarinet glissando at  beginning of the piece the listener can tell that it is not a standard piece of classical music. Besides using a jazz orchestra, Gershwin uses many elements of jazz in Rhapsody in Blue, like syncopated rhythms and the blues scale. Gershwin was one of the first composers to successfully integrate jazz into classical music, but he was far from the last. Many other American composers from Aaron Copland to William Bolcom have been influenced by jazz. In Europe, Maurice Ravel used jazz components in his Piano Concerto in G Major, and Dmitri Shostakovich wrote two popular suites based on jazz. Gershwin also incorporated vaudeville style piano playing, Tin Pan Alley style harmony, and ragtime rhythms into his music. As with Charles Ives’ use of folk music and patriotic songs, Gershwin’s use of popular elements served to make classical music more accessible to the general public and bridge the gap between popular music and art music. This is what puts Rhapsody in Blue, as well as some of Gershwin’s other major works, like the tone poem An American in Paris, and the opera Porgy and Bess, among the most well-known pieces of American classical music.

Rhapsody in Blue symbolizes American city life during the early 1920s, but of course it isn’t a perfect representation. It depicts all of the glamorous and exciting parts of the city, without going too far below the surface. It almost makes the city seem like a constant party, and doesn’t show anything involving lower classes. However, while Rhapsody in Blue may portray an idealized (or maybe just optimistic) version of America, it creates this image unbelievably well.

Sources/Further Exploration:

Ernest Bloch – Schelomo (1916)

Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque for Violoncello and Orchestra by Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch (1880–1959) is written from essentially the opposite perspective as Ives’ Second Symphony: Ives was an American-born Christian from rural Connecticut, and Bloch a city-dwelling Jewish immigrant. Bloch first began working on the piece in his home city of Geneva, Switzerland in 1915, shortly before he moved to the United States, and it was premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1917. The piece is part of the celebrated Jewish Cycle, a series of works based on traditional Jewish music and texts in which Bloch violated many traditional western compositional conventions in favor of a more direct relationship with Jewish melodies and Eastern styles of music. (For example, he builds many of his melodies on parallel fourths and fifths; a practice that was generally condemned in classical western counterpoint, but is common in traditional Jewish folk music.)

Schelomo – the title being a transcription of the Hebrew version of the name Solomon (שְׁלֹמֹה) – is, on the surface, a musical portrait of the life of King Solomon of the Bible, based on text from the book of Ecclesiastes in which he discusses the apparent meaningless of existence. According to the composer, the solo cello represents the Solomon’s voice, and the orchestra represents “the world surrounding him and his experiences of life.” However, on a deeper level, the music is doubtlessly influenced, like the rest of the Jewish Cycle, by the conditions of Jews in the early 20th century.

During the 1910s, there was no unified Jewish state, and the Jewish people were widely dispersed throughout Europe, especially in the east. At the same time Jews were continuing to struggle with widespread anti-semitism that had been prevalent for centuries. While Bloch was a relatively successful and respected composer in Switzerland and France, he was certainly well aware of the hardships being endured by many Jews at the time he was writing, which may account for the melancholy nature of the music. Bloch said of the composition of the piece, “I was saturated with the Biblical text and, above all, with the misery of the world, for which I have always had so much compassion.”

Many Jewish people emigrated to the US between the late 1880s and the early 1920s. It was towards the end of this period that Ernest Bloch moved to America. While Schelomo could be considered European music, it had a significant effect on American art music, and set the precedent for future composers in the United States, a surprising number of which were Jewish. The music was also pioneering in its use of Jewish musical ideas in a classical setting. The piece is very valuable as a work of art from the perspective of a Jewish immigrant to the US during the early 1900s. Because of the United States’ large population of immigrants, American art music is arguably among the most international and multicultural music there is. Although it doesn’t represent the perspectives of any immigrants besides Jewish immigrants from Europe, Bloch’s great work, Schelomo is a fascinating example of this theme in the music of the United States.

Sources/Further Exploration:

Charles Ives – Symphony No. 2 (1901)

Around the turn of century, the time when Charles Ives (1874–1954) – an insurance agent from New York who moonlighted as a composer – wrote his Symphony No. 2, the American tradition of art music had only recently been established. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, now one of the most important orchestras in the United States, was founded only 20 years before the symphony was published. Similarly, the Chicago Symphony was founded ten years before, and the Philadelphia Orchestra was founded the year before the publication of the symphony – all of these during Ives’ lifetime.

Interestingly, one of the first important American works to be written in the twentieth century was essentially a retrospective on centuries previous. The work, Charles Ives’ Second Symphony, draws inspiration from western European tradition, but interprets them in a uniquely American way, and in this way can be seen as representative of much of American culture. The piece contains countless references to various popular folk songs, hymns, and marches from Ives’ childhood. It is these types of music that many of Ives’ melodies are heavily based, in a similar style to Dvořák’s New World Symphony, which was published only eight years before, in 1893. Among the songs quoted is America the Beautiful (at the time one of the US’s unofficial national anthems), which provides the basis for the third movement. The patriotic song Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean and Stephen Collins Foster’s Camptown Races and Old Black Joe, are also included, and are given a prominent role in the fifth and final movement. Some other music referred to by Ives include the popular song Long Long Ago, as well as Beethoven’s fifth symphony and Brahms’ first.

By quoting these so many famous tunes, Ives was able to achieve a few things. Firstly, he effectively depicts small town life and culture in the rural north of the United States. In no way does Ives’ symphony represent all of American culture, and Ives was quick to admit this. According to the program notes to the symphony’s debut performance (given in 1951 by the New York Philharmonic under the great conductor Leonard Bernstein) Ives once noted to his friend, “There’s not much to say about the symphony. It expresses the musical feelings of the Connecticut country… the music of the country folk. It is full of the tunes they sang and played.” Despite the humble origins of the music, the Second Symphony is a pioneering piece of music, because it is one of the first times that rural American life had been depicted in serious art, which had previously been more focused on higher class European life. Ives also managed to make the art form of the symphony – a very European musical format associated with the upper class – relevant to the average middle class American. In fact, it could be argued that it is in this piece out of his entire repertoire that Ives best succeeds at doing this, as it is this symphony that is largely seen as the most palatable of his works; written before he made many of his forays into polytonality and other more foreign compositional techniques. The attempt to make art relatable is a theme that crops up repeatedly, not only in American music, but in American art in general.

Sources/Further Exploration: