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.

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