Our Vanishing Repertoire

I’m generally not a fan of the “doom-and-gloom”-style article proclaiming the Death of Classical Music. Hasn’t the state of music always been lousy? Want proof? See Ned Rorem’s “Our Music Now (1984)” in Settling the Score: Essays on Music. But I have to say, there’s something that has been occupying my thoughts of late, which is the disappearance of American music. I’m not talking about contemporary music, per se. I’m talking about the body of American music, mainly composed during the second half of the 20th century.

First off, let’s have a game: Name one piece of orchestral music by an American composer that could be considered a part of the classical canon.

“That’s easy!” you say. “There are at least four by Aaron Copland.”

Fine. Now let’s talk about just one of those—arguably the composer’s most beloved masterpiece—Appalachian Spring. How many performances across this great land of ours do you think this work receives in a given season?

“Impossible to know. No one keeps track of that kind of thing, do they?”

Actually, yes they do. During the 2010-11 season, Appalachian Spring, in all its various incarnations, was performed on a grand total of eight orchestral concert series. (Within that group of eight were several repeat performances, so the overall number of hearings was actually 20.) Now, how did I know that?

Statistics for orchestral performances are tracked on an annual basis by the League of American Orchestras. (The 2010-11 season is the last one for which published statistics are available.) Among the various trends they watch are the number of performances of American music, by both living and dead composers, as well as specific statistics for contemporary music (defined as music composed within the past 25 years of the survey date). Of course, this only includes member orchestras, so there is some margin of error to be expected. And you should know that member orchestras include both university and youth orchestras, so it’s not entirely a portrait of professional music-making, strictly speaking. In general, however, it’s a pretty reliable measuring stick of a composer or work’s popularity. If you’re reading this, chances are that you know all this already, since I am neither the first nor the most enlightened commenter on such matters. Instead, what I wish to do is illustrate that really great American masterworks, like Appalachian Spring, are not heard as often as one might suppose. Furthermore, the broader picture of the vitality of American music isn’t exactly super rosy.

Compared to the most frequently performed non-American composers, our native music is heard relatively seldom. For example, the most frequently performed piece during the 2010-11 season was Brahms’s First Symphony, which was played 34 times. Compared to Appalachian Spring‘s 20 performances, Copland really doesn’t fare too shabbily. However, if we compare the total number of performances of ALL Copland’s works (35) to Brahms’s (178), the gap widens. Compare him to Beethoven (the most frequently played composer), and it’s even wider: Beethoven’s music was played 276 times.

“Well, now wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “that’s Beethoven we’re talking about! It’s not fair to compare Copland to Beethoven.”

You’re right (and I do love me some Beethoven!). But perhaps there’s another way to look at this. If you take ALL the music that was performed during the 2010-11 season and figure out how much of it was written by American composers, then it comes to very nearly 20% (19.5%, to be exact). That’s comparing the total number of works played versus the number of American works. Still, not too shabby: One in five pieces performed during the survey year was by an American. And I’ll agree that that’s pretty good given America’s relatively shorter music history as compared with Europe’s.

But if we slice it a little more finely by comparing the total number of PERFORMANCES of all those non-American pieces to the number of performances of American music, the figure drops to only 14.3%. Actually, I think the numbers are skewed, since one of our “American” composers according to the survey, is IGOR STRAVINSKY!!

Yes, Stravinsky ended up as an American citizen, but I don’t believe I’m alone in thinking that his is not the first name that comes to mind when conjuring an image of “American Music.” Otherwise, I’d have stopped writing after one paragraph, once we’d all agreed that the Firebird Suite indeed rocks and American music is doing quite well, thank you very much!

You see, Stravinsky’s music was performed 86 times during the 2010-11 season, which makes him our most frequently performed American composer. If we simply adjust the figures a little by taking Stravinsky completely out of the picture, then the overall percentage of performances by Americans drops to just 12.2%. Perhaps you don’t think that’s fair. (Or worse, you might think it’s a little jingoistic. Don’t get me wrong—I love me some Stravinsky!) So let’s compromise: We’ll count only those works of Stravinsky composed during his time as an American citizen (post-1945), okay?

When we do that, we see that the percentage skyrockets all the way back up to . . . 12.4%. That’s right. Of the 86 total performances of Stravinsky’s music, only eight of them were of pieces composed during his American period. All of which just helps to illustrate my main point here, which is that, since 1945, we really have almost no American music that has entered the standard repertoire.

You’re probably thinking, “What about Bernstein?”

Yes, what about Bernstein? I think we could agree that the Overture to Candide and the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” count as repertoire works. And both of those pieces were composed after 1945. (There’s the debate about genre, but I don’t really care too much about that.) That being said, both works combined for a whopping total of only nine performances. Oh, well.

By now, you’re either bored or bummed (or both). But I am driving at something here, which is this: There’s a ton of great American music out there just waiting to be played. And I have a hunch that both orchestras and audiences might like it. The question is, will any conductors (or arts administrators) take it on?

Some time ago, I harbored a fantasy of something called “The American Season.” This was around the time that the New York Philharmonic seemed to have a Beethoven/Brahms/Tchaikovsky Year every other season. In a “Beethoven Year,” the orchestra would perform a cycle of the nine symphonies, and a bunch of other stuff, too, of course. (The same goes for Brahms’s four symphonies, etc.) Now, granted, that’s not going to win any creative programming awards, but I actually appreciate that basic thematic approach. I was just sort of hoping that they’d do something like commit to an entire season of nothing but American music. And, yes, they could even do Stravinsky!

Realistically, I knew that would never happen, but it sure could be cool! Perhaps another orchestra could do it—one that doesn’t have a full season—like the aptly named American Symphony Orchestra. And just to plant a seed (since programming takes years and years to plan), 2026 will mark our nation’s 250th birthday. (This is assuming, somewhat optimistically, that there will still be such a thing as a symphony orchestra in this country ten years from now.) So time to get planning!

And now, for the REALLY BIG POINT I’m hoping to make: What music will this brave American orchestra play?? Yes, please, some commissioned premieres—of course we need new music. But we also deserve to hear some music composed between 1945 and 2000 that has effectively vanished from the repertoire. To help (you big, brave orchestra, you!), I’ve put together a little list of pieces that I think are repertoire worthy. I was inspired by the recently published list that Pierre Boulez put together for WNYC. Like his, this is a list that is biased by my own predilection for a certain kind of music (though I did decide ultimately to leave my own work off the list!). But I’m also trying to be even handed here. I want to see some women and non-white composers in the canon, dammit!

What qualifies for inclusion, other than my taste? I decided to include works that are for orchestra only (in other words, no soloists or chorus, etc.). All the pieces date from 1945-2000. I had initially thought to include only works for full orchestra, but in the end included one piece for strings, which I think is a must. I also thought about what might have a chance at really making it into the standard rep. This means the works have to be rewarding enough for both players and audiences. You may disagree with the selections, but so be it! I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments, if you have them.

Ready?? I realize that there are some really well-known pieces on this list. But I feel that, despite their reputation or prominence in the history books, these works are underplayed. (I wasn’t going for novelty here.) So here we go, in chronological order:


1. George Walker (b. 1922), Lyric for Strings (1946)

This work is a kind of reflection of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but it’s less tragic in tone. The piece has certainly gotten its fair share of performances—it is especially popular in academic and youth orchestra settings—but I haven’t heard it in a long time. And, dare I say, it suffers from the “Let’s program this piece during Black History Month” mentality. No. This is a great work. Play it all the time. Play it on a Tuesday in October! For the record, there is also a lot more great music by Walker to explore. And because he is a composer whose music is difficult, that’s all the more reason our greatest orchestras should take it on. (Ever notice the abundance of laudable, but in the end so-so, recordings of tricky, thorny music? And you just think to yourself, “Man. Chicago could really shred this. Wish I could hear THAT!”)

Go straight to 3:51 to hear Philly’s lush performance:

2. Walton Piston (1894-1976), Symphony No. 4 (1950)

It’s difficult to choose from amongst the eight symphonies of Walter Piston—they share many common traits. However, the Fourth Symphony stands out for me because of its immediacy and lyricism. Piston is usually at his best in the energetic finales to these larger pieces. There is rhythmic drive and instrumental sparkle dripping from nearly every bar in the closing movement of this work. I also think his little known Toccata from 1948 is a perfect curtain raiser. It’s not been commercially recorded, and it should get played, and soon.

3. William Schuman (1910-1992), New England Triptych (1956)

To fans of American music, this is an already famous work. So there’s not much of a need to promote it. Schuman’s Third Symphony from 1941 is also a classic, but I picked this piece since it’s a little later. When Schuman is played at all, New England Triptych is usually the piece that one hears. It’s not terribly long, and is thoroughly attractive, with plenty for the average audience to dig.

4. Peter Mennin (1923-1983), Symphony No. 8 (1973)

Peter Mennin, Schuman’s successor as head of the Juilliard School, is grossly neglected. While some have attempted to revive his works (most notably David Alan Miller in Albany), he deserves a wider audience. He composed nine symphonies (sound familiar?) among many other orchestral pieces. These works all have their merits, but the Eighth is my favorite. There’s a wonderfully cinematic appeal to it, and I especially admire the way he gets going in the closing allegro, all Planet of the Apes-style ’60s goodness.

5. Ned Rorem (b. 1923), Sunday Morning (1977)

Yes, I studied with Rorem. So what? Here’s a piece that almost no one, outside a small circle of admirers, knows. It’s perhaps best known as the B-side to an Atlanta Symphony recording from the ’80s that also includes his String Symphony (another masterwork, as far as I’m concerned) and Eagles (perhaps his most widely played orchestral essay). But there’s something about Sunday Morning that I find irresistible. For anyone who studied with him, Rorem’s particular bag of tricks is immediately apparent (timp. ostinato, cello solo, etc., etc.). And yet he stands out amongst his American contemporaries to my ear as having a sound all his own. This piece is a typically Roremesque collection of miniatures—he calls it a “suite”—which includes some outstanding writing for soloists and sections within the orchestra. Ned’s orchestral music has never sounded better than in this recording, but I would really love to hear a big-time orchestra (like Atlanta today!) take this piece on. It’s just waiting for another great performance.

6. Jacob Druckman (1928-1996), Prism (1980)

Here’s another one from the history books. Druckman’s Windows from 1972 could just as easily be here as a calling card for Polish-style aleatory extravagance. But I think Prism has the leg up, being based on some early baroque masters’ music, appearing in lengthy quotes. Any way you slice it, Prism is a post-modern masterpiece.

7. John Adams (b. 1947), Harmonielehre (1985)

Perhaps you are thinking that The Chairman Dances already qualifies as a repertoire piece. Or maybe Short Ride in a Fast Machine. That may well be the case—those works have as good a chance as any to break through and continue to delight audiences long after we’re all gone. However, the piece that my composer friends and I always gush about—the one we all think is his masterpiece—is the symphonically proportioned Harmonielehre. And it’s exactly as a friend of mine recently told me: This is the 21st-century harmony textbook—the blueprint for most composers born after 1980—laying out in three lush movements exactly which notes can now go together in the new century.

8. Joan Tower (b. 1938), Silver Ladders (1986)

Joan Tower, like Adams, gets played an awful lot, and deservedly so. Silver Ladders is one of my favorite of her works, and it was the Grawmeyer-winning piece that really helped catapult her to international stardom. There are plenty of other orchestral pieces of hers to choose from, such as Sequoia and the Concerto for Orchestra. But I am partial to Silver Ladders for its wonderful balancing act between knotty orchestral textures and post-Minimilist attractiveness.


9. John Corigliano (b. 1938), Symphony No. 1 (1989)

Yes, I studied with Corigliano, too. So sue me! Admirers of Corigliano tend to have their pet favorite works. I happen to adore Three Hallucinations and the unparalleled Clarinet Concerto. But I’ve decided to include the First Symphony since it really is a work that marks a place and time in history. It’s one of his most cathartic pieces, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t get played whenever an orchestra is looking to program a “really big piece,” like Mahler or Shostakovich.

10. Christopher Rouse (b. 1949), Symphony No. 2 (1994)

I was going to put down Gorgon (1984), but in the end I felt that 17 minutes of hard-driven fast music might not quite make it into the popular canon. Don’t get me wrong—Gorgon is a masterpiece of unbridled orchestral power which has a surprisingly soft side. While there’s plenty of noise being made by the percussion, which plays almost non-stop, the scoring is incredibly detailed and at times delicate. At any rate, I think the Second Symphony is equally marvelous. Its lovely three-movement framework (where the outer movements are related on almost every level) is especially ingenious. And it’s got an ending that will bring the house down. So why not?

I realize that you might be thinking that the likes of Adams, Tower, Corigliano, and Rouse aren’t suffering from neglect. And you’d be right. They represent some of the most oft-performed living composers. But that’s not the point of this essay. Rather, I’m concerned that, given the trends in programming currently holding sway, even these acknowledged living masters might not have any works in the permanent repertoire. And of course this list of ten pieces isn’t nearly long enough to include all the other composers who could be here. (I will be adding a list of chamber works as a kind of companion to this.) Think of it as a conversation starter. So whose music would YOU like to hear next time you’re at the symphony?

This entry was posted in Listening. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *