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Tracing The Spirit Of The Early American Symphony

Monday, July 15, 2013

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Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World"), B. 178 (Op. 95) (first published as No. 5) [III. Scherzo: Molto vivace]

Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 21, L. 2/6 [II. Allegretto scherzando]

Symphony in E minor ("Gaelic"), Op. 32 [Alla siciliana - Allegro vivace - Andante]

Symphony No.2 in G minor ("Sintram"), Op.50 [II. Langsam]

Symphony No. 2, for orchestra, S. 2 (K. 1A2) [V. Allegro molto vivace]

Joseph Horowitz, author of Classical Music in America, guides a tour through the American symphony in its formative years — from early knockoffs of European pieces to the resolutely homegrown sound of Charles Ives.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk.
JoAnn Falletta conducts the music of John Knowles Paine.
Istvan Kertesz conducts Dvorak.
George Whitefield Chadwick's Symphony No. 2.
Amy Beach's 'Gaelic' Symphony.
George Templeton Strong's 'Sintram' Symphony.
Leonard Bernstein conducts Ives.
Amy Beach, with her 1896

Amy Beach, with her 1896 "Gaelic" Symphony, was among America's early symphonic composers.

Leonard Bernstein, in a New York Philharmonic Young People's Concert, once summarized the late 19th century as the "kindergarten period" of American music and proceeded to make fun of George Whitefield Chadwick, Boston's leading composer from that period. But in citing Chadwick's Melpomene Overture, Bernstein stacked the deck. Because it so obviously borrows from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde Prelude, Melpomene is easy to satirize, and it hardly represents Chadwick at his best. In fact, there is no evidence that Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and others who denigrated American concert music composed before 1920 ever looked at or heard very much of it. And yet the stereotype they fostered prevails — that American composers before Copland were European clones without a voice of their own. The body of music composed by Americans before the alleged "coming of age" in the 1920s and '30s by and large remains unknown. Here is a sampling of what American symphonies sounded like in those "kindergarten" days.

Joseph Horowitz writes about American symphonies in his book Classical Music in America: A History and on his blog.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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