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25 best American composers of all time

Daniel Jaffé explores the lives and works of the USA's greatest ever composers

George Gershwin
Published: July 19, 2022 at 8:06 pm
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In a relatively short time since the mid-19th century, the United States has developed a distinctive and rich heritage of music performed in concert halls and opera houses around the world. Indigenous songs, spirituals, hymns, popular songs of the prairie, ragtime, jazz and bluegrass have all added flavour to a recognisable if well-varied style.

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Another crucial element is America’s internationally renowned film industry, which has nurtured not only specialist composers such as Bernard Herrmann and John Williams (both of whom have also attempted to make inroads in the concert hall), but also such leading concert hall composers as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and John Corigliano. A significant number of Hollywood composers – such as Korngold, Steiner, and Waxman – also represent a broader influx of composers whose parents, or the composers themselves, had fled persecution or repressive regimes, principally Russia (both Tsarist and Soviet) and Nazi Germany.

Some refugees only temporarily settled in America, but nonetheless did their part while in that country to train a talented generation: these composers included Milhaud, Martinů and Arnold Schoenberg, some of whose pupils are included in the following list. Another ‘foreign’ teacher we should mention is Nadia Boulanger, a legend among American composers (and composers of other nations) as she taught several generations at The American Conservatory at Fontainebleau (originally established to improve the standard of American band players stationed in France during World War I) – including Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Elliott Carter and many others.

So here is a representative selection of composers who have significantly contributed to all that is characteristic and best in ‘classical’ American music. We suggest at least one recommended recording for each composer – in some cases, as a bonus, we suggest a second ‘Something non-mainstream’ which either offers a lesser-known gem by that composer or a different aspect of their style.

Best American composers ever

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932)

Today most widely remembered for his marches, this composer and bandmaster created around a hundred, including Liberty Bell (1893) and The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896). Just a year before writing Liberty Bell, Sousa formed his own military band, which toured Europe at least four times and undertook a world tour in 1910-11. It was for his band that the sousaphone – a type of bass tuba designed to circle the player’s body, so making it more convenient for marching bands – was invented. Sadly, his band became victim of the Depression in 1931, just a year before its founder’s death. However, Sousa gained further posthumous fame when in the late 1960s the BBC comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus appropriated Liberty Bell as its signature tune.

Recommended recording:
A Sousa celebration
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Kristjan Järvi
Chandos CHSA5182

Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Almost by any measure – let alone the fact she was a woman making her career against considerable odds – Amy Beach is a major composer. A child prodigy, she gave her first public recital aged seven, playing works by Handel, Beethoven and Chopin, as well as her own compositions. When she moved with her family to Boston in 1875, her parents were advised that their eight-year-old daughter could enter a European conservatory. Given her age, they understandably decided to get the best musical education for her closer to home, getting professional training as a pianist, and taking a year of lessons in harmony and counterpoint.

She also effectively taught herself orchestration (working with Berlioz’s treatise) and fugue. She made several successful appearances performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, though when she married Dr HHA Beach, in deference to her husband’s wishes, she ceased performing. Instead, she devoted herself to composition: in her married years she wrote such major works as the ‘Gaelic’ Symphony, with its striking wind-swept opening, and her Piano Concerto.

After her husband’s death, Beach went to Europe in 1911 to establish herself both as a composer and performer, impressing German audiences and critics on both counts before she had to return to the States with the outbreak of World War I. Her music, bold and adventurous, absorbed elements from Scottish and Irish folk music. Her String Quartet of 1929, which quotes Inuit themes, was the first work to move away from triadic harmonies in favour of more linear textures with a level of harmonic tension that at times approaches Alban Berg in its intensity. Today Beach is recognised as the first American woman to achieve success as the composer of large-scale works including symphonies, concertos and choral works – in all she created more than 300 works in various genres.

Recommended recording:
Gaelic Symphony; Piano Concerto
Alan Feinberg (piano); Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Schermerhorn
Naxos 8.559139

Scott Joplin (?1868-1917)

One of the first Afro-American composers to now be widely celebrated, Scott Joplin started as a pianist in brothels in St Louis and Chicago, where he created the ragtime style – exemplified by his popular Maple Leaf Rag. Joplin registered the copyright of that piece in 1889, so securing a steady if never spectacular income. He used the ragtime style in his opera A Guest of Honor, forming the Scott Joplin Ragtime Opera Co. in 1903 specifically to perform it, opening in St Louis and subsequently toured to five cities. Though admired it was never published, and the music now appears to be lost. But perhaps encouraged by its apparent success, Joplin then wrote a second opera, the three-act Treemonisha, completed in 1911 with a piano score published that year. Its single concert performance in Harlem in 1915, with just piano accompaniment, was a flop. Heart-broken, Joplin died just two years later. He and his music almost slipped into obscurity until 1970 when he was rediscovered and championed by the musicologist Vera Brodsky Lawrence, and a two-volume edition of his music published the following year. With Joplin’s rags featured in the 1973 film The Sting, his popularity was secured and Treemonisha finally given a full professional staging by Houston Grand Opera in 1975.

We named Joplin one of the best black composers ever

Recommended recording:
The Entertainer: The Very best of Scott Joplin
Joshua Rifkin (piano)
Nonesuch 7559794492

Off the beaten track:
Treemonisha
Paragon Ragtime Singers & Orchestra/Rick Benjamin
New World NW 80720

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Born in the same year as Arnold Schoenberg, Charles Ives in his way was just as much a pioneering modernist. Raised in the small New England town of Danbury, Ives received an unconventional musical education from his father, the local bandmaster. George Ives encouraged his son to ‘use your ears like a man!’ He relished accidental musical effects: for instance, the effect of two bands at an outdoor event playing different pieces – all the better if they were in different keys! By the time Charles came to Yale University to study composition, he was well advanced in his experiments in writing bi-tonal and polytonal music (in which musicians play music written in contrasting keys simultaneously). Taking composition lessons from Horatio Parker, Ives composed his First Symphony while still a student.

After graduating, Ives moved to New York where he worked in insurance, eventually setting up his own successful business. He composed his increasingly experimental music in his spare time, including his remarkable, eerily timeless piece The Unanswered Question of 1906. He also wrote several songs, two piano sonatas (No. 2 being the notoriously difficult ‘Concord’), and three further symphonies, of which No. 3, ‘The Camp Meeting’, with its fond mix of old hymn tunes, barn dances and civil war songs, is the most approachable. Though completed in 1910, it was not performed until 1946, conducted by Lou Harrison (more on him anon): as a result, Ives was awarded the 1947 Pulitzer Prize, which he scorned – ‘prizes are for boys, and I’m all grown up!’ – and gave all the prize money away, half of it to Harrison.

We named Ives one of the best composers ever

Recommended recording:
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Ives
Sony 19439788332

Off the beaten track:
Romanzo di Central Park
Gerald Finley (baritone), Magnus Johnston (violin), Julius Drake (piano)
Hyperion CDA 67644

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Florence Beatrice Smith Price is the first Afro-American woman composer of national importance, noted particularly for her symphonic works. Having studied composition at the New England Conservatory in Boston, followed by private lessons with George Chadwick, she taught in various colleges in the South, eventually becoming head of the music department of Clark College, Atlanta until 1912, when she married. In 1927, she and her husband moved to Chicago – presumably to escape the increasing racial oppression of the South. Price played a major role in Chicago’s musical life as a concert pianist, organist and composer.

In 1932, she won first prize in the Wanamaker competition for her Symphony in E minor: with its premiere in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock, she became the first Afro-American woman to have a work performed by a major American orchestra. Her music was taken up by other orchestras, and her fame was secured by Marian Anderson’s performance of her Songs to the Dark Virgin, a setting of words a poem by Langston Hughes, a noted leader of the Harlem Renaissance, which was hailed by the Chicago Daily News as ‘one of the greatest immediate successes ever won by an American song’.

We named Price one of the greatest female composers ever

Recommended recording:
Symphonies 1 & 3
Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Deutsche Grammophon 486 2029

Ferde Grofé (1892-1972)

Born into a musical family, Grofé was one of the first Americans to successfully bridge popular and classical music; he is perhaps most famous for making the orchestral arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that made that work so famous. In the 1910s, he played viola in the Los Angeles Symphony, while also performing in theatre pit bands and with his own dance band. After making some band arrangements for drummer Art Hickman, Grofé’s abilities were recognised by bandleader and conductor Paul Whiteman, who commissioned him to make several big band arrangements for his band in the 1920s – including orchestrating the original two-piano version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for its 1924 premiere. Grofé established the big band convention of having intricately composed sections interleaved with episodes of improvisation. As a composer, he is mostly remembered for his five movement Grand Canyon Suite (1931), an extravagant technicolor orchestral evocation comparable to similarly grandiose canvases by Respighi.

Recommended recording:
Grand Canyon Suite; Mississippi, etc
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/William Stromberg
Naxos 8.559007

Howard Hanson (1896-1981)

Of Swedish ancestry, in 1921 Howard Hanson became the first American to be awarded the Prix de Rome, spending three years at the American Academy in Rome where he composed his Symphony No. 1, ‘Nordic’. His more famous ‘Romantic’ Symphony No. 2 followed in 1930: originally composed to celebrate the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary (as was Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony), Hanson’s ‘Romantic’ is now the work he is perhaps best known for since Ridley Scott used the end of its first movement with its soothing strains as balm for the end of his nerve-jangling film Alien (1979). Hanson was a powerful figure in American music, founding the annual American Music Festival, and being director of the Eastman School of Music for forty years from its foundation in 1924 until his own retirement in 1964, which under his leadership became one of America’s most prestigious conservatories.

Recommended recording:
Symphony No. 2 ‘Romantic’
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
Naxos 8.559701

Henry Cowell (1897-1965)

He was one of the earliest of the great pioneers of American classical music, inventing what is now called ‘extended techniques’ for piano playing. He not only introduced tone clusters, created by playing the keyboard with forearm or the flat of the hand, but also altered the sound of the piano by muting its strings with pieces of cardboard or metal – a technique usually associated with much later composers such as John Cage (a pupil of Cowell’s) and George Crumb. He made several tours of Europe between 1923 and 1933, making friends with Bartók and Berg and taking lessons from Schoenberg. In the 1930s he started using elements of indeterminacy in his music, suggesting that parts of his score could be performed in any order determined by the players, and leaving some bars open for improvisation. He wrote no less than 21 symphonies.

Recommended recording:
Tiger; Quartet for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord, etc
Continuum
Naxos 8.559192

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

Gershwin began his career as one of the most successful song writers in New York’s Tin Pan Alley, and ended arguably the first American to write an operatic masterpiece with Porgy and Bess. His first great hit was the song ‘Swanee’ (1919), and a number of successful Broadway musicals starting with Piccadilly to Broadway followed.

Talented and highly ambitious, the sensation caused by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (as orchestrated by Grofé) spurred him to aspire to be a great classical composer. He famously approached at least three leading European composers asking for composition lessons – Ravel, Stravinsky and Schoenberg – who all told him in effect that he was already pursuing his own valid and successful path. Nonetheless, he finally secured lessons with Joseph Schillinger in the 1930s: Schillinger’s influence on Gershwin has been much disputed, particularly by his lyricist brother Ira, and certainly Gershwin’s highly characteristic orchestral style is to heard particularly in his Piano Concerto (1925) and An American in Paris (1928), both written before his lessons with Schillinger. Yet there are hints of greater harmonic adventurousness in his post-Schillinger Variations on ‘I got rhythm’ for piano and orchestra (1934), and a consummate range of musical expression in his opera.

Recommended recording:
Rhapsody in Blue; An American in Paris; Piano Concerto in F
London Symphony Orchestra/ André Previn (piano)
Warner 2435668912

Roy Harris (1898-1979)

Possibly because he started life as a farmer in Nebraska, and only pursued music after World War I, Roy Harris may have been recognised but too often with a degree of condescension: Wilfred Mellers in his mighty tome Music in a New Found Land judged hm as ‘essentially a primitive and naïf’. Such an assessment seems meaningless in the face of the mastery presented by the thrilling musical journey that is Harris’s Symphony No. 3 (1937-38, revised 1939), which – rather like a work by Sibelius – morphs as you listen from a deceptively folksy beginning to a wonderfully orchestrated tidal flow. Perhaps, the essence of Harris’s music is that he was never ashamed of his background, which he never forsook even after training under the formidable Nadia Boulanger, but rather embraced and integrated the folkish music he knew so well from childhood (in that sense, closer to the folk style of his country than even Vaughan Williams was to his). A great deal of his music, such as the relatively early but characteristic Piano Trio of 1934, is still to be recorded: but his Third Symphony, the dreamy modality of his Violin Concerto (composed in 1949, but not performed until 1984), and the Symphony for Voices, his striking and effective setting Walt Whitman, are well worth discovering.

Recommended recording:
Symphony No. 3
Colorado Symphony/Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.559227

Off the beaten track:
Violin Concerto; Symphony No. 1*
Gregory Fulkerson (violin); Louisville Orchestra/Lawrence Leighton Smith, *Jorge Mester
First Edition LOU-786

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

The ‘Duke’, in total contrast to poor Harris, quickly earned the respect of the classical world: he was hailed by Constant Lambert in his influential book Music Ho! (published 1934) as ‘a real composer, the first jazz composer of distinction, and [erroneously] the first negro composer of distinction’, and a whole 14-page chapter was devoted to his career and work in Mellers’ landmark tome (published 1964).

Born in Washington, DC, Edward Kennedy Ellington, unlike other celebrated black musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, was from a well-to-do family. He moved to New York, the city of his idol the pianist-composer James P Johnson (1894-1955), pioneer of ‘stride’ piano and a key figure in the evolution of ragtime into jazz. There, Ellington established his band at the Cotton Club. The band’s first hit, East St Louis Toodle-oo (1926), was essentially an Ellington composition based on a tune created by his first trumpeter, Bubber Miley: as Mellers points out, its ‘shuffling ostinato’ represents ‘an old man shuffling monotonously down a dusty road’, the ostinato suggesting ‘man’s everyday destiny, from which the improvised solos speak yearningly’. Ellington’s music continued to speak potently to generations of listeners, as he composed an estimated 3 thousand works, distinctive in sound and haunting in their melodiousness.

We named Duke Ellington one of the greatest jazz pianists ever

Recommended recording:
The Essential Duke Ellington (recordings 1927-60)
Columbia

Aaron Copland (1900-90)

Though based in New York, Copland effectively distilled the essence of rural America in his cowboy ballets. Two of these in particular, Billy the Kid and Rodeo with their robust orchestrations, lively rhythms and penny-plain harmonies, helped define the sound of Hollywood’s Wild West, as Copland’s style was widely imitated in scores for films starring John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Copland’s formula was to take a number of genuine folk and popular songs from that late-19th-century world, and set them in a clean-cut, muscular style derived from Stravinsky’s neo-classical works (a style very much promoted by his teacher, Nadia Boulanger).

Copland refined this style for another evocation of historic Americana, Appalachian Spring, composed during the Second World War in 1944. As if in reaction to the fraught events taking place in Europe and around the Pacific, his new ballet mythologises America’s past in its evocation of a lush green pastoral of (notwithstanding the ballet’s evocative title, which it was given after it had been composed) rural Pennsylvania, in which a young couple plan to settle upon their marriage. The wartime spirit is more directly addressed in his defiant Symphony No. 3 – started during World War II but completed shortly after its end – from which ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ is taken.

This is not quite the full measure of Copland, however. He started off as a bold modernist in the style of Bartok and Prokofiev, causing a sensation with his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, written in 1924 for his former teacher Nadia Boulanger to make her American debut as organist. In the 1950s and ‘60s he incorporated serial techniques in Stravinsky’s manner into a number of his own works, including the orchestral works Connotations (1961) and Inscape (1967).

Recommended recording:
A Copland Celebration
London Symphony Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Columbia Chamber Ensemble, Columbia String Ensemble/Aaron Copland

Off the beaten track:
Music for the Theatre; Connotations; Inscape
New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein
Sony

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53)

Trained as a pianist at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Ruth Crawford in the 1920s met Henry Cowell through one of her piano teachers, Djane Lavoie Herz (herself a disciple of Scriabin). Cowell put Crawford on the board of his New Music Society, and published several of her works. Crawford wrote about two-thirds of her compositions between 1924 and 1929, in that time also becoming a founder member of the Chicago chapter of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). Her works from that period show her already developed taste for dissonance and post-tonal harmonies inspired by Scriabin’s music.

However, her stature as an American modernist rests more on the works she created in New York from 1931. These followed her year abroad, on a Guggenheim Fellowship awarded for her compositions (the first woman to be so honoured), spending her time in Berlin and Paris where she particularly valued her encounters with Berg and Bartók. Crawford returned to New York in November 1931, and married the American folklorist and musicologist Charles Seeger the following year (their children include the folk singers Mike and Peggy Seeger). In 1936, the Seegers moved to Washington, where Ruth’s interest shifted from composition to the preservation and promotion of American folk music. Her one original composition of that time, Rissolty Rossolty, is a wonderfully playful and accessible ‘American Fantasia for Orchestra’ based on folk tunes.

Recommended recording:
Ruth Crawford Seeger: Portrait
Schönberg Ensemble/Oliver Knussen
Deutsche Grammophon 449 9252

Elliott Carter (1908-2012)

In his mind-bogglingly long life and career, Elliott Carter studied under Gustav Holst at Harvard (during the composer’s lectureship there in 1932), then managed to outlive almost an entire generation of post-World War II modernists including Stockhausen, Nono and Berio (Pierre Boulez being one notable exception), continuing to compose years after his 100th birthday. His music, likewise, seems set fair to outlive all of theirs, being admired and championed by such musicians and conductors as the Kronos Quartet, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and the conductors Daniel Barenboim and especially Oliver Knussen (who, alas, died far too young, only outliving Carter by about six years).

A good, approachable introduction is his Holiday Overture, written in his neo-classical style in 1944 to celebrate the liberation of Paris – breezy and typically American in its airy, brassy textures. Carter’s tougher modernist style followed in the 1950s, after he had edited Charles Ives’ music and started to explore the parameters of music. His Variations for Orchestra (1955) well illustrates his change of style.

Recommended starter recording:
Symphony No. 1; Piano Concerto; Holiday Overture
Mark Wait (piano); Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Schermerhorn
Naxos 8.559151

Something a bit different:
Late works: Controversies and a Conversation, etc.
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen
Ondine ODE 12962

Samuel Barber (1910-81)

Though remembered above all for his Adagio for Strings – a movement originally part of his String Quartet, Op. 11 (1935-36) – Barber was also one of America’s greatest writers for voice, composing many beautiful songs. His aunt, Louise Homer, regularly graced New York’s Metropolitan Opera with her fine contralto voice, and was married to the song composer Sydney Homer, who mentored his young nephew. Barber entered the Curtis Institute aged 14, and while a student there became a lifelong friend and partner of fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Barber himself developed a fine baritone voice, which to an extent explains the mastery of his setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach (1931) for baritone voice and strings, much admired by Vaughan Williams. He also wrote several fine songs for voice and piano, such as the cycle Hermit Songs composed 1953. He also wrote several fine choral works, including the fine set of three titled Reincarnations (1939-40), and three operas including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vanessa (1958).

We haven’t even started talking about his orchestral music, including a beautiful Violin Concerto, and his instrumental works including his formidable Piano Sonata (1949). Perhaps his greatest masterpiece, though, is again written for voice, though with full orchestral accompaniment: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, composed in the spring of 1947, is Barber’s setting of a quintessential American scene – a lazy summer’s evening in the riverside town in the Southern States. as described by James Agee, who wrote it in 1938 in recollection of his own childhood in Knoxville. It captures the uncomplicated happiness of a child secure in the love of his parents – significant as Agee depicts the summer before the death of his father. Barber dedicated his setting to his own father, who he knew was terminally ill.

Recommended recording:
Samuel Barber 100th Anniversary
Barbara Hendricks, Thomas Allen, Simon Rattle, Michael Tilson Thomas etc
Warner 687 2862

Off the beaten track:
Songs
Cheryl Studer, Thomas Hampson, John Browning (piano)
Deutsche Grammophon 435 8672

John Cage (1912-92)

Notorious for his ‘piece’, 4’33”, which involves a pianist goes through the ceremony of a performance of a three-movement work without playing a note, Cage was a far more inventive composer than this might suggest. Essentially a restless and cerebral composer, he started as an admirer of Schoenberg, and took lessons with Cowell in 1933 in preparation for lessons with the great master.

However, Schoenberg’s decided opinion of Cage was that ‘he’s not a composer, but he's an inventor – of genius’. One positive outcome of Cage’s lessons with Cowell was his continuation of his teacher’s experiments in modifying the piano’s sound, adding various objects on or in-between its strings including screws and rubber bands, relishing the resulting gamelan-like sounds the piano produced when played. Increasingly interested in dance and percussion, Cage took various teaching positions in San Francisco and Chicago before settling in New York in 1942, where he became music director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1944 until 1968 (Merce and John becoming personal as well as professional partners).

He also immersed himself in Eastern philosophies, and was inspired by Zen Buddhism to make ‘chance’ an important element in his music – hence his creation of 4’33” in 1952. He became friends with several leading avant garde composers including Pierre Boulez and Morton Feldman, and was revered by the avant garde circle in Moscow during the Soviet era.

Recommended recording:
Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano
Boris Berman (piano)
Naxos 8 554562

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

Cage’s friend, Lou Harrison, was if anything even more inventive when it came to creating musical instruments, constructing attractively chiming gamelans out of sawn-off ends of gas canisters, and finding new methods of clavichord construction. His music blended Schoenbergian serialism with aleatoric procedures and used quarter tones and involving exotic instruments, often of his own invention. If any of this sounds forbidding, don’t be put off. His music is often gentle and enchanting, no matter how unfamiliar some of its sounds.

Recommended recording:
William Banovetz (oboe), Al Jarreau (vocals); California Symphony Orchestra/Barry Jekowsky
Argo 455 5902

Leonard Bernstein (1918-90)

His composing genius was displayed above all in West Side Story (1957), a musical which manages both to be alarmingly challenging in terms of its edgy rhythms and level of violent dissonance yet capturing the flair and exuberance of youth and love in a style that made it a popular hit.

If Bernstein hadn’t spent so much of his career as a celebrity conductor, often appearing on TV and lecturing to promote the music he most cared for – notably works by Stravinsky, by such fellow Americans as Copland (whom Bernstein, who never had any formal compositional training, named as his ‘only real compositional teacher’), and above all Mahler – he might have written many more works of equal or even greater achievement. His early Jeremiah Symphony of 1942, commemorating the suffering of European Jews, is a striking work, and his brilliance shines in the musical On the Town (1944), the wry opera on middle class suburban life Trouble in Tahiti (1951), and fitfully in his interesting not-quite-hit Candide (1956) with its sparkling overture and its show aria ‘Glitter and be Gay’.

We named Bernstein's West Side Story one of the best stage musicals ever and the film versions one of the greatest film musicals of all time

Recommended recording:
West Side Story (original Broadway cast recording)
Sony

Off the beaten track:
Trouble in Tahiti
Soloists; Columbia Wind Ensemble/Leonard Bernstein
Dutton 2CDLK4643

Ned Rorem (b1923)

Most widely celebrated for his songs (Susan Graham’s Ned Rorem album presents a well-varied selection, beautifully performed), Ned Rorem has also composed seven operas of which the most celebrated is Miss Julie, based on the play by Strindberg. Born in Richmond, Indiana, he studied at the Curtis Institute and Juilliard School, and then with Virgil Thomson. He gained renown with his song ‘The Lordly Hudson’, which in 1948 won a prize as best song of the year. He later won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for the orchestral suite Air Music. His piano sonatas, including No. 2 with its beguiling ‘Nocturne’, are also well worth investigating.

Recommended recording
Songs of Ned Rorem
Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Erato 8573802222

Something a bit different:
Piano Sonatas Nos 1-3
Thomas Lanners (piano)
Centaur CRC2874

Morton Feldman (1926-1987)

Morton Feldman was a rather unconventional minimalist. Born and largely based in New York, Feldman was first inspired by the works of Schoenberg and Bartók, then was profoundly changed by his chance encounter with John Cage in 1950: they had both attended a New York Philharmonic concert where they had both been bowled over by Webern’s Symphony, leaving before the Rachmaninov work started. Feldman’s mature works – inspired by his friendship with Cage, and by the paintings of Jackson Pollock – generally are not about virtuosity, nor intended to illustrate anything, but rather are all about their own, unhurried processes, sometimes designed for particular acoustics such as that of Rothko Chapel.

Recommended recording:
Rothko Chapel
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart/Rupert Huber
Hänssler HAEN93023

George Crumb (1929-2022)

George Crumb continued and developed the ‘extended techniques’ pioneered by Cowell, asking performers to play their instruments in unconventional ways to produce novel and evocative sounds. Yet Crumb’s music is anything but ‘abstract’: from the way it is written down – with staves curved and arranged to represent wheels, or a human eye – to the use of human voices and musical quotations loaded with significance, this is music which vividly captures emotional or psychological states.

A native of West Virginia, Crumb’s roots were essentially in rural America rather than in the city. Unlike his city colleagues, who tend to create sonic canvases to blot out the extraneous sounds of everyday urban life (or, as did Cage, draw attention to them), Crumb’s seems designed to complement the world in which it is conceived: it grows out of silence, and is meditative and dream-like, blending the familiar (whether it is instrumental sounds, or snatches of music by composers such as Schubert, Bartok or Mahler) with unfamiliar, and ranges in effect from ecstatic bell-like sounds to tenebrous nightmare.

Recommended recording:
Makrokosmos Books I-III
Yoshiko Shimizu (piano)
Kairos KAI0015029

Steve Reich (b1936)

Steve Reich’s earliest works of the 1960s, based on sound recordings, include Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain which tease out melodic or rhythmic patterns in ordinary speech. He also experimented in creating complex and ever-evolving rhythmic patterns through having a recording played fractionally faster or slower than its simultaneously playing duplicate. These early experiments have inspired many of his subsequent works for instrumental and vocal forces.

His two most celebrated works are The Desert Music (1983) for chorus and orchestra, and Different Trains (1988) for string quartet and a sound recording of spoken interviews. For the latter work, various people around America and Europe were interviewed about their experiences leading up to and during the Second World War, particularly relating the passenger train service in the US contrasted with the forced train journeys to concentration camps. Building on his earlier experiments with sound recordings, Reich drew melodies out of the speech of those interviewees, integrating them into the textures of the string quartet.

Recommended recording:
Different Trains
Kronos Quartet
Nonesuch 7559791762

Philip Glass (b1937)

Both the most famous and for some time the most notorious of the so-called minimalists, Philip Glass first appeared as the composer of simple and highly repetitive pieces, promoted by the Philip Glass ensemble he founded in 1968 in which he himself played keyboards. He has since established himself as America’s best-known opera composer, composing over a dozen works of which the most famous are Einstein on the Beach and Akhnaten, a DVD of which was an award-winner in 2022’s BBC Music Magazine Awards. He has also written several string quartets, of which the opening of No. 5 perhaps most decisively shows him breaking from his usual minimalist style to create something more dramatic and poignantly expressive.

Recommended recording:
Akhnaten (DVD)
Metropolitan Opera/Karen Kamensek
Orange Mountain Music OMM5011

Something a bit different:
String Quartet No. 5
Kronos Quartet
Nonesuch 7559793562

John Adams (b1947)

Though he loathes the label, John Adams first appeared as a ‘minimalist’ owing some debt to the example of Philip Glass’s music. Yet his music which first made an impression was of a more luxurious cast: The Chairman Dances, an orchestral pendent to his first opera Nixon in China (1987), was his first big hit with its glamorous orchestration and Adams’s preparedness to indulge in Hollywoodian lusciousness. His ability to use harmonic tension and its resolution – old-fashioned techniques, but given an extra edge in their minimalist setting – had already been shown in earlier works such as Shaker Loops (1983) for string septet.

Brought up in a village in New Hampshire, Adams grew up with big-band swing (he got to sit briefly on the piano bench next to Duke Ellington one memorable summer), Broadway musicals and such European classics as Richard Strauss and Beethoven. After the initial shock of discovering avant garde music at Harvard, for which he had the intense but short-lived enthusiasm of the recently converted, Adams revived the music he truly loved in his own work, and has not looked back since. His operas, based invariably on recent historical events, have stirred controversy, most particularly The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) in its attempt to deal even-handedly with the Palestinian terrorists, and the Jewish people of whom the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer is representative.

Recommended recording:
The Chairman Dances; Short Ride in the Fast Machine, etc.
San Francisco Symphony/Edo de Waart
Nonesuch 7559791442

John Luther Adams (b1953)

Long overshadowed by the ‘other’ John Adams, John Luther Adams has been very much on the rise since his breakthrough work Become Ocean (2013) won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. An environmentalist as well as a composer, John Luther Adams spent a crucial 36 years living in Alaska, largely in an isolated cabin in a forest, enduring sub-zero temperatures. Though in some ways it represented at least ten ‘lost’ years, since the lifestyle there was too gruelling for him to compose, it has heightened his sensitivity to nature and the natural acoustic and sounds of its environment. He first discovered his style his 90-minute piece Earth and the Great Weather, composed in 1993 subtitled ‘A Sonic Geography of the Arctic’.

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Recommended recording:
Become Ocean
Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
Cantaloupe CA 21101

Authors

daniel jaffe
Daniel JafféJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Daniel Jaffé has been associated with BBC Music Magazine since 2004 when he was the reviews editor, working in that post until he went freelance in 2011. Previously he was on the editorial teams of Classic CD and Gramophone. He is a specialist in both Russian and 20th-century British music.

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