Independence day is upon us once again and, in homage to our friends across the pond, we’ve selected nine of the best works to celebrate with. Just add fireworks and a bit of flag-waving, and we're away.


Best Independence Day songs and music

1. Aaron Copland – Fanfare for the Common Man

Copland wrote this work in 1942 for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra by request from Eugene Goossens. It was inspired in part by a famous speech made earlier in the year where vice president Henry A. Wallace proclaimed the dawning of the 'Century of the Common Man'.

One of the most evocative melodies ever written is when the famous trumpet line cuts through the silence of drums and percussion. It was premiered 12 March 1943, as homage to the common man and Copland used it just three years later as the theme for the last movement of his Symphony No. 3.

2. John Philip Sousa - The Stars and Stripes Forever

Nicknamed 'The March King', John Philip Sousa composed over 135 marches throughout his life. The Stars and Stripes Forever is widely considered to be his magnum opus. It is now the official National March of the United States of America.

You can expect the usual American band textures and music including agile woodwinds, bombastic brass and the occasional good old fashion bass drum wallop.

3. America the Beautiful – music by Samuel A. Ward, words by Katharine Lee Bates

America is Beautiful’ is the poem that would evolve into one of America’s best-loved patriotic songs written during a trip to Pikes Peak in 1893. Celebrating the ‘patriotic dream’, the song resonated with Americans from all walks of life and became enormously popular.

While Bates was initially surprised by the poem’s success, she later reflected that it would hold with the nation ‘due to the fact that Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood.’

4. The Star-Spangled Banner – music by John Stafford Smith, words by Francis Scott Key

Independence Day wouldn’t be Independence Day without at least mentioning The Star-Spangled Banner. The words come from ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry’, a poem written by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. Stravinsky orchestrated this in 1944.

His version wasn’t entirely conventional; the Boston police issued Stravinsky a warning, claiming there was a law against tampering with the national anthem. Grudgingly, Stravinsky conceded.

5. Herbert Howells - Take Him Earth, for Cherishing

Howells is one of the most quintessentially English composers. This may seem out of place in this line of American works.

Despite this, Howells wrote it in the year following the death of President Kennedy; plans were made for a dual American-Canadian Memorial service to be held in Washington. But this kaleidoscopic choral work is full of intensity, anguish and turbulence.

6. Charles Ives – Variations on America

Composed in 1891 when Ives was seventeen, this is an arrangement of a traditional tune, known as ‘My Country, Tis of Thee’, and at the time the de facto anthem of the United States. Ives prepared it for a Fourth of July celebration in 1892 at the Methodist church where he was organist in New York.

Ives meant the work as a sincere exercise in variations for organ. Whilst Ives was capable of musical jokes, they are usually considerably broader than here. Ives was not deaf to its comic potential however: he later noted that his father 'didn't let me do it much, as it made the boys laugh' in church.

7. Fisk Jubilee Singers – The Gospel Train

The Gospel Train is a traditional African-American spiritual first published in 1872 as one of the songs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. A standard Gospel song, it is found in the hymnals of many protestant denominations and has been rearrangement for many different styles and forces.

The source for the melody and lyrics is unknown but developed out of a tradition, which resulted in a number of similar songs about a ‘Gospel Train’. The link below is an arrangement with a small brass band, piano, bass, drums and vocals.

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8. Leonard Bernstein – West Side Story Symphonic Dances

It is very difficult to search through American composers without stumbling across Leonard Bernstein. His adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into ‘West Side Story’ has been a huge success since the original 1957 Broadway production.

With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this was a more or less the dream team of American musical theatre. In 1961, Bernstein prepared a suite of orchestral music from the show; titled Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. It features some of the most famous songs from the musical including ‘Mambo’ ‘Rumble’ and ‘Somewhere’.

9. Joan Tower – Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 3

Over the past 50 years, Joan Tower has made a lasting impact on music in the USA as not only a composer but also a performer, educator and conductor. Her composition Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman is something of a response to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (as mentioned earlier).

Tower’s No. 3 (of 6) is scored for brass. This accents and boasts a terrific rhythmic energy coupled with crisp articulation and tensity. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra eventually recorded the whole work. She dedicated the piece to the conductor of the recordings, Marin Alsop.

Will Wright


Something we've missed? Tell us which works you'd add to this list in the comments section below, or tweet us @MusicMagazine.