Independent Repertoire: Engaging with American Musical Traditions

Independent Repertoire: Engaging with American Musical Traditions

Aspirations to craft a uniquely “American” classical sound, nostalgia for the music of our childhoods, desire to imagine the sounds of our past, and attempts to honor the influence of musical colleagues: these are some of the motives behind the following works, which pay tribute to the musical heritage of the United States.

John Cage, Quartets I-VIII (1976)
In this set of works for orchestra, an ever-rotating cast of instruments performs a series of quartets, whose material is drawn from hymn tunes composed by three late 18th-century composers: William Billings, Jacob French, and Andrew Law are associated with the era’s New England singing schools and their distinctively American tradition of shape-note singing, which aimed to simplify music reading for broader accessibility. Cage radically simplifies the older tunes through a chance-based subtractive process, leaving an echo of their harmony filtered through his own pioneering creative practice. In doing so, he constructs a beautiful kind of pointillist Americana. Available in versions for 24-, 41-, and 93-instrument orchestras, Quartets is a poignant re-working of foundational American repertoire.

John Cage Quartets I-VIII, page 5 of score

John Cage Quartets I-VIII, page 5 of score, © Henmar Press, Inc.

William Dawson, Negro Folk Symphony (1934)
When it premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1934, one critic called William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony “the most distinctive and promising American symphonic proclamation that has yet been achieved.” The piece uses a number of Black spirituals, which Dawson called “Negro folk music,” that he had learned from his mother as a child. Dawson thoroughly integrated these songs into the textures and motivic development of the entire symphony. Musicologist Gwynne Kuhner Brown, who edited G. Schirmer’s new performance edition of the Negro Folk Symphony, notes the organic development created by Dawson’s “virtuosic flexibility of rhythm and timbre” in the way he handles thematic material, which in her view creates a “persuasive musical bridge between the ‘Negro Folk’ and the ‘Symphony.’ ” To hear Negro Folk Symphony is a powerful and moving experience, honoring a Black musical tradition that has been foundational to so much American music.

Henry Cowell, Old American Country Set (1939)
Henry Cowell was a trailblazing American composer who created and championed an enormous variety of new music in the U.S., ranging from highly experimental chamber works to symphonies suffused with Americana. Old American Country Set is a work that is ripe for rediscovery, stemming from Cowell’s extensive engagement with American folk styles and drawing on recollections from his own childhood in Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma. The piece is a tuneful, poignant symphonic exploration of dance music, hymnody, and songs from these areas. By turns light-footed, stately, and jubilant, Old American Country Set is a sincere testament to important American vernacular traditions.

Samuel Barber, Concerto for Piano, Op. 38 (1962)
Samuel Barber's Concerto for Piano reflects another important aspect of the U.S.’s musical heritage: its dynamic tradition of music publishing. Indeed, the concerto was commissioned by G. Schirmer in 1961 to celebrate the centennial of our founding as a publishing house. Schirmer continues to be the oldest continuously active music publisher in the U.S. and Barber's Concerto for Piano holds up as a virtuosic and dramatic example of American romanticism, winning the composer his second Pulitzer Prize. The third movement is a particularly thrilling ride, featuring a pounding 5/8 meter and extensive brass writing.

John Harbison, Canonical American Songbook (2005)
The title of John Harbison’s Canonical American Songbook rests on a pun, playing on both its own musical canons and the notion of a canonical work of art. The Scots ballad “Aura Lee,” the jazz standard “St. Louis Blues,” the Gospel and protest song “We Shall Overcome”, and other featured melodies are vital parts of America’s musical history. In Canonical American Songbook, Harbison takes these tunes and re-works them into new musical contexts, often through inventive imitation across the chamber orchestra. Harbison compares the experience created by these songs to “a musical excursion down Rte. 66, once America’s main highway, now off the beaten track.”

Christian Wolff, John, David (1992)
Christian Wolff is interested in challenging the hierarchies of musicmaking. John, David began life as 80th birthday present for John Cage, whom Wolff met at the age of 16; the two formed a symbiotic friendship that emboldened them each to pursue their radical approaches to composition. John, David is also dedicated to their frequent collaborator, pianist and composer David Tudor. The opening section devoted to Cage employs 80 songs with many details of their performance determined by chance procedures. The second part, devoted to Tudor, likewise draws on four historical songs but sets them with an extended solo for percussionist to honor Tudor’s legacy as a performer.

Tyshawn Sorey, For Roscoe Mitchell (2020)
In For Roscoe Mitchell, Sorey alludes to the work of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and in particular the contributions of saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell. In 1960s Chicago, Mitchell co-founded the AACM, an organization of pioneering Black composers and musicians mainly working in jazz-inspired and improvisatory idioms. Sorey, whose work "occupies a unique space between spontaneous and formal composition,” dedicated this 20-minute “non-certo” for cello and orchestra to his longtime friend and collaborator Mitchell. Throughout the work, Sorey seeks to create a non-hierarchical and non-adversarial relationship between the soloist and ensemble. This approach yields an evocative work in which the cellist’s sound often feels encased in a dark timbral embrace by the orchestra.

Charles Ives, Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting” (1904)
The third symphony by Charles Ives draws its main thematic material from American hymnody; for Ives, this musical material comes out of the spirited, emotive singing of the New England evangelical revivals. The composer was exposed to such musicmaking during his childhood in Danbury, Connecticut and from working as a church organist to supplement his salary as a junior insurance salesman in New York. Ives’ deeply personal approach to these repertoires yields dissonances and counterpoint that would not be explored by other composers until much later in the 20th century. Awarded a 1947 Pulitzer Prize when it finally premiered more than 40 years after its composition, “The Camp Meeting” epitomizes Ives’ sense of American independence and his dedication to maintaining his artistic integrity.

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