As a supplement to a recent presentation I made to U.S. history teachers on classical music, I have embedded three pieces of music by American composers that are ubiquitous in concert halls around the world. By any measure, these are three American masterworks.
When listening to Chopin’s Polonaise in A Major we are told the music represents the national sound of the Polish people. We are also told that Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 provides a musical slice of Hungarian culture, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture takes us into the sound of Czarist Russia. But which classical composer best captures the sound of America? It's not an easy question to answer.
Since the 1890s, when Americans were beginning to develop their own traditions in classical music, composers have recognized the dilemma of creating the American sound. In 1892 the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák became the director of the newly formed National Conservatory of Music in New York City and was paid a sizable wage to help create an American school of composition. The problem confronting Dvořák stemmed from the absence of a unified American culture. Quite simply, there were too many different types of people living in the United States to create a sound that was distinctly American. (Like Dvořák, Gustav Mahler, the great Bohemian composer and conductor, also believed the United States was too culturally diverse to be represented by one type of music.)
Dvořák’s solution to the problem can be heard in the cultural diversity evident in his Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From theNew World"). The symphony includes original themes that sound somewhat like Stephen Foster tunes, African-American spirituals, and Native American music. Although From the New World has been accused of having too much of an eastern European accent to truly sound American, Dvořák did get the process of creating an American sound started, a process that explores the diversity of American culture.
Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Fourth Movement (1893)
After Dvořák left the United States in 1895, various classical composers have been associated with the creation of an American national sound — notably Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Elliot Carter.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) is best known for composing his memories of a pre-industrial, small-town America. Although his music ranks with the greatest composed by any American, the nationalism in his music did not necessarily acknowledge the tremendous ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity that defined the United States. Ives looked at America primarily through the lens of someone who grew up in a small New England town in the late nineteenth century.
Charles Ives, Country Band March (1903)
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is probably most associated in the public's mind with the American sound, creating music that defined an ideal America. Copland’s music romanticized the United States and celebrated the best in the American Spirit. In general, he avoided the complex diversity of the American people.
The composer who, in my opinion, best captures the complexities of America — and therefore the true sound of the United States — is Elliot Carter (1908-2012). I make that declaration with a confession that I don't always understand his music, and I cannot overstate the challenges of listening to his compositions.
Carter was an intellectual composer, and the music he created is among the most cerebral that any of us will ever confront. Although he composed in a variety of musical styles, he was best known for the masterworks that did not romanticize the American experience and seemed designed to avoid any desire to evoke emotional reactions from listeners. His music is best understood on a purely intellectual level.
What helps me understand Carter’s compositions is to think about the diversity of American culture and the reality of what that diversity should sound like when represented musically. I think about the “salad bowl” of humanity that defines the United States — the variety of religious, cultural, and philosophical beliefs, as well as the cultural gaps that too often separate the American people according to their ethnic, racial, and ideological differences. I think about how America is home to almost all types of people. I then think about what all those various types of people would sound like if they were all expressing their differences at the same time.
That, in a nutshell, provides a pathway to understanding Carter’s music. It’s a type of music that celebrates democracy, freedom, and diversity. It's classical music's version of Martin Luther King's "Beloved Community," a society in which people of all types live together in peace.
Carter used these words to describe his Variations for Orchestra:
“I have tried to give musical expression to experiences anyone living today must have when confronted by so many remarkable examples of unexpected types of changes and relationships of character uncovered in the human sphere by psychologists and novelists.… The old notion of unity in diversity presents itself to us in an entirely different guise than it did to people living even a short while ago."
Carter's music may not be easy listening, but it challenges us to recognize the prodigious diversity that defines American culture.
Elliot Carter, Variations for Orchestra (1955)
Elliot Carter, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961)
In 1970 Burt Bacharach won an Academy Award for Best Original Score for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the film, “South American Getaway” is performed by the Ron Hicklin Singers. The version I’ve embedded below is arranged for cello ensemble, and if you’ve never heard Crocellomania, you’re in for a treat.
Don Juan Pacheco, Marquis of Villena and Master of the Order of Santiago — better known simply as Don Juan — is one of the most famous people who never lived, a fictional character who is usually portrayed as an aristocratic scoundrel with a single-minded desire for sexual gratification.
Don Juan’s legend began in 1630 when Tirso de Molina published El Burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville), a fictional work based on the Spanish nobleman Don Juan Tenorio. After the publication of Molina’s work, Don Juan become one of history's most durable myths. He has been the main character in plays by Molière, Alexandre Dumas, and George Bernard Shaw, a poem by Lord Byron, and an opera by Wolfgang Mozart. In the movies, Don Juan has been played by Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, and Johnny Depp.
Don Juan is often portrayed as an immoral and irresponsible philanderer, an arrogant man, lacking in moral conscience and unwilling to apologize for the life he leads. In stories about his life, he gets his comeuppance at the end, paying a price for his philandering.
Probably the most famous version of Don Juan comes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, an opera with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. In Don Giovanni, Don Juan is such a rascal that he seduces a young bride on her wedding night. He also seduces a woman whose father is a Commendatore. When the Commendatore discovers what Don Juan has done to his daughter, he challenges Don Juan to a duel and then dies at Don Juan’s hands. Some time later, Don Juan comes upon a statue of the dead Commendatore and asks the statue to dinner. In one of the most dramatic moments in any opera, the statue arrives for dinner, takes Don Juan by the hand, and drags him into Hell.
Contrary to the portrayal of Don Juan as a libertine and scoundrel, the Hungarian writer Nikolaus Lenau published a story in 1851 that was more sympathetic to Don Juan. For Lenau, Don Juan was an idealist, a man in search of perfect love. During his search, he grew increasingly disillusioned and disgusted with himself.
Lenau wrote, “My Don Juan is no hot-blooded man eternally pursuing women. It is the longing in him to find a woman who is to him incarnate womanhood, and to enjoy in the one all the women on earth whom he cannot possess as individuals. Because he does not find her, although he reels from one to another, at last Disgust seizes hold of him, and this Disgust is the Devil that fetches him.”
Lenau’s portrayal of Don Juan was adopted by Richard Strauss for a symphonic poem. Strauss was only twenty-four years old when he composed Don Juan, and at its premier in 1889 the piece was received with such enthusiasm that Strauss immediately became a significant figure in German music.
To understand Strauss’s version of Don Juan, think of the Don as a romantic young man searching for the woman of his dreams. Picture him as a philosopher and dreamer, someone driven by the nobility of a young man’s idealism. Think also of his continuing disappointment at not being able to find the ideal woman and the disillusionment that takes over as he loses his idealism.
When I analyze the structure of Strauss's Don Juan for my students, I run into two problems. First, Strauss did not provide program notes for the piece, and the musicologists who have deconstructed it seem to point in all directions. Some claim the piece is composed in sonata form, while others claim it is a fantasia. What helps me most is to think of the piece as a series of episodes that follow the periodic return of a main theme — quasi-rondo form, one might say.
I've provided my outline below, hoping it will help those who are new to the piece begin to understand of it. My interpretation is, of course, open to debate.
The time indicators I have provided refer to the video embedded on this blog. As you listen, you will first need first to identify two main themes — one representing the Lover’s Quest and the other representing Don Juan's Idealism.
The Lover’s Quest (first heard at 0:48) is a theme used by Strauss to begin three separate episodes of Don Juan looking for the ideal woman. (Strauss once told an orchestra to play the theme as if they had just gotten engaged.) Strauss uses each statement of the theme to begin a section of music describing the character of the various women Don Juan meets on his journeys, as well as the angry fathers, boyfriends, and husbands that he must confront. Note that during each episode, Don Juan’s idealism seems to diminish.
The theme representing Don Juan's Idealism (first heard at 10:37) portrays the nobility of his quest. The magnificence of the theme, introduced by French horns, makes clear that Don Juan is not just a philanderer. He is, instead, a romantic young man looking for the ideal woman.
The key to enjoying the piece? Think about the loss of youthful idealism and a type of disillusionment that might break anyone's spirit. It's a universal theme, and the way Richard Strauss develops it in his version of Don Juan can, at times, break your heart.
Herbert von Karajan conducting the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra
0:36 — Introduction
0:48 — The Lover’s Quest: Episode One
After the main theme concludes, you will hear a section of music portraying several of Don Juan’s conquests. Listen for the solo violin as it introduces a beautiful passage portraying Don Juan’s love for a woman that he thinks might be the ideal woman. He soon becomes disillusioned and realizes he must resume his quest.
5:30 — The Lover’s Quest – Episode Two
After the conclusion of the main theme, you will hear music portraying more of Don Juan’s various conquests. Listen as Don Juan's disillusionment sets in. Listen also for the oboe solo and the long love song representing another lover who might be Don Juan’s ideal woman. Again, Don Juan becomes disillusioned.
10:37 — Don Juan’s Idealism: Interlude
Don Juan’s nobility and idealism is clearly evident in this theme. However, the music following the theme almost seems to mock Don Juan’s quest. The world seems to be laughing at him. The music grows increasingly chaotic as Don Juan is forced to confront his failures.
14:35 — The Lover’s Quest: Episode Three
During this episode, the idealism of Don Juan’s quest gives way to an awareness of the futility of his search. He is forced to defend himself in a duel, and as the duel progresses the music builds toward ...
17:21 — Silence!
17:27 — Don Juan surrenders to his disillusionment. He drops his weapon and accepts his opponent's fatal thrust of the sword. After he is stabbed, he speaks his final words before dying: “My deadly foe is in my power, and this too bores me, as does life itself.”
The legend of Niccolò Paganini includes a story that his mother made a pact with the devil and traded his soul for musical virtuosity. Not true, of course. Like most great musicians, Paganini was probably just born with some natural talent and then worked like a dog to develop that talent.
The September 2016 edition of BBC Music Magazineincluded a ranking of "The 20 Greatest Symphonies of All Time." The ranking was based on a poll of 151 of the world's greatest conductors, including such notable maestros as Marin Alsop (São Paulo State Symphony), Sir Andrew Davis (Lyric Opera of Chicago), Alan Gilbert(New York Philharmonic), Zubin Mehta (Israel Philharmonic), Peter Oundijan (Royal Scottish National Orchestra), Sir Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic), and Leonard Slatkin (Detroit Symphony Orchestra).
The conductors who took part in the poll were obviously well-acquainted with the greatest symphonies in the classical repertoire, which, for me, gave the results credibility. In other words, it was more than just a popularity poll taken from classical music audiences. The conductors were asked to rank their top three symphonies in any order, and based on their selections here are history's 20 greatest symphonies.
Like all lists of this sort the rankings are not definitive, and the list should primarily serve as food for thought and a topic for entertaining discussion. In thrusting myself into that discussion I want to provide a few of my own takeaways from the list.
1.The ranking offers few surprises, containing a list of traditional composers and symphonies. Beethoven leads the pack with five symphonies, followed by Brahms (four), Mahler (three), Bruckner (two), Mozart (two), Berlioz (one), Shostakovich (one), Sibelius (one), and Tchaikovsky (one). (Note that Brahms is the only composer on the list to bat a thousand — all four of his symphonies made the list.)
2. When I first heard about the project, I assumed Beethoven’s Ninth would earn the top spot on the list. I will say, however, that I am thrilled that Beethoven’s Third was chosen the “world’s greatest symphony.” I have taught classes deconstructing both the Third and the Ninth and find that I need much more time to explain what happens in the Third, a symphony that contains an abundance of musical content to analyze. It's a symphony that takes listeners on a journey through a complicated musical narrative that never fails to prompt great discussions after it is over. The first movement provides a roller coaster of edge-of-your-seat excitement, and the almost comic anarchy of the final movement gives listeners plenty to think about. The symphony’s message is esoteric and ambiguous, and it's difficult to imagine that someone would hear Beethoven's Third without wanting to hear it again and again and again.
3. I find personal validation in Mahler holding three spots in the top ten, beating out Beethoven and Brahms who each have two. For several years I’ve been tooting Mahler’s magic horn (!) in my music history classes, and now I have a list from BBC Music to validate my passion. I also love that Mahler’s Ninth is so high on the list, although I am not surprised. Mahler's Ninth juggles a variety of ideas and emotions that in the end become achingly silent. All music eventually goes silent, but only Mahler has ever connected music to silence so elegantly. For me, the end of Mahler’s Ninth sparks the sort of transcendent soul searching that can only come from music.
4. Although I have no significant complaints about the ranking, I would like to provide some of my own honorable mentions: composers and works that I would not have been surprised to see on the list. I have decided to avoid listing additional works by the composers who already made the list.
Kirill Petrenko, a 46-year-old Russian-Austrian conductor is currently scheduled to become principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world's great orchestras, in 2019. Petrenko will replace Sir Simon Rattle, who has served as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic since 2002.
Here's a video of Petrenko conducting an excerpt from The Poem of Ecstasy by Alexander Scriabin.
Kirill Petrenko conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 2012
Here it is, a performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with a choir of 10,000. (That’s not a typo.)
According to CBS News, the Japanese affection for Beethoven’s Ninth began during World War I when German POWs performed it for the first time in Japan. The piece then evolved into an end-of-year tradition for the Japanese. What I’ve posted below is a performance from December 2011 when the Japanese were recovering from the earthquakes and tsunami that had hit their nation nine months earlier. My recommendation: Jump forward to about 6:30 and crank up the volume.
"If you want to end war and stuff you gotta sing loud.” – Arlo Guthrie