America is not exactly known for its symphonies. Somewhere amongst the imperial names of Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mahler, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, the art form became strongly associated with Europe. America, founded only at the height of the Classical era, was just too late to the game.
Nevertheless, a few American symphonies have risen above this trend to become fairly standard additions to the orchestral repertoire—works like the symphonies of Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber’s Symphony in One Movement, Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, and Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4.
A great many more have been have been written throughout its history, however, and it is there that most of them—many quite undeservedly—have remained. Here are five such examples from America’s vast and surprisingly rich symphonic canon due for reappraisal from classical music audiences.
Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 60 To the Appalachian Mountains
If there’s one thing Alan Hovhaness is known for, it’s his many, many symphonies—a whopping 67 in total. Though some, like his popular Symphony No. 2 Mysterious Mountain, have found a semi-regular life in orchestral programs, most have languished, underperformed and unrecorded, in the annals of American music. One such work that has remained unduly overlooked is his arresting Symphony No. 60 To the Appalachian Mountains.
To the Appalachian Mountains was written in 1985 on a commission from the Martin Marietta Corporation for “Homecoming ’86,” a year-long celebration of the heritage of Tennessee. For a composer who so often favored Eastern musical styles, To the Appalachian Mountains is easily Hovhaness’s most “American” symphony. Running the gamut of Appalachian sounds, the composer harkens to the region’s hymns, folk music, and even the parallel fifths and pentatonic melodies of its Native American inhabitants, while still preserving them in uniquely “Hovhaness” orchestration.
An underwhelming reception to its premiere left the symphony in limbo for many years until the conductor Gerard Schwarz, a longtime advocate of American music, produced a recording of the work with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2006. It is to date the only recording of To the Appalachian Mountains—a symphony long-overdue for exposure to wider audiences.
Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune
While perhaps best remembered today as an acerbic music critic and author of the famous polemic The State of Music, Virgil Thomson was also an accomplished composer who wrote many successful film scores, operas, and orchestral works. One of his finest compositions is the sublime Symphony on a Hymn Tune.
Among his earliest major works, Symphony on a Hymn Tune was written between 1926 and 1928 while Thomson studied composition in Paris under the esteemed French musician Nadia Boulanger. The core of the work, however, is quintessentially American. Thomson, a native of Kansas City, proudly wore the sounds his homeland, lacing Symphony a Hymn Tune with the protestant hymns and ragtime rhythms of his youth. The hymns “Jesus Loves Me” and “How Firm a Foundation” provide the thematic substance for the symphony, which Thomson augments and develops throughout its four movements before finally combining them in an exuberant and utterly sincere finale.
Though Thomson would write two more symphonies in his life, neither quite lived up to the energetic wit and youthful audacity of Symphony on a Hymn Tune. Nevertheless, despite the occasional airing and a handful of recordings, Thomson’s great symphony has yet to find its place in the modern American repertoire.
William Grant Still: Symphony No. 2 Song of a New Race
William Grant Still is not exactly a household name in classical music. Nevertheless, as many aficionados can attest, his music—which includes eight operas, five symphonies, and numerous other works—is some of the most colorful and characteristically unique of its time. One of the many highlights of Still’s distinguished career is the stately Symphony No. 2 Song of a New Race.
Completed in 1937, Still conceived the symphony as the final part of a musical triptych depicting the African-American experience, beginning with his symphonic poem Africa and the subsequent Symphony No. 1 Afro-American. Spanning four movements, Song of a New Race paints a dynamic and expressive portrait of then-contemporary African-American life, culminating in a somber and ambiguous open fifth in the violins that almost seems to say, “the story doesn’t end here.”
The symphony was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the renowned hands of Leopold Stokowski on December 10th, 1937. Despite charming critics at its premiere, it has since lived primarily in the shadow of Still’s more famous Symphony No. 1 Afro-American. Song of a New Race has its own special beauty, however, and modern orchestras would be remiss not to give this charming work a much-deserved chance in the spotlight.
George Antheil: A Jazz Symphony
Though few today would recognize the name George Antheil outside of classical music circles, the avant-garde writer, pianist, inventor, and composer made many significant contributions to the world during his relatively short life. In addition to co-developing a radar guidance system for the Allied war effort with the actress Hedy LaMarr, Antheil also composed some of the most audacious music of the early 20th century. Among Antheil’s finest compositions is his one-movement A Jazz Symphony, written in 1925.
Like George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, composed one year prior, A Jazz Symphony is an early example of jazz-influenced writing for a symphony orchestra. Antheil’s jazz is more tongue-in-cheek than Gershwin’s, however, and his writing more akin to the polyphonies of his teacher Igor Stravinsky. Scored for a prominent piano solo and an orchestra featuring, among other things, a saxophone trio, two banjos, and a steamboat whistle, A Jazz Symphony is a bold and colorful experiment in then cutting-edge musical techniques.
Its world premiere was unfortunately overshadowed by the disastrous Carnegie Hall debut of Antheil’s even wilder Ballet Mécanique. The resulting negative press of the event left both works largely forgotten for decades, but a handful of recent recordings give hope that A Jazz Symphony may be making a much-deserved return to American concert halls.
William Schuman: Symphony No. 6
Ask any fan of William Schuman which of the venerable 20th-century composer’s symphonies is due for revival and the answer would probably be: D), all of the above. With the exception of his tragic Symphony No. 3 or the more frequently performed Symphony for Strings (No. 5), Schuman’s symphonies have never quite received the mainstream recognition of contemporaries like, say, Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein. One highlight of this neglected oeuvre is Schuman’s emotionally uncompromising Symphony No. 6.
Written in 1948 on a commission from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the roughly half-hour symphony pertinently reflects the somber post-war era of its creation. Cast in a single movement, its distressing musical narrative passes seamlessly through six connected sections of varying tempi, achieving a sustained musical tension seldom-matched by American composers more often known for bombast and heroism.
The symphony was not well-received upon its Dallas premiere, leaving audience and composer alike disappointed by the experience. The piece nevertheless has a handful of high-profile advocates, such as the composer Christopher Rouse and the conductor Gerard Schwarz, who produced one of its few recordings with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2009. It’s a weighty opus in Schuman’s musical catalog—one that has been shamefully excluded from the modern American repertoire.
(Painting by Thomas Cole: “House in the Woods,” 1847)