Kansas City – I can’t think of a better way of spending my last night at my parents’ house before returning to my townhouse tomorrow at Rockhurst than watching the Boston Pops’ 75th Anniversary concert at Tanglewood on PBS. So far, they’ve played Copland and Bernstein, two of this country’s greatest composers. Right now, they’re playing a suite from Bernstein’s On the Town.
The odd thing is that when it comes to American classical music, I tend to think more of the various orchestras about the country, the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Pops, and of course our fantastic Kansas City Symphony, just to name a few, than the composers who called this country home, or at least their birthplace. Quite honestly, there isn’t a single American composer in my top five list. That elite group consists of an Austrian, a few Frenchmen, and an Italian: Gustav Mahler (Austria), Giuseppe Verdi (Italy), Gabriel Fauré, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Claude Deubssy (France). Even in the top ten, the Americans probably would only come in the bottom of those: W. A. Mozart (Austria), Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner (Germany), Sergei Rachmanioff (Russia), and George Gershwin (USA). Below Gershwin however do come a number of American composers; numbers 11-13 being Leonard Bernstein, John Williams, and Philip Glass.
So, why exactly then, being a classical music lover who has lived the majority of my nearly 21 years in the States, do I, along with many others, tend to prefer European composers over our home-grown cast of colourful characters? I think it could very well go back to the fact that this country, along with the rest of the Americas, were once colonies of Europe, and therefore surely not on par with Europe’s high culture! Also, the American Revolution certainly didn’t help win the hearts of my fellow monarchist music lovers back in Europe. There is a general disdain for all things American in regards to high culture. Just look at the luxury status of a Mercedes or my favourite, a Jaguar, compared to their price tag equals from Cadillac, Chrysler, and Lincoln among others. Another area that this can be seen is in Formula One, my favourite of all motor sports, which features a largely European cast of drivers (go Lotus!)
In this country we truly do have a great classical music tradition, with its own uniquely American flavour. I’d argue Broadway holds a similar place in American classical music that Gilbert and Sullivan holds in Britain. We don’t necessarily need to have grand operas of the same flavour as those that came out of Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia. Our opera has a different flavour, a more, at least presently, popular flavour. Our opera buffa could be said to be Broadway, whilst our opera seria could be said to be works like those of John Adams, Philip Glass, and of course Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Bernstein’s West Side Story. Just like how in many a Verdi opera you can hear an all-too Italian flavour, for example the brass scales during the “Gran nuova! Gran nuova!” chorus in Rigoletto have always sounded quite Italian to my ears, so too West Side Story and most, if not all, of Gershwin’s major work has a distinctly American tone and texture to it. At the same time, because we are a nation of exiles, refugees, and immigrants, our composers have the flair and ability to write in the styles of many far distant lands, like Philip Glass in his Gandhi opera Satyagraha.
Tonight on PBS’ Great Performances, this testament to the power and uniqueness of American classical music stands firm, as both high art and popular art pieces are being performed side by side. When I started writing this entry, music that premiered on Broadway filled my parents’ living room, now it has been succeeded by the quietude of a Haydn Piano Concerto.
Until next time, tá!