Classical Music With a Modern American Sound

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus.

And I’m Steve Ember. Our subject this week is classical music with a modern American sound.

Jazz and blues are American inventions. But most Americans were happy to get their classical music from Europe. After all, classical music is the name for European music from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Then came the twentieth century. Composers like George Gershwin combined jazz and other popular music with classical forms.

Gershwin was born in eighteen ninety-eight. He studied with traditional music teachers. But he wanted to write popular songs.

In nineteen twenty-four, George Gershwin wrote one of the best known American compositions, "Rhapsody in Blue." Band leader Paul Whiteman called it "a jazz concerto."

Gershwin wrote for the musical theater. His other works included the concert piece "An American in Paris." And he wrote "Porgy and Bess," a musical drama which many called an opera.

"Porgy and Bess" was first presented in nineteen thirty-five. DuBose Heyward wrote the story. It tells of the love of an African American man and woman caught in a world of violence and poverty. People have called the story insulting to blacks. But very few criticize the music.

Here is an early recording of Todd Duncan and Ann Brown, the first to star in "Porgy and Bess," as they sing "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."

Many composers in the United States wrote classically influenced works in the early and middle nineteen hundreds. Among them were Roy Harris, William Schuman, Walter Piston and Elliot Carter. Others were Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Howard Hanson and Aaron Copland.

Like George Gershwin, Aaron Copland was an influential composer. Among his works are "El Salon Mexico" for orchestra and dance music for "Rodeo" and "Billy the Kid."

His ballet piece "Appalachian Spring" takes from American folk songs and religious music.

Another popular work by Copland is from nineteen forty-two. Listen now as Leonard Bernstein leads the New York Philharmonic in "Fanfare for the Common Man."

Aaron Copland helped younger composers and musicians. One of them was Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein was born in nineteen-eighteen. He attended Harvard University in Massachusetts. While still in school, he met Copland. They remained friends all their lives. Both men died in nineteen ninety.

Bernstein helped make Copland’s work popular by performing it with orchestras. But he also composed works of his own. He wrote many of them during the nineteen forties and fifties. "The Age of Anxiety," his Symphony Number Two, captures Bernstein’s idea of the sounds of America.

Leonard Bernstein also wrote the music for the ballet "Fancy Free," and for the Broadway play and movie "West Side Story."

His compositions have been highly praised. But some critics say he borrowed too much from others. They say he never created a sound of his own.

Such things are rarely said of Philip Glass, Joseph Schwantner and John Adams. All three of these composers are now in their sixties.

The best known works by Joseph Schwantner are for orchestra, some with voices. One of his most popular is "New Morning for the World: Daybreak of Freedom." Washington lawyer and civil rights activist Vernon Jordan reads the words.

The other two composers, Philip Glass and John Adams, have both written unusual operas. For example, John Adams wrote "Nixon in China," about the historic visit of President Richard Nixon to China in nineteen seventy-two.

Much more recently, John Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for "On the Transmigration of Souls," a work for orchestra and voice. It honors the victims of the terrorists who attacked the United States on September eleventh, two thousand one.

Like many other composers, Philip Glass spent years working at other jobs besides music. He supported himself by repairing pipes and driving a taxi before his music was recognized.

In nineteen seventy-six, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City performed his work "Einstein on the Beach." It broke all the traditional rules of opera -- and many people loved it.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Faith Lapidus.

And I’m Steve Ember. To send us e-mail, write to [email protected] And please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.