The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What makes American music American? | July 17, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Two weeks ago tomorrow, a lot of radio stations and individual listeners were playing it patriotic and celebrating the Fourth of July by playing works by American composers, including programs devoted exclusively to such works.

But what makes an American piece of music sound American?

Is there something that links Aaron Copland (below), Edward MacDowell Charles Ives and George Gershwin to Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Elliott Carter?

American maestro Marin Alsop (below), who studied on Leonard Bernstein and who heads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has some interesting and engaging thoughts on the matter.

What do you think of what Alsop says?

Do you think American composers share certain traits?

What are your favorite pieces of American classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. America’s cultural identity (including its music) is tied up with our love/hate relationship with our European roots (where “high” culture is concerned) and the truth of our multi-cultural heritage from African American music and our great melting pot of peoples from all over the world.

    What sets our music apart from European classical music is the historical phenomenon of slavery, which, in spite of its epic tragedy, gave our continent a wonderfully rich tradition based on spirituals, minstrelsy, ragtime, the blues and of course jazz in all its permutations. Without this abundant wellspring of glorious “otherness” our music might well sound like watered down 19th-century German music. But because white musicians and black musicians (not to mention Russian-born jews, Irish, Poles, Latinos, etc.etc.,) literally found a musical common ground, we have a sound that is uniquely “ours.”

    Looking more broadly at the melting pot phenomenon, I think Marin Alsop is absolutely right that our ability to absorb all kinds of music into our American musical life is what gives our music its uniqueness and vitality. Ives, Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein and so many others have broken down the artificial barriers between the “popular” or the “vernacular” and “high art” (whatever we mean by that) and brought it all together. It’s our Music, as big as our American land … spirituals, work songs, hymns, marches, cowboy songs, Native American song and dance, Broadway and Tin Pan alley, and Jazz and rock and hip hop and even commerical junk … that is what we are, that is our heritage.

    Dvorak understood it, God bless him. He saw where our music would come from and where it was going. I love the notion that he might have heard Scott Joplin at the Colombian World Expo in Chicago in 1893.

    Comment by Bill Lutes — July 17, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

  2. I agree with the “conventional wisdom” that Aaron Copland was far and away the composer most responsible for developing a uniquely American “sound” in Classical music. I would say that, relative to European Classical music, this “sound” is characterized by polytonal harmonic thinking, widely spaced intervals, far greater concern with rhythmic movement, particularly syncopation, and acceptance of the French esthetic over the Central European — i.e., less attention to structure and development; increased attention to clarity, brevity, and charm.

    My second thought is that the phenomenon of Jazz, and its influence on musical theatre from 1910 – 1950 or so — what are now regarded as the American Standards — is uniquely American, and has served IMO to provide a unique and characteristic “color” to American Classical music. Jazz unquestionably arose from the Black perspective, and I agree with those who say that Jazz is the Black Classical music; i.e., the level of its sophistication and demands rivals that of Classical music.

    In my opinion, the composer presently most worthy of wearing the “Copland mantle” for the “American sound” is one not mentioned in the NPR article — William Bolcom. His cumulative output has been VERY inclusive, and is for me — well, most American-sounding.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — July 17, 2011 @ 8:56 am

    • Hi Tim,
      As always, your replies are perceptive and intelligent.
      I agree with you about the so-called “conventional wisdom” concerning Copland, and I think you describe his sound extremely well, especially before he became experimental later in life with atonal and serial stuff.
      I also think your comment about William Bolcom is right on the money.
      America strikes me as a tonal and melodic country with jazz — and I would add blues as well as Native American music used by MacDowell and Dvorak — being integral to its background.
      Please keep reading and writing.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 17, 2011 @ 10:05 am

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