The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Does The Great American Symphony” exist – or even its equivalent in a different form or genre? American conductor JoAnn Falletta takes up the challenging question on NPR with “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel. Also, the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival opens tonight with a concert by Piffaro and a lecture on “The Germanies of 1616.” | July 6, 2013

A REMINDER: The 14th Madison Early Music Festival, with the theme “Renaissance Germany,”  opens tonight with a performance by the Renaissance band Piffaro (below) at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. It will be preceded at 6:30 p.m. by a FREE lecture by frequent guest blog contributor John W. Barker on “The Germanies of 1616 and How They Got to Be That Way” in Room L-160 of the Elvehjem Building of the nearby Chazen Museum of Art. For more information, visit:


By Jacob Stockinger

Back when The Ear was an undergraduate, he had a philosophy professor who claimed in an aesthetics course that no one in the class that was full of ambitious artists and especially would-be writers should worry about writing The Great American Novel.

It had already been written.

The Great American Novel, he said, was “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (below):

f. scott fitzgerald writing

It’s a great choice, though others might disagree and name Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” or Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

Still, overall, I think the decades have proven him right – which is why Gatsby has been made into several movie versions, including an older one with the actor Robert Redford and a recent one by director Baz Luhrman, and John Harbison’s full-length opera (below, with Dawn Upshaw as Daisy and Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby). And maybe a TV drama based on the novel is yet to come.

John Harbison Great Gatsby

But even though that quite of question somehow seems impertinent or irrelevant, it can lead to some memorable discussions and exposure to new music.

So last week, when everyone was looking up American music to play on Independence Day or the fourth of July, the question of The Great American Symphony arose.

And it was discussed on NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog by Tom Huizenga and also on “All Things Considered” by veteran host, the cultured, cultivated and witty Robert Siegel (below top) and American conductor JoAnn Falletta (below bottom), in a photo by Cheryl Gorski), who now leads three different orchestras as music director. (The three are the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland.) Falletta comes up with some interesting choices of American composers and works — some you have heard of and some you haven’t. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the beautiful slow movement from Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, which I had never heard either live or in a recorded performance.)

robert siegel in npr studio


It would be interesting to hear what some other American-born and American-trained maestros and champions of old and new American music – from Leonard Bernstein and Alan Gilbert of the New York Philharmonic to Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas (below) of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra said or have to say when they took on the same question.


Anyway, here are links to the NPR discussions. I recommend listening to the program and not just reading the transcript.

What do you think?

Do you have an orchestral work to nominate as The Great American Symphony or its equivalent?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. I was delighted to see that Joann Falletta made a case for both the Barber Symphony # 1 and Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige”. I believe that Ellington was at least in the same league as Gershwin in musical breadth, but his more symphonic efforts don’t get nearly the attention that Gershwin’s do. The Barber I’ve always thought is just an immensely satisfying work from his youthful period, and like her, I too am amazed that it’s NEVER programmed.

    Personally, I lean toward Copland’s #3 as the “Great American Symphony, although I can certainly understand the case to be made for the Ives #3 and #4. As far as works NOT mentioned, I’m surprised that Roy Harris’s Symphony #3 was not considered a candidate, since it held just that possible status when it was introduced in the late ’30s.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — July 7, 2013 @ 11:24 am

  2. I would nominate William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” (No. 1) for that honor, I think, alongside Copland 3 and Ives (which one to pick? 4 is the obvious choice, but I’d put 3 on the list first myself).

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — July 6, 2013 @ 10:53 am

    • Hi Mikko,
      All are very good possibilities for The Great American Symphony.
      I love the Copland and Ives, but do not know the Still.
      I wonder: Do you know Howard Hansen’s Symphony No. 2 “Romantic.” Interlochen uses the slow movement as its theme. Just wondered what you thought of it.
      I was surprised that JoAnn Falletta didn’t mention him or Leonard Bernstein’s symphonies, which are getting more serious respect these days, or William Grant Still.
      Aas always, thanks for reading and replying so specifically and knowledgeably.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 6, 2013 @ 11:19 am

      • I’ve heard the Hanson – not really my cup of tea at the moment, but I’m on a Handel and Haydn kick right now, so that can’t be helped. The Still is a wonderful piece, and quintessentially American, in my opinion. It’s often said that jazz is the real American music, and with that in mind, it follows that a symphony whose main theme is a 12-bar blues should fit the bill!

        Comment by Mikko Utevsky — July 10, 2013 @ 12:21 am

  3. George Rochberg’s Second Symphony is a really great work, as a matter of fact I think it’s one of the greatest symphonies ever written. It’s my nomination for “greatest” American symphony.

    Comment by Tony — July 6, 2013 @ 7:52 am

    • Hi Tony,
      Thank you so much for reading and replying.
      I know and very much like some music of George Rochberg.
      But I am completely ignorant of his Symphony No. 2.
      I will have to check it out.
      All in all, a great suggestion or nomination for The Great American Symphony.
      Best wishes, Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 6, 2013 @ 11:15 am

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