The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why do Americans hear so few American symphonies and so many German and Austrian symphonies? | January 6, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Here we are, living and listening to music in America.

So why is it that we hear so few 19th-century symphonies by American composers and so many symphonies by German and Austrian composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Bruckner and Richard Strauss?

To be specific, why have we heard the New York Philharmonic perform so much by Johannes Brahms and so little by composers such as John Knowles Paine (below, in a photo from The Library of Congress), who also headed the music department at Harvard University?

John Knowles Paine CR Library of Congress

You might think it has to do with the quality of the music.

But that just isn’t so, says Douglas W. Shadle (below, by Steven Green of Vanderbilt University), a musicology scholar at Vanderbilt University. He has just published a long study of the issue. The book is called “Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century Symphonic Enterprise” (330 pages, Oxford University Press, $55).

9-2-2014 - Studio photo of Douglas Shadle, Prof. of Musicology in the Blair Schoolof Music. (Steve Green / Vanderbilt University)

The Ear would have to hear more American music to believe that argument.

Which makes it a vicious cycle: More American music won’t be programmed until it gets heard and liked by the public, and it won’t get heard or liked by the public until it is programmed more frequently.

What will break that cycle?

Which end gives way first?

Wouldn’t it be nice if some of that music was programmed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or even the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra?

Or if it were featured on Wisconsin Public Radio or WORT-FM? Perhaps one or the other radio station could even established an hourlong weekly program of American music — normally highlighted mostly on Thanksgiving — to help educate us about ourselves and our own cultural history, past and present?

Anyway, The Ear found the review of the book in The New York Times to be fascinating and highly informational, even revelatory.

Here is a link to the book review:

And here is a link to a YouTube video of a symphony by John Knowles Paine. I think you will be impressed, as was The Ear:


  1. I’m weighing in late, but have been thinking about this. I think the dominance of Germanic symphonies has to do with the fact that Germany and Austria had monarchies, courts, and aristocracies, requiring immense concert halls where status could be seen and put on display and expressed in numbers of instrumentalists. They also conducted wars on their territories that gave their history a symphonic sweep and sensibility. Also, the form was developed long enough to bring out some true geniuses steeped in the symphonic tradition.

    America has had none or few of these features.

    On the other hand, America has taken genres like blues, jazz, musical theater, and rock ‘n’ roll to similar pinnacles, genius levels not equaled in Europe, because of America’s historical and ethnic experience.

    We also hear German, Austrian. and French composers in the U.S. because East Coast elites, including those who did classical programming for sophisticated audiences in the broadcast industry, looked to Europe to find ways to express their elite status and taste, just as they adopted European architectural styles and high cuisine. It was both the best and the classiest, in the snooty sense.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — January 13, 2016 @ 3:05 pm

  2. Here are some other American composers who should be played/listened to more frequently:

    1) Howard Hanson. Even his most frequently played symphony, his 2nd or Romantic, is infrequently played (has the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever performed it? despite it being a masterpiece; his 1st symphony and the 3rd are also beautiful and quite different; his “Sea Symphony” (#7) is also lovely as are many of his choral works; Hanson really was the Dean of American music and the long time head of the renowned Eastman School of music;

    2) the Hollywood “movie” composers; Eric Korngold, J. Goldsmith, J. Williams, B. Hermann etc. wrote some terrific music that was “put down” because of its ties to Hollywood. Hats off to Daniel Hope and others for popularizing much of this.

    3) the minimalists are coming into their own with P. Glass, S. Reich and J. Adams but also deserve more concert hall attention.

    4) how about those in the jazz world who often wrote for classical music: Duke Ellington and the great clarinetist, Artie Shaw both wrote works for the symphonic world that are terrific but rarely heard;

    5) choral world composers like Morten Lauridsen and others.

    6) those commonly played by orchestras: Bernstein, Copland.

    7) Alan Hovhaness (in a world of his own). A unique sound and almost 500 compositions, only half of which have been recorded. A major composer of the 20th century who crosses national boundaries.

    Comment by fflambeau — January 7, 2016 @ 11:30 pm

  3. Actually, isn’t this web site one of the major perpetrators of the German/Austrian school of music? If you read posts here, they are mostly about Beethoven, Mozart and Bach (I understand those three), and Haydn (who I would banish to purgatory).

    Alan Hovhaness is slowly undergoing reevaluation and now some of his choral works have even been recorded. I think he was one of the greatest of the 20th century composers but his music is not typically “American”, say, in contrast to a far inferior composer such as Aaron Copland.

    The Gershwins were also magnificent and America lost a great composer at a young age and in the full power of his compositional strength when George G. died.

    I suspect the real culprit here is music “education” and the timidity of most conductors and orchestra managers to play more American music. Oddly, note that orchestras that have done so (like the NY Philharmonic under Gilbert and several orchestras under G. Schwarz) have done very well at the box office. The public is not to blame. It is the gatekeepers of classical music.

    Comment by fflambeau — January 7, 2016 @ 11:03 pm

  4. Orchestras are stuck, as are opera companies, in a place where a embracing a broader repertory would likely lead to fewer ticket sales and donations from patrons. Even the perhaps best known American composer, Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony is not a staple of any American orchestra. My guess is that conductors and musicians would like to see more American symphonies programmed, but are discouraged to do so because of their respective boards and management. (There may also be the issue that most of the conductors of America’s big symphonies are not American born and therefore lack an affinity towards American composers. That’s not being said in a detrimental way, but merely as a factual hypothesis.)

    Comment by Thomas Moody — January 6, 2016 @ 9:14 am

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