The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why aren’t America’s modernist composers as well as known as its modernist artists? | August 6, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently, the culture critic Terry Teachout posed an interesting question in a column he wrote for The Wall Street Journal.

Why, he asked, aren’t America’s 20th-century modernist composers as well known as its modern artists such as Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko?

Sure, you know of Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, and you hear their music performed and played often.

But what about Roy Harris, Peter Mennin, Elliott Carter, Walter Piston and William Schuman (below)? Or even the concert music of Leonard Bernstein? (You can hear Bernstein conducting one of his favorite works by William Schuman, the energetic “An American Festival Overture,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

William Schuman

You rarely hear their music.

And you rarely hear about them.

Why is that?

And how can it be fixed – if it should be fixed?

Here is Teachout’s take, which involves the focus of the programs at this summer’s Aspen Music Festival.

Read it and see what you think:

Then let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Some locally grown classical musicians and composers are trying to bring new composers to Madison. The Madison New Music Festival will have its inaugural performance next Saturday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.


    Comment by Ellen Connor — August 6, 2016 @ 5:45 pm

    • Good stuff. And here’s more info from the Isthmus:

      “The very first Madison New Music Festival will take place Saturday, August 13, 7:30 pm, at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Admission is free and all ages are welcome.

      The Madison New Music Festival will strengthen Madison’s cultural vitality by celebrating contemporary classical music. The festival will present new works by some of the world’s leading living composers, shine a spotlight on new music created in Wisconsin, and share underplayed music of the 20th and 21st centuries with the Madison community.

      The program will include an eclectic mix of recent compositions showcasing talented young performers from the Midwest, including Joe Connor, Dan Reifsteck and Ilan Blanck of Slipstream, Yana Avedyan of New Muse Ensemble, and LUNA Voice & Piano Duo.

      The diverse range of composers includes Pulitzer prize-winner John Luther Adams, Grammy-winner Eric Whitacre, celebrated Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, as well as Wisconsin composers Daron Hagen, JP Merz, Kimberly Osberg and Zachary Green.”

      – See more at:


      Comment by fflambeau — August 6, 2016 @ 11:22 pm

      • Since we’re talking about local performing groups, MAYCO (Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra) will premiere its 6th work in 10 concerts when it closes out its 6th (and final?) season next week. Five of those were commissioned works and one the US premiere of a British work.


        Comment by Steve Rankin — August 7, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

  2. Another reason, which we have discussed here before, is that modern music is more difficult to obtain–it is largely not for purchase but instead is only available by rental. For the Chicago Symphony that poses little barrier, but it has a large influence on the music performed by regional groups, community ensembles, and school groups. If these grassroots organizations can provide little exposure to this large repertoire of music, audiences will have less familiarity and the cycle spirals down. This unfortunate business model by music publishers keeps much of this music out of the hands of ensembles.


    Comment by Steve Kurr — August 6, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    • Very good points from someone who knows the situation from inside. But I would think the MSO has the money (but not much of the will) to perform newer works. I notice that the symphony orchestra has not commissioned new works as it used to (under its original founder). Still, as noted by Mr. Kurr, finances are a problem for grass roots organizations.


      Comment by fflambeau — August 6, 2016 @ 11:19 pm

  3. Terry Teachout: “The answer is that they were American classical composers active from the ’40s into the ’70s.”

    Factually, very, very wrong. Teachout is only considering a few Americans and ignoring some of the greatest ones, like the ones who wrote far earlier than the 1940’s.

    How about George Gershwin? Teachout seems to have forgotten, if he ever knew, that Gershwin’s greatest compositions were written BEFORE 1940: thus, among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). Or how about Charles Ives, who was born in 1874 and wrote many of his better works before 1940. In fact, he died in 1954 and his work became more popular after his death.

    Or how about a great female composer that America produced, Amy Beach? Beach died in 1944 but wrote symphonies, choral works and chamber music way back in the 1890’s. Beach is not even mentioned by Teachout.

    And Teachout is ignoring a whole lot of other fine American composers who wrote after the 1970’s: like Philip Glass. Or how about Morten Lauridsen, who has become our most popular composer of choral works. Lauridsen was BORN in 1943. By the way,

    Lauridsen’s music is more widely performed than that of ANY contemporary, American or otherwise. I could go on and on with names (John Harbison; Morton Gould etc.) but one that Teachout really misses the mark on is Alan Hovhaness who wrote something like 500 works from the 1930’s to near the end of the 20th century. His “Mysterious Mountain” symphony #2, was written in 1955; his Mt. St. Helen’s Symphony in 1982, His Hym to Glacier Peak as late as 1992!

    I’m afraid that Mr. Teachout has just exposed his own ignorance by his comments. His explanation does not ring true.

    In my opinion, the real reason for America’s modernist composers being largely unknown in comparison to its modernist painters (and that too has to be qualified and terms defined because of someone like Lauridsen and someone like Glass, both of whom are definitely very well known) is:

    1. Classical music blogs/radio stations/scholars/music schools and other classical music “gatekeepers” are infatuated with the German school of classical music, which means Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms etc. If you don’t think this is true, just look at WPR’s programming. They play very, very little American music at all. And for that matter, very little French classical music, and very little Italian classical music too. Probable reasons: it’s been that way for a long time (tradition); that’s the music they know; that’s the music they have records and cd’s of; and they have an inferiority complex when it comes to composers of their own nation.

    2. Ditto for the music directors and conductors of most major American symphonies. Most of them like to stick to the well worn path, because it is less hazardous and (they think) will result in bigger financial gains. Look at the somewhat unenlightened and limited programming of our own Maestro John DeMain, as an example (and he isn’t the worst).

    3. The tendency amongst many “gatekeepers” and the intelligentsia to equate American composers and music with “sub par”, “popular/Hollywood/movie music” or worse.

    One of the nice things that the violinist Daniel Hope has done, through his concerts, and performances and recording (all of which, have sold well, by the way) is to remind us just how good and beautiful those lush Hollywood sounds could be.

    And many of those composers, like Erich Korngold, and Miklós Rózsa lived a substantial part of their lives in the USA. Rózsa, for instance, spent 55 years in the USA. Wasn’t he pretty much an American of Hungarian origin (which raises another problem with this topic question)?


    Comment by fflambeau — August 6, 2016 @ 5:41 am

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