The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why do Americans hear so few American symphonies and so many German and Austrian symphonies?

January 6, 2016
4 Comments

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:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/29/books/review-douglas-w-shadles-orchestrating-the-nation.html?_r=0

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:


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