The Best Work of American Classical Music

There is so much wonderful classical music out there that it is hard to pick favorites. Nonetheless there seems to exist a rough consensus among the classical music aficionados that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor is the best classical music that has ever been written. It has certainly withstood the test of time. Some might argue that Handel’s Messiah should have the honor. Arguably Messiah is perhaps the best work of classical music known to the masses. And it is a lot more hummable than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (Ode to Joy from the fourth movement is familiar to lots of people.) About once a year or so I slip the Ninth into my CD player. Although brilliant, played anymore than that it gets hard to appreciate its brilliance. My only wish is that someday Ode to Joy would be sung in English, so we unwashed Americans could better appreciate it. But I guess that would be sacrilege to classical music purists.

Pondering great classical music, I was wondering if there is a work of American classical music that critics could agree is our best work. I suspect if pressed many scholars would pick a work by Aaron Copland, most likely his Appalachian Spring. There is no question that Aaron Copland writes quintessential American music. After you have heard a number of Copland pieces you can almost always hear something else he has written by him and say, “Yep, that’s Copland”. While there are many American classical music composers out there, only a few have any name recognition whatsoever. Some others that come immediately to mind for me include Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives and Alan Hovhaness. Your short list of American composers is likely different than mine.

But the best work of American classical music? That’s a tough question to answer. While I personally am drawn to the music of Aaron Copland I am often scorned for my choice. I like Appalachian Spring so much I had it played at my wedding. But while it was likely the best thing that Copland ever wrote, Copland was not an inventive composer. In fact he routinely stole snippets of American music. The main theme to Appalachian Spring, for example, is the well-known Shaker hymn, “Tis a gift to be simple.” Copland excelled at finding excellent bits of the authentic American sound and weaving them together into larger orchestral works that amplified and extended these sounds.

A “best” work though has to stand the test of time. That’s a bit of a problem for American classical music since, by European standards at least, we are still a new country. Most countries though have one composer that stands out. When you hear his music (and it’s almost always a he) you say you understand that country. For example, Jean Sibelius gives us the sound and spirit of primal Finland. Who though could carry this mantle for American classical music and also create works of music that are uniquely their own?

The answer came to me last night as I heard music drift upstairs from the TV room. My daughter Rosie was deep into TV. I don’t know what she was watching but the music was unmistakable. It was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Suddenly it clicked into place. This single work is quintessentially American, wholly unique and as wonderful and amazing in its own way as Sibelius’s Finlandia is to the Finnish and Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Greensleeves is to the English. And Rhapsody in Blue is perhaps the most performed work of American orchestral music in American and in the rest of the world. And of course it is really, really good.

I remember fondly my first exposure to Gershwin. While I have an appreciation for jazz, it is not a genre that I have done more than sample. Sometime in the late 70s when I was finally on my own I wandered into a record store (this being in pre CD days) and found a two record collection of his best-known music. Of course it was just his works for piano and orchestra. You had to read the liner notes to realize he had a whole other career working with his brother Ira to create show tunes and popular music. He seemed an unlikely person to call a classical composer. Most people of his time saw him as a jazz composer. Perhaps Rhapsody is both jazz and classical music. But at 22 I remember thinking, “This is amazing music.” It is still true today.

George Gershwin is an odd selection for best American classical composer. Much of his music would be considered trite stuff. Fluffy musicals like Of Thee I Sing seems like Gilbert and Sullivan operettas: fun to go to but empty of content or meaning. Steeped in the jazz era, and the Ragtime music that preceded it, Gershwin drew inspiration from many authentic forms of American music, including Negro spirituals. So like Aaron Copland he heard authentic American music and integrated them into his own music. Unlike Aaron Copland however they were largely inspiration for the creation of new music. In Rhapsody in Blue it all came together. The work itself is rather short. The pace moves from sedate to frantic and journeys in places in between. But there is no confusing it with stuffy classical music from Europe. It is a work that is fully of the energy of the American experience. It often feels almost giddy. And now the music is almost ubiquitous. I find it woven into television commercials for airlines.

Gershwin’s list of pure classical music is rather thin. Concerto in F and An American in Paris are his best known other works. Both are wonderful. But it is Rhapsody in Blue that endures and captures our soul. So for me, it is America’s Finlandia. I see it as not just our most recognizable piece of American music, but also as our best work of classical music.

What do you think is the best work of American classical music?

Update: 9/19/13 – It should be noted that while Gershwin is the author, he wrote Rhapsody in Blue for piano. Ferdinand Grofe actually arranged it for orchestra, so he deserves some credit for this work of art. Arguably, some of Grofe’s work could be considered as best works of American classical music. His Grand Canyon Suite comes to mind.

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