The Innovative Mosaic Of American Symphonies

Originally published on July 31, 2013 12:34 pm

Our country's culture is a vast conglomeration of more than 200 years of influences from all over the world. We have taken what began as an extraordinary European tradition and expanded that legacy on American soil. We have added our essential egalitarianism, our love of experimentation, our inclusiveness and our boldness to the very form of the symphony. Americans have not been bound by one definition of the symphony, and composers have applied that formal name to pieces of varying length, structure and content.

The search for the quintessential American symphony must acknowledge this: Perhaps there is no one perfect example of the form created on American soil. That very admission validates the essential underpinning of our heritage — it is a culture based upon a mosaic of different artistic expressions and perspectives. Not being able to find any one piece that can represent all of the music that is the United States is, in my opinion, truly something to celebrate.

In looking back over the many American works I've studied, performed and recorded I'm discussing here only those that claim the title "symphony," but there are many that eschew that formal structure yet are works of great importance and significant length and scope. One I must mention — a true American classic — is Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige. A three-movement symphonic masterpiece, it is the telling of the African-American experience in the United States, and in music of deep emotion and masterful imagination, presents the composer as indubitably one of the greatest creative artists of the 20th century.

As I re-examined the extraordinary American symphonies I had recorded over the last 15 years or so, the amazing differences in these works made me realize how broad the term 'symphony' had become since its 18th-century beginnings. I started with a work I have loved for decades — Samuel Barber's First Symphony — a one-movement powerhouse that not only presents four different sections, but does so with an exemplary combination of technical prowess and luminous elegance. As I listened to our Virginia Symphony recording, I asked myself two questions: Does the work sound American? Does it adhere to the usual formal structure of its ancestors? If pressed, I would answer no to both of those questions. Yet it is American, as American as was its great composer, and in its inherent architecture it fully satisfies the requirements for cohesion and variety that are the hallmarks the symphonic form. Moreover, it presents a statement that is in my opinion unparalleled for its passion, searching tenderness and poetic strength.

Last year, I reached much further back into our American heritage when the Ulster Orchestra and I recorded the Symphony No. 1 by John Knowles Paine, an 1876 piece that some scholars acknowledge as the first actual symphony written in this country. Paine's early American voice was strong and sure, influenced certainly by his Berlin studies and betraying his unmistakable love for Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann. Payne's work captures the past of the original symphonic form, but also looks forward to the future of the new world. Lyrical, rhythmically vibrant and finely structured, the piece languished because its Germanic roots were distinctly unpopular in the period after the First World War.

Another symphony I recorded with the Virginia Symphony on the campus of the historically black Norfolk State University was the delightful Symphony No. 1 by Louis Moreau Gottschalk— a two-movement charmer that pays limited tribute to the symphonic tradition of the 18th century, but is a work of tremendous energy and imagination. It certainly sounds more authentically American than either the Barber or the Paine, steeped as it is in the indigenous music of Louisiana and the Caribbean. Gottschalk was the first composer to introduce American themes into European classical forms, and he was the first to erase the dividing line between the serious and popular genres. His extraordinary symphony of 1859 — subtitled "Night in the Tropics" — anticipated ragtime and jazz by half a century.

Entering the symphonic field from a completely different world — Hollywood — is composer Jerome Moross. A serious composer more known for his extremely successful music for the movies, Moross lavished sterling craftsmanship on his four-movement symphony, which the London Symphony and I recorded more than a decade ago. Moross used traditional forms — sonata allegro, theme and variations, fugue — in music that is intrinsically American. Reminiscent of the wide spacing and tonal purity of Copland's works, Moross brings his own accessible humor to the symphonic form.

Recordings of wonderful symphonies by Adolphus Hailstork and Jack Gallagher illustrate two other vibrant American voices using the form to express their own personalities in music of excellent artistry, originality and undeniable appeal. I look forward to finding, performing and recording other American composers who value the form and structure of the symphony — and who, through their imagination and innovation, will make unique artistic offerings for the living, breathing and developing community of superb musicians that is the symphony orchestra.

JoAnn Falletta is music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Our colleagues at NPR Music posed this question: It's not rare to hear people discuss the great American novel or the great American films, so what about the great American symphony? That's a question they plan to address online all summer.

And one person they asked is conductor JoAnn Falletta, who wrote an online essay called "Engaging American Symphonies." And JoAnn Falletta joins us from Interlochen, Michigan, to talk about this. Hi.


SIEGEL: Well, you acknowledged several contenders for the title of great American symphony. If you could just cite two interesting ones, not necessarily your number one or number two, what would they be? Give us one first.

FALLETTA: Well, a piece that I've always loved, and I think it definitely is a contender is Samuel Barber's "Symphony Number One In One Movement." So that already is a bit unusual. But Barber does have the requisite four sections in there, and they're all very strong and very great contrasts and very different. And it's a fantastic piece of music on any terms.


SIEGEL: Is it widely played? Is it played enough by American orchestras?

FALLETTA: Not at all, and I always wonder why it's not because it has everything. It has virtuosity. It has drama as we hear at the beginning. It has a fantastic melody, one of the greatest melodies for oboe ever written. All of the kinds of contrasting areas that one gets in a symphony are in there. And it's compressed because it's in one movement. So to me, that's even more powerful because each movement is shorter and more sort of boiled down to the essence of what it is. And as a result, the piece is very strong when you listen to it and when you perform it.


SIEGEL: OK, "Barber Number One." Give us another serious contender for the mythical title of great American symphony.

FALLETTA: Well, one that doesn't bear the title of symphony, but one that I think is easily in that list is by Duke Ellington - Edward Kennedy Ellington - his "Black, Brown and Beige."


FALLETTA: He's considering the position of the African-American in our country, from the time of slavery up until the current time - or his time in any case. Music of great power that's totally American, contrasting it to the Barber, you know, that has its roots definitely in the European tradition. The orchestra may be somewhat European, but this is a truly American classic.


SIEGEL: Tell me, you're a music director of two American orchestras - one in Virginia, one in Buffalo - as well as an orchestra in Northern Ireland. When you tell symphony boards that you want to play a relatively unknown American symphonic work, do you hear, right on, let's go for it, or go sell the tickets yourself if you think you can, or why knock out the Beethoven when we know that people want to hear that?

FALLETTA: You know, I think I'm very lucky because in the situations in which I work, I think the communities have come to trust the orchestra and trust the discoveries that they've had in our programming. Especially in Buffalo where we have a tradition of wild new music, the community has been more open. And, in fact, I think it sells tickets. I really do because I think that sometimes we make the mistake of thinking if we do the program pieces that are the top 10, people will come in. Sometimes that's really not the solution to enticing audiences into the hall.

SIEGEL: You know, JoAnn, I grew up in Lower Manhattan about three blocks from where Antonin Dvorak composed his ninth symphony, "From the New World." Count him as a visitor and somebody who spent a few years and who got America and got American music into his symphony, and if you expand the definition a little bit, you could have, you know, a winner by a length.

FALLETTA: That's right. And, in fact, the music people from NPR have said maybe in the end we will decide that that is the quintessential American symphony, written as a gift to our country by a non-American, but certainly by a great human being who truly embraced our country's culture and wrote as a tribute to that culture.


FALLETTA: It's very beautiful to think that Dvorak was thinking of the Native Americans when he was writing this and African-Americans as well, and he incorporated that into this symphony long before any American composers had thought to do that.

SIEGEL: And he did so on 1st Avenue and 17th Street.

FALLETTA: That's right.


SIEGEL: You know, a lot of Americans who could rattle off several competing novels for a great American novel, which they'd actually read in high school or at college, and who could argue about what the best American movies, would be absolutely stumped to name an American - a true American symphony, which raises the question: Should we just concede the match here and say, you know, this is a European art form and it was mature by the time Americans started writing music for orchestra, anyway. We do lots of other wonderful music. The great American symphony is like a - as someone once said in another context - the tallest skyscraper in Topeka, Kansas.


FALLETTA: Well, it really depends on how narrowly we define what a symphony is. And I think many American composers want to write symphonies and would not want to give up the idea of writing an American symphony so that I hate to think that we would just have to give up and we're not in the running for that. But I do think that since the style of writing symphonies has so expanded and so varied - it's so varied now in such a creative way - that if we're going to think truly about great American symphonies, we have to expand what we might include in that category.

SIEGEL: As NPR Music launches its summer search for the great American symphony, cast your vote in public right now.

FALLETTA: Well, then I would have to say I cast my vote for a piece that I absolutely have adored for most of my life, and that is the "Barber First Symphony." I'm going back to that because it's the piece that I could perform every season and never grow tired of.

SIEGEL: JoAnn Falletta, thank you very much for talking with us today.

FALLETTA: Thank you.

SIEGEL: JoAnn Falletta, who is music director and conducts the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Virginia Symphony, is also principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra. And she was talking with us about the search for the great American symphony.


SIEGEL: You can read JoAnn Falletta's essay on the search for the great American symphony, hear more music and join in the summer long discussion of that topic at our website,


SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.