The Great American Symphony

The Great American Symphony

We’ve all heard nominations for “The Great American Novel,” whether it be Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, An American Tragedy, The Great Gatsby, or The Sound and the Fury. And for “The Great American Movie” one might offer Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Vertigo, or perhaps The Godfather.

My contribution to this parlor game is “The Great American Symphony”: an annotated list of what are, in my view, the nine most significant and representative American works in this hallowed symphonic genre, balancing periods (both before and after World War II) and stylistic idioms. Others might have made different choices (and I’ve myself mentioned some “runners up” in passing), but no one can fairly deny that these nine are all exceptionally distinguished compositions with strong individual profiles that reveal the skill, imagination, and originality of their creators while at the same time reflecting, whether overtly or subliminally, the “American” character of their origin and inspiration.

Fortunately for anyone who wants to hear these works, all have been recorded in brilliant performances and excellent—in several cases superb—sonics. The first recordings in every case were on LP, and all of these have been reissued on CD. However, a few of those first vinyl issues have been superseded by better-sounding CD recordings, which I’ll recommend instead of the LPs. All of these—whether LPs or CDs, whether first or later recordings—are (even if nominally out of print) easily available from online sources such as Amazon, ArkivMusic, and eBay. These nine “Great American Symphonies” are not in order of rank but instead listed chronologically, by date of composition.

1. Charles Ives: Symphony No. 4. American Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski (Columbia LP, Sony CD).
Ives is the eccentric grandfather of America’s homemade music. He wrote four (numbered) symphonies, but the last of these is by far the oddest and greatest. All of his most characteristic traits—the vitality, the untrammeled invention, the visionary grandeur, the egalitarian folksiness, the pantheistic ardor, the naiveté and boldness and astonishing array of sonic and time-bending experiments—are on display in his phantasmagoric 1916 Fourth Symphony. It was first recorded, a few days after its first-ever complete concert performance, by a gigantic assembled-for-the-purpose orchestra led by Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia in 1965, half a century after it was written. Other fine renderings of Ives’ celestial monster came later, but this first one, charged with the excitement of discovery and Stokowski’s charismatic showmanship, will always have the special aura of a bold, ambitious plunge into the unknown.

Even Mahler would have been impressed by the size and variety of the required performing forces. Adding to the customary orchestral array are two pianos (one of them played by two performers), organ, celesta, triangle, high and low bells, timpani, Indian drum, snare drum, bass drum with cymbal, light and heavy gongs, male and female chorus, and an additional off-stage ensemble that requires a separate conductor. Each of the four movements embodies a different facet of Ives’ musical personality. The opening, a choral invocation of the night, moves quickly into the fantastical chaos of the scherzo, which superimposes fragments of dozens of popular marches, patriotic songs, hymn tunes, and assorted ditties into a swirling, garish, partly festive, partly nightmarish melée. After so much wildness the third movement comes as a calming, dignified relief; it’s a stately fugue on a churchly theme that swells to a sonorous climax with confident majesty. But the climax is reserved for the dreamlike finale, a solemn, mysterious cortege that streams slowly and gently out into the cosmos, its long, slowly unspooling dissonant lines dotted with celesta and bells that twinkle and glitter like distant stars in the night, reaching at last the radiant serenity of a lullaby to creation itself. Neither before nor since has there been anything else in all the world like this passing strange, enchanted music, and only Charles Ives could have conceived it.

2. Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2, “Romantic.” Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Erich Kunzel (Telarc SACD).
Hanson’s 1930 Second Symphony, subtitled “Romantic,” seems an anachronistic return to tradition after the audacity of Ives’ extravagant experiments, but the history of art is never an always-forward evolution toward any particular goal (whether greater or lesser sophistication, complexity, refinement, “originality,” or any other such talisman), but rather an unpredictable and often seemingly contradictory course that veers from one extreme to another and defies the very idea of “progress.” For Hanson, who studied with Respighi and emulated Sibelius, that course led him to Romanticism-with-a-capital-R, as defiantly announced in the title of his expansive Second Symphony and embodied in its gorgeous melodic arches, richly sonorous harmonies, lush scoring, and irresistible ardor. If the symphony’s broad melodic sweep, episodic layout, and effusive fervency may sound “cinematic” to us now, that’s because film music composers (such as John Williams) learned their craft by studying the music of late Romantics like Hanson, and audiences heard the resulting sonic glories more often at the movies than in the concert hall.

Hanson’s own recording of the work on a vividly-recorded (if rather bright-sounding) early-stereo Mercury is brisk and punchy, but somewhat hampered by the scrappy, smallish Eastman-Rochester Orchestra he conducts. It’s good, and certainly authentic, but Erich Kunzel and the fuller, more polished Cincinnati Pops on the Telarc SACD is bigger, more burnished, more glowing, and more, well, romantic. Those drawn to Hanson’s Second should also hear his more heroic 1941 Third, splendidly done by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony (Delos and Naxos CD), as well as Bernard Herrmann’s stormy and rousing Symphony, also from 1941, on a Unicorn LP conducted by the composer.

3. Samuel Barber: Symphony No. 1. St. Louis Symphony, Leonard Slatkin (RCA CD).
Barber’s resplendent 1936 First Symphony, written when the composer was only 26, took a surprisingly long time to achieve much notice, and, much like the composer’s gloriously beautiful 1939 Violin Concerto, only gradually gained a place in the performing repertoire. Listening to both works, now long affirmed as American classics, one finds this early neglect incomprehensible, though of course there are many other instances of great works being ignored for many decades before revealing themselves to the large audiences they deserve.

Barber devised an especially compelling four-in-one-movement structure for his First Symphony. Its persuasive unity and stringently argued logic are a result of the composer basing the entire work on the three themes, different in character but related in materials, that appear in the boldly assertive opening movement: a majestic, upward-striving melody with a Sibelian largeness of utterance announced at the very beginning; a second lyrical theme; and a third, more smoothly flowing but still intense closing theme. These three themes—each distinct and memorable—are presented and briefly combined in the first movement’s short development section, but not fully restated or concluded, thus leaving the movement as a sort of truncated, incomplete sonata form.

Each of the following three (joined) movements recasts and develops the themes from the opening movement in different guises. The scherzo turns the first theme into a skittish, triple-meter, repeated-note figure and subjects it to a vivacious and brilliantly scored elaboration that zips by shooting off orchestral pyrotechnics, while in the andante tranquillo the lyrical second theme is transformed into a glowing, song-like melody that begins as an oboe solo over hushed strings. The finale is a noble, strongly-wrought passacaglia based on the first theme, into which are woven variants of the other themes at different, overlapping speeds, eventually underlaid by a massive, slow-moving augmentation of the first theme as the symphony gathers momentum for a series of brusque, cathartic, final volleys by the deep brass. Thus the symphony as a whole becomes a large-scale, 20-minute sonata form, with the last movement serving as the long-delayed recapitulation for the first movement and at the same time as the conclusion for the entire symphony. This architectural ingenuity is both aesthetically satisfying—imparting a tremendous sense of purposeful forward drive to the whole structure—and easy to hear while listening to the work, though it’s the brilliance, individuality, and impact of the music itself that rivet the listener’s attention.

The first recording of Barber’s First Symphony was led by Bruno Walter, though the sound is archival only. The best stereo vinyl release I’ve heard is by Kenneth Schermerhorn conducting the Milwaukee Symphony on Turnabout, but better still is the RCA CD with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony: refined, shapely, and wonderfully expressive. Sonics are exemplary, sharply focused but full, rich, and truthful, resulting in a release that comes pretty close to ideal.

4. Roy Harris: Symphony No. 3. New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (Columbia LP, Sony CD).
The career of Roy Harris will always evoke a certain pathos: he peaked too soon. His 1939 Third Symphony was recognized as a masterpiece early on, and it has unquestionably stood the test of time. But though Harris lived another 40 years and went on to complete a dozen or so more symphonies, the Third is his only achievement that earns, and ensures, his enduring fame.

It’s a quintessentially American work but also conveys an instantly recognizable individual personality. Original in harmony, in scoring, and spirit, it has great sensuous beauty and expressive power, and a unique, organic, and convincing—if unconventional—formal logic. The work begins by evoking a sense of brooding potentialities (in the broad, slowly moving lines of its opening), then moves on to pastoral expansiveness and optimism (in the interwoven woodwinds of the following allegro), industrial might and ambition (in the canonic overlappings of the bounding, sharply-outlined theme of its central fast section), and finally, overshadowing and darkening all that precedes it, grim resignation in its bleak, tragic ending. And all this is packed into a mere 18 minutes of music! Like our national history, things grow, evolve, and dissipate with surprising speed in Harris’ Third, moving from celebration to dark prophecy with stunning alacrity. Despite and also because of its equivocal implications about “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” it remains the archetypal American symphony of the first half of the 20th Century.

The finest performance of Harris’ Third is and no doubt always will be the incandescent recorded premiere (1939) led by Koussevitzsky, but alas, that suffers from thin, archival sonics. Fortunately Bernstein’s 1961 recording is almost as good, and it gets excellent (if hardly purist) engineering from Columbia/Sony.

5. William Schuman: Symphony No. 3. New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (Columbia LP, Sony CD).
William Schuman wrote ten symphonies (though the first two were withdrawn) of which at least four—numbers 3, 5, and 8—are among the best written by an American. No one surpasses Schuman for contrapuntal sophistication, dazzling orchestral brilliance, supremely confident brio, and sheer symphonic drama. No listener forgets those spring-loaded rhythms that generate so much tensile strength and kinetic energy, those magniloquent polytonal chorales, those lithe string cantabiles punctuated by brassy, percussive outbursts. And, as with the great Danish composer Carl Nielsen, no matter how involved Schuman’s polyphonic superimpositions, the music remains miraculously transparent.

Schuman’s 1941 Third Symphony made the composer instantly famous, as well it should have. There isn’t a more exciting piece in the entire repertoire. It’s cast in two longish halves, each comprising two sections: “Passacaglia and Fugue,” and “Chorale and Toccata,” though Schuman’s handling of these baroque-era forms owes little to tradition. The influences are Roy Harris and Paul Hindemith, in about equal measure; but to these Schuman adds his own personal spaciousness, boldness, and optimism. Each of the symphony’s halves surges forward after ruminative openings, often alternating orchestral choirs—strings, then woodwinds, then brass, then percussion—with irresistible vigor and élan as they reach toward mighty, full-throttle, electrifying climaxes that simply lift you out of your chair. Anyone who loves immersive orchestral panoply at its most imposing and inspiring is sure to be thrilled with this music.

Those who like Schuman’s Third may want to explore more by this charismatic and influential figure (he was president of the Juilliard School and later of New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts) whose music so strongly reflects mid-century America’s complex mix of robust, forward-looking expectation and brooding anxiety about its place as leader of an ever-more-dangerous world. This ambivalence is particularly evident in his later music. His Fifth Symphony, scored for string orchestra, is most memorable for its thoughtful and introspective central slow movement, while the Eighth is a shrouded and moody but luxuriant nocturnal cityscape that glooms and glowers.

Recommendations for recordings of Schuman’s symphonies are much simplified by the fact that no one conducts him like Bernstein, and, in a bonanza for the record collector, Bernstein’s superb (and well-recorded) performances of Symphonies 3, 5, and 8, originally on Columbia LPs, are collected on a single Sony CD. This is an essential disc for anyone who cares about American music

6. Walter Piston: Symphony No. 2. Boston Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (Deutsche Grammophon LP and CD).
Piston wrote his eight symphonies between 1937 and 1965. They are superbly crafted and expressive works that join lucid counterpoint, classic formal proportions, and Brahmsian gravitas to sassy, upbeat New World rhythmic drive. Best—and these are certainly among the best written by any American composer—are Symphonies 2, 4, and 6.

The Second, from 1943, is Piston’s most popular symphony, and for obvious reasons: catchy (often cleverly syncopated) tunes, rhythmic drive, sumptuous scoring, romantic emotion. With more familiarity one’s admiration for Piston’s less obvious virtues continues to grow: his perfectly-judged balance of buoyancy with sustained lyricism, clarity with full-throated warmth, dignity of utterance with humane generosity of spirit. These characteristic qualities are evident throughout the three movements of his Second Symphony: a moderately-paced first movement that contrasts a broad, singing string melody with a sprightly, jazz-inflected second theme, an achingly beautiful adagio that builds from thoughtful tenderness to an outpouring of passionate yearning, and a final foot-tapping allegro that tosses around its clever tunelets with boisterous gaiety and panache.

Piston’s Second has been recorded four or five times but never with as much pizzazz and shapely expressiveness as by Tilson Thomas and the Boston Symphony on Deutsche Grammophon. (Piston lived in Boston and wrote with the “sound” of the Boston Symphony in mind.) This performance came out in 1970 on LP; the sonics are top-notch, and the CD reissue, which includes also-stellar performances of William Schuman’s magnificent Violin Concerto and Carl Ruggles’ craggy but exultant Sun Treader, is an indispensable item in any library of 20th Century American music. 

Those drawn to Piston’s music should also seek out his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. The Fourth is his most elegant and ingratiating, with a lovely, almost pastoral opening movement marked piacevole—pleasantly. A nostalgic slow movement comes next, between a balletic, waltzing scherzo and muscular finale. Ormandy’s outstanding 1954 recording on Columbia has been reissued on an Albany CD; Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony on Naxos have better sound but less verve and personality. The more autumnal Sixth Symphony was recorded for RCA by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, and remains the benchmark performance. It’s on a superb-sounding RCA stereo LP (not yet reissued on CD). Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony on RCA silver disc are a good digital choice.

7. George Rochberg: Symphony No. 2. New York Philharmonic, Werner Torkanowsky (Columbia LP and CRI CD).
Written in 1956, George Rochberg’s Second Symphony is a long-thought-over response to the horrors of World War II (in which he fought and was grievously wounded). Not only is this Rochberg’s masterpiece, it is quite simply one of the greatest symphonic works of the 20th century: original in conception, fierce in integrity and craft, relentless in purpose and urgency, smoldering with emotion, stunning in effect. Though fully chromatic (indeed built from twelve-tone rows), the angular, up-thrusting themes are tunes nonetheless, not only singable but indelible. And how profoundly both “modern” and “American” this music is, alive with the flamboyance, the proud ambition, the restless energy, the loneliness, the anxieties, and the pain of a country emerging, triumphant but terribly scarred, from four decades of worldwide conflict. The 20th century is the century of war on a scale of destruction and suffering unseen in all of human history, and Rochberg’s symphony one of the few artifacts that seem commensurate with the magnitude of such horrific inspiration.

The symphony’s four linked movements—tightly unified in melodic materials but widely differing in mood—trace a course that grows with great cumulative power to a dark, sorrow-riven ending. The opening is unforgettable: marked declamando, a primal six-note motto is hammered out with Beethovenian fury, quickly complemented by a soaring but vehement theme that thrusts up (a minor sixth) with the angular, gravity-defying majesty of a skyscraper. The brightly-scored scherzo that follows has a nervous edginess and charged-up excitement—and the jazzy syncopations—that recall the street scene from Bernstein’s West Side Story. Sharp contrast comes with the third movement’s elegiac adagio, enclosing a grief-stricken threnody with calm, ghostly episodes of chamber-music delicacy and transparency. With the finale the symphony returns to the tempo of its opening, now marked incalzando (urgently), and here Rochberg does something truly magnificent: he welds together the chief elements of the earlier movements, superimposing the six-note motto over the first movement’s soaring main theme, fashioning an apotheosis that encompasses defiant ferocity, baleful inevitability, and finally, in the concluding epilogue, exhausted valediction.

Werner Torkanowsky and the New York Philharmonic made the first recording of the Rochberg Second; it was issued on a Columbia LP and reissued on a CRI CD. This coruscating performance imbued with inexorable logic and tremendous forward drive is well captured in visceral, immediate sonics. It will always be “the” performance for me, though the much later reading by Christopher Lyndon-Gee and the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony (on Naxos CD) also has considerable power in addition to revealing certain details not brought forward in the older recording. It’s perhaps fitting that this work born of world war has now been recorded by both American and German orchestras.

8. Roger Sessions: Symphony No. 3. Royal Philharmonic, Igor Buketoff (RCA LP, CRI CD).
Though Sessions wrote nine symphonies, his 1957 Third remains the most moving and satisfying. It’s a complex and turbulent work, combining intricate contrapuntal interplay, shifting and evanescent orchestral colors, and emotions ranging from surging dynamism to somber moodiness. One hears in this music’s freely dissonant language a stubbornly independent and deeply American composer grappling with the influence of Arnold Schoenberg—not so much with his twelve-tone system as with the febrile density and expressionist aesthetic of the great German’s early “atonal” works like the Opus 16 Five Pieces for Orchestra. (Indeed one commentator has described Sessions’ Third as “the symphony that Schoenberg never wrote.”

This influence is particularly clear in the second-movement scherzo and outer allegros which present agitated, volatile ideas occasionally relieved by more leisurely, ornate lines spun out in elaborate polyphonic exchanges among the instruments. Sessions’ very personal kind of lyricism reaches full flower, however, in the work’s deeply moving third-movement elegy. It begins and ends with a quiet, forlorn, hauntingly beautiful, turning-in-on-itself melody played by the solo clarinet over soft, spare harp arpeggios. The feeling in this elegy is all the more powerful for being understated and submerged except for the few moments when it breaks out in a solemn, annunciatory repeated-note salute to the dead, pronounced and briefly echoed by the brass.

Though to date there’s only one recording of the symphony, with Igor Buketoff leading the Royal Philharmonic, fortunately it’s a very good performance and in excellent sound, originally issued on a (still easy to find) RCA LP and reissued on a CRI CD. Collectors who respond to Sessions’ demanding but greatly rewarding music should also check out three excellent recordings of impressive symphonies by three of his most distinguished students: Robert Helps’ wild and wooly 1955 First (on Columbia LP and CRI CD), Andrew Imbrie’s prismatic and eloquent 1970 Third (Columbia LP and CRI CD), and John Harbison’s spectral, sinister, dream-tormented 1981 First (New World LP and CD).

9. Irving Fine: Symphony. Moscow Radio Symphony, Joel Spiegelman (Delos CD).
Like many other notable American composers, Irving Fine studied with Walter Piston. His earlier music is neo-classic—lucid, tonal, clean-lined, cast in traditional forms—but he became more adventurous over time, while still maintaining his lapidary craftsmanship. Written in the last year of his too-short life (1914–1962), Fine’s Symphony (there’s just one) is a very personal response to, and synthesis of, elements drawn from both Stravinsky and Schoenberg. It’s a taut, intricate, subtle, and deeply original work, cunningly unified by submerged thematic echoes, and orchestrated with superlative skill—even on first hearing the listener will be dazzled by Fine’s magical blending of articulative bite and lyrical delicacy in his instrumental textures and colors—that packs an astonishing variety and plenitude of felicitous ideas and imaginative fantasy into the concise 23 minutes’ duration of its three movements.

The first of these, Intrada, is a half-droll, half-spooky mix of slowish and fast tempos, led off by a bumpy dotted-note march that chugs along, intermittently sinking beneath the surface and later rising again between more active episodes of choreographic commotion that climaxes in (and continues beneath) a long-lined melody after which the music subsides into mysterious quietude beneath soft quiverings and pizzicatos. This is followed by an acrobatic scherzo (titled Capriccio) full of nervous vitality, now playful, now sardonic; despite its post-tonal vocabulary, despite its kinships with Stravinsky and even Prokofiev, this is immediately and undeniably “American” music from a composer who grew up in the “jazz age” and felt first-hand the dynamism and drive of its great cities. The final movement, Ode, tops everything that precedes it, bringing the work to a supreme level of hieratic seriousness, grandeur, and solemnity. This is evident right from its beginning, as uprising motives beneath percussive and low-string pedal points seem to call into the infinite darkness, signaling an impassioned struggle toward a higher, transcendent plane of being (displaying, curiously enough, a distant but undeniable kinship to the mystical finale of Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony). Slowly, adamantly, with increasing strength and courage, the music grows toward its awe-inspiring culmination: a somber, slowly tolling but rhythmically incisive fanfare of immense power and majesty.

Fine himself conducted the Boston Symphony in the first recording (issued on RCA vinyl and reissued on a Phoenix CD) of his symphony. (Two weeks later he collapsed and died, forty-seven years old.)The performance is authoritative but sonically compromised by the venue, which although by no means insufficient to reveal the work’s impact, nevertheless obscures some of the scoring details. Joel Spiegelman and the Moscow Radio Symphony play the work just as well (in a very similar interpretation) and are given clearer and more potent sonics on a Delos CD that gets my highest recommendation.