Americana Arcana: What is the Most-Performed American Classical Music?


Bradley Bambarger
Bradley Bambarger
Photo by Melissa Richard

There is no doubt that American composers have come a long way since Dvorák admonished them to stop mimicking Europe and come up with a distinctly native form of expression. Yet determining just who are the most popularly successful (i.e., the most frequently performed) American composers on their home soil these days is an elusive proposition past a certain point.

Certainly, the usual suspects have been more in evidence than ever over the past few years. The recent centenaries for George Gershwin (1998) and Aaron Copland (2000) boosted their profiles on the concert stage and on the airwaves to an even greater standing, while it doesn’t seem that Samuel Barber needs any sort of anniversary to spur presenters and programmers to put on his evergreens. Yet latter days have seen some other composers making headway.

Although his concert works are performed far more often than some critics would lead us to believe, the dual celebrations for Leonard Bernstein (what would have been his 80th birthday, in 1998, and the 10th anniversary of his death, in 2000) definitely heightened the presence for more of his compositions worldwide, both live and on record. Jazzing things up to a healthy degree, the pieces of Duke Ellington also gained at least some fleeting visibility in the concert hall as symphony orchestras joined in marking the 1999 centenary of this great American composer’s birth.

Beyond the birthday boys past, three current Johns seem to set the pace in the number of performances for their orchestral works — John Adams, John Corigliano, and John Williams (the latter particularly in pops and children’s concerts). In the operatic realm, Carlisle Floyd seems to be riding higher than ever. Bubbling under in various areas are such names as Christopher Rouse, Philip Glass, and that Yankee pioneer Charles Ives. Fully realizing the inexactitude of the process, I’ve collated some research data and anecdotal indications of the most frequently performed American composers in the orchestral and operatic arenas, as well as in chamber/solo recitals, pops/school band/children’s concerts, radio broadcasts, and recordings.

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