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

The American Symphony Orchestra League‘s 1999/2000 orchestral repertoire report surveyed 63 participating orchestras, covering 2,701 performances of 1,607 works by 436 composers — including 128 native-born American composers. The American composers with the most performances for the season were Aaron Copland (130), Samuel Barber (119), George Gershwin (89), Leonard Bernstein (83), John Adams (48), Charles Ives (46), and Christopher Rouse (26). According to the report, the most frequently performed American pieces were Barber’s Violin Concerto (24), Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (20), Copland’s Third Symphony (19), Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (17), Copland’s El Salón Mexico (17), Barber’s Overture to the School for Scandal (16), Adams’ Violin Concerto (13), Barber’s Knoxville Summer 1915 (13), Copland’s Clarinet Concerto (12), and John Corigliano‘s Pied Piper Fantasy flute concerto (11). The American totals obviously pale in comparison with the most-performed standard repertoire composers overall — Mozart (585), Beethoven (580), and Brahms (485). The most-programmed pieces overall last season were the Brahms Violin Concerto (65), Rachmaninoff‘s Third Piano Concerto (52), and Dvorak‘s Symphony No. 9 (48).

To see how American composers fared relative to one another in seasons past we can look to other ASOL repertoire reports. The most frequently performed American composers in the 1998/99 season were Gershwin (124), Barber (99), Bernstein (91), Copland (80), Ives (54), Adams (51), Rouse (40), and Corigliano (39). The most-programmed native pieces were Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F (37), Barber’s Violin Concerto (25), Barber’s Adagio for Strings (24), Ives’ Three Places in New England (17), Copland’s Symphony No. 3 (15), Gershwin’s An American in Paris (14), Adams’ Century Rolls piano concerto (13), and Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront (13). In the 1997/98 season, the most-performed Americans were Gershwin (125), Barber (120), Copland (114), Bernstein (93), Corigliano (55), Adams (34), Ives (34), and –surprise– Joseph Schwantner (24). The most-programmed American pieces were Copland’s Clarinet Concerto (24), Barber’s Violin Concerto (23), Gershwin’s An American in Paris (21), Barber’s Knoxville Summer 1915 (20), Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F (19), Schwantner’s Percussion Concerto (17), Barber’s Cello Concerto (16), and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (15). And, finally, in the 1996/97 season, the top Americans were Copland (130), Barber (119), Gershwin (89), Bernstein (86), Adams (48), Ives (46), Rouse (26), and William Bolcom (23); the most-programmed pieces were Barber’s Violin Concerto (24), Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (20), Copland’s Third Symphony (19), Bernstein’s West Side Story Dances (17), Copland’s El Salón Mexico (17), Barber’s Overture to the School for Scandal (16), and Adams’ Violin Concerto (13).

As another, more specific, bellwether, we can look at the American programming of some of the past New York Philharmonic seasons — which has undoubtedly benefited from the string of anniversary years. In 1999/2000, the year of the Philharmonic’s "Copland Celebration," the New York band performed Copland 64 times, far more than any other native composer. In 1998/99, the top Americans were Gershwin (40), Duke Ellington (30), and Bernstein (13). Jumping back across the decades, the 1990/91 season highlighted Bernstein (36), Copland (21), and Barber (14); in 1980/81, Copland (29) and William Schuman (8); in 1970/71, Copland (4), Gershwin (3), and Virgil Thomson (3); in 1960/61, Copland (6), Bernstein (5), and Morton Gould (4); in 1950/51, Barber (5), Copland (4), Norman Dello Joio (4), and Ives (4); in 1940/41, Gould (2), Walter Damrosch (2), Arthur Foote (2), and Roy Harris (2).

Another indicator of performances for American composers comes from the performing-rights societies, ASCAP and BMI. Neither organization will offer public rankings of its most frequently performed composers, but they will report those who are logging significant activity, in no particular order. Beyond the usual top names, BMI lists such composers as Alan Hovhaness, John Harbison, Steve Reich, Tobias Picker, Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Torke, and Joan Tower. ASCAP offers Philip Glass, Ned Rorem, Howard Hanson, David Diamond, Dominick Argento, Lowell Liebermann, Robert X. Rodriguez, Augusta Read Thomas, Morton Gould, Randall Thompson, Libby Larsen, David Del Tredici, Stephen Paulus, and Dan Welcher, among others.

Americana Arcana: What is the Most-Performed American Classical Music?
By Bradley Bambarger
© 2000 NewMusicBox