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

In Radio Land, American music probably receives more of a short shrift than in the concert hall — that is, beyond the hallowed trio of George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber. Ohio State University‘s WOSU polled its listeners for their favorite composers (among those the station programs frequently), and those previously mentioned three were the sole Americans in the top 10 — with Rhapsody in Blue, Appalachian Spring, and Adagio for Strings, respectively, as the representative pieces. Pressed for a more off-the-cuff report, WNYC New York host/producer John Schaefer offered Gershwin and Copland as obvious tops at his station, although he added Steve Reich (with pieces like Electric Counterpoint) and John Adams (Chairman Dances) as contenders for the dark-horse slot and recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Aaron Jay Kernis as a likely up-and-comer.

Also pressed for a list of most-programmed composers, Mark Mobley, music producer at National Public Radio‘s “Performance Today,” dutifully noted ever-increasing Gershwin and Copland for the past few years, as well as the anniversary airings of Leonard Bernstein. But he ventured Bernstein’s Candide Overture as a candidate for one of the all-time most-aired pieces, along with Barber’s Adagio. Other favorites include John Adams’ Chairman Dances, along with works by Charles Ives, John Corigliano, John Williams, Peter Schickele, and Alan Hovhaness. Although his works have long been a popular radio fixture (particularly in his native Northwest), Hovhaness’ recent death spurred a remarkable spate of broadcasts for his music around the country, as verified by ASCAP.

Indicative of little more than prevailing tastes among programmers and radio listeners, National Public Radio came up with a list of the “100 most important American musical works of the century” as a millennium-themed broadcast feature. Gershwin garnered three slots — the most among the “serious” composers included — for Porgy and Bess, Rhapsody in Blue, and “I Got Rhythm.” Duke Ellington got on the list for “Mood Indigo,” and several other composers got on for one slot each: Barber (Adagio for Strings), Copland (Appalachian Spring), Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story), Ferde Grofé (Grand Canyon Suite), John Cage (4’33”), Bernard Herrmann (Psycho), and Steve Reich (Drumming).

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

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