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

Over the past decades, few American composers have had great success with their recordings on the Billboard chart — although composer/double-bassist Edgar Meyer‘s folk-themed Appalachian Waltz (Sony Classical) is something of an exception, as is John Corigliano‘s lauded score to the film The Red Violin (Sony) and Renée Fleming‘s sorely needed all-American opera recital disc, I Want Magic (Decca). Yet even though the smash hits are relatively few and far between, more and more recordings of American repertoire are available. In particular, such indie operations as stalwart non-profit New World Records and now the budget label Naxos (with its recently launched “American Classics” series) do the Lord’s own work in recording works by new and unsung American composers.

In fact, the Naxos “American Classics” series is the biggest event in the recording of American music since the founding of New World Records in 1975. In addition to popular works by Samuel Barber, Philip Glass, and Charles Ives, the label has recorded relatively under-heard symphonic scores by the likes of Walter Piston, Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, Benjamin Lees, Edward MacDowell, Ferde Grofé, Victor Herbert, and Morton Gould, as well as chamber and instrumental pieces by Piston, Hanson, MacDowell, Arthur Foote, Charles Griffes and Gunther Schuller. A disc of Gloria Coates string quartets will be released in early 2001.

Since the catalogs of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland were more than well-covered by various labels prior to their centenaries, these two composers have mainly been celebrated with reissues; to mark Leonard Bernstein‘s anniversaries, though, more and more new recordings were released — several recordings of the violin concerto Serenade, new orchestral sets and collections for piano, and albums of fresh arrangements for guitar and violin, among others. Elliott Carter‘s 90th birthday in 1998 also sparked a spate of new discs, making him one of the most recorded (if least broadcast and programmed) of American composers. The high profiles of Philip Glass, John Adams, and Steve Reich are thanks in large part to the patronage of a great American record label — Nonesuch. But non-label-exclusive Ned Rorem has also seen a recent rise in his recordings, from a hit disc with mezzo Susan Graham on Erato to an upcoming Naxos set featuring the composer accompanying soprano Carole Farley. With the troubles in the recorded classical music industry, though, it is younger composers who may have an increasingly hard time getting their works recorded, particularly large-scale orchestral pieces. Yet one of the popular devils of the classical record business, Sony Classical, has actually made the forward-mined move of commissioning works from Edgar Meyer and Richard Danielpour, among others.

Two informal tallies can help us get some idea of which American composers have the most music available on disc. With a simple (and hardly exact) recent search on Amazon.com, Gershwin registered 381 recordings, Copland 262, Barber 237, Bernstein 200, Charles Ives, 131, Elliott Carter 77; Ned Rorem 55, Philip Glass 44, John Adams 44, George Crumb 36, Steve Reich 32, John Corigliano 28, John Harbison 25, and Christopher Rouse 11. A search of Gramophone‘s (U.K.-oriented) reviews database came up with Gershwin having 176 recordings, Barber 156, Copland 147, Bernstein 121, Ives 102, Glass 38, Reich 24, Crumb 20, Corigliano 20, Rorem 18, Harbison 12, and Rouse 6.

No American orchestra has recorded more native music than the New York Philharmonic. According to James North’s discography in the wonderful New York Special Editions 10-disc archival boxed set Discover America, the orchestra has recorded some 166 recordings of American music over 80 years — Leonard Bernstein leading 90 of them, most for Columbia Records and some for Deutsche Grammophon. Sadly, after much of the past decade with Teldec (part of Warner Music), the New York Philharmonic no longer has an ongoing recording contract.

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

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