Earlier this week, NPR broadcasted an illuminating story about an exhibit at the Library of Congress titled “Books That Shaped America.” For the exhibit, the LoC has gathered 88 books—ranging from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos—which in some way “encapsulated and reflected a moment of time in America that Americans understood and recognized in themselves.” Historians, curators, poets, scientists, and literary experts all took part in the culling and selecting of the titles, and during the segment it doesn’t take long for the host to bring on a book critic from the Washington Post to point out what books did not make it onto the final list.
In any case, a story like this immediately begs the question: “What about music?” One could argue that music has had as strong of an impact on this country and its people as books have had, and over the years there have been quite a few attempts at addressing that question. In 2000, for instance, NPR went through a similar process as the Library of Congress and put together an initial list of 300 works that they subsequently reduced down to the “100 most important American musical works of the 20th century.”
On that initial list of 300, the selected concert works were as follows:
1. Adagio for Strings (Barber)*
2. African-American Symphony (Still)
3. Amahl and the Night Visitors (Menotti)
4. Appalachian Spring (Copland)*
5. Ballet Mechanique (Antheil)
6. Drumming (Reich)*
7. Ebony Concerto (Stravinsky)
8. Einstein on the Beach (Glass)
9. Fanfare for the Common Man (Copland)
10. “4:33” (Cage)*
11. Grand Canyon Suite (Grofe)*
12. Hymn and Fuguing Tunes Series (Cowell)
13. In C (Riley)
14. The Incredible Flutist (Piston)
15. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (Barber)
16. Moby Dick (Mennin)
17. Nixon in China (Adams)
18. Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord Sonata” (Ives)
19. Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin)*
20. String Quartet No. 3 (Carter)
22. Symphony No. 1 (Zwilich)
23. Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” (Hansen)
24. Symphony No. 3 (Harris)
25. Symphony No. 3 (Riegger)
26. Symphony No. 3 (Schuman)
27. Symphony of Psalms (Stravinsky)*
28. Symphony of Rage and Remembrance (Corigliano)
* works that were selected for the 100 top works list
During the NPR segment I mentioned above, they took several calls to hear about how this or that book affected a particular person’s life, and it’s here where I think this exercise might be valuable and/or enlightening. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that a very few of these pieces actually resonated with the majority of the country as a whole (Appalachian Spring is probably as close to a publicly recognizable national concert work as we have). However, I would think that at least a few of these works (and many others) were important in shaping the lives of individual composers and performers here in the U.S. today.
To take that one step further, the idea of discovering what works of American origin have become shared experiences between American composers that transcend generation, education, and environment is an interesting one. Yes, one could rightly open up such an exercise to works from outside the U.S., but, as with the Library of Congress’s exhibit, there is value in discovering what effect art has on the native population where it was created—especially in such a heterogeneous population such as ours. We in the arts have prided ourselves on being so open to influences from around the world that I’m afraid we haven’t taken enough time to look at how we are affected, with certain exceptions (various popular/vernacular genres, etc.), by home-grown influences.
When I speak of influences, there are many different ways that a musical work can influence a composer or performer. In my own career, I can distinctly remember listening to Michael Torke’s CD Javelin in 1996 and being very surprised by it, especially the chamber work Adjustable Wrench. I had primarily had experiences in jazz and I was living in Los Angeles becoming immersed in the film music scene, so my concept of what concert music was at that time was till pretty “crunchy.” After listening to the CD several times, I realized that all those angular, dissonant associations I had with concert music might not be the only option any more. Soon I came across other composers who were writing more diatonically—Lauridsen, Pärt, Gorecki—and while most of my music today has no relationship to any of those works or composers, discovering those works did ultimately help to convince me that I might want to try my hand at being a concert composer.
Below are two questions to readers—feel free to answer either one or both. I’m not looking to create a ranking or a “Best Of…”, but rather to begin to build a picture of which American works have been influential to composers and performers active today. Thanks in advance for taking part!
1. What American concert work or works have somehow influenced you personally, artistically, or otherwise?
2. What American concert work or works would you add to NPR’s list of music that you think has had an important impact on the country as a whole?