American classical music

American classical music is music written in the United States but in the European classical music tradition. In many cases, beginning in the 18th century, it has been influenced by American folk music styles; and from the 20th century to the present day it has often been influenced by folk, jazz, blues, and pop styles.

Jazz music is sometimes referred to as American classical music, mainly by jazz musicians. They feel that, being as jazz originated in America, jazz is the true American classical music.

If "classical" can be taken to mean what it often in fact means, "serious", then the earliest American classical music consists of part-songs used in religious services during Colonial times. The first music of this type in America were the psalm books, such as the Ainsworth Psalter, brought over from Europe by the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The first music publication in English-speaking North America indeed the first publication of any kind was the Bay Psalm Book of 1640.

Many American composers of this period worked (like Benjamin West and the young Samuel Morse in painting) exclusively with European models, while others, such as William Billings, Supply Belcher, Daniel Read, Oliver Holden, and Justin Morgan, also known as the First New England School, developed a native style almost entirely independently of European models. Many of these composers were amateurs, and many were singers: they developed new forms of sacred music, such as the fuging tune, suitable for performance by amateurs, and often using harmonic methods which would have been considered bizarre by contemporary European standards. Some of the most unusual innovators were composers such as Anthony Philip Heinrich, who received some formal instrumental training but were entirely self-taught in composition. Heinrich traveled extensively throughout the interior of the young United States in the early 19th century, recording his experiences with colorful orchestral and chamber music which had almost nothing in common with the music being composed in Europe. Heinrich was the first American composer to write for symphony orchestra, as well as the first to conduct a Beethoven symphony in the United States (in Lexington, Kentucky in 1817).

During the mid to late 19th century, a vigorous tradition of home-grown classical music developed, especially in New England. The composers of the Second New England School included such figures as George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell, and Horatio Parker, who was the teacher of Charles Ives. Many of these composers went to Europe especially Germany to study, but returned to the United States to compose, perform, and acquire students. Their intellectual and stylistic descendants, such as Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, and Roger Sessions, and have remained through the 20th and into the 21st centuries in the major universities in the cities of the northeast and elsewhere.

African-American composer Scott Joplin was one of the most significant self-defined classical composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although first revived after the end of the Jim Crow era by William Bolcolm as the inventor of the popular genre ragtime, it is clear from Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag and his opera Treemonisha, that he intended to join a classical tradition. A "popular" song maintains consistency, but the Maple Leaf rag explores tonality and pacing, and Treemonisha set itself to a serious subject, which for Joplin was the betterment of his people as a nation.

In the early 20th century, George Gershwin was greatly influenced by African American music; however, this was during an era of legally enforced "Jim Crow" segregation during which his music perhaps enjoyed undue fame owing to the refusal of white listeners to listen to music that formed Gershwin's sources. On the other hand, he created a convincing synthesis of music from several traditions once considered to be irreconcilable, and which continues to enjoy enormous popularity.

Many of the major classical composers of the 20th century were influenced by folk traditions, none more quintessentially, perhaps, than Aaron Copland. Other composers adopted features of folk music, from the Appalachians, the plains and elsewhere, including Roy Harris, William Schuman, David Diamond, and others. Yet other early to mid-20th century composers continued in the more experimental traditions, including such figures as Charles Ives, George Antheil, and Henry Cowell.

In the 1980s, after a period during which self-defined American "classical" composers like John Cage adopted atonal structures and thought of themselves less American than Modern composers, Philip Glass revived tonality and traditional genres, such as opera in works like Einstein on the Beach. Glass re-created a semi-mass market for "classical" music, made in America because audiences outside of an avant-garde had simply refused to sit still for Modernist, atonal music, whether from America or Europe.

A pessimist model, shared by Aldous Huxley and Theodor Adorno, of the classical tradition in Europe was that it peaked with Beethoven. Aldous Huxley believed that subsequent classical music was vulgarized, Adorno believed that commodification entered with Wagner.

The problem for "American classical music" is that it flourished much after Beethoven and was informed by a declining tradition. Gershwin and Copland gave it new life in a similar fashion to the "national" classical composers of Europe like Sibelius and Bartok, by injecting folk themes.

But by Glass's time, American folk had ceased to be a viable option since the "folk" listened to electronically based music. Glass, in order to gain a mass audience, used a stratagem of "prettification" very similar to that of Igor Stravinsky, who while he adopted some Modernist practices, sugar-coated its severity.

A Time magazine article of the 1980s describes "happy sighs" of the American audience during the first notes of a Glass concert, for in the 1980s it was no longer quite fashionable to be patient with atonality, and it had become fashionable in classical circles to demand more immediate gratification.



1. Name the main periods of the American Classical Music development. Give a brief description of each of them.

2. What influence did European classical composers make on American music?

3. What contribution did American classical music make to the world music?

4. What was the problem of "American Music"?

5. Write a summary of the text.



  1. A. Music of the United States
  2. American Customs and Traditions
  3. American Descriptive Linguistics
  4. American Holidays
  5. American Mass Media
  6. An American Renaissance.
  7. B. Music of Great Britain
  8. Body Language in American Politics
  9. Classical pragmatics
  11. Famous Musician

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