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American Symphonies You Must Hear

August 8, 2013

Our friends over at NPR are running a summer contest to decide on "the great American symphony." We have a few opinions on this subject, beginning with: It’s pretty old school to bring up this topic at all; it’s like trying to argue Willie Mays vs. Mickey Mantle vs. Ken Griffey Jr. But since they brought it up, here’s a list of American symphonies we think you ought to give a try. Exhaustive? No way – there’s just a lot of American music out there

  1. Movement 1, “Gaelic”; Symphony by Amy Beach, Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Schermerhorn, conductor.
    This 1896 Romantic symphony was titled “Gaelic” by its composer because it uses some Irish tunes (although not in this movement). A fine work that deserves more attention than it gets.
  2. “Jubilee,” from Symphonic Sketches by George Whitefield Chadwick, Ukraine State Radio Symphony Orchestra, Theodore Kuchar, conductor.
    Chadwick is one of the nearly forgotten, great Romantic composers, and one of six composers dubbed collectively “The Boston School.” In this 1904 work, Chadwick began to stretch himself.
  3. “Decoration Day” from New England Holidays (Symphony No. 3) by Charles Ives. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas.
    Charles Ives, who spent his life as a successful insurance salesman with few public performances, is now celebrated as the most innovative of the New England composers. Wait for the end of this unusual work: Things change pretty rapidly!
  4. “Allegro molto” from Symphony No. 1 by Samuel Barber. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, David Zinman, conductor.
    Samuel Barber was one of those musicians who composed great music from the get-go. Though this is an early work (1936), it’s brilliant.
  5. “Work Song” from Black, Brown, and Beige by Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra.
    This symphonic scale work was cut down for recording, but in a live performance from Carnegie Hall in 1944, you can hear all the daring brilliance of this breakthrough work.
  6. “Molto moderato” (Movement 1) from Symphony No. 3, Aaron Copland. New York Philharmonic.
    Composed just after the end of World War II, there is an undeniable sense of triumph in this symphony, which incorporates the famous “Theme for the Common Man” (but not in this movement).
  7. “A boat ‘neath a sunny sky” from Final Alice by David del Tredici. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Barbara Hendricks, soprano, Sir Georg Solti, conductor.
    David del Tredici spent a good part of his career being inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books. This is really a symphonic cantata, but it’s beautiful all the same. If you want more symphony, check out “The Lobster Quadrille” from An Alice Symphony.
  8. Movement 1 from Symphony No. 2 by Christopher Rouse. Houston Symphony, Christian Eschenbach, conductor.
    Few symphony composers can get the headlong, rhythmic rush from an orchestra like Rouse. This is an excerpt, but enough to recommend the full album.
  9. “The City and Its Double” from City Noir by John Adams. Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor.
    Adams fans probably want Harmonielehre, but this 2010 work, with its layers of jazz and nods to classic film noir soundtracks is arguably closer to the roots of a composer who grew up with movies and classic jazz albums. All Adams’ orchestral works are skillful, but this is a particularly brilliant composition.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.