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Top 10 Classical Tunes For a 4th of July BBQ

July 3, 2012

After you download all the John Phillips Sousa marches and recordings of Battle Hymn of the Republic, you might think you have your Independence Day playlist knocked down. Not so, friend: Here are some striking pieces that you may not have thought about but that deserve at least a mention, and possibly a listen, on the Fourth of July. Fly the flag proudly, and consider these pieces for inclusion at the barbecue and picnic.

1. George Gershwin, Overture to Strike Up the Band

Here’s a recording from the Buffalo Philharmonic with Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm: It features a fantastic march that became the theme song of the UCLA marching band; and that’s just the beginning of a string of great tunes from a show with a still-timely antiwar message. Strike Up the Band

2.“Beale St. Blues” from Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy

If you tell me that this isn’t American classical music, you must be high. The most important influence in early jazz plays the music of the most legendary blues writer/transcriber ever. Whoever originally said that jazz is America’s classical music must have been thinking about this album. And anyone (if there still is anyone) who believes that Armstrong’s best, most convincing playing was behind him in the 1950s, when this album was made, has got a pleasant surprise in store. Beale St. Blues

3. Charles Ives, Variations on America (arr., W. Schuman and W. Rhoads)

When you think of songs about America, you might pass over this fine, six-and-a-half-minute piece based on one of the most popular of those songs, and arranged here for band. It is a great tribute to the song. Variations on America

4. Charles Ives, “Putnam’s Camp,” from Three Places in New England

Since we’re on the topic of Charles Ives, we have to mention this piece, inspired by a Revolutionary War historic landmark in Redding, Connecticut. Ives really lets himself go here, with various sections of the divided orchestra playing asymmetrical phrases with all kinds of dissonances and various tunes. It’s tremendous fun and it comes with a program that’s all about Independence Day. The performance? MTT and the San Francisco Symphony, of course. Putnam's Camp

5. John Alden Carpenter, Skyscrapers: A Modern Ballet

This 1926 piece was commissioned by ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, after the success of the composer’s previous ballet, Krazy Kat. Carpenter happily wed Tin Pan Alley styles to his symphonic score, and the result is a pretty good 21-minute ride. There happens to be a new, live recording of it, which the American Symphony Orchestra released on its own label. Leon Botstein conducts. Skyscrapers: A Modern Ballet

6. America the Beautiful, Ray Charles

Many performers have made wonderful recordings of this favorite song. Be sure to include this one on your playlist.

7. “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground”

Since we’re in the second year of the Civil War sesquicentennial, you might want to put a song from that era into your July 4 mix, and this one is perfect: It reflects the harsh realities of 1864 rather than the optimism of 1861–1862. It’s one of two tracks on this list that won’t pull you out of your seat. And it has a number of good recordings. Forget instrumental-only versions; you want to hear the lyrics. Tenting on the Old Camp Ground

8. John Williams, “Hymn to the Fallen,” from the Saving Private Ryan soundtrack

Every patriotic holiday involves a moment or two of remembrance for the death and destruction wrought by America’s wars, since patriotism and war often go hand in hand. Rather than follow Steven Spielberg into the spectacularly filmed carnage of his film’s D-Day reenactment, Williams stepped back from the adventure-score style with which he made his mark, to compose this reflective, elegiac piece, one of his best. Hymn to the Fallen

9. Leonard Bernstein, Fancy Free

The 1944 ballet that inspired the first hit musical by the Bernstein and Betty Comden & Adolph Greene writing triumvirate (On the Town), Fancy Free is about three sailors on shore leave. Beyond that, it’s a love song to American popular music. Fancy Free

10. John Adams, Century Rolls, III

Adams’ piano concerto plays with the idea of a musical style generated by piano-roll technology. The piece is a formidable challenge for any pianist, and it displays all the rhythmic vitality and intricacy we’ve come to expect from Adams. The jazzy last movement (punningly titled “Hail Bop”) is expertly played by Emmanuel Ax in its premiere recording. Century Rolls

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.