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Musicologist Matthew Mugmon writes a series of essays exploring American themes in classical music. Read about the development of the uniquely American voice in music history, spearheaded by key figures such as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and others who brought distinct American sounds and innovative techniques to the genre.

Part of our spotlight on American composers ahead of the United States’s 250th birthday in 2026. Learn more at boosey.com/America250.

The European—and largely Austro-German—origins of American classical music have made establishing a uniquely American voice a challenging but rewarding quest for composers. Dating back to this nation’s early years, a host of inventive and, today, largely ignored composers tackled this quest in various ways, and with various definitions of “American” up for consideration. But it was a generation of composers active after World War I who are commonly viewed today as the first to have written concert music that departed significantly from European stylistic norms.

One of the most prominent composers to be credited with meeting this quest was Aaron Copland, who studied with Nadia Boulanger in France in the early 1920s rather than in Germany (which before World War I had been the usual destination for promising American composers). Copland’s early works reflect the obvious influence of American jazz, and starting in the late 1930s, Copland composed a series of frontier-themed ballets—Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring—that incorporate both existing American songs as well as Copland’s recognizable style of deceptive simplicity. Copland would also use his celebratory Fanfare for the Common Man as the starting point for the finale of his monumental four-movement Symphony No. 3—a work that, for many, satisfied a longstanding call for the “Great American Symphony.” By the late 1950s Leonard Bernstein, Copland’s protégé, had become the country’s leading classical music celebrity. Bernstein’s compositions recall both the rhythmic verve and popular appeal of Copland, as heard in works ranging from Bernstein’s three symphonies to his blockbuster musical West Side Story, among many other compositions for the stage.

While Copland and Bernstein both wrote notable theater works in the 1950s, including operas, it was Carlisle Floyd who made waves internationally as a representative American opera composer. Floyd wrote both the music and libretto for Susannah, which was chosen to represent American music and culture at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958. In its rural Tennessee reimagining of a biblical tale, Floyd’s work adopts both regional dialect and folk song—an electrifying American spin on a classically European genre.

In New York and San Francisco in the 1960s, a generation of visionary figures experimented with new approaches to melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and media. Steve Reich created one of the formative works of minimalist music with his unrelenting and hypnotic Music for 18 Musicians. Imaginative approaches to repetition also characterize the music of Meredith Monk. In such landmarks works as Dolmen Music (1981), On Behalf of Nature (2016), and the GRAMMY-nominated impermanence (2007), Monk has pioneered the combination of music and movement, and the exploration of the possibilities of the human voice. John Adams’s pathbreaking treatment of recent history in Nixon in China both agitated and delighted listeners, and his signature blend of minimalist techniques with rock, jazz, and late-Romantic idioms set a precedent for much of the sound of today’s concert world.

Suggested Listening
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Appalachian Spring
Symphony No. 3
Fanfare for the Common Man

Of Mice and Men

Nixon in China
City Noir

Music for 18 Musicians
Different Trains

Dolmen Music

—Matthew Mugmon, 2023

Matthew Mugmon is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Arizona. He has served as the New York Philharmonic’s Leonard Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence, and his research appears in the Journal of Musicology, Music & Letters, the Journal of Musicological Research, and the essay collection Rethinking Mahler. His monograph Aaron Copland and the American Legacy of Gustav Mahler was published in 2019 by the University of Rochester Press.

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