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Tracing The Spirit Of The Early American Symphony

by Joseph Horowitz
Jul 15, 2013

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Leonard Bernstein, in a New York Philharmonic Young People's Concert, once summarized the late 19th century as the "kindergarten period" of American music and proceeded to make fun of George Whitefield Chadwick, Boston's leading composer from that period. But in citing Chadwick's Melpomene Overture, Bernstein stacked the deck. Because it so obviously borrows from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde Prelude, Melpomene is easy to satirize, and it hardly represents Chadwick at his best. In fact, there is no evidence that Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and others who denigrated American concert music composed before 1920 ever looked at or heard very much of it. And yet the stereotype they fostered prevails — that American composers before Copland were European clones without a voice of their own. The body of music composed by Americans before the alleged "coming of age" in the 1920s and '30s by and large remains unknown. Here is a sampling of what American symphonies sounded like in those "kindergarten" days.

Joseph Horowitz writes about American symphonies in his book Classical Music in America: A History and on his blog.

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