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Staves and Stripes

We take a look at a number of influential American composers to celebrate US Independence Day.

By Chris Shipman (Content Producer (Social Media and News))

4 July 2012 at 12.03pm | 2 Comments

In an explosion of stars and stripes, fireworks and parades, Independence Day takes place in the United States today (4 July). In tribute to our friends over the pond, we’ve taken a look at a number of American composers who have had a great influence on the art form.

One of the best known American operas, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess saw the composer bridge opera and musical with what he called an “American folk opera”. Premiering in 1935, the piece tells the story of a number of African-American residents of Catfish row in 1920s South Carolina. Although not a success when it opened, the piece’s stock has risen and a number of songs from the folk opera have become hits in their own right – “Summertime” in particular, has been memorably performed by the likes of Billie Holiday and Miles Davis.

Philip Glass has dominated American classical music since the 1960s. As well as working on operas including Einstein on the Beach (recently receiving its British premiere as part of the London 2012 Festival) and Satyagraha, Glass has collaborated with artists as diverse as Brian Eno, Aphex Twin and Woody Allen. He remains tagged by many as a minimalist, although the composer prefers the description of ‘classicist’, referencing his training in harmony and study of Bach, Mozart and – apparently his favourite – Schubert.

President Richard Nixon and his 1972 visit to China provided John Adams with the inspiration for his first opera. A fusion of 20th century stateside sounds, the work melded Stravinskian neoclassicism with jazz and big band sounds, and even a synthesizer. The work has since been deemed a significant contribution to American opera.

He may be primarily known for his musicals – including Broadway heavyweight West Side Story – but Leonard Bernstein also wrote a slew of other works including ballets, film scores, orchestral works and operas. Candide, an operetta based on Voltaire's satirical novella, achieved enormous popularity. Originally premiering in 1956 on Broadway, the piece was revised with a new libretto in 1973 and was revised for a final time in 1989, a year prior to Bernstein’s death.

Although not American-born, Igor Stravinsky became a US citizen in 1945, living out his days in Hollywood and New York. During his time in Los Angeles, Stravinsky became friends with the likes of George Balanchine, Aldous Huxley and WH Auden, with whom he collaborated on The Rake’s Progress. According to legend, his unconventional arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” led to an incident with the Boston police who warned him that he could be fined for “rearrangement of the national anthem in whole or in part”.

Which American composers, conductors or musicians do you think have had the most impact or have been particularly influential?

By Chris Shipman (Content Producer (Social Media and News))

4 July 2012 at 12.03pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged 4 July, by George Gershwin, by Igor Stravinsky, by John Adams, by Leonard Bernstein, by Philip Glass, composers, Independence Day, United States

This article has 2 comments

  1. Matthew responded on 6 July 2012 at 10:56am Reply

    Enjoyable piece, but it can't help but make me think how long it's been since we actually saw an American piece at the Royal Opera (the Rake's Progress really doesn't count!). I'd love to see Barber's Vanessa or Antony and Cleopatra, or alternatively a work by Jake Heggie or Carlisle Floyd, but it seems the house has no interest in these works.

  2. Mary responded on 8 July 2012 at 12:39am Reply

    What about the most famous composer of musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim? Winner of every award you can imagine, Academy, Tony, Grammy, Pulitzer Prize, Laurence Olivier, etc. Remember Sweeney Todd, or the lyrics to West Side Story? My favourite was Company. The first all Sondheim BBC Proms took place in 2010 in honour of his 80th birthday! We could go on and on about this American treasure.

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