Written by Lauren Carrane
With the Fourth of July just around the corner, we are feeling especially patriotic. When we talk about music that is quintessentially American, some of us might think about rock or jazz before classical music. Even though the European masters dominate much of classical music, there are many American composers who have created their own unique voice.
One of the great things about having a clarinet in our ensemble is that we often explore newer music because the clarinet is a relatively new instrument. And of course, that means we can choose from more American composers.
Yuan-Qing Yu, violinist for Civitas, says she especially likes working with Chicago composers. “I enjoy working with composers in our own city, including Stacey Garrop, Augusta Read Thomas, and Anthony Cheung, among many others. I have recorded several of Augusta’s wonderful violin pieces, and Winston Choi, Ken Olsen and I will have the privilege of recording her new piano trio this summer,” she says.
Here are some of our favorite American composers whose music we’ve performed over the years:
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
It’s easy to see why Aaron Copland tops our list. His music is perfectly American: a wonderful mixture of artistry and populism. The son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, Copland grew up above his parent’s store in Brooklyn, and his music incorporates elements of jazz, folk and other genres to create a distinctly American sound. Although he is most well-known for his large-scale symphonies and ballets, he also wrote several chamber music pieces, including one of our favorites, Sextet for clarinet, piano and string quartet.
John Williams (1932- )
There is no living American composer more well-known or well-loved than John Williams. Best known for his scores for films such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and Schindler’s List, Williams’ music is some of the most recognized classical music of the modern age. Williams’ music is melodic and stirring, creating an emotional response with the listener. And he’s not just a film composer. He has also written several orchestral and chamber music works, including Air and Simple Gifts, which was performed at Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Born in Danbury, CT, Charles Ives was the son of a U.S. Army bandleader during the Civil War, and Ives was influenced by the band music that was played in the town square, as well as church hymns. His work was largely ignored during his lifetime, because it was ahead of its time, incorporating a lot of dissonance and complex rhythms, and today he is considered an American original. We enjoyed playing his Largo for Clarinet, Violin and Piano at the Chicago Art Institute on June 5.
John Corigliano (1938- )
Civitas clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom remembers when John Corigliano became the first-ever composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. During his residency, he wrote his first symphony, addressing the AIDS epidemic, which won him a Grammy award. Known for his eclectic, yet approachable music, Corigliano has composed everything from small chamber music pieces to large symphonies, an opera and the score to the film The Red Violin. One of the pieces we love is a little gem called Snapshot, a beautifully nostalgic quartet that was inspired by a photo of the composer’s father on violin and his uncle on guitar.
John Mackey (1973- )
What could be a more modern American story than a teenager growing up in the ’80s who didn’t play any formal instruments but began composing music on a computer program? John Mackey’s music is known for its high energy, dramatic tone and sense of playfulness. Invigoratingly energetic, Breakdown Tango has become one of our staple pieces.
Ned Rorem (1923- )
Born in Indiana, American composer Ned Rorem first studied piano in Chicago, before continuing his studies at Northwestern University, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School. In 1949, he went to Paris to study composition, returning to the United States in 1957 to start a long, prolific career as a composer of songs, choral works, operas, symphonies, chamber music and more. “Nine Episodes for Four Players” is a poignant piece, which he composed after the death of his long-time partner. What a moving experience for us to have performed this fantastic work at Northwestern in 2013 in honor of Rorem’s 90th birthday.
Who are some of your favorite American composers? Tell us in the comments below!