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Author Neil Butterworth alerts us to a classical side of Americana which is too often ignored, certainly compared to the attention given our accomplishments in literature. Our achievements in serious music are in no way inferior, and they deserve to be passionately sung.

The American Symphony, by Neil Butterworth (366 pages, Routledge, 2020)

The contribution of the United States to the tradition of Western classical music is one of the best-kept secrets of the world of culture. That it took a British musicologist, Neil Butterworth, to tell the tale is remarkable—although not altogether surprising given our general neglect of our serious artistic heritage. The American Symphony is a paperback reprint of a book originally published in 1998, thus allowing it to be appreciated anew by readers. The title refers not to American symphony orchestras—histories of which have also been written—but to symphonies (the musical compositions) written by American composers. Butterworth takes a scholarly yet accessible look at a significant musical repertoire, one that hardly anyone outside of specialists knows about.

Indeed, the fact that such a thing as American classical music exists—outside a handful of chestnuts by Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and George Gershwin, let’s say—is unknown to most people. Such has been the dominance of pop music in American life that it has overshadowed our honorable and impressive tradition of serious concert music. Particularly wrongheaded has been the claim that “jazz is America’s classical music.” Butterworth, as have other writers, makes a good case that classical music is America’s classical music, and a failure to take the time to listen to this repertoire seriously is no excuse for writing it off as unimportant.

On its original publication, one critic complained that The American Symphony book is too encyclopedia-like and not philosophical enough. Butterworth, the criticism runs, does not tell us why we should care about this repertoire, or why it might be of world significance. This is a fair criticism. Hence, I’d like to take a stab at looking a bit more philosophically at the question of why American composers should have written symphonies, and the place that symphonies have played in the musical life of our country and its search for a musical voice. But before we do this let us revisit what the symphony is and what its place is in the world of music generally.

The symphony is a long musical composition for orchestra. Perhaps the main thing about symphonies is that they are generally serious, elevated, important; a symphony usually forms the centerpiece of an orchestral concert and represents a signal effort and accomplishment for a composer. Symphonies are lengthy and complex and involve, theoretically, all the instruments at a composer’s disposal; like operas, they have a certain scope, ambition, and completeness.

Classically symphonies have four movements, or sections (although exceptions to this rule can be found). Generally, they consist of: an allegro (sometimes with a slow introduction); a lyrical slow movement; a light relief movement; and a fast and summatory finale. The lighter relief movement was a minuet in the days of Haydn and Mozart; Beethoven replaced this with a scherzo (musical “jest”), and the innovation stuck. Central to the dialectic, or musical logic, of the symphony has been sonata-allegro form, a way of ordering musical themes into an exposition, development, and recapitulation or return. The great composers have also striven to bind the movements of a symphony together in a kind of inner unity so that the work becomes an integrated whole rather than a succession of four unrelated pieces.

The origins of the symphony are complicated; they can be traced to, among other things, the Italian sinfonia, a curtain-raiser for an opera. From these humble beginnings arose what became the emblematic genre of classical music. Etymologically, the word “symphony” goes back to the Greek simply meaning “sounding together.” Haydn is generally considered the father of the symphony in its mature form. The symphony developed hand in hand with the large modern orchestra (“symphony orchestra” as we call it), the modern concert hall giving public concerts to mass audiences, and the modern conductor as captain of these musical aggregations.

The symphony was arguably the most prominent musical genre from Beethoven onward, a musical expression of thought and feeling on the highest level. The symphony retained this status to a large extent into the 20th century. The rise of musical modernism and experimentation did not succeed in extinguishing the popularity and prestige of the symphony. Many 20th-century composers wrote symphonies, and audiences continued to want to hear them. “Symphony,” in fact, became largely synonymous with classical music and concert life itself. “To go to the symphony” became a familiar activity and ritual, one with social and aesthetic and even spiritual dimensions.

The prestige of the symphony is an important fact for our story, the development of music in the young United States. American composers and their audiences came to see in the symphony—especially the symphonies of Beethoven—a symbol of cultural aspiration, spiritual uplift, something that could, in the words of the leading 19th-century American music critic John S. Dwight, “enrich, ennoble, purify and perfect the powers and sensibilities of man.” [1]

The founding of the Academy of Music in Boston in 1833 was a watershed event in the musical history of our country. It was our first concert house, outfitted with a professional orchestra that presented the works of European masters for the first time in the United States. Dwight commented on the effect of Beethoven’s Fifth on the Boston audience: “[the symphony] created a bond of union between audience and performers, an initiation into a deeper life.” (35) Dwight produced more purple prose on this topic: “Perhaps no music ever stirred profounder depths in the hearer’s religious consciousness, than some great orchestral symphonies, say those of Beethoven.” [2]

Indeed, some American thinkers absorbed Beethoven’s music into Transcendentalist philosophy, claiming for it spiritual qualities that raised the listener to a kind of divine contemplation and communion. Beethoven’s symphonies “were powerful, expansive, and dynamic, meant to appeal to large segments of the population,” as Michael Broyles says in his book Beethoven in America. And appeal they did. Beethoven symphonies gave many Americans their first taste of serious, artistic music, and they proved an enormous hit. With their hard-to-define appeal to the individual and liberty, the Beethoven symphonies struck a definite chord in this country. When American composers started to write, they did so in the shadow and afterglow of the enormous popularity of the great Nine. The symphony genre would in turn become central to their own efforts.


I’ve always wished that there had been a strong American “school” of musical composition from the very beginning of the republic. Instead, among the arts music was slow in getting started here compared with literature and painting. Institutions—orchestras, concert halls, music conservatories—needed to be built. There was little professional musical training here, and European musicians, conductors, and teachers were needed to do the brick-and-mortar work. There were, starting in the 18th century, some pioneering native composers, whose music Butterworth discusses. But our first truly distinctive group of composers emerged after the Civil War. This period saw a fantastic growth of American concert music, brought about by rapid industrialization, the founding of the major symphony orchestras (the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, etc.), and the dramatic increase in population, especially through immigration—with German émigré musicians becoming the new influencers of taste.

The group of composers who emerged from this milieu are known as the Second New England School. They were led by John Knowles Paine (1839–1906), whose Beethovenian symphonies were the most accomplished yet written in the U.S. and still hold up quite well today. Most of the members of this “school” traveled to Europe to finish their training, and hence they composed in a classicist Romantic style influenced by Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Wagner. Influenced, but not dominated. I challenge anyone to listen to the symphonies of George Whitefield Chadwick (1854–1931), one of the most talented of the New Englanders, and not take note of the distinctively American folksy wit and humor. Chadwick’s personality is fresh, ebullient, irresistible—a sort of Mark Twain of music—and his two symphonies (in B flat and F) are not to be missed. (They veritably jump out of the speakers in Neeme Järvi’s recordings with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.)

That such an American flavor was achieved so early is remarkable, when you consider that there was as yet no “American style” of classical music. These were pioneers, and they had to build on something. They built on the best European tradition of the time, incorporating something of their own sensibility and background as northeastern Americans.

Listening to the pioneering generations of American symphonists, you also sense an experimental, highly original and individualistic spirit, an ambition to make music as grand as the land in which it was composed, a desire to forge ahead with a distinctive approach to composition regardless of what the rest of the world might think. In Butterworth’s book you’ll read of William Henry Fry, whose Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony of 1853 was the first largescale symphony written by an American, and George F. Bristow, whose Arcadian symphony seemed to reflect the idea of America as the “new Eden” celebrated by Hudson River School landscape painters of the same period.

Symphonies with programs, storylines, or extramusical ideas were a specialty of American composers, and many of these reflected native scenes, themes, and experiences. American audiences seemed to like music that was “about” something definite. You’ll also learn of Charles Wakefield Cadman’s Pennsylvania Symphony (complete with the sound of a metal plate in the finale, imitating the sound of a steel foundry!) as well as Harl MacDonald’s symphony The Santa Fe Trail. Meredith Willson (better known as the composer and playwright of The Music Man) wrote two symphonies entitled San Francisco and Missions of California. There is the exuberant Don Gillis, whose symphonies bear such titles as Symphony of Faith, Symphony of Free Men, Midcentury U.S.A., Saga of a Prairie School, and Star Spangled Symphony. How can you beat that for musical patriotism?

A confession: I skipped, at least for now, Butterworth’s chapter on Charles Ives, whose everything-but-the-kitchen-sink experimentalism has always struck me as only tangentially related to music. You may well feel differently. Let it be noted that Ives, certainly a significant American symphonist, contributed among his symphonies a New England Holidays and The Camp Meeting.

The American symphony got an early boost from the great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, who during his stay in the U.S. in the 1890s encouraged the country’s composers to develop a national style, using Negro spirituals and American Indian melodies as a basis. Other countries had pursued musical nationalism for a generation, and now it was America’s turn, so the thinking went. Dvorak’s symphony From the New World made his case in music instead of in words and became a clarion call to composers.

In addition to patriotic or historical themes, many American symphonies are expressive of the varied ethnic backgrounds of Americans themselves. One thinks of Howard Hanson, who intended his Nordic Symphony No. 1 as a tribute his Swedish roots, or the great black composer William Grant Still, who wrote his Afro-American Symphony as an expression of his heritage. Italian Americans such as Norman Dello Joio and Paul Creston entered the arena with an emphasis on an Italianate singing line in their instrumental music.

The American symphony had its Golden Age in the middle of the 20th century, most especially the 1940s. Something about the World War II years seemed to galvanize composers into powerful expressions of spiritual fervor, of struggle and victory. Audiences (both in the U.S. and abroad) responded enthusiastically to American symphonies during this period, and they were much performed, broadcasted, and recorded. The famous conductors of the era—Stokowski, Ormandy, Bernstein, and on and on—regularly programmed these works alongside the established classics.

Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony—written at the conclusion of the war—is the most celebrated of the 1940s group; to me it has always seemed to me a shade bombastic and obvious, despite possessing the quintessential Copland sound. Butterworth esteems it “one of the pillars of American symphonic music,” and he certainly is not alone. From this same period come two titled symphonies of that musical polymath, Leonard Bernstein: Jeremiah and The Age of Anxiety.

As for myself, I would plug for the more unsung symphonies of the decade. Maine-born Harvard professor Walter Piston brought a humanism and perfection of craft to his eight nonprogrammatic symphonies. Piston is, for me, the most mature, accomplished American symphonist, with a unique way of blending modernity and a subtle Americanism with the classical tradition. There was Roy Harris, whose 14 symphonies are distinctly folksier and self-consciously “American” than Piston’s. The same might be said of Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune (Thomson was also a superb music critic). Samuel Barber wrote much more than the popular Adagio for Strings; the second of his two symphonies dedicated to the United States Air Force and evokes, in its slow movement, the experience of flying a fighter plane at night, something which Barber himself did with valor during the war. Similar to Barber in neo-Romantic temperament were David Diamond and the aforementioned Howard Hanson. There were such contrasts as that between William Schuman of New York City, an urban modernist, and Harris of Oklahoma, a prairie populist.

The list goes on and on—hundreds of symphonies by dozens and dozens of composers, many more than Butterworth can discuss in detail but which he lists in an exhaustive catalog at the end of the book. Nearly all major American composers, it would seem, wrote at least one symphony, and many were prolific in the genre. To pour over the many forgotten composers and titles in Butterworth’s book is like visiting an exotic land which nevertheless looks a lot like home, since the themes and subject matter of these compositions are very close to us.

In the end, listening to American symphonies simply because of their nationality would be pointless. All music is worth hearing not for its national or ethnic origins but for its distinctive aesthetic qualities. There is happy news to report on that score, for the best American symphonies bear qualities that are distinctive in the entire Western musical repertoire. These include a mood of hope, optimism, and self-confidence, often expressed in the verve of the (often syncopated) rhythms.  As such, they carry on the tradition and expressive dynamic of the Beethoven symphonies, several of which traveled an emotional journey from darkness to light or from strife to victory. (For veritably pessimistic symphonies one probably has to turn to the former Soviet Union or Scandinavia.) American symphonies are, more often than not, hopeful and life-affirming.

There is, of course, a school of thought that disdains hope, optimism, contentment, and such positive qualities of the soul as reflected in art. They are simplistic and naïve, so the theory goes, failing to go deep down into the muck of “real life”; they lull the listener into complacency instead of challenging him. I am here to state that such positive qualities of soul are real and legitimate parts of human experience, and that they—along with melancholy, nostalgic longing, and other qualities—are much to be heard in the symphonies of Americans. Perhaps nowhere can they better be heard than in the majestic slow movement of Piston’s Second Symphony, written in the midst of World War II and premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra.

Given its variety and overall quality, why has this repertoire fallen into the shadows? There are a number of reasons. One was the longtime dominance of avant-garde composition, especially in academia, which led to the suppression of older American repertoire deemed “out of date.” But the main reason may simply be the overproduction of music in recent times, the impossibility of performing or listening to it all, and the difficulty of sifting through it to find the gems. Fortunately, there has been since the 1980s a significant revival of classic American symphonies on record, allowing us to concentrate on this unique corner of the repertoire. Books like Butterworth’s (and those of other advocates like the American critic Walter Simmons) have also helped us rediscover this part of our musical past. In many ways, American symphonies are much less obscure now than they once were.

One of the best achievements of The American Symphony is in helping us place our country within the matrix of Western classical music as a whole, specifically as regards one of its signature genres. The symphony, developed by Italian and Austrian musicians in the 18th century as a vehicle for abstract musical thought and feeling, was transplanted to a new land where it bore quite remarkable fruit. In adopting this venerable form, American composers transformed it often into an expression of American life and history, feeling and attitudes, moods and ideals. Even when they didn’t consciously strive to sound “American” but instead tailored their music to classic European models, the inflections of American hymns, marches, and folksongs often broke through (as how could they not?).

Butterworth alerts us to a classical side of Americana which is too often ignored, certainly compared to the attention given our accomplishments in literature. Our achievements in serious music are in no way inferior, and they deserve to be passionately sung.

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[1] Michael Broyles, Beethoven in America, p. 57

[2] ibid.

The featured image is a photograph of the Cleveland Sympony Orchestra in 1910, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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