American classical music

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American classical music is music written in the United States but in the European classical music tradition. In many cases, beginning in the 18th century, it has been influenced by American folk music styles; and from the 20th century to the present day it has often been influenced by folk, jazz, blues, Native American, and pop styles.


The earliest American classical music consists of part-songs used in religious services during Colonial times. The first music of this type in America were the psalm books, such as the Ainsworth Psalter, brought over from Europe by the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.[1] The first music publication in English-speaking North America — indeed the first publication of any kind — was the Bay Psalm Book of 1640.[2]

Many American composers of this period worked (like Benjamin West and the young Samuel Morse in painting) exclusively with European models, while others, such as William Billings, Supply Belcher, Daniel Read, Oliver Holden, and Justin Morgan, also known as the First New England School, developed a native style almost entirely independent of the most prestigious European models, though it drew on the practice of West Gallery music composers such as William Tans'ur and Aaron Williams. Many of these composers were amateurs, and many were singers: they developed new forms of sacred music, such as the fuguing tune, suitable for performance by amateurs, and often using harmonic methods which would have been considered bizarre by contemporary European standards. Some of the most unusual innovators were composers such as Anthony Philip Heinrich, who received some formal instrumental training but were entirely self-taught in composition. Heinrich traveled extensively throughout the interior of the young United States in the early 19th century, recording his experiences with colorful orchestral and chamber music which had almost nothing in common with the music being composed in Europe. Heinrich was the first American composer to write for symphony orchestra, as well as the first to conduct a Beethoven symphony in the United States (in Lexington, Kentucky in 1817).

Because the United States is made up of many states, some of which were parts of other empires, the classical music of the nation has derived from those empires respectively. The earliest classical music in what is now California, and other former Spanish colonies, was the renaissance polyphony of Spain. This sacred classical music was provided to support the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

Second New England School[edit]

During the mid to late 19th century, a vigorous tradition of home-grown classical music developed, especially in New England. The composers of the Second New England School included such figures as George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell, and Horatio Parker, who was the teacher of Charles Ives. Many of these composers went to Europe — especially Germany — to study, but returned to the United States to compose, perform, and acquire students. Some of their stylistic descendants include 20th-century composers such as Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, and Roger Sessions.

20th century[edit]

In the early 20th century, George Gershwin was greatly influenced by African American music. He created a convincing synthesis of music from several traditions. Similarly inclined was Leonard Bernstein, who at times mixed non-tonal music with Jazz in his classical compositions. Leroy Anderson, Ferde Grofe and Morton Gould also composed pieces in the "symphonic jazz" vein.

Many of the major classical composers of the 20th century were influenced by folk traditions, none more quintessentially, perhaps, than Charles Ives or Aaron Copland. Other composers adopted features of folk music, from the Appalachians, the plains and elsewhere, including Roy Harris, Elmer Bernstein, David Diamond, Elie Siegmeister, and others. Yet other early to mid-20th-century composers continued in the more experimental traditions, including such figures as Charles Ives, George Antheil, John Cage and Henry Cowell.

It was during the 20th Century that film music was first created. Over the evolution of the cinema the music took on greater and greater sophistication. Significant composers of film music include Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.

The 20th Century also saw important works published by such significant immigrant composers as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, who came to America for a variety of reasons, including political persecution, aesthetic freedom and economic opportunity.

In the 1970s and 1980s, after a period during which American composers like John Cage adopted atonal structures, Philip Glass revived tonality and traditional genres, such as opera in works like Einstein on the Beach. Glass helped create a mass market for "classical" music after audiences outside of the avant-garde had simply generally refused Modernist, atonal music.

A pessimist model, shared by Aldous Huxley and Theodor Adorno, of the classical tradition in Europe was that it peaked with Beethoven. Aldous Huxley believed that subsequent classical music was vulgarized with the re-entry of the unsublimated erotic and Adorno believed that commodification entered with Wagner. "American classical music" flourished much after Beethoven. Some might say, beyond the pessimism of European sentimentalities.[citation needed]


  1. ^ J. H. Dorenkamp. "The "Bay Psalm" Book and the Ainsworth Psalter". Early American Literature. Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1972), pp. 3-16. Published by: University of North Carolina Press
  2. ^ "America's First Book". Library of Congress. Retrieved July 14, 2013.