AMERICAN CLASSICAL MUSIC

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AMERICAN CLASSICAL MUSIC

What is the American Classical Music Tradition? Is it similar to European classical Music Traditions? Or what are the differences?

The European classical music tradition was brought to the United States with some of the first colonists. European classical music is rooted in the traditions of European art, ecclesiastical and concert music. The central norms of this tradition developed between 1550 and 1825, centering on what is known as the common practice period. Many American classical composers attempted to work entirely within European models until late in the 19th century. When Antonin Dvorak, a prominent Czech composer, visited the United States from 1892 to 1895, he iterated the idea that American classical music needed its own models instead of imitating European composers; he helped to inspire subsequent composers to make a distinctly American style of classical music. By the beginning of the 20th century, many American composers were incorporating disparate elements into their work, ranging from jazz and blues to Native American music.

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 brought over from Europe by the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The first music publication in English-speaking North America — indeed the first publication of any kind — was the Bay Psalm Book of 1640.

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.

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

During the colonial era, there were two distinct fields of what is now considered classical music. One was associated with amateur composers and pedagogues, whose style was based around simple hymns that were performed with increasing sophistication over time. The other colonial tradition was that of the mid-Atlantic cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, which produced a number of prominent composers who worked almost entirely within the European model; these composers were mostly English in origin, and worked specifically in the style of prominent English composers of the day.

European classical music was brought to the United States during the colonial era. Many American composers of this period worked exclusively with European models, while others, such as William Billings, Supply Belcher and Justin Morgan, also known as the First New England School, developed a style almost entirely independent of European models. Of these composers, Billings is the well-remembered; he was also influential “as the founder of the American church choir, as the first musician to use a pitch-pipe, and as the first to introduce a violoncello into church service”. Many of these composers were amateur singers who developed new forms of sacred music suitable for performance by amateurs, and often using harmonic methods which would have been considered bizarre by contemporary European standards. These composers’ styles were untouched by “the influence of their sophisticated European contemporaries”, using modal or pentatonic scales or melodies and eschewing the European rules of harmony.

Classical music is also listed as art music that is produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music (both liturgical and secular). It encompasses a broad span of time from roughly the 11th century to the present day. The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common practice period. The major time divisions of classical music are as follows: the early music period, which includes Medieval (500–1400) and the Renaissance (1400–1600); the Common practice period, which includes the Baroque (1600–1750), Classical (1750–1830) and Romantic (1804–1910); the 20th century (1901–2000) which includes the modern period (1890-1930) that overlaps from the late 19th-century, the high modern period (mid-20th century), and contemporary or postmodern (1975–2000) period, the last of which overlaps into the 21st-century.

European music is largely distinguished from many other non-European and popular musical forms by its system of staff notation, in use since about the 16th century. Western staff notation is used by composers to prescribe to the performer the pitch, speed, meter, individual rhythms and exact execution of a piece of music. This leaves less room for practices such as improvisation and ad libitum ornamentation, which are frequently heard in non-European art music and in popular music. Another difference is that whereas most popular styles lend themselves to the song form, classical music has been noted for its development of highly sophisticated forms of instrumental music.

The term “classical music” did not appear until the early 19th century, in an attempt to distinctly canonize the period from Johan Sebastian Bach to Beethoven as a golden age.

The New York classical music scene included Charles Griffes, originally from Elmira, New York, who began publishing his most innovative material in 1914. His early collaborations were attempts to use non-Western musical themes. The best-known New York composer was George Gershwin. Gershwin was a songwriter with Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway theatres, and his works were strongly influenced by jazz, or rather the precursors to jazz that were extant during his time. Gershwin’s work made American classical music more focused, and attracted an unheard of amount of international attention. Following Gershwin, the first major composer was Aaron Copland from Brooklyn, who used elements of American folk music, though it remained European in technique and form. Later, he turned to the ballet and then serial music. Charles Ives was one of the earliest American classical composers of enduring international significance, producing music in a uniquely American style, though his music was mostly unknown until after his death in 1954.

Many of the later 20th-century composers, such as John Cage, John Corigliano and Steve Reich, used modernist and minimalist techniques. Reich discovered a technique known as phasing, in which two musical activities begin simultaneously and are repeated, gradually drifting out of sync, creating a natural sense of development. Reich was also very interested in non-Western music, incorporating African rhythmic techniques in his compositions. Recent composers and performers are strongly influenced by the minimalist works of Philip Glass, a Baltimore native based out of New York, Meredith Monk and others.

 Kathy Kiefer

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