A New Wave of American Composers

by cherliu

Although we covered many well-known American composers last week in class, I would just like to mention a couple of my personal favorite pieces conducted by American composers that we did not get the chance to cover in class.

The first: Leonard Bernstein. One summer I went on a tour through Europe with an orchestra for a summer camp. Our program consisted of Bernstein’s Candide, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Having discussed Mussorgsky in class, I immediately thought of Bernstein’s soundtrack to the famous movie and how it compares to the rest of the program. What do you think of this soundtrack? What makes it so characteristically “American” given the tale of West Side Story that it accompanies? Is it like other things we learned in class? Personally, I always thought it was cool to play a program that basically had little programs within it: Pictures at an Exhibition tells its own tale, then Symphonic Dances from West Side Story illustrates a totally different one, making for an amazing musical journey. And the best part about this recording and about Bernstein is that it’s conducted by the composer himself!! It’s incredible seeing an interpretation and knowing it’s exactly how the man who wrote the music wants it.

The second piece I want to mention is radically different from the Bernstein, but may draw some similarities to pieces we’ve studied in class. It’s Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, and you can listen to the link on youtube. It’s been said that this 10-minute piece is so full of passion and sadness that it “rarely leaves a dry eye”. It’s often played in commemorations of deaths and other solemn events. Sounds pretty dramatic for a piece of music, but you decide: would hearing Adagio for Strings played live, or even through a recording, leave you teary-eyed? Does hearing it evoke any particular emotions or thoughts? How does it compare to some of the other American compositions we’ve heard?