Music History 102:

Twentieth Century American Composers

Following after and learning from the first generation of American-born composers, the next decades produced several distinguished American musicians, including Ferde Grofé (1892-1972), Walter Piston (1894-1976), Howard Hanson (1896-1981), Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), Samuel Barber (1910-1981), William Schuman (1910-1992), and Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). The composers whose music most clearly defines the American idiom, however, are George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, while the American composers who have left a permanent mark on twentieth-century trends include John Cage and Philip Glass.




George Gershwin

Born: Brooklyn, N.Y., September 26, 1898
Died: Beverly Hills, Cal., July 11, 1937

The first American composer to successfully combine popular and serious styles, Gershwin had his first success at the age of nineteen when he wrote the song "Swanee." 1924 saw the premiere of his first successful effort in jazz-inspired "serious" music, the now famous Rhapsody in Blue. Throughout his short career, Gershwin wrote both popular songs and musical comedies, as well as concert works, such as the Concerto in F for piano. To both he brought the consummate skill and style of a trained musician, while at the same time infusing both with the elements of jazz, blues, and Latin dance-rhythms that were prevalent during the periodin which he lived. One of the best of his concert works is the symphonic poem An American in Paris. Premiered on Broadway, Gershwin's folk-opera Porgy and Bess has now been staged by several major opera companies in the world, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Of Gershwin's most popular songs (including "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm," and "But Not for Me"), many come from this opera, including the well-known "Summertime".




Aaron Copland

Born: Brooklyn, November 14, 1900
Died: 1990

Copland began studying music in his teens and in 1921 became the first full-time American pupil of Nadia Boulanger in Paris, France. Copland's earliest works were influenced by American jazz rhythms and the neo-classical style then prevalent. Upon his return to America in 1924, Copland became interested in American folk idioms and began composing in the style for which he remains best known. His most famous works literally defines "American classical music" for many people. Beginning with the orchestral work El Salón Mexico, Copland then produced a series of ballets on themes of the American frontier and various aspects of American life. Sometimes using actual cowboy songs, but mostly through his unique harmonic style, Copland's music speaks of the American West in such works as the ballets Billy the Kid and Rodeo. His masterpiece is probably the score for Appalachian Spring, in which he uses the Shaker melody, "Simple Gifts."

During the 1950's, Copland astonished the musical world by composing music using serial techniques, as in his Connotations for orchestra. Throughout his life, Copland aided aspiring American composers by the organization of Music Festivals for the performances of new American music.




Componist John Cage , kop

John Cage

Born: Los Angeles, September 5, 1912
Died: August 12, 1992

Born in California, Cage studied with both Arnold Schoenberg and Edgard Varèse. Largely an experimental composer throughout his life, Cage composed works using aleatory methods (chance music), electronic music, musique concrete (taped sounds of real-life noise in combination with musical sounds), and pieces that involve radio, computers, and most infamously, silence (4' 33" in which the "music" is the ambient noise of the auditorium and its environs while the pianist sits silently at the keyboard).

But Cage's experiments for which he is probably best known are the use of the prepared piano, in which a concert piano is altered in certain ways for the performance of particular pieces by the application of paper clips, bottle caps, rubber bands and other items to the piano strings. The Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano remain the most prominent example of this technique. Cage's ideas, writings and musical experiments had enormous influence on a great many contemporary composers.




Philip Glass

Philip Glass

Born: Baltimore, Maryland, January 31, 1937

Of living composers active today, one of the more popular is Philip Glass, whose work in the style known as minimalism is well known to the public through the various films he has scored and the numerous recordings he has made of his works. In addition, he has composed several successful operas, such as Einstein on the Beach in 1975, Akhnaten in 1983, and The Voyage, which has been staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Façades is a concert piece based on music Glass composed for the 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi, and demonstrates the unmoving, unchanging element of stasis so often found in minimalist music.




Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane