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Discover famous names in U.S. classical music ranging from traditional artists to modern composers.
European masters of classical music influenced U.S. composers, but true to the country’s pioneering spirit, the genre has evolved here in a wholly unique way. Today, you’ll hear classical incorporated into everything from movies and TV commercials to nearly every category of popular music. The Classical Music Walk of Fame in Cincinnati, Ohio is the perfect introduction to the rich tradition of classical in the USA. Decorative bricks line the walkway in Washington Park while beautiful fountains “dance” to classical pieces you can play right on your smart phone. Read up on prominent names in U.S. classical music, along with other notable attractions and landmarks dedicated to their legacies.
Classically Inspired: Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Florence Price
Samuel Barber, whose “Adagio for Strings” has been used in somber settings ranging from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral to the Vietnam War movie “Platoon,” was the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes. His childhood home in Westchester, Pennsylvania still stands, and an iconic portrait of the artist hangs at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” is practically the soundtrack for space travel, and his work “Appalachian Spring” is a perennial orchestral favorite. Enjoy a musical performance at the Copland House in Mt. Kisco, New York, where the great composer spent the last 30 years of his life. Florence Price broke through racial and gender barriers as the first African-American woman to have her work performed by a major orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in 1933. The University of Arkansas in Little Rock holds a major collection of the Little Rock native’s musical manuscripts.
The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, which houses a famous portrait of Samuel Barber
Great American Songbook: George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin
Encompassing a variety of musical genres, the Great American Songbook – which is not actually a book but a recognized canon of music – celebrates the most influential songs from the 1920s to ’50s. In classical music, this includes George Gershwin, whose “Rhapsody in Blue” was inspired by the sounds of the modern city; Cole Porter, with hit songs include “Anything Goes” and “Love for Sale;” and Irving Berlin, composer of more than 1,500 songs, including the patriotic “God Bless America.” A plethora of composers are honored at the Great American Songbook Hall of Fame in Carmel, Indiana.
The March: John Philip Sousa, Henry Fillmore
Marches are largely associated with the military and, in the USA, collegiate sports. Two major U.S. march composers to know are Henry Fillmore and John Philip Sousa. Fillmore composed circus music and school marching band songs, most notably at Florida high schools and universities. John Philip Sousa composed “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the USA’s official National March and a staple played on July 4, which is the American Independence Day. The Sousa Archives and the Center for American Music on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign, two hours south of Chicago, holds a large collection of his works along with many other musical artifacts and historical documents.
Foellinger Auditorium, a lecture hall and performance venue at the University of Illinois campus in Champaign
Broadway Stars: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein
When you think of definitive Broadway musicals, you’re bound to include works by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim or Leonard Bernstein, some of the most celebrated musical theater composers in U.S. history. Listen to their tunes in musicals such as “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music;” “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods;” and “West Side Story” and “On the Town,” respectively. Broadway musical fans can view a definitive archive of artifacts and memorabilia at Museum of the City’s Theater Collection in New York City.
The Museum of the City of New York, home to the expansive Theater Collection
Film Scores: John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman
During the 20th century, classical composers took their talents to their newest performance milieu: the movie screen. You’ll recognize the works of 24-time Grammy Award winner John Williams; among his five Academy Award-winning film scores are “Jaws” (set in coastal Massachusetts), “E.T.” (set in California’s San Fernando Valley) and “Star Wars”, a modern favorite concert series at performance halls throughout the country. James Horner wrote the orchestral music for two of James Cameron’s biggest blockbuster films, “Avatar” and “Titanic.” If you’ve heard the music of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Edward Scissorhands,” then you’ve heard the music of Danny Elfman, who was also the lead singer of the 1980s new wave band Oingo Bongo.
Coastal views in Nantucket, the region of Massachusetts that is said to have inspired 'Jaws'
Modern Classical: Philip Glass, John Cage, Meredith Monk
Philip Glass broke ground with his works composed of repetitive structures, often called minimalism, and has collaborated with artists as diverse as David Bowie and Paul Simon. The annual Philip Glass Days and Nights Festival in Carmel and Big Sur, California, is a can’t-miss for modern classical enthusiasts. Influenced by Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies, John Cage’s music was integral in the development of modern dance and is known for “4’33””, which challenges listeners to take in ambient sounds rather than composed music. As the leader of Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, Monk’s instrument of choice is her own voice, celebrated for its stunning range and unusual arrangements. She actively tours and performs throughout the USA.