America’s Immigrant Composers: A Playlist

Over the last few days (and really, the last year), the issue of immigration (legal or otherwise) has made headlines across the United States, and provoked deep, emotional discussions.

For me, immigrants are central to the American experience, and have played a vital role in shaping nearly all aspects of our country’s development since the first days of the Republic—in politics, the economy, medical breakthroughs, scientific discovery, and in the success of its armed forces. America has been profoundly enriched by the contributions of immigrants for centuries.

The contributions of immigrants are particularly noteworthy in music and the arts. Again and again, artists from distant shores have relocated to the United States and found shelter, found new opportunities, and created astonishing new works that have shaped and re-shaped how we view the world.

Don’t believe me? Here is a partial playlist of great composers who immigrated to the United States, along with some of their most noteworthy works… many of which that speak to their experiences as immigrants or their connections to their new homeland. Enjoy!

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Béla Bartók (U.S. citizen 1945): Concerto for Orchestra. This five-section work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, and premiered by Boston Symphony Orchestra. It remains one of the composer’s most popular works. It’s interesting to note that the work came at a critical time in Bartók’s career. His first years in America were marked by financial hardship, chronic illness, waning interest in his solo piano career, and very little compositional output. Koussevitzky saw this commission as a lifeline to his composer friend. And although Bartók was deathly sick when the commission was offered, he rallied and produced one of the great success stories of modern music.

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Irving Berlin (U.S. citizen 1918): God Bless America. Irving Berlin’s career is one of this country’s greatest success stories. He and his family came face to face with the horrors of the state-sponsored persecution of Russian Jews when, in 1893, the family home was deliberately burned to the ground. He and his parents were forced to flee the country in the hope of finding a better existence in the United States. And they did. Berlin went on to live a long, successful life (101 years!), and built a catalog of more than 1,000 songs. He also wrote for Broadway and the movies. Among his most recognized songs are A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody, White Christmas, Blue Skies, and There’s No Business Like Show Business. In the fall of 1938, as fascism and war threatened Europe, Irving Berlin decided to write a peace song. He recalled an unpublished version of a song that he had set aside in a trunk, took it out and shaped it into a second national anthem: God Bless America.

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Ernest Bloch (U.S. citizen 1924): America, an Epic Rhapsody. Swiss-Born Ernest Bloch led a successful career in the U.S. as a both a composer and gifted musical instructor. As Bloch later recalled, the idea of a large-scale work celebrating America had occurred to him as soon as his boat first approached New York Harbor. His idea further took shape as he studied some works of Walt Whitman in 1925, and the following year he composed the rhapsody’s anthem while in San Francisco. The three movements of America form a collage made up of a large number of musical quotations, most of them folksongs.

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Svjetlana Bukvich: Once You Are Not a Stranger. Svjetlana Bukvich was born in 1967 in Sarajevo, in the former Yugoslavia. A composer, producer, performer, and teacher of electro-acoustic and multimedia works, she describes her influences as a hybrid of culture, inspiration, and art. Her music is the result of an amalgamation of her experiences before the Bosnian War, her immigration to the United States during the war, and her subsequent time in the United States. Created in collaboration with costume designer Sue Julien, lighting designer Mitchell Bogard, and installation artist Eva Petric, Once You Are Not a Stranger is a 45-minute, interdisciplinary work investigates notions of “empathy in a multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious world and uses the dance company as a microcosm of this world.”

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Paul Hindemith (U.S. citizen 1946): When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for Those We Love. Hindemith was one of the most noted German composers of his era, but like many artists chose to flee Germany with the rise of the Nazi Party. The great conductor Robert Shaw remarked that “It is probable that no foreign-born composer has made such a direct and healthy contribution to American music as Paul Hindemith.” When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d was written in 1946. It is based on the poem of the same name by Walt Whitman, which mourns the passing of Abraham Lincoln. Robert Shaw and the Robert Shaw Chorale commissioned the work after the 1945 death of President Roosevelt.

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Erich Korngold (U.S. citizen 1943): The Adventures of Robin Hood. Erich Korngold, who was born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1897, earned recognition as one of Europe’s great Wunderkind composers. When he played his cantata Gold for Mahler in 1909, Mahler hailed the boy as “a musical genius.” Puccini and Richard Strauss were also strong supporters. After the Anschluss in Austria, Korngold moved his family permanently to the United States. While he would continue to write concert works, he also established himself as the musical voice of Hollywood. The Adventures of Robin Hood was his first score written after he established himself in the U.S., and it won him an Oscar—notably, it was the first time an Academy Award had been given to the composer as opposed to the studio’s music department. It remains a cherished favorite among all the 18 Hollywood scores he wrote. (But, do check out his Violin Concerto, too)

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Bohuslav Martinů (U.S. citizen 1952): The Greek Passion. Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů was essentially exiled from his homeland twice. Blacklisted by the Nazis for his support of the Czech resistance in 1940, he fled to New York with the support of composer friends. He planned to return after the war, but the newly-installed Communist government branded him a traitor due to his American connections. Martinů hoped that The Greek Passion would be his crowning operatic statement. The story, using an English-language libretto, focuses on a Greek village under Turkish occupation, where preparations are underway for a Passion Play for Easter. A band of refugees staggers into town, having lost everything in a recent Turkish purge. As the opera unfolds, the story of Christ’s last days slowly begins to merge with that of the refugees… and the Greek villagers gradually assume the real-life identities of the biblical figures they are portraying.

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Sergei Rachmaninoff (U.S. citizen 1943): The Star-Spangled Banner (arr.). Rachmaninoff, whose family fled from Russia in the wake of the Russian Revolution, had a deep and abiding love for the United States. He once wrote, “This is the only place on earth where a human being is respected for what he is and what he does, and it does not matter who he is and where he came from.” As a tribute to America, he created his own unique arrangement of the National Anthem; he frequently opened American performances with it.

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Miklós Rózsa (U.S. citizen 1946): Ben-Hur. Hungarian-Born Miklós Rózsa was a composer of surprising versatility. Like Erich Korngold, he was perfectly comfortable writing for the concert hall, but found his greatest fame writing for Hollywood movies. He earned Oscars for the scores of Spellbound, an Alfred Hitchcock film from 1945; A Double Life in 1947; and the biblical epic Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston, in 1959. Among other films for which Rózsa composed the scores were Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, Julius Caesar, Valley of the Kings, King of Kings, El Cid, The Asphalt Jungle, Lust for Life, The Green Berets, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

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Bright Sheng (U.S. citizen 1987): H’un (“Lacerations”). Bright Sheng was born in Shanghai, China on December 6, 1955. Sheng joined the Shanghai Conservatory of Music where he learned both Chinese classical and traditional music; subsequently he left for the U.S. 1982, and begin exploring the music of the West as well. Among his many collaborations, he has worked with the Silk Road Project, a music project that stretches across different nations and cultures. His orchestral composition H’un, a memorial to China’s Cultural Revolution, was awarded the first runner-up for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize.

Regarding the work, Chen writes:

Ever since I was a composer, I had wanted to write an orchestra work expressing my directly feelings and recollections about the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). This was because I grew up during the calamitous decade. So when I received my first orchestral commission in this country, I kept my own promise.

Having said that, I must say that the work is not a recreation of the events or re-telling a story of the Cultural Revolution. Rather, it is an articulation of what was like to live through the catastrophic period as a young child.

I have two stories to tell which I hope can demonstrate my point.

My mother, an engineer who had suffered a great deal during the Cultural Revolution and has been living in the United States for over two decades , told me, after she first heard H’un performed in New York, that the work reminded her of all the pains and anguishes she experienced during the Cultural Revolution but since forgotten.

When H’un was performed by the New York Chamber Symphony at 92nd Street Y, New York City, an old Jewish lady said to me afterwards: “if you only change the title to the Holocaust, the work would be equally appropriate.”

To me, these are the best compliments a composer can ever receive.

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Arnold Schoenberg (U.S. citizen 1941): Piano Concerto, Op. 42. Arnold Schoenberg (originally “Schönberg”) was one of the 20th century’s most important (and in many cases, most reviled) musical innovators. He is most famous for his 12-tone technique for writing music, and his role as leader of the Second Viennese School of composition. The Nazi party denounced him for producing “degenerate music,” and the composer immigrated to the United States. In becoming a U.S. citizen, he adopted the Americanized version of his name. Settling in Los Angeles, he entered a new phase of creativity, including his haunting Piano Concerto. Schoenberg left brief descriptions (curiously, in English) in each of the Concerto’s four sections, which are seamlessly linked together: “Life was so easy,” “Suddendly [sic] hatred broke out,” “A grave situation was created,” and “But life goes on.” Although he did not publish them, these descriptions do neatly encapsulate the highly varied character of the Concerto—and also the experiences of his fellow refugees.

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Igor Stravinsky (U.S. citizen 1945): The Star-Spangled Banner (arr.). There is an urban legend that suggests that the Russian-born Stravinsky was arrested for creating this arrangement of the National Anthem for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Given his modernist compositional style, the public was scandalized at the premiere; as the legend goes, furious listeners claimed he had “desecrated” the anthem and called to have him arrested. Alas, this story isn’t true—there was apparently some sort of kerfuffle about the arrangement, but the real story is much more interesting. Regardless, this is an interesting take on this familiar tune.

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Of course, many other immigrant composers have left their mark on America, too.  It is important to remember them, and to honor the contributions they and countless other immigrants have made to our country.

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