A Perfect Fourth: A Classical Playlist for Independence Day

It’s Independence Day!  The Fourth of July remains one of America’s favorite holidays—a time for patriotic celebration, cookouts with families and friends, and plenty of fireworks.  In almost all of these events, music is an absolute must, ranging from military bands and John Philip Sousa to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”

In keeping with my blog’s overall theme, I’d like to share a list of classical works to help my fellow Americans get into spirit.  And while everyone seems to love having Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as background music for their firework displays, I bet I can find a few more honestly American-themed pieces for you to enjoy….

So grab a sparkler and have a listen!

And as long as we’re on the subject, for a great patriotic concert experience, check out PBS’s annual concert, A Capitol Fourth, which is broadcast live on July 4th from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. It’s always a big hit, with performers this year ranging from Chita Rivera and Renée Flemming to Jimmy Buffet—click here for more info.

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Stravinsky (arr.): The Star-Spangled Banner. 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.


Rachmaninoff (arr.): The Star-Spangled Banner Rachmaninoff also created his own version of the National Anthem, which aroused much less fury from the public.  He frequently opened American performances with it.


Copland: Fanfare for a Common Man.  This much-loved work was one of 10 patriotic fanfares commissioned by conductor Eugene Goossens for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1942.  The aim was to inspire patriotism and galvanize the nation to fight World War II, and Copland’s Fanfare does exactly that.  He later worked the Fanfare into the finale of his Third Symphony.


Tower: Fanfare for an Uncommon Woman (No. 1) Joan Tower’s first Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman debuted in 1987 with Hans Vonk leading the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and was dedicated to conductor Marin Alsop. As the title suggests, Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman was originally inspired by Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Tower uses the same basic instrumentation of brass and percussion, but adds marimba, glockenspiel, chimes and additional drums. Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman is a tribute to “women who take risks and are adventurous.”


Ives: Holidays Symphony: III. The Fourth of July Charles Ives, a highly original and idiosyncratic American composer, set out to write a four-part symphony that captured the essence of the four seasons, with each season demarked by a specific holiday.  For the third movement, he sought to capture the exuberant (some might say overstimulated) excitement of a young boy experiencing a whirlwind of parades, pageants and fireworks. The effect is a swirling collision of musical ideas, with overlapping quotes of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “Yankee Doodle,” “Dixie,” “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”


Ives/Schuman: Variations on “America.”  Charles Ives wrote his humorous set of organ variations on the patriotic hymn “America” (known on the other side of the pond as “God Save the Queen”) as a teenager in 1891. William Schuman, one of the leading American composers of the middle 20th century, heard the piece in a 1962 organ recital at Lincoln Center, and decided to transcribe it for orchestra.  Along the way, he added his own sense of wit to the work, creating an exceptionally fun piece.


Schuman: New England Triptych. This orchestral work by William Schuman draws on three works by the early American composer William Billings, who lived from 1746-1800.  The first movement, “Be Glad then, America,” is based on a hymn of celebration; Billings’s original text reads:

Be glad then, America,
Shout and rejoice.
Fear not O land,
Be glad and rejoice.

After a slow central section based on they hymn, “When Jesus Wept,” the work concludes with an arrangement of “Chester,” which was used as a marching tune by the Continental Army.


Vieuxtemps: Souvenir d’Amerique. The great Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps wrote Souvenir d’Amerique (Variations burlesque sur “Yankee Doodle”) in 1845 after a tour of the United States. This plucky version of “Yankee Doodle” has been used as an encore by many great violinists ever since.


Dvořák: String Quartet No. 12 (American). Composed primarily in Spillville, Iowa—where the composer was taking a summer vacation from his duties as Director of the National Conservatory in New York City—this work captures the essence of American music.  It features a wealth of melodies drawn partially from Spirituals, pentatonic Native American tunes… and even the song of the scarlet tanager, an American songbird.


Dvořák: American Suite (Suite Op. 98) This work was originally written for piano when Dvořák was serving as Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, but later orchestrated by the composer. On the one hand, it captures the musical styles of songwriters such as Scott Joplin and Stephen Foster. But the work also incorporates Native American and African-American music, with the composer calling for musical effects that imitate the banjo or the jingling of ankle bracelets.


Stravinsky: Fireworks You can’t end an Independence Day celebration without fireworks… so let’s wrap up with this famous work by Stravinsky.  Strictly speaking, the work was written early in Stravinsky’s career and has nothing to do with America. But since the composer became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1945, I think it still counts.



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