Our nation has a rich history of classical, folk and popular music that can, despite our nation’s relative youth, hold its own with other nations of greater antiquity. Starting with the earliest Native American musical traditions, and continuing with music brought by European settlers and African-Americans, the diverse peoples who have settled the United States have contributed their native land’s music to the vast potpourri that is American musical traditions and styles. Considering this diversity, it is, by definition, difficult to succinctly characterize the music of our nation, although it could be said that some elements of it are syncopation, asymmetrical rhythms, and long, irregular melodies, which are said to reflect the wide open geography of the American landscape and the sense of personal freedom characteristic of American life.
In the 20th century, there were many composers on what, at that time, was considered the forefront of the American classical musical avant-garde. Beginning with Charles Griffes and George Gershwin, to name only two, the line continued, probably most famously with Aaron Copland. Copland’s compositions, sometimes deceptively simple, are filled with references to American folk culture, though remaining European in technique and form, and combine old-fashioned tunefulness with symphonic sophistication.
Other notable composers include Roger Sessions, whose works ranged from neoclassical to atonal and serial; Walter Piston, whose counted among his students Leonard Berstein, Leroy Anderson and Elliot Carter; Roy Harris, composer of over 170 works; and Virgil Thomson, whose works, in the words of one commentator, blend detachment and humanity.
And no discussion in this area would be complete without mention of Charles Ives, whose experimental works feature, among other avant-garde elements, polytonality and polyrhythm. Only after his death in 1954 was he greatly appreciated and regarded as an American original, although he did have some early champions in his lifetime, including Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland.
By the way, we’ve also had our share of musical Presidents.
And, in the 21st century, American music of all types, classical, folk and popular, continues to grow and thrive.