The Great American Symphony: Music, the Depression, and War

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The years of the Great Depression, World War II, and their aftermath brought a sea change in American music. This period of economic, social, and political adversity can truly be considered a musical golden age. In the realm of classical music, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Howard Hanson, Virgil Thompson, and Leonard Bernstein—among others—produced symphonic works of great power and lasting beauty during these troubled years. It was during this critical decade and a half that contemporary writers on American culture began to speculate about "the Great American Symphony" and looked to these composers for music that would embody the spirit of the nation.

In this volume, Nicholas Tawa concludes that they succeeded, at the very least, in producing music that belongs in the cultural memory of every American. Tawa introduces the symphonists and their major works from the romanticism of Barber and the "all-American" Roy Harris through the theatrics of Bernstein and Marc Blitzstein to the broad-shouldered appeal of Thompson and Copland. Tawa's musical descriptions are vivid and personal, and invite music lovers and trained musicians alike to turn again to the marvelous and lasting music of this time.

Indiana University Press

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Editorial Reviews

A prolific writer, scholar, and advocate for American music, Tawa (emer., Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston) does not argue for a single symphony as the "great American symphony" but instead nominates a dozen symphonic composers prominent from 1930 to 1950 among whose works a "great American symphony" might be found. The author's excellent vignettes on these composers encompass factual and anecdotal material along with his own informed evaluation of the oeuvre of each. A second theme, that of historical evolution, also runs throughout the book: this same dozen, more or less, heeded the call of their country and wrote music accessible to patrons of classical music; the following 20 years (1950-70) were dominated by composers writing serial music, seemingly neglectful of the public. Tawa concludes by tracing the historical stream through minimalism, neo-Romanticism, and the breaking into the many rivulets of today. One finds considerable variety, both in intention and musical style, among the composers he chose from the 1930s and 1940s. Aaron Copland meets the author's standard, both in attitude and accomplishment, but Roger Sessions does not. Tawa also provides brief discussion of approximately 20 other symphonic composers from 1950 until today. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. — W. K. Kearns, emeritus, University of Colorado at BoulderChoice
"The Great American Symphony is a significant contribution to the history of American art music." —Fanfare
Leonard Slatkin
"Out of tragedy emerges great art. This is the message contained in the well-documented book by Nicholas Tawa. He reminds us of rich treasures, both known and yet to be rediscovered. The work will be a valuable resource for musicians, as well as lovers of perhaps, the most creative time in American music." —Leonard Slatkin, Music Director, Detroit Symphony Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta
"At a time when the relationship between composer and audience seems to be at the crux of the health and even survival of the classical music world, Nicholas Tawa's The Great American Symphony offers critical and telling insights into an important epoch in American musical history." —JoAnn Falletta, Music Director, Buffalo Philharmonic
From the Publisher
At a time when the relationship between composer and audience seems to be at the crux of the health and even survival of the classical music world, Nicholas Tawa's The Great American Symphony offers critical and telling insights into an important epoch in American musical history.—JoAnn Falletta, Music Director, Buffalo Philharmonic
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253353054
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 534,085
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicholas Tawa is co-founder of the Sonneck Society, now the Society for American Music. He is Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Indiana University Press

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Table of Contents


1. Preliminaries
The Times
Symphonism Ascendant
The Symphony's Public Role
2. Symphonies of the Mid- to Late Thirties
The Romantic Symphony: Barber
The Spiritual Symphony: Hanson
The All-American Symphony: Harris
The Muscular Symphony: Schuman
The Civil Symphony: Carpenter
Afterthought: Thomson and Cowell
3. Symphonies of the War Years
Wartime Attitudes
The Commemorative Symphony: Antheil
The Aesthetic Symphony: Diamond
The Dramatic Symphony: Bernstein
The Masterly Symphony: Piston
The Ambivalent Symphony: Barber
The Theatrical Symphony: Blitzstein
4. Symphonies of the Immediate Postwar Years
The Conservatorial Symphony: Moore
The Dynamic Symphony: Mennin
The Plain-Spoken Symphony: Thompson
The August Symphony: Copland
The Self-Reliant Symphony: Creston
The Knotty Symphony: Sessions
5. American Symphonies after 1950
The Symphony in the Leanest Years
The Symphony after 1990

Selected Bibliography

Indiana University Press

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