Defining America Musically

Jan 14, 2021

Festivals that have shaped American music.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

What does it mean to be an American? And who gets to define the American experience? These are questions we often ask ourselves, particularly around the inauguration of a new president, but they’ve taken on a new urgency in light of recent events. 

Classical music seems to be a world apart from all this, but many composers have made important statements about the American experience in their music. William Schuman drew on his memories of growing up in Manhattan’s melting-pot Upper West Side in his boisterous American Festival OvertureChen Yi translated the distinctive colors of an immigrant-community celebration into the medium of the string quartet in her At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert. And at the dawn of the civil rights movement, Florence Price paid tribute to the vibrance of a bygone Black community in her Dances in the Canebrakes. Without saying a word, these pieces proclaim “We, too, are America.”

Right now, our commitment to an inclusive America is being tested, but not for the first time. Amidst the uncertainty of 1942, when we were sending our first troops overseas to fight fascism, Aaron Copland took solace in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, who reminds us that “the occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion.” Copland accompanied those words with his Lincoln Portrait, which stirringly calls us all to renew our commitment to “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

It is my privilege to present all of these pieces, and more, on the next Classical Tulsa. Join me for a musical exploration of the American Experience, this Friday, January 15th, at noon. 

Jason Heilman hosts Classical Tulsa, Fridays at noon on Classical 88.7 KWTU HD-1.