What Makes Music American?

Sunday, November 23, AD 2008

Tito and Donald have instituted a worthy tradition of posting music on the weekends here at American Catholic, and so as the weekend winds to a close I thought I would attempt by own contribution to the genre, though with a characteristically analytical slant.

I’m not sure how it is that one can say that a piece of music “sounds like” a particular country. And yet some pieces of music very clearly have a regional tone. For instance, Vaughan Williams orchestral music simply sounds like English countryside.

While I don’t think I could describe what it is that makes something sound American, the following are some of the most American-sounding pieces of music that I know of.

Jerome Moross received an Oscar nomination for the score he wrote for Big Country, the outstanding 1958 western staring Gregory Peck, Charleton Heston and Burl Ives.

The movie itself is very much worth watching, and the score is one of my favorite movie scores. This video illustrates the main theme with scenes from the movie.

You certainly won’t find a more American composer than Aaron Copland, and perhaps one of his most American-sounding pieces is Hoedown from Copland’s 1942 ballet Rodeo:

Copland draws in part on American folk melodies, but beyond that there’s an American feel to his music which evokes the vast expanses of our country — something which Moross, of course, is doing as well, though he makes no references to folk music in his score.

Also drawing very explicitly on American folk styles is Jay Unger’s 1982 composition Ashokan Farewell, which was made famous by its frequent use in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series The Civil War:

When I first heard Ashokan Farewell, watching The Civil War, I had imagined it was a period melody. I was quite surprised to discover when looking for the piece on CD several years later that it was composed in the ’80s.

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