I say it every year -- it's past time to retire the "1812 Overture" from 4th of July concerts. I do understand why its there. The score has a part for cannons. Cannons go boom. Fireworks go boom. We have a piece of classical music that goes boom.
But what is the "1812 Overture" really about? It's not about our War of 1812 against the British. Rather, Tchaikovsky wrote it to commemorate a Russian victory in the Napoleonic Wars -- the Battle of Borodino, where Russian forces turned back Napoleon. Let's just recap: in relation to the very American July 4th event, the "1812 Overture" is about the wrong war on the wrong continent between the wrong protagonists. And there's more.
The work quotes the Russian Imperial and the French national anthems and uses those two tunes to represent the ebb and flow of the two armies.
Is blasting out the "God Save the Tsar" really the best way to celebrate America's Independence Day? And what about "La Marseilles"?
So let's forget the Russian overture written by a Russian honoring the victory of a Russian monarch over a French military dictator and trot out some red-blooded American classical music written by real Americans.
If you're looking for rousing, orchestral music that can be enjoyed by casual listeners in a casual setting, here are some suggestions of Real American music written by Real Americans.
Michael Daugherty: Mount Rushmore- Daugherty's composition embodies the vernacular of American music and culture. His Metropolis Symphony is a musical portrait of Superman (a distinctly American superhero) and his world. "Mount Rushmore" has four movements, corresponding to the four presidents it depicts: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.
Daugherty quotes Revolutionary War songs in Washington's movement, 18th Century French music in Jefferson's, and the finale is an inspiring Copland-esque setting of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" for orchestra and chorus. This should be a standard work for 4th of July concerts!
Charles Ives: Variations on "America"- No composer sums up the American spirit of independence of thought than Ives. His variations on this distinctively American tune are original and inspired and makes more traditional arrangements just sound uninspired.
Clifton Williams: Strategic Air Command March- No one could write expansive, elegiac American music like Clifton Williams. Want to salute our troops? This march should fill the bill -- especially if you'd like to give the Sousa marches a rest.
J.J. Richards: Shield of Liberty March- And speaking of marches, Sousa wasn't the only one writing good ones in the 1890's. C.L. Barnhouse was a cornet player who wanted to improve the quality of band music, so he started a publishing company that's still in business today. Marches were among the most popular genres and things like Richards' "Shield of Liberty" march. Now, this is the way to start a patriotic concert!
Howard Hanson: "Merry Mount" Suite
- Harris had a distinctly American voice, and his opera "Merry Mount" is a distinctively American story. Based on the short story "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, it dramatizes the conflict between the fun-loving colonists of Mount Wollaston, Massachusetts and their more serious Puritan neighbors.
Henry Cowell - Hymn and Fuging Tunes- American composer Henry Cowell was a truly original thinker. He developed his own system of music -- something American composers seem to have a knack for (think Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Carl Ruggles, et al.). Cowell also dug deep into America's musical heritage for inspiration. His series of Hymn and Fuguing Tunes pay homage to the uniquely American "fuging tunes" of the early 1800's. American-sounding melodies based on American musical tradition, in short, 6-10 minute works. Why aren't these programmed more often?
Roy Harris: When Johnny Comes Marching Home- Roy Harris was a contemporary of Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson, and Henry Cowell, and like them was concerned with developing an American style of classical music. His short set of orchestral variations on the Civil War tune "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" should be a logical choice for any program celebrating American history.
Many celebrations will feature some Aaron Copland (usually "Fanfare for the Common Man"), or some Leonard Bernstein -- good choices, but there are so many more. We have a rich classical music tradition stretching back over 200 years -- music written by Americans that have a distinctively American voice that can still speak to us today.
If you don't like the concept of American flags being made in China, then why settle for 4th of July music written in Russia?