NPR logo Composing the American Frontier

Composing the American Frontier

Top 5 Sounds of the American West

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A nation's topography can be linked to its identity and to cultural expression in the arts. In the case of the U.S. — a vast and variegated land plentifully supplied with open space and sky — the "West" has exercised a central fascination and influence. Composers of American concert music, however, were late to discover an iconic West. It wasn't until the inter-war decades that Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Roy Harris effectively defined a Western idiom of symphonic speech. It was — and is — as spare as the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Mojave Desert. Shunning the cushioned textures of traditional European practice, the musical idea of the West is lean, unadorned, uncluttered. The voices of American chords are widely spaced. American textures are simplified. American harmonies do not drive toward an urgent goal; rather, they relax toward a condition of pastoral stasis or nostalgia.

See an excerpt from the 1936 documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains:

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Composing the American Frontier

Cover for Virgil Thomson

The River: Soil Erosion and Floods

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Virgil Thomson: The Plow that Broke the Plains

  • Song: The River: Soil Erosion and Floods
  • from The Plow that Broke the Plains
  • by Virgil Thomson

Cowboys and settlers figure prominently in "The Plow that Broke the Plains," Pare Lorentz's classic 1936 documentary about the dustbowl. Thomson's cunning and atmospheric score assembles a patchwork of hymns, of folk and popular song, that's as ineffably American for its informality, humor, and blithe eclecticism as for its guitar, banjo, and saxophones.

Cover for Copland

Billy the Kid: The Open Prairie

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Aaron Copland: Billy the Kid

  • Song: Billy the Kid: The Open Prairie
  • from Copland: Symphony No. 3; Billy the Kid (Suite)
  • by Various

Though Virgil Thomson (as he loved to point out) came first, it was Aaron Copland who popularly established the Western sound in the ballet "Billy the Kid" (1938). Its memorable processional, titled "The Open Prairie," moves from pianissimo to triple-forte, evoking the settlers' advance as an elemental American fact.

Cover for Dvorák

Suite for piano in A major, B. 184 (Op. 98)

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Antonin Dvorak: Suite in A

  • Song: Suite for piano in A major, B. 184 (Op. 98)
  • from Dvorák: Suite in A; Scottish Dances
  • by Stefan Veselka

No previous American composer created anything as remotely iconic of the West as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, or Roy Harris. But amazingly, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak did. An American resident from 1892 to 1895, he undertook to help discover an indigenous symphonic sound, resulting in the famous "New World" Symphony. The third and fourth movements of Dvorak's "American Suite" (for solo piano or orchestra, 1895) draw on cakewalk and the lonely Iowa prairie, respectively. In the fifth and final movement, an Indian dance turns into a minstrel song with (in the piano version) banjo accompaniment.

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Song
Dvorák: Suite in A; Scottish Dances
Album
Dvorák: Suite in A; Scottish Dances
Artist
Stefan Veselka
Label
Naxos
Released
2004

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Cover for Roy Harris

Symphony No. 3, in one movement

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Roy Harris: Symphony No. 3

  • Song: Symphony No. 3, in one movement
  • from Roy Harris: Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4 'Folk Song Symphony'
  • by Marin Alsop

Roy Harris was born on Lincoln's birthday in an Oklahoma log cabin and grew up in California's San Gabriel Valley. Tall, lanky, and rawboned -- and a fledgling farmer before coming late to composing -- Harris actually looked and acted the part of a Western composer. In his signature "Third Symphony" (1938-39), a loping, striding cello song probes the surrounding silence. The long melodic lines and open textures of Harris' symphony suggest an American plainchant (pun and all).

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Song
Roy Harris: Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4 'Folk Song Symphony'
Album
Roy Harris: Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4 'Folk Song Symphony'
Artist
Marin Alsop
Label
Naxos
Released
2006

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Navajo Dance No. 2

Navajo Dance No. 2

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Arthur Farwell: Navajo Dance

  • Song: Navajo Dance No. 2
  • from Benjamin Pasternak in Studio
  • by Benjamin Pasternak

Arthur Farwell, who declared himself the first American to take up Dvorak's challenge to develop a uniquely "American" sound, left at least two memorable Indianist vignettes: "Navajo Dance No. 2" and "Pawnee Horses," in versions for both solo piano and a cappella chorus. The latter, especially, is a tour de force, both primal and complex. But these sinewy pieces remain unknown, buried under the mountain of kitsch that musical Indianism became.

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Copland: Symphony No. 3; Billy the Kid (Suite)

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Album
Copland: Symphony No. 3; Billy the Kid (Suite)
Artist
Various
Label
Naxos
Released
2001

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Thomson: The Plow that Broke the Plains

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Album
Thomson: The Plow that Broke the Plains
Artist
Post Classical Ensemble
Label
Naxos
Released
2007

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