NPR logo Classical Road Trip: Musical Milestones

Classical Road Trip: Musical Milestones

The Grand Canyon
Kimberly Deprey/iStockphoto.com

If the price of gas is making you rethink your summer travel plans, here's a way to tour the country without ever having to fill the tank. Just sit back and relax, as five American composers take you on a musical road trip across the U.S. The itinerary includes everything from a truly grand National Park to the Manhattan skyline — and points in between.

For more entries in this summer's weekly Road Trip: Songs to Drive By series, click here.

Classical Road Trip: Musical Milestones

Cover for Grofé: Orchestral Works

Grand Canyon Suite, for orchestra

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"On the Trail"

  • Song: Grand Canyon Suite, for orchestra
  • from Grofé: Orchestral Works
  • by Various

At this time of year, you have to get up around 4 a.m. to experience the full effect of sunrise over the Grand Canyon. When Ferde Grofé saw it as a young musician on the road, he was so bowled over that he sat down and wrote “Sunrise,” the first movement of what turned into his "Grand Canyon Suite." Grofé had something interesting in common with Aaron Copland -- both of them were New York City natives who became famous for composing music about the American West. The best-known movement of Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, “On the Trail,” is a different kind of road trip: The loping gait of the music describes the ride down to the bottom of the Canyon on the back of a mule.

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Song
Grofé: Orchestral Works
Album
Grofé: Orchestral Works
Artist
Various
Label
Naxos
Released
1999

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Cover for Thomson: The Plow that Broke the Plains

The Plow That Broke the Plains, film score

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"Cattle" & "The Homesteader"

  • Song: The Plow That Broke the Plains, film score
  • from Virgil Thompson: The Plow that Broke the Plains; The River
  • by Angel Gil-Ordóñez

Nothing brings home how vast this country is quite like driving across the Great Plains, an area that was devastated during the Great Depression. In the middle of the Depression, the U.S. Department of Agriculture put out a half-hour documentary about the dust bowl called "The Plow That Broke the Plains" -- the first government film produced for commercial release. Director Pare Lorentz shot footage in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, and Kansas, and he got a suitable composer to write the score for the film: Virgil Thomson, who was born in Kansas City, Mo.

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Song
Virgil Thompson: The Plow that Broke the Plains; The River
Album
Virgil Thompson: The Plow that Broke the Plains; The River
Artist
Angel Gil-Ordóñez
Label
Naxos
Released
2007

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Cover for Joplin:Piano Works

A Breeze from Alabama

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A Breeze from Alabama, march & ragtime two-step for piano

  • Song: A Breeze from Alabama
  • from Joplin:Piano Works
  • by Dick Hyman

No one's exactly sure where Scott Joplin was born. It was probably in northeast Texas, but Texas wasn't a state back then. After Joplin became a pianist, he started traveling, mostly around the Midwest, as far north as Chicago -- and eventually even to New York. "A Breeze from Alabama" is one of Joplin’s quieter rags. You can practically smell the camellias.

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Song
Joplin:Piano Works
Album
Joplin:Piano Works
Artist
Dick Hyman
Label
RCA
Released
1988

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Cover for The Orchestral Music of Charles Ives: World Premieres and First Editions

Orchestral Set No. 1: Three Places in New England, for orchestra, S. 7 (K. 1A5)

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"Putnam's Camp"

  • Song: Orchestral Set No. 1: Three Places in New England, for orchestra, S. 7 (K. 1A5)
  • from The Orchestral Music of Charles Ives: World Premieres and First Editions
  • by Various

Charles Ives was the quintessential New Englander, growing up in Danbury, Conn., in the late 1800s, when Danbury was the hat-making capitol of the country. In this piece, Ives paints three unique musical portraits of a spot in Connecticut, and two in neighboring Massachusetts. The middle portrait, “Putnam’s Camp, Redding,” describes a Fourth of July picnic in Redding, Conn., where General Israel Putnam and his men made camp during the American Revolution -- and where Ives had a summer home. It’s full of raucous quotations, including Ives’ own “Country Band March” and his “Overture and March 1776.”

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Song
The Orchestral Music of Charles Ives: World Premieres and First Editions
Album
The Orchestral Music of Charles Ives: World Premieres and First Editions
Artist
Various
Label
Koch International Cl
Released
2000

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Cover for Bernstein: Serenade after Plato's Symposium; Fancy Free; On the Town Dance Episodes

On the Town: "Times Square"

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On the Town--"Times Square"

  • Song: On the Town: "Times Square"
  • from Bernstein: Serenade after Plato's Symposium; Fancy Free; On the Town Dance Episodes
  • by Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein may have been born in New England, but it didn’t take him long to move to New York. No one epitomized the energy of the City -- or captured it in his music -- more than he did. Bernstein’s ballet Fancy Free, about three sailors on shore leave in New York, became the Broadway Musical On the Town. If New York is the pulse of the East Coast, then Times Square is the pulse of New York, and you can hear all the madness of midtown Manhattan in “Times Square,” the last of Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from On the Town.

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Song
Bernstein: Serenade after Plato's Symposium; Fancy Free; On the Town Dance Episodes
Album
Bernstein: Serenade after Plato's Symposium; Fancy Free; On the Town Dance Episodes
Artist
Leonard Bernstein
Label
Sony
Released
1998

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Naomi Lewin is the midday music host at WGUC in Cincinnati, where she writes and hosts the award-winning program Classics for Kids. Lewin also produces the Cameo intermission features for the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.

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