Our American Roots
February 26 and 27, 2022

Audio Program Notes

Our American Roots Program Notes

by Artistic and Music Director Michael Christie


Referred to by most as the “Dean of American Composers,” Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1900 and lived until 1990. Copland’s widely known populist style crossed a number of genres including ballet, film, orchestra, opera and solo works. He was very well immersed in the many compositional trends both in Europe and America in the first third of the twentieth century after fruitful European periods of study, but was equally aware that many of these trends were leaving audiences estranged and by 1933, Copland decided to work toward appealing to a larger audience. Initially he focused on writing music for young people and radio audiences but his American frontier sound world would launch him to reverential acceptance among orchestras and ballet companies in particular. As a whole his compositional language embraced a large collection of global influences, and audiences flocked to see him conduct performances in his later years.

Eighteen fanfares were commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony and its Music Director, Eugene Goosens, following the December 7th,1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Participating composers were invited to write patriotic fanfares that would be “stirring and significant contributions to the war effort.” Important composers of the day produced appropriate works such as A Fanfare for the Signal Corps (Howard Hanson), Fanfare de la Liberté (Darius Milhaud) and a Fanfare for Freedom (Morton Gould)

Alone among the eighteen, Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, remains in the repertory and is, arguably, one of the most recognizable works of our time. Although hesitant to accept an unpaid commission, Copland’s successful premiere of Lincoln Portrait with the Cincinnati Symphony gave him confidence to agree to the project. Copland struggled to assign a title to the fanfare but was inspired by Vice President Henry Wallace who said, “Some have spoken of the ‘American Century.’ I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come out of this war—can be and must be the century of the common man.”

After the premiere, the Cincinnati Enquirer said Fanfare for the Common Man was Copland’s most striking composition to date: “Scored for brass and percussion, it had deftness in its dramatic purport and evoked spontaneous applause from the audience.”


Composer Joan Tower was born in Westchester County, New York in 1938. Joan Tower balances successful careers as a pianist, composer and teacher throughout her life and has been recognized among the most formidable presences for ensembles, especially in North America. She has served as composer in residence at various times for America’s greatest orchestras. Many of her works nod to the relationship she had with her mineralogist father and have evocative titles reflective of nature with titles such as Black Topaz and Silver Ladders.

Joan Tower’s six Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman are among her most notable works on orchestral stages around the world. 

Tower writes of her Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1 written in 1987, that it was inspired by Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and employs, in fact, the same instrumentation. In addition, the original theme resembles the first theme in Copland’s fanfare. It is dedicated to women who take risks and who are adventurous. Written for the Fanfare Project and commissioned by the Houston Symphony, the first fanfare is dedicated to the conductor Marin Alsop.

An interesting difference you can listen for is how the two composers use the same instrumental forces differently to great effect. Copland’s Fanfare relies on broad, large steps at a deliberate tempo, Tower’s pace is considerably brisker and the musicians tend to be in dialogue with figures in a narrow range with rapid fire precision.


Czech  composer Antonin Dvorak was born in 1841 and lived until 1904. Dvorak is widely recognized as one of the foremost symphonists of the nineteenth century, particularly credited for absorbing folk influences and effectively incorporating them into the European orchestral tradition. Dvorak was adored globally at the time of his move to New York City with his family in 1892. Basketball, Edison’s wax cylinders and the Pledge of Allegiance debuted that year as well.

It’s important to remember he was writing and performing among other living masters such as Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Verdi, and Mahler. This was an exciting era rooted in robust artistic and societal traditions alongside profound advances in technology and education. 

Jeannette Thurber, the wealthy Founder of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, sought to draw Dvorak to American composers to build a national classical idiom as he did with Czech music. Introduced to African American spirituals by one of his black students, Harry Burleigh, Dvořák soon saw major possibilities, and observed, ‘In the melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music, there is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.” His statements were covered on both sides of the Atlantic and regarded by some as “radical.” Jeannette Thurber’s hope that Dvorak would unleash a wave of interest in an American national idiom was realized, but it could be argued that it was non-classical genres such as American musical theater, pop music, jazz, etc. that were more open to the possibilities offered by the African American musical forms that immediately struck Dvorak. 

Dvorak wrote some of his most enduring works during his two and a half years in America, including his Cello Concerto and ninth symphony titled “From the New World.” His influence on America’s musical life extends far beyond the “New World Symphony,” for example, while he was in America he would become the teacher of artists like Will Marion Cook who would then become a teacher of Duke Ellington and so on. Importantly, he made sure a quarter of the student population at the National Conservatory in New York were African American.

When we think of an “American Sound,” our minds readily turn to works of Gershwin, Bernstein and Copland, but the sound world of Dvorak’s “American Suite” pre-dates their “Americana” legacy and much of the automation and global superpower credentials that lend swagger and confidence to our American image. Instead, Dvorak witnessed quiet frontier villages with extensive study of folk melodies passed down through families that had much more of an inward-focused domestic feel than the brash, swinging style of the generation that would soon follow.

As a result, the American Suite has moments that reflect Dvorak’s late nineteenth century description of the Iowa prairie, “Endless acres of wood and meadow…it is very wild here, and sometimes sad – sad to despair,”   juxtaposed by music as spirited as the New World Symphony with implied Native American dances. But as much as he conjures images we feel are uniquely ours, we are still left wondering if it is a native dance or a Slavonic dance of his faraway homeland?

Dvorak doesn’t quote the themes of the spirituals he was introduced to while living in the United States so why does his music give listeners that impression? There are a couple of musical cues that connect us to the tradition of spirituals, the use of gentle syncopation in a melody is suggestive of how syllables in a sentence would be set to music. Dvorak also leaned heavily on what is called a “lowered seventh” (the seventh note of a scale that typically exerts musical tension toward resolution but in this case suggests mourning possibly. Then there is Dvorak’s barren Iowa fields concept in the accompaniment I often think of as a choir providing gently undulating support over the melody’s more personal feel. You’ll hear these features if you were to go back and listen to the 2nd movement of his New World Symphony or other works from this time period.’’

The “American Suite” was originally written for piano in five movements and in Dvorak’s own orchestration, is for the full orchestra typical of his works, including brass and percussion. 


Austrian composer Erich Korngold was born in 1897 in what is now considered the Czech Republic and lived in Los Angeles, California until his passing in 1957. He was remarkable in every sense of the word; his compositions and legacy indelibly shaped film and concert music. His ballet “The Snowman” was a sensation when eleven year old Erich’s composition was heralded by the Vienna Court Opera in 1910. His mentors were among the most revered in the world and he would quickly rise to become a professor of music at the Vienna State Academy. 

With the rise of the Nazi regime, came opportunities for artists to be engaged away from central Europe. Korngold moved to Hollywood, California to write film music scores in 1934 and he would win his first Academy Award for Anthony Adverse in 1936. Two years later he would win his second Oscar for The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1943.

He wrote sixteen feature film scores, six operas, orchestral works, chamber music, songs, and music for piano. 

Korngold treated his film scores as operas without singing; characters had associated music motives or leitmotifs and he intended his scores to be able to stand alone without the film. 

Korngold’s Violin Concerto was written in 1945 and premiered by the Saint Louis Symphony in 1947, with the storied violinist Jascha Heifitz as soloist. It is set in the typical three movement form with a medium sized orchestra featuring a large percussion section.

The movements each draw from one his mid-thirties film scores, the first from “Another Dawn,” the second “Anthony Adverse,” and the finale from “The Prince and the Pauper.”

The main theme of the first movement is a sensuous rising melody that is as attractive played by individual instruments as it is in full-throated orchestral statements. The theme is the first music heard at the opening of the work. As Korngold wished to have his film scores be “operas without words,” he clearly wrote his violin concerto with the same idea in mind; whoever plays the theme can be heard dramatized, as if they were a singer. Added elements of virtuosity for the soloist come as rising athletic figures with numerous cadenzas, or solo passages without accompaniment.

The second movement begins in utter serenity with adjoining layers of percussion and harp. Listen for a Salvador Dali-esque musical landscape approximately two-thirds of the way through where the layers seem to drip.

The third movement is a raucous, leaping jig with harrowing turns, as if Korngold is imagining a racing car navigating narrow village streets in a film. Throughout this incredible showpiece Korngold puts his compositional and dramatic gifts on full-display and it is easy to hear how his completely original musical voice transformed Hollywood, including this stunning climax as the work nears its conclusion.


John Towner Williams was born on February 8, 1932, in Flushing, Queens, New York City.

The Williamses moved from the New York area to Los Angeles in 1947, when John was fifteen. In 1951, Williams joined the U.S. Air Force, where he played the piano and brass and conducted and arranged music for the U.S. Air Force Band. In 1955, he returned to New York and studied at Juilliard. He was originally set on becoming a concert pianist but after hearing monumental artists like Van Cliburn perform, switched his focus to composition. After his studies at Juilliard and the Eastman School of Music, Williams returned to Los Angeles, where he began orchestrating for film studios. Williams says, “It became clear that I could write better than I could play.” He composed his first feature-film score in 1958, for a race-car comedy called “Daddy-O.” 

Williams’ first non-feature film composition was for You Are Welcome—a promotional film for the tourist information office of Newfoundland, created in 1954. Williams also composed music for various television programs including the pilot episode of Gilligan’s Island, Lost in Space, and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater.

Williams was sought out by the young Steven Spielberg to score Spielberg’s first major theatrical film in 1974. The two have gone on to collaborate on twenty-eight of the most influential films of the last 40 years. Of Spielberg, Williams says, “I met what looked to be this seventeen-year-old kid, this very sweet boy, who knew more about film music than I did.” 

On the heels of their first collaboration, “Sugarland Express”, the infamous two note ostinato that became synonymous with “ominous” earned Williams his first Academy Award for Original Composition for Jaws. To date he has won five Oscars and 26 Grammy Awards in a throng of other honors. He is only second to Walt Disney as the most nominated person ever.

At the behest of Spielberg, George Lucas was convinced to meet Williams. Lucas admired the score for “Jaws” and was seeking a soundtrack with an old-Hollywood atmosphere. Although it has been thought Lucas had planned to use music already written, John Williams’ plan to create themes that best served the drama has created a library of more than sixty “leitmotifs” over the nine Star Wars scores, including music that when heard immediately conjures images and emotions about Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and “The Force” itself. 

Creating these “leitmotifs” is a throw-back to the golden-age of Hollywood: brief, sharply defined motifs; brilliant, brassy orchestration with a continuous fabric of underscoring.

Of this compositional technique, Williams’ has said it’s a little bit like how the olfactory system is wired with memory, so that a certain smell makes you remember your grandmother’s cooking.”

The Star Wars’ theme is among the most widely recognized in film history. Both the film and its score were immensely successful. 

John Williams is quoted about the Star Wars Theme and other motives.. “That fanfare at the beginning, I think it’s the last thing I wrote. It’s probably a little overwritten—I don’t know.”

“One of the things I have felt, rightly or not, was that these tunes or themes or leitmotifs in film at least need to be pretty—not accessible, but succinct.”

“The tunes need to speak, probably in a matter of seconds—five or six seconds.”

John Williams’ Star Wars Suite features the Main Theme,  Princess Leia’s Theme and Throne Room and End Title introduced in Star Wars IV: A New Hope and The Imperial March and Yoda’s Theme from Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back

If you’re having a movie night, it may be worth looking back at the library of John William’s film collaborations and seeing if you can track how he uses leitmotifs associated with characters or important themes in a film to anticipate their presence or heighten a scene where they appear.