From the New World

Typically American: a brief history of modern American music.

What is typical American music? Rock ’n’ roll? Jazz? Hip-hop? The soundtrack to »Star Wars«? Samuel Barber’s »Adagio for Strings«? There is, of course, only one possible answer: all those and much more. The USA was a crucible that became home to an incredible number of musical styles – not least because its new residents came from a huge number of different countries. Over the centuries, the USA welcomed immigrants from England, Sweden, Russia, Italy, Ireland and Germany. In addition, there were hundreds of thousands of African slaves, as well as the American Indians, whose population was decimated by the European immigrants. The musical traditions of all these groups influenced to varying degrees all the music that has since emerged in the USA – what we know today as typical American music.

So what is typical American music? That’s not an easy question to answer. Ironically, the European musical tradition remained the strongest influencing factor for a long time. Even when a policy emerged for developing a »national American music« at the end of the 19th century, a European composer was brought in for the task. From 1892 until 1895, the Czech composer Antonín Dvorák worked at the New York Conservatory to establish the new style. This resulted in some great music such as his »American String Quartet« and his Ninth Symphony »From the New World«, but Dvorák never became a model for the next generations of US composers. It would be a few more years before American modernism’s Big Bang.

Live from the Elbphilharmonie: the NDR festival »Age of Anxiety«

In the »Age of Anxiety« festival, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra and Alan Gilbert explore America’s diverse musical culture.

Antonín Dvořák
Antonín Dvořák © Wikimedia Commons

Concert stream from the Elbphilharmonie: »From the New World«

Under conductor Manfred Honeck, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra performs Dvořák’s popular Ninth Symphony in the Elbphilharmonie Grand Hall.


While Arnold Schönberg was testing and breaking down the limits of tonality in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, another man was breaking new, radical and independent musical ground in the USA: Charles Ives (1874–1954). Igor Stravinsky summarised Ives’s rank as a composer better than anyone when he stated that his colleague was using modernist musical styles such as polytonality, atonality, tone clusters and micro-intervals before modernism »officially« existed.

And for most of his life, Ives wasn’t even a full-time composer. After completing his composition studies, the son of an army bandleader opted for a career as an insurance broker. From 1902 onwards he only composed music in his free time. One reason for Ives’s decision might have been his strong desire for artistic independence: not being dependent on earning money from his music meant he didn’t have to cater to what audiences wanted to hear.

Charles Ives
Charles Ives © Halley Erskine

In the period up to 1918, Ives composed a wealth of pioneering vocal, chamber and orchestral works – and although they went largely unnoticed by the public at the time, they are now regarded as ground-breaking works of modernist American music. It was only from the late 1920s onwards that his work began to find a broader audience – by which time Ives had largely stopped composing. Charles Ives’s artistic importance was only truly recognised after his death.


Like Ives, the significantly younger Henry Cowell (1897–1965) also played an important part in the development of American modernist music – and like Ives, he also occupied a unique position in terms of his style and work. Raised in extreme poverty and with almost no schooling, the naturally gifted Cowell was already a composer with a remarkable and unique voice as a teenager, and by the mid-1930s he was regarded as a leading figure in the international New Music scene. Béla Bartók and Arnold Schönberg, among others, expressed admiration for Cowell’s work. As a teacher and writer, he also paved the way for younger composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, George Crumb and John Cage.

One of the characteristic features of Cowell’s work are the unorthodox paths he took in search of new musical means of expression. He shocked audiences and critics in the 1920s by using the fists or lower arms on the keys of the piano or – standing next to the open grand – stroked and scraped the strings with his hands, conjuring distinctly unfamiliar sounds from the instrument. Cowell also found inspiration in the music of foreign lands such as Japan, Java, India and Iran.


One of Cowell’s students gave the music an entirely different direction, not only in the USA but also much further afield. Inspired by his teacher, John Cage (1912–1992) expanded the sound spectrum of the piano by attaching objects made of various materials on and between the strings – the method caught on and was called »prepared piano«. Cage was also interested in far-eastern philosophy and he had a penchant for allowing compositional processes to proceed on the basis of numeric organising principles. Both methods led him to increasingly free his work from subjective decisions.

John Cage and the Minimalists were the first US composers to make a name for themselves in Europe.

Cage made chance the determining element in his 1951 work »Music of Changes«: in this piece (and in many other subsequent compositions by Cage), the order in which the musical events occur is decided by coin tosses and the Chinese divination text I Ching, making every performance unique. Cage’s most radical implementation of the concept of chance is found in the legendary »4’33”« – a work in which no music whatsoever is played. Instead, the interpreter allows the natural sounds of the environment to act on them and the audience for a period of four minutes and 33 seconds.

The composer broke new ground again in 1952 with »Untitled Event«. As the first multi-media concert, this happening – complete with live and electronic music, dance and visual art – kick-started a development that continued in the works of the Fluxus movement, which often sought to blur the boundaries between art and the everyday, between the artist and the audience, employing genre-spanning approaches. Cage’s idea of combining music with other art forms to create a comprehensive experience for all the senses also lives on in today’s spectacular multimedia concert events.

John Cage
John Cage © Courtesy of Bowerbird


In the 1960s, influenced by John Cage and the New York avant-gardist Moondog, Minimalism emerged. The style is characterised by the reduction of the music to the repetition of musical elements with only minimal changes, known as patterns. The main representatives of Minimalism – all of whom were born in the mid-1930s – include the composers Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. John Adams, who is a decade younger, can also be included in the group in a broader sense.

With clear structures, mostly tonal harmonics and a hypnotic effect, Minimalism really caught on and made an impact. Together with John Cage’s work, it was the first classical music movement that made its way from the USA to Europe and that became established here too as an alternative to serialism following Schönberg. Besides that, Minimalism also helped break down the boundary between classical music and pop, which was already relatively fluid in America. Its influence can still be felt clearly in numerous areas of popular music culture, from techno and hip-hop to meditation music and advertising.

John Adams
John Adams © Unbezeichnet

John Adams in a concert stream from the Elbphilharmonie

In the concert marking the Elbphilharmonie’s fifth birthday, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra performed works by John Adams, Thomas Adès and Esa-Pekka Salonen.


However, Minimalism is only one example of the lively exchange between the musical spheres of serious and popular music, which are not so strictly divided in the USA – something that may well be down to the USA’s comparatively young music history. In the 19th century, American composers were already drawing from folk, gospel and marching music as they searched for a national sound. And by the 1930s, when the Great Depression had the country in its grip, a population battered by economic hardship and unemployment wanted easily comprehensible music, and even the »classical« composers were open to that.

One of the representatives of this approach was Aaron Copland (1900–1990), who incorporated folk songs, cowboy songs and awakening anthems into his works, and thereby created music that is still regarded today as the epitome of Americanness. Another great example of an artistically fruitful combination of classical and popular music is the work of George Gershwin (1898–1937), who often drew inspiration from the rich musical traditions of Afro-American music. And even if there is a discussion to be had today about Gershwin’s opera »Porgy and Bess« regarding whether it constitutes improper cultural appropriation when a well-off white man brings to the stage the lives of the Black underclass, the work remains a milestone in American music theatre.

George Gershwin
George Gershwin © George Grantham Bain Collection

In America, the musical spheres aren’t subject to such strong divisions, the borders between classical and pop are less rigid.

Incidentally, many European composers who fled the Nazis also drew inspiration from these open genre boundaries in the USA: Hanns Eisler, Kurt Weill and Erich W. Korngold enjoyed great success with Broadway musicals and soundtracks to Hollywood films. Last but not least, we must also mention Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) as one of the composers who freely traversed the boundary between »high« and »low« culture: musicals such as »West Side Story« (1957) and »Candide« (1974) were premiered on Broadway, while Bernstein’s symphonies conquered the world’s concert halls.

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein © Wikimedia Commons

The borders separating musical spheres remain ill-defined in contemporary American classical music – and they are also porous when it comes to non-musical themes. Young composers such as Nico Muhly (b. 1981), Mohammed Fairouz (b. 1985) and Arlene Sierra (b. 1970) draw inspiration not only from indie-pop and Arabic music, but also from non-music sources such as military strategy and the migration patterns of butterflies.


It is widely known that Afro-American artists such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus composed sublime jazz. In recent years, however, the numerous outstanding classical composers of African-American background have increasingly come to the fore. The best-known among them is probably Scott Joplin (1867–1917), who composed the popular ragtime »The Entertainer« and who wrote history with his opera »Treemonisha«.

Another great figure among African-American classical composers is William Grant Still (1895–1978), whose oeuvre includes solo concertos, ballets, vocal and chamber music, as well as five symphonies and eight operas. William Levi Dawson (1899–1990) not only contributed numerous wonderful works to the choral canon, he also became famous across the entire country in 1934 as a result of the triumphant performance of his »Negro Folk Symphony«. Contemporary artists such as Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981) and Nkeiru Okoye (b. 1972) are now making a name for themselves as they shape the US musical landscape with a strong voice.

William Grant Still
William Grant Still © Carl van Mechelen

There have also been a number of notable American Indian composers. The cellist and composer Dawn Avery draws inspiration from the music of her people, the Mohawk, as well as from Beethoven and Sting. Another important figure is Brent Michael Davids (b. 1959), who composes experimental works in the tradition of George Crumb and invents instruments in order to realise his desired sounds. And Raven Chacon (b. 1977) regularly makes waves with sensational musical happenings. None of these voices belongs to a specific school, movement or tradition. But they all share an openness to working with a variety of styles – and an ever-broadening vision of American identity.

Song of America: A Celebration of Black Music

The festival celebrated the music, poetry and stories of Black composers, writers and artists. You can now also watch some of the concert streams from the festival.

Text: Juliane Weigel-Krämer, last updated: 2 Feb 2022

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