Thursday, July 4, 2013

Celebrating American Composers on America's Birthday

Jesse Blumberg in Ricky Ian Gordon's "Green Sneakers" in San Francisco
Today we celebrate American Independence Day with a look at our great American composers and some baritones singing our official national anthem (Star Spangled Banner) and unofficial national anthem (America the Beautiful).

William Henry Fry, born in 1815, has been considered by many, to be the father of American opera. His most famous opera, Leonora, debuted in 1845. In Europe at this time, the Romantic period was developing lead by figures such as Wagner, Schumann and Chopin. Fry’s opera Leonora the first opera by an American composer to be performed in the US. Over the years there have been many American composers following in his footsteps and as diverse as Americans are, they each have possessed their own unique style.

Norman Treigle sings "America the Beautiful" and the "National Anthem:

David Adam Moore sings the National Anthem:

By the way, David Adam Moore just joined Twitter and can be found at @davidadammoore.

Virgil Thomson was probably the most important opera composer of the 20th century. He composed four operas and the two most popular were collaborations with author Gertrude Stein. He was influential in the creation of what is known as “American Sound” and was awarded Yale University’s Sanford Medal and the National Medal of Arts.

Robert Sims sings "I got plenty o 'nuttin" from Porgy & Bess:

Born near the beginning of the 20th century, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were probably better known for their popular music but all three of these men also composed operas. Porgy and Bess, composed by Gershwin, is one of the most successful operas of the 20th century. Copland wrote two operas, The Second Hurricane and The Tender Land which are perfect for young voices. Bernstein was a master at blending Broadway and opera, most notably in his Broadway operetta, Candide.

In contrast, Douglas Moore, 1893-1969, was a rare American composer, in that he was most famous for his operas, not his popular music. Although he composed ten operas, his most well-known is The Ballad of Baby Doe. He was a significant figure in both the advancement of American music and music education.

Michael Hewitt sings "Warm as the Autumn night" from "The Ballad of Baby Doe":

Gion Carlo Menotti was born in Italy in 1911, but came to the U.S. in 1928 and became one of the most popular names in American opera, composing over twenty of them in his lifetime. In 1934 he was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor and in 1991 was named “Musician of the Year” by Musical America.

Philip Glass, who is considered to be the pioneer of minimalistic opera, and Jake Heggie, who is an extremely talented pianist and piano composer are both celebrated contemporary opera composers. Both have written great music for baritone and have been featured regularly on this site. Heggie is unique in that most of his male lead roles are written for baritone. Glass has composed over twenty operas beginning in the 1970′s with his latest in 2007, while Heggie, who got started in the year 2000, has arguably been the most successful American composer of this century.

Heggie's most recent opera was the critically-acclaimed Moby-Dick. Prior to that, he composed Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers, The End of the Affair, To Hell and Back, For a Look or a Touch and At the Statue of Venus. The Dallas Opera has announced the commission of Heggie's next opera, Great Scott, with a libretto by his frequent collaborator Terrence McNally, set for a premiere on October 30, 2015. A number of baritones have become closely associated with his songs and operas including baritones Philip Cutlip, Nathan Gunn, Michael Mayes, Jonathan Lemalu, Daniel Okulitch, Keith Phares, Morgan Smith and Bryn Terfel.

Randal Turner sings Tom Joad's aria from "The Grapes of Wrath":

Another busy composer is Ricky Ian Gordon, whose operas include Autumn Valentine, The Grapes of Wrath, Green Sneakers, Morning Star, Only Heaven, Orpheus & EuridiceRappahannock County and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The New York native grew up on Long Island and studied composition at Carnegie Mellon University. His songs have proved to be particularly popular and have been performed in concert and recorded by some of the biggest names in operas. He currently has commissions from the Metropolitan Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and the Houston Grand Opera. Green Sneakers recently had its New York and San Francisco premiere, the latter brilliantly realized by the gifted young American director John De Los Santos.

Some of the other American composers who we've featured on this site include Mark Adamo, Glen Roven, Carlisle Floyd, Clint Borzoni, Thomas Pasatieri, Daron Hagen, Tobias Picker, Marc Blitzstein, William Bolcom, Andre Previn, John Harbison, Ned Rorem, Julia Schwartz, Lee Hoiby, Stewart Wallace, Peter Lieberson and Dominick Argento. We suggest checking them out on YouTube on America's birthday.


  1. nice song and the presentation was superb....

  2. Please correct your headline: The plural of "composer" is "composers."

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