Seven pieces by American composers to listen to now

American music is often most closely associated with the birth of jazz, Motown, RnB and rap, but the country has also given rise to some of the most inventive classical composers around.

On Sunday 12 June Sir Simon Rattle celebrates the classical heritage of the US with exciting music from Gershwin and John Adams. Read on for a whistlestop tour of seven pieces by seven American composers that you should listen to now!

Leonard Bernstein Candide

Leonard Bernstein was a composer, conductor, music educator and author. He is most widely known for two things: his close working relationship with lyricist Stephen Sondheim and for composing the music to the award-winning musical West Side Story (1957) inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

However, he was also considered to be one of the most important conductors of his age and it was as a conductor that he developed a long and fruitful relationship with the LSO. In 1987 Bernstein was made President of the Orchestra, the highest honour bestowed by the orchestra, first conferred upon Lord Howard de Walden in 1920 and only six other people in over 100 years.

Although less well known than West Side Story, Candide is a captivating and cerebral work to listen to. Inspired by Voltaire’s novella Candide (1759), Bernstein composed his operetta for the text in 1956. Candide is a picaresque and philosophical text that follows the protagonists Candide and Pangloss as they experience all manner of hardships, perhaps most famously the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Bernstein’s musical setting is witty and the lyrical contributions from the likes of Sondheim only add to the humour of the work.

George Gershwin An American in Paris

George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York on 26 September 1898. He began playing his family’s upright-piano when he was eleven years old, imitating the sounds of the music that he heard on the radio. Gershwin showed natural musicality and rose to fame aged just 21 with his first great success Swanee (1919). From there other orchestral compositions followed with two of the most famous pieces being Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928). 

An American in Paris is a semi-autobiographical piece as Gershwin visited Paris for the first time in 1926. He came to study under Maurice Ravel, but the sights and sounds of Paris were just as much an inspiration as the French composer’s lush chords. Describing the piece in the magazine Musical America Gershwin describes how his purpose was to ‘portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere’. The music aptly revolves around a ‘walking’ theme and is packed full of syncopated rhythms, bluesy sounds, and interjections from trumpets and saxophones.

gershwin e15565973518331

George Walker Lilacs

George Walker was an exceptional composer and pianist who broke down societal barriers to make music. Born in Washington in 1922, his groundbreaking career took off as a young piano virtuoso when he was admitted to Oberlin College on a scholarship. Graduating with the highest honours in his class, he was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music, and became the first black graduate to receive Artist Diplomas in both piano and composition. In later life, one of Walker's many honours included winning the Pulitzer Prize for Composition with his piece Lilacs in 1996, the first African American to do so.

Our Music Director Sir Simon Rattle has championed the complexity of Walker’s music, conducting his Sinfonia No 4 'Strands' at LSO St Luke’s in 2020, and more recently, in March 2022, Lilacs (1996) with soprano Nicole Cabell. Lilacs is inspired by Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ – an extended elegy commemorating the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman’s prose uses nature as a metaphor for mourning and the vocal lines set against the orchestration create a feeling of unease. 

Aaron Copland Appalachian Spring

Born at the turn of the twentieth century in Brooklyn, Aaron Copland came from humble beginnings and became one of the star composers of his generation. The young Copland was exposed to music at Jewish ceremonies and family gatherings, and his siblings Ralph and Laurine were also musically gifted. In fact, it was Laurine who gave him his first piano lessons and when she later studied at the Metropolitan Opera School, she would bring back libretti for Aaron to study. 

Copland gained recognition as a composer with his compositions Billy The Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944). The ballet Appalachian Spring was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, an American arts patron, who had requested a new ballet for the dancer Martha Graham. Appalachian Spring, named after the Appalachian plains which sit at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, depicts a wedding celebration in the early 20th century in Pennsylvania. Many communities in Pennsylvania were descendants of Pioneer settler communities from religious sects like Quakers and Shakers. Copland sought to reflect this heritage in the music; he directly quotes from the Shaker hymn ‘Simple Gifts’ midway through the work.

Florence B Price Adoration

Florence B Price was exceptional, firstly for the sensitivity of her music which blended European classical traditions with African American spirituals and folk tunes, and secondly for breaking down societal barriers. In 1933 she became the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her Symphony in E minor). 

Price trained as a pianist and organist at the England Conservatory of Music, and she wrote a large corpus of works for the organ. One such piece is Adoration (1951): a beautiful, devotional piece which has since been arranged for many different instrument combinations. Here Rebecca Gilliver (cello) and Sophia Rahman (piano) perform Adoration as part of an LSO Discovery Relaxed Friday Lunchtime Concert.

John Adams Short Ride in a Fast Machine

John Adams is one of the most performed composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. His music is rooted in minimalism, a style of music which relies on repeated patterns of notes layered over a steady beat. Adams has composed all manner of works for orchestra, voice, electroacoustic and opera (most notably his first one Nixon in China (1987) which dramatises President Richard Nixon’s first visit to the country). On Sunday 12 June Sir Simon Rattle conducts Adam’s I Still Dance (2019), described by San Francisco Classical Voice as an ‘eight-minute whirligig [with] a perpetual motion harking back to Adams’s early minimalist works’. 

Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) was one of these early triumphs that has inspired I Still Dance. This orchestral fanfare was composed as an opener for a summer festival given by the Pittsburgh Symphony, and it has since become one of Adams’s most performed compositions. The piece evokes a late-night thrill ride in a sports car with the musical patterns driving forward with great energy and speed.

John Adams Riccardo Musacchio 2
Photo Credit: Riccardo Musacchio

Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto

Wynton Marsalis has nine Grammy awards to his name; he is a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, bandleader and trumpet player. Growing up as one of six children in New Orleans, Louisiana, Marsalis showed an interest in music from an early age. When he was eight, he started out performing traditional New Orleans music in the Fairview Baptist Church band. He soon developed an affinity for all things jazz, and this has inspired him ever since. Marsalis has created a vast range of music from quartets, big band works, concertos and symphonic music. 

In 2015 Marsalis embarked upon an ambitious Violin Concerto written for Nicola Benedetti. The pair collaborated closely on the piece, bringing together the very best of jazz and classical, soulful sounds and virtuosic violin playing. The piece was premiered by the LSO at the Barbican that year and the BBC filmed a documentary Nicky and Wynton: The Making of a Concerto following the creation of the work. On Sunday 6 November 2022, the LSO premieres another of Marsalis’ works in the UK: his Tuba Concerto with LSO Principal Tuba Ben Thomson as soloist.

Sunday 12 June 7pm, Barbican

Haydn Symphony No 86 
Mozart Piano Concerto No 18 
Gershwin Cuban Overture 
John Adams I Still Dance (London premiere) 
Gershwin An American in Paris

Sir Simon Rattle conductor 
Imogen Cooper piano 
London Symphony Orchestra


Where can you find us?

Watching YouTube on your TV?

Follow our instructions to access concerts via the YouTube app.
> Follow the instructions to watch on your TV

Programme notes

Our programme notes are available to read digitally for free, and will be available for the whole season.
> Find programme notes