American Classical Music.
It isn’t all the same!

Classical music is so much more than Beethoven and Mozart! While their work was and is amazing, there are many talented composers right here in the U.S. (past and present) that you have likely never heard of. In a truly American way, each of the composers featured below had a vastly different approach to what classical music written in the U.S. is and should be.

A small survey of an expansive and fascinating world…

John J. Becker (1886-1961)
John J. Becker
John J. Becker, a member of the American Five, wrote his first dissonant piece in 1929 and felt that the more typical “tonal” music was too reminiscent of European classical music. Becker believed wholeheartedly that classical music from the U.S. should be derived from the American experience.
Soundpiece No. 1 for Piano and Strings

Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Amy Beach
Amy Beach was known as the Dean of American Woman Composers and was the first prominent female composer in the U.S. She was a prodigy pianist and composer who loved performing but dedicated much of her life to serious composition at the request of her husband. Her music is very rich, melodic, and tonal, and is largely derived from traditional European classical music. Beach’s influences included Scottish and Irish folk music, as well as Inuit idioms.

William Grant Still (1895-1978)
William Grant Still
Known as the Dean of African American Composers, William Grant Still had many impressive accomplishments under his belt. His Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” was the first piece written by an African American to be performed by a major American orchestra (Rochester Philharmonic), and his opera Troubled Island was the first opera by an African American to be performed by a major company (NYC Opera). He additionally was the first African American to conduct a white radio orchestra (Deep River Hour). Still’s music was incredibly programmatic and combined classical music in the traditional European style with his African American heritage.
Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American”: 1. Longing

Harry Partch (1901-1974)
Harry Partch
Harry Partch, the “Don Quixote” of music, took American classical composition in a completely different direction. Instead of composing within the traditional Western 12-tone system, he created his own 43+ tone system. And then he created instruments compatible with the new tonal system and trained musicians to perform on them. Pretty incredible!
Delusion of the Fury

What is your favorite iteration of American classical music?

In Case You Missed It:
American Composers Month


American Composers Month. It happened! But since it largely took place across the social web rather than on this website, here is a rundown of the awesome we blasted across the web for American Composers Month. And what a good month it was.


1. Gotta get things started with Aaron Copland and Rodeo, of Beef Commercial fame!

2. We then continue on to listen to the colonial tunes of none other than Supply Belcher. Any composer with a name like that needs to be on this list.

3. And since John Philip Sousa’s Liberty Bell March is also the Monty Python theme song, we need to listen to that, too!

4. Oh, and look at this seriously long (and definitely partial) list of American composers! Yes, there are more than three Americans writing classical music!

5. Harry Partch. Composer or sailor?

6. Quincy Porter wrote many great works for the lonely viola. Represent!

7. Check out this sample of George Crumb’s manuscript. Need I say more?

8. Amy Beach! She was cool.

9. It wouldn’t be American Composers Month without tipping our hats to film music! Here’s Henry Mancini, composer of the Pink Panther theme and many more.

10. Composer Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet join forces. YES.

11. William Grant Still! An annual American Composers Month staple over here at Salon97.

12. And a podcast all about John Cage.

13. Another annual appearance from Charles Ives! Because go big, or go home.

14. Lou Harrison or Santa Claus?

There are many more amazing composers that we didn’t highlight this time around. What’s your favorite?

Composer of the Week: William Grant Still

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Because composers rule, we’re starting a new tradition of publishing a post honoring a different composer each week. First up is William Grant Still, an African-American composer and Salon97 fan favorite!

b. May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi

d. December 3, 1978 in Los Angeles, California

The first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the U.S. and the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, along with being the first to present an opera with a major opera company, William Grant Still was deemed the “Dean of African-American Composers.”

Academically, William Grant Still was recognized for his musical accomplishments many times over. He was awarded an Honorary Masters of Music degree from Wilberforce College in 1936, an honorary PhD in Music from Howard University in 1941, an honorary PhD in Music from Oberlin in 1947, an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Bates College in 1954, and an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1971.

Still’s music is lush, melodic, and thick with beautiful harmony. A composer dedicated to realizing the American experience in music, Still often used regions as subjects as he did when composing the opera Highway 1 and Pastorela, a tone poem inspired by California.

The programmatic and melodic qualities of Still’s composition style make his music very approachable. Most likely due to the fact that he earned his living writing music for television and radio, many of his classical works sound as though they could be film scores.

Where to start:

-William Grant Still’s most popular work is his Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American”

-Still’s favorite genre in which to compose was opera. His most famous operas at this time are Troubled Island, with a libretto by Langston Hughes, and Highway 1.

The video below is the third movement of Still’s Afro-American Symphony, which harks to ragtime and big band music. Pure awesome.

Here’s an excerpt of the score to Still’s ballet Sahdji: