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10 Astonishing American Classical Pieces

While I am not American, I do tend to think that some of the greatest classical music is, or has in the last century, been created in America. I have put together a list of 10 great pieces of music by some of America’s greatest composers. Some of it is avant-garde, but some is not. Enjoy them all! Don’t be put off by the fact you may hear some sounds you are not used to hearing in music – these are our modern day Mozarts – give them time.

10. Dances Morton Feldman

Rather than beat around the bush I thought we would start with the most unusual piece on the list. Morton Feldman was a student of John Cage and was heavily influenced by his ideas of indeterminacy in music. Here we see a piece he wrote for dancer and performer.

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9. Black Angels George Crumb

This is the second section of Crumb’s Black Angels, based loosely on the Vietnam war. It is for electronic string quartet and it is quite a unique and beautiful piece (though very scary in parts). Part of this string quartet was used in the soundtrack for The Exorcist. Crumb is from West Virginia.

8. Triple Duo Elliot Carter

Elliot Carter was encouraged as a child to pursue music by Charles Ives (item 2). He is a native of New Yorker (now aged 98) and he studied at Harvard, and later with Nadia Boulanger in Paris; Boulanger taught a large number of the 20th century’s most important composers. Some of the others on this list who studied with Boulanger are Antheil, Copeland, Gershwin, and Glass.

7. Ballet Mecanique George Antheil

This is a ground breaking work by George Antheil, a native of New Jersey. This video clip is especially important because it was not until the 1990s that this video and the score by Antheil were finally joined together (they were intended to be together from the outset). Leger was the filmmaker. The original orchestration called for 16 player pianos (pianolas) in four parts, 2 regular pianos, 3 xylophones, 7 electric bells, 3 plane propellers, siren, 4 bass drums, and 1 tam-tam. As it turned out, there was no way to keep so many pianolas synchronized, so early performances used a re-orchestration with 1 pianola and 10 pianos.

6. Nixon in China John Adams

If you are not familiar with contemporary opera, get ready for a surprise! This is an opera by John Adams, an American minimalist composer, based upon the visit of President Nixon to China in 1972. This is only one small part but large segments can be seen on youtube. I felt this needed to be included because it shows just how much great opera has come out of America in the last century.

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5. In a Landscape John Cage

I selected this piece because it is a strong contrast to the majority of Cage’s work. He is, of course, most famous for his piece 4’33” in which the performer or performers make no sound for four and a half minutes. He was probably the most avant-garde American composer. This piece is a very calm and beautiful piece for solo piano.

4. Summertime George Gershwin

This is Summertime, from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong. This is a wonderfully jazzy version of a classical piece.

3. Einstein on the Beach Philip Glass

An incredibly difficult piece of music to perform, this is an excerpt from the first of the three operas that ultimately formed a trilogy: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten. This is a great video because we get to see Philip Glass performing and conducting (with his head) at the same time. I have actually included part 2 above because it demonstrates the amazing virtuosity required of the singers in this opera. If you liked this, here is part 1 of the same section. Part two has some incredible singing.

2. The Unanswered Question Charles Ives

Alas the quality is not so good, but you get the idea. This is a stunning piece of music by Charles Ives, perhaps the greatest of all the American composers.

1. Fanfare For the Common Man Aaron Copland

We end on a different note – this is the Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland. I suspect you will have heard it playing during the olympics at some point. The video is a series of photographs taken from 9/11.

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  • Sean the pyro

    great list. I just recently started looking into Ives work. Really cool stuff. Glad to see Copland on top.

    Couple other fairly conventional peices:
    Copland’s Appalachian Spring
    Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

  • Sean the pyro: it was a toss up between Summertime and Rhapsody in blue – I went for the fanfare because it is my favorite of his. Also, I love Appalachian spring – and virtually everything by Copland. Have you heard his opera the Tender Land? It is incredibly beautiful. Also, Here is Marilyn Horne singing Simple Gifts:

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  • Juggz

    I love classical music but I suppose you could call me ignorant to the genre because when I think classical I never think of American composers. What comes to mind for me is always Mozart, Chopan, Bethoven, etc. As soon as I have a cance I will check these out. Internet is down at home and work still wont allow videos.

  • Sean the pyro

    Tender Land is great. I love just about everything Copland, even the “clash and bang” stuff that I usually can’t stand.

    One of my favorite performances I heard on the radio a couple years back. It was Rhapsody in Blue using an original Gershwin made piano scroll for all the piano parts while a live jazz band played the rest. Wish I could remember who did it so I could find the cd. Any ideas?

  • Sean the pyro: I have no idea at all – what a great thing the old pianola was though – I would love to have one.

    juggz: that is very common – just listen to the guys above and ease yourself in to some REAL classical music :)

  • Juggz

    Jamie: are you saying Mozart and Bethoven arent real classical music? :(

  • librarian


    great list, though I’m missing Moondog here. OTOH, he was and is always underrated.
    Check out

    wikipedia says here

    # Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), George Gershwin (pianist via Duo-Art piano roll), and the Columbia Jazz Band in 1976 (premiere recording of original 1924 orchestration), Columbia M34205.

    maybe that’s the one you’re looking for?

  • RobS

    Copland! Said it before and I’ll say it again, he’s my favorite composer.

  • Sean the pyro

    Librarian, thank you. That sounds like the one.

  • Ian

    I would have included Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ as well… great list.

  • ChuChu353

    Great list. I also would have included “Rhapsody in Blue” and (maybe) Phillip Glass’ “The Grid”

  • Juggz: no – just outdated :)

    Thanks everyone for the extras suggested.

  • Sean the pyro

    I would say timeless, not outdated.

  • Sean The Pyro: that doesn’t differentiate though – all of the works above are timeless too – they will definitely stand the test of time :)

  • souxieq

    I’m an opera singer and I LOVE Phillip Glass, but my all time favorite is Benjamin Britten. Anyone who doesn’t know him should immediately go out and buy his war requiem – you’ll fall in love. Very apocolyptic.

  • Sean the pyro

    Without question. Problem is, I like great music. Not great 20th cent music or great romantic music or great rock music but all great music. I hate it when the avant garde set dismiss the classics just like I hate to see neo-classical types dismiss the new stuff. There is no need to differentiate because to me Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, Stravinsky, Ives, Copland, Lennon, Dylan all share something in common. They all made GREAT music.

  • thanks for introducing me to nixon in china. it’s great.

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  • souxieq: I have sung the “Look” aria from Britten’s Billy Budd – he is a great composer. What voice type are you?

    Sean the pyro: I appreciate what you are saying – I tend to be a bit snobbish about it sometimes and I shouldn’t be.

    inanytime: you are welcome – I am glad to spread the good news that is minimalism :)

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  • Sean the pyro

    No problem dude, I understand. With all the neo’s out there telling you anything that doesn’t stay within a major or minor scale is rubbish it’s easy to become defensive. I myself find it hard to listen to serial music sometimes but I still try. Hell I even tried writing it once. Minimalism on the other hand is growing on me. I find the minimalist idea of placing extreme restrictions on resources really stimulates my creativity.

  • souxieq

    jfrater: I’m a dramatic soprano, love to sing Wagner (though I disagree with the man’s racial views) and Mahler -mysterioso from the 3rd is awsome – and every once in a while I’ll break out into some good old blues.
    Sidenote – the first time I performed Britten in public with a full symphony orchestra I was 12 I think. My cohorts and I sang the parts of the angels in the reqiem, so we got so lean over the fifth storey balcony and sing down to the audience. Shivers!!!!
    Sean the pyro: don’t worry about all the music snobs out there. The true greats, many of which you mentioned earlier are well known because most of their work is just that – truly great. Music doesn’t need to be alternative, little known or underground to be great.
    sorry for the novel by the way.

  • Sean the Pyro: Exactly – I think that is why I love Bach so much too – his music has a rawness that the stricter classical period lacks. I wrote a serial piece for string quartet which was performed once – it was a lot of fun to write. I also wrote a minimalist song cycle but it was never performed.

    souxieq: Great! Dramatic Soprano is my favorite female voice type (well – that and contralto) and I love Wagner too. Have you sung Dich teure Halle? It is one of my favorite songs. The first time I ever went to an opera was to see Alessandra Marc in concert and she sang that. Have you seen the Top 10 great Opera Performances list? It has Kirsten Flagstad on at number 10.

  • souxieq

    jfrater: Of course I’ve performed Dich teure Halle!!!!!! The first time I heard it was on an old scratchy record my voice instructor played for me. Guess who was singing it? Kirsten Flagstad! She has the most powerful yet ethereal voice I’ve ever heard. My favorite Wagner to sing is Allmacht’ge Jungfrau.
    By the way, you’re probably the first person I’ve talked to in a long time that knows who Kirsten Flagstad is, when I saw her on your earlier list I was so excited!
    Are you familiar with “shape note” music?

  • souxieq: I should have known you would love it – being a dramatic soprano and all :) I am not familiar shape note music – what is that?

  • souxieq

    jfrater: check out They’ve got tons of links to sound so you can hear what shape note music sounds like. I checked Wikipedia and they’ve got a great listing too, with some sound files and pics of shape note sheet music.
    I really think you should check it out. The music and the history behind it are both intriguing. It kind of reminds me of Georgian music. (Georgia the country, not the state of course.)

  • Smerkis

    You should check out Eris Whitacre and Richard Saucedo. The two of them are at the forefront of original choral and orchestral music being written today. They could/should be held in the same regard as Copland someday

  • souxieq: thanks for the link – that site really covers it all!

    Smerkis: wow – I am suitably impressed with Eric Whitacre – very nice choral music – parts of one I listened to (Lux Aurumque) was quite reminiscent of Schnittke.

    Saucedo is interesting too – though his music sounds a bit more “film music” style to me. and maybe a bit too much use of percussion for my tastes (I prefer percussion used as an exclamation).

  • FifthSonata

    I enjoy Saucedo, most of the works I’ve played by him were arrangements while I was in high school–I don’t think he’s comparable to Copland, however.

    Eric Whitacre is a huge, massive hit in the choral world today–his piece “Sleep” from his album “Cloudburst” is, as my peers call it, “chordgasmic.” He heavily paints with rich chord structure and lots of traditional techniques that just gush it out. His works for band are similar, but less frequent since he obviously focuses on choir. One of my favorite pieces for band that he wrote is “October.”

    I’m a huge fan of Ives–I strongly encourage any and all reader to listen to his “Fugue in C.” I find it extremely moving.

    One of my all time favorites is Percy Grainger. His piece that shot him to fame was “Country Gardens,” and as any crazy composer should, he ended up hating it after it gained fame. He was a self-proclaimed sadomasochist and had an oedipus complex–but, crazy man aside (the crazies make great art, don’t they?), “Lincolnshire Posy” and “Ye Banks and Braes O’ Bonnie Doon.” Not only are they beautiful, but he even puts my home instrument on the melody lines quite often–the bass clarinet. You can never go wrong with that. :D!

  • Dilbert

    Nothing from John Williams? I know that he is not your “classic” composer, but what is the difference between the classical composers writing music for operas and Williams writing music for movies? John Williams music is probably more well known than any contemporary American composer.

  • Praguestepchild

    Interesting list.

    I realize Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings suffers from the stigma of being popular with the unwashed masses, is not technically challenging, and has been used in many films.

    But I have a feeling it will still be listened to in the distant future long after many of these pieces are long forgotten. Isn’t that the true definition of Classical Music?

  • Matt

    ^ Adagio for Strings bores the hell out of me. It’s hardly astonishing.

    Anyways, nice choices. I remember how shocked I was the first time I heard Black Angels.

  • gabi

    Frank Tichelli comes to mind, particularly his “Shenandoah” which is big in the Mid-Atlantic region. I’ve performed it numerous times but the best by far was when he was our guest conductor. An amazing guy. He even improvised a new piece as we were rehearsing and decided we would play the piece in concert the next day.

  • James

    Good list but you forgot to include David Maslanka. His music is incredibly beautiful and intricate. Listen to Arcadia II or Hohner or any of his masterpieces. Another great composer is David Gillingham and I’m not biased because he lives close to me and I’ve played his music. Gillingham’s conerto for piano and percussion is a gorgeus and difficult piece

  • THISlistBLOWs

    This list sucks. I love classical music, but this is far from it. Classical Music is a genre from the time of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. This is more modern and some of it is just experimental music. I am also shocked to not see a single John Williams piece up here, he is far superior to Crumb or Feldman. Well keep making lists, maybe youll make a good one sometime.

  • EnfantMechant

    It seems, as usual, that I’m the only person around who really really really cannot stand Copland…

  • Jason S.

    9/11 was a inside job man. In the years coming and into the future people are gonna start asking simple questions that the government and anyone else will have no answers for.

    The 9/11 was a SHAM, just like the Warren commission on JFK’s assassination. If you don’t think your government is capable of doing such a thing. Just google Operation Northwoods.

  • Jason S.

    the 9/11 commission even…

  • Nathan

    I’m surprised that Copland’s Lincoln Portrait failed to get a mention. A piece that any patriotic American needs to hear, particularly when narrated by James Earl Jones.

    And I’m an Australian, by the way :)

  • peter8172

    I am surprised that “The Grand Canyon Suite” by Ferd Grofe didn’t make the list.

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