I’ve shared my thoughts many times about traditional Fourth of July classical programming. Sousa marches, Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and — of course– Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” are pretty much the default.
But there’s so much more. American composers have been writing music celebrating their heritage right from the beginning. Sometimes it was expressed simply in the style of the music. Other times it was overtly patriotic in character.
Interested in celebrating America’s rich classical music heritage this holiday? Here are a few suggestions from the Federalist Era, when America first grew into its own as a new nation.
John Antes (1740-1811)
Antes was born in Pennsylvania and served as an American Moravian missionary. The Moravians had a vibrant music tradition and kept current with European composers in the 1700s.
Antes was also an instrument maker and is credited with making one of the earliest violas in the U.S. He composed a set of string trios in 1780. They’re among the earliest American chamber works, and model Haydn’s trios (written around the same time).
William Billings (1746-1800)
Billing was born in Boston and was a tanner by trade. By avocation, he was a choral composer — American’s first. His hymns were in a new, distinctively American style, with melodies and harmonies that came from folk traditions.
Billing’s music was written for amateur choirs, and distributed through hymn collections. They proved quite popular, especially in non-denominational churches that sprang up along the frontier. There were other composers of fugueing tunes, but none as popular as Billings.
“Chester” was originally a patriotic hymn for the new nation, composed in the 1770s.
Benjamin Carr (1768-1831)
Carr emigrated from England in 1793. He became a prominent figure in Philadelphia’s music scene. He was a sought-after teacher of piano, organ, and voice. He founded the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia and ran a music publishing company. One of his publications was awarded the very first copyright in 1794 awarded under the then-new U.S. Constitution
His 1794 Federal Overture incorporates many of the tunes Americans were singing at the time.
Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809)
Like Carr, Reinagle was born in England and emigrated to the States. He settled in Philadelphia and continued Carr’s work. Reinagle introduced American audiences to the music of Mozart and Haydn. He also produced over 75 opera ballets in Philadelphia.
Reinagle was a friend of George Washington and wrote music in his honor, as well as a presidential march for another friend — James Madison. Reinagle’s Federal March was published in 1788.