July 4th Classical Music – Moving 1776 beyond 1812

For Independence Day celebrations, there few classical works that make the cut. You can usually count on hearing a John Philip Sousa march.

Perhaps Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” And, if the presenters have the budget and/or a National Guard armory nearby, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

Time for a change

I get it. “1812” = cannons = fireworks. But come on.

Do we really want to end our Fourth of July celebrations with a rousing chorus of “God Save the Czar?” As always, I’d like to propose some different music for the Fourth of July. Nothing esoteric, or complex. Just well-written, uplifting music by Americans for Americans.

Engendering representation

Approximately half the US population are female. There is plenty of first-rate classical music by American women available. Amy Beach, Florence Price, Libby Larsen, and Ellen Taafe Zwilich are just a few names that spring to mind — and that’s not counting the vast number of women that have entered the field in the past twenty years.

For the Fourth of July, I’d recommend one of Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.” She’s written five of them, take your pick! I think having Copland’s “Fanfare” at the beginning of the program and Tower’s near the end would be a nice balance.


Rounding out the spectrum

Non-listeners often characterize classical music as that of dead, white, European males. Well, we’ve already established that there are American composers, the majority of them still alive. And they’re not all male (see above). And they’re not all white. Plenty of American composers past and present have been persons of color.

How about William Grant Still’s “Festive Overture?” Seems right for the occasion.

Mounting a celebration with a band instead of a full orchestra? Try Adolphus Hailstork’s “Celebration.”

March to a different drummer

John Philip Sousa wasn’t called the “March King” for nothing. He wrote way more than just the two or three pieces everyone programs for the Fourth of July.  The “Yorktown Centennial March” seems appropriate for a Revolutionary War-related holiday.

Or perhaps a call for unity with the “Keep Step with the Union March.”

What about the artillery?

I admit the selection of classical works for cannons is pretty slender. Besides Tchaikovsky’s hit, the only other example I know of is also Russian. In 1922 Arseny Avraamov composed the “Symphony Of Factory Sirens.” The orchestra comprises of factory sirens, boat whistles, machinery, and field artillery. It’s an interesting work, albeit almost impossible to perform. Plus, the end result sounds more like a city under siege than one celebrating a victory. (If you listen to the music below, the cannons first come in at around 2:20.)

If it’s a battle piece you want, I have a suggestion. C.L. Barnhouse’s “Battle of Shiloh” depicts the whole event — and it’s a lot shorter than the “1812.” Have the field cannons double the bass drum strikes, and you’ve got sonic fireworks for an American piece about an American subject by an American composer. How’s that for Fourth of July programming?

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