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7.6: The American Style

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    As we will see in a later chapter, jazz is a uniquely American style. American orchestral composers were becoming aware of jazz in the early twentieth century, and George Gershwin (1898-1937) was no exception. Gershwin was a brilliant talent who dropped out of school at the age of fifteen to begin a professional career playing piano in New York’s “Tin Pan Alley.” After several years of success as a performer and composer, he was asked by the famous band leader Paul Whiteman to compose a work that would help raise people’s perceptions of jazz as an art form. The resulting work, Rhapsody in Blue, combines the American blues style with the European symphonic tradition into a brilliant composition for piano and orchestra. Listen to how beautifully Gershwin combines these elements via the link below.

    Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

    In addition to Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin is also known for his opera, “Porgy and Bess.” Although not a true opera in the strict sense of the term (Gershwin dubbed it a “folk opera”), the piece is considered one of the great American operatic works of the century. The story is set in a tenement in Charleston, South Carolina. Based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy, the opera incorporated classically trained black singers to depict the tragic love story between the two main title characters. Gershwin based the music for the opera on elements of folk music, referring to southern black musical style such as the blues and spirituals. Drawing on the nineteenth century opera tradition, Gershwin made use of leitmotifs to rep- resent people or places. Near the beginning of the opera, we hear the famous aria “Summertime,” which depicts the hot, hazy atmosphere in which the story is set.

    George Gershwin – “summertime”

    Like Gershwin, American born Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was instrumental in helping to define a distinct American sound by combining his European musical training with jazz and folk elements. As an early twentieth-century composer, Copland was active during the Great Depression, writing music for the new genre of radio, the phonograph, and motion pictures. El Salon Mexico (1935), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944) are three of Copland’s most famous works. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his music for the ballet Appalachian Spring and was also an Oscar-winning film composer. Appalachian Spring is a ballet depicting a pioneer wedding celebration in a newly-built farmhouse in Pennsylvania. It includes the now well-known Shaker song Simple Gifts.

    Copland, Appalachian Spring (1944)

    Copland’s unique style evokes images of the landscape of the west, as we can hear in his score for the ballet Rodeo (1942) linked below.

    Aaron Copland, Rodeo (1942)

    One of the ways in which Copeland was able to capture the sense of vastness of the American landscape was through his use of certain harmonic intervals, that is, two notes played together, which sound “hollow” or “open.” These intervals, which are called “perfect 4ths” and “perfect 5ths,” have been used since medieval times, and were named so due to their simple harmonic ratios. The result is music that sounds vast and expansive. Perhaps the best example of this technique is found in Copland’s famous Fanfare for the Common Man.

    While fanfares are typically associated with heralding the arrival of royalty, Copland wanted to create a fanfare that celebrated the lives of everyday people during a trying time in American history. The piece was premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on March 12, 1943 at the height of World War II. To this day, no other piece stirs up patriotic emotions like Fanfare for the Common Man. It has been used in countless movies, television shows, and even military recruitment ads. The piece came to define Copland’s uniquely American compositional style and remains one of the most popular patriotic pieces in the American repertoire.


    For audio, go to:

    Composer: Aaron Copland

    Composition: Fanfare for the Common Man
    Date: 1942
    Genre: Fanfare
    Performing Forces: brass and percussion sections of symphony orchestra
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Textures

    Opening crash heralds introduction by bass drum and timpani that slowly dies down.
    Slow and deliberate.


    Slow fanfare theme enters. The melody itself is comprised of many perfect 4ths and perfect 5th intervals which convey a sense of openness. Unison trumpets.
    Slow tempo.

    No harmonic accompaniment creates a sense of starkness.


    After brief notes from the percussion section, French horns enter, moving a perfect 5th below the trumpets.
    Trumpets and French horns, with periodic hits from the percussion Built primarily on perfect 4ths and 5ths.


    Repeat of material from the introduction.



    Clarinet states a contrasting melody.

    Melody over murmuring strings.

    1:59 Low brass enters with the main theme and is imitated by the horns and trumpets.
    Full brass and percussion.

    Melody is restated at 1⁄2 speed (augmentation) and ends on climactic chord.

    Full brass and percussion.

    This page titled 7.6: The American Style is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.