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Putting America in its Place

FSU music historian Denise Von Glahn’s new book captures the spirit of 14 key American composers who were inspired by iconic places. Here are some examples:

Duke Ellington (Edward Kennedy), 1899-1974. Composer, pianist, bandleader and seminal figure in the American jazz scene. Ellington came into the public spotlight in the 1920s with his work at various Harlem clubs, especially the Kentucky Club (1923-27) and Cotton Club (1927-32). Early on, he composed and arranged pieces to suit the talents of particular band members, then began lengthening his works until by the 1940s they were comfortably suited for the concert hall. Along with arranger and composer Billy Strayhorn, he recorded hundreds of pieces that have become staples in the jazz repertoire.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, 1939—. Born in Miami and educated at Florida State University and Juilliard, Zwilich began her career as a violinist and trumpeter. After playing violin under Leopold Stokowski in the American Symphony Orchestra, she turned to composition full-time. In 1983, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for composition with her Symphony No. 1. She has since been the recipient of almost every award available to musicians. In 1999, the same year Zwilich composed Symphony No. 4 (“The Gardens”), Musical America named her composer of the year. In 2000, FSU named her a Francis Eppes Professor.

Charles Ives, 1874-1954. Widely considered the first and most important indigenous American composer, Ives’ reputation rests on a body of work that includes symphonies, string quartets, orchestral sets, chamber and choral works, as well as a body of solo songs that compares favorably with the leading 19th-century European art-song composers. Building his pieces around tunes familiar to a large majority of his contemporary audience—American folk and popular tunes, revival hymns, parlor songs, jazz, military marches—he created a complex web of musical and programmatic relationships that supported the larger idea he was seeking to communicate. For years portrayed as an idiosyncratic iconoclast, Ives more recently is hailed for his advanced and innovative works. His Symphony No. 3 won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.

Aaron Copland, 1900-1990. Brooklyn-born Copland has been called the dean of American composers, in part because of his ubiquitous presence in so many aspects of 20th-century music making, but also because of his nurturing support of other American composers. After early training in New York and France, Copland set out to create an American musical culture. Best remembered for his ballets Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring and Rodeo, he set to music some of the nation’s most treasured myths. In a composing career that spanned a full half-century, he wrote in almost every genre and style.

Steve Reich, 1936—. Originally trained as a percussionist, Reich has studied philosophy, composition, poetry and both Balinese and African music. Since his first recorded speech piece, It’s Gonna Rain, and through his “phase” and counterpoint pieces, Reich has tried to capture the melodic qualities of American speech that he first heard in the poetry of William Carlos Williams, along with the small rhythmic patterns that he uses to set in motion complex processes of musical unfolding. A leading spokesperson for the current cultural scene, Reich has produced a large and varied body of works that resists categorization. In the dawn of the 21st century, he continues to explore ways that music can speak with pieces that challenge our sense of what music is.