The American Symphonic Legacy: Not Just For White Guys

Aug 10, 2013
Originally published on August 20, 2013 11:23 am

This summer, NPR Classical has been looking for the great American symphony — or at least some idea of what it might sound like.

Up until recently, the likely composers of the great American symphony looked remarkably similar: all white, overwhelmingly male. But the relative ease of access to sheet music today — as well as a substantial decrease in the cost of recording — has opened up the doors to composers who were once lost to history. And that means the great American symphony may have already been written by someone most Americans have never heard of.

Jeffrey Mumford is one of the American composers striving to create that symphony. He's also a teacher, and he studied with some composers in the pantheon of greats, including Elliott Carter and Lawrence Moss. He spoke with Weekend Edition Saturday guest host Celeste Headlee about how African-American composers have contributed to the elusive "American sound." Hear their conversation at the audio link, and check out Mumford's picks below.

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The folks in NPR Music are on a kind of crazy quest this summer. They're looking for the Great American Symphony, or at least looking for some idea of what it might sound like.


HEADLEE: Up until recently, the likely composers of the Great American Symphony would look remarkably similar - all white, overwhelmingly male. But the relative ease of access to sheet music now and the relatively low cost of recording has opened up the doors a bit for composers who were once lost to history. And that means the Great American Symphony may have already been written by someone most Americans have never heard of. Jeffrey Mumford is one of those American composers striving to create the Great American Symphony. He's also a teacher, and he studied with some of those American composers in the pantheon of greats, like Elliott Carter and Lawrence Moss. He joins me from Vermont today. Welcome.


HEADLEE: Jeffrey, have we arrived at an idea of what American music sounds like? Have we gotten a definition for the American sound?

MUMFORD: Well, that's the evolving question. The distinguished composer, Virgil Thompson, had a very good response to that when people asked him what American music was. And he said any music written by an American. There's so many different kinds of American music, so many different kinds of Americans, so that there cannot be really one kind of American music.

HEADLEE: And to a certain extent, you're kind of straddling two eras in American classical music. And by that I mean that you began your career during a time when African-Americans really were not all that welcome in the concert hall, and now you're teaching and composing at a time where those doors have been pretty well opened. How has the experience of composing classical music changed for you?

MUMFORD: Well, I grew up in Washington, D.C. and I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music from my father's record collection. A good deal of Count Basie and Ray Charles. My sixth grade class had a regular series of visits to the National Symphony in DAR Constitution Hall, which many of you may know as the hall that denied Marian Anderson access back in 1940s. It had a great deal of significance for me to be in that hall and to hear these amazing musicians play this music so terrifically. And I remember very vividly the program at that time was Dvorak "New World Symphony" and Tchaikovsky "1812 Overture" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."


MUMFORD: That orchestral sound was such a very strong, strong inspiration for me.

HEADLEE: How has the sound of American music changed, though? I mean, everyone thinks of Aaron Copeland's, you know, "Fanfare for the Common Man" as a very typically American sound, or maybe the "Ballet Rodeo." And yet when you start adding in some of the composers who may have been shut out of the elite halls of classical music, when you add, say, for example, my grandfather, William Gray, still, who was the first to write a symphony that had a banjo in it, or you add in Duke Ellington, who wrote symphonic music as well. When you start adding in the blues, when you start adding in, say, music from Hispanics in the United States, it makes a very different American sound, doesn't it?

MUMFORD: It absolutely does. And the distinguished composer George Walker, also from Washington, D.C., won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for a work he wrote for a soprano and orchestra commissioned by the Boston Symphony.


MUMFORD: And I regret that piece is not performed more often. I teach it in my classes. It's a gorgeous piece.


HEADLEE: Well, do you think that all things are equal now? Is it as easy for you to get a classical piece performed as it is for somebody of another race?

MUMFORD: It's very difficult for any of us to get orchestral pieces performed. Orchestras in this country, unfortunately with a very few exceptions, are often very conservative in what they program. And they often hire European musical directors, which, of course, means that they're much more conversant in the music of their countrymen, understandably.

So it's a learning curve for many of them to undertake becoming aware of what we do here. For instance, I know when I had a piece played by the Cleveland Orchestra on the occasion of Martin Luther King's birthday, many African-Americans came into the audience and they saw a composer that looked like them. But regrettably, many concerts during the rest of the season, you don't see that many African-Americans in the audience.

HEADLEE: I wonder how you feel about that personally, Jeffrey. I mean, I myself have a strong personal reaction when I look at an orchestra season and find that the only music by African-Americans, for example, is played during February, which is Black History Month.

MUMFORD: It's a double-edged sword. I know one composer who actually said there are 11 other months of the year, don't call me in February. I feel like I would love to take advantage of every opportunity that's presented me, so I don't feel I'm in a position to turn down commissions and performances. But I feel very strongly that I wish more opportunities occurred the other 11 months of the year as well, certainly.

HEADLEE: When we talk about great American symphony, is it possible that the great American symphony isn't a symphony at all? I understand you're biased on this issue because you're a classical composer, but maybe American music is more about pop music. Maybe the great American symphony is a blues song.

MUMFORD: I think there are many great American statements in all different genres. And just one of my issues was the classical music written by African-Americans, I think is not, you know, as well-known as it needs to be. We certainly know a great number of popular artists and jazz artists. But I think the legacy of what we do in the field that I'm in goes back centuries to composers like the Chevalier de Saint-George, who was known at the time as the black Mozart.


MUMFORD: It's important that that aspect of our culture be better known.


HEADLEE: Composer Jeffrey Mumford. He joined me from Vermont. Thank you so much.

MUMFORD: My pleasure. Thank you.


HEADLEE: You can hear more of Jeffrey Mumford's music picks by African-American composers at our website, This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Scott Simon will be back next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.