Top Ten Pieces of Music for the Fourth of July
Friday, July 4th at 8:30 PM, the Houston Symphony presents the Star-Spangled Salute: the final concert of the Exxon Mobil Summer Symphony Nights at Miller Outdoor Theatre. The night will ring with patriotic tunes, booming cannons, and a brilliant fireworks display by the City of Houston! And tune in at that same time to hear HPM’s Catherine Lu and St. John Flynn host a broadcast of the event on Classical 91.7!
In honor of the occasion, here is a list of great music suitable for the USA’s Independence Day.
10. New England Triptych – William Schuman
I. Be Glad Then, America II. When Jesus Wept III. Chester
Perhaps the least well-known of the pieces on this list, New England Triptych is a three-movement work for orchestra that is inspired by the music of William Billings. Billings is typically regarded as one of the very first American composers, known best for the patriotic anthem Chester, which Schuman uses in the third movement of this piece. Given his ties to the American Revolutionary War, Billings’ music is a fitting departure point for Schuman, and the piece captures both the religious and patriotic color of the original hymns.
9. American Salute – Morton Gould
Originally composed for a patriotic radio broadcast during World War II, American Salute has become one of Gould’s most famous pieces. The piece itself is a set of variations on the song When Johnny Comes Marching Home, hurling the theme through a variety of timbres and energetic rhythms. Though it was first scored for orchestra, there are transcriptions for concert band that have become just as popular, and the piece is an excellent go-to crowd pleaser.
8. The Washington Post – John Philip Sousa
No discussion of American patriotic music can disregard the impact of the March King, John Philip Sousa. Sousa’s marches are a staple of the American culture, and even people who don’t know who Sousa is have likely heard his marches. The Washington Post was composed in 1889 for the awards ceremony of an essay contest by The Washington Post newspaper, and it has since become one of his most easily recognized marches, often played by radio stations during Fourth of July broadcasts.
7. Fanfare for the Common Man – Aaron Copland
Aaron Copland’s place in the chronicle of American composers is easily one of the greatest of his time. As one of his most enduring pieces, Fanfare for the Common Man personifies not only national pride, but individual fortitude as well. In a 1942 speech, then-Vice President Henry A. Wallace declared the advent of the “century of the common man,” and it was this comment that inspired Copland’s choice of title. The piece was composed for the 1942-43 concert season of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as part of a program to begin each concert with a fanfare by an American composer.
6. The Battle Hymn of the Republic – music by William Steffe, words by Julia Ward Howe
Though not directly tied to America’s independence, The Battle Hymn of the Republic is one of the most beloved songs of American patriotism. The music originates from the hymn Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us? by William Steffe; was later used for John Brown’s Body, a popular song during the early Civil War; and finally became the piece as we know it with new words by Julia Ward Howe. As the song most strongly associated with the Union and its subsequent victory in the Civil War, it carries with it a sense of righteousness and triumph over adversity.
5. Armed Forces Salute – arr. Bob Lowden
A common element of musical Fourth of July celebrations, compilations of the armed services songs are used to honor those who are serving and have served in the United States military. The arrangement by Bob Lowden (originally for concert band but later transcribed for other groups) is probably the most popular version, and it runs through the service songs for the Army, Coast Guard, Marines, Air Force, and Navy. Traditionally, members of the audience with military background are asked to stand as their song is played.
4. The Year 1812, festival overture – Pyotr Tchaikovsky
History buffs might take issue with the inclusion of this selection on the list, as it has absolutely nothing to do with United States history. The piece actually depicts Napoleon’s failed 1812 invasion of Russia, and in fact uses both the French national anthem La Marseillaise and Russia’s former national anthem God Save the Tsar! as representations of the two warring factions (though these anthems would not have actually been used in that year). Still, the work has ingrained itself into American culture for its celebratory nature, especially with lavish fireworks displays complemented by the overture’s cannon shots.
3. America the Beautiful – music by Samuel A. Ward, words by Katharine Lee Bates
What began life as a poem by Katharine Lee Bates was eventually set to Samuel A. Ward’s hymn Materna, and the fusion of these elements created America the Beautiful in 1910. As one of the most popular patriotic tunes in the country, it has been in close contention with The Star-Spangled Banner as a possibility for a new national anthem, though no efforts in the past 100 years have succeeded in making this a reality. Regardless, its influence is undoubtedly strong, and the powerful imagery of the text continues to resonate with many Americans.
2. The Star-Spangled Banner – music by John Stafford Smith, words by Francis Scott Key
As the national anthem of the United States, this is a song for almost any occasion. Used at sporting events, presidential inaugurations, and just about any other public occasion possible, no piece of music has probably gained as much exposure in the country as this one. The music is from John Stafford Smith’s hymn To Anacreon In Heaven, and the text comes from Francis Scott Key’s poem inspired by the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. As with many of the patriotic American tunes, the lyrics speak of overcoming hardship and defeating our foes, which is at the very root of the fight for independence those many centuries ago.
1. The Stars and Stripes Forever – John Philip Sousa
Yes, John Philip Sousa has to be on the list twice. This march is the quintessential Fourth of July piece, and it was even made the national march of the United States by Congress in 1987. Sousa composed the march on Christmas Day as he was returning from a vacation in Europe in 1896. With memorable melodies and a rousing character, The Stars and Stripes Forever is a reliable crowd pleaser, and often serves as the final piece of patriotic concerts and radio broadcasts alike.