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Classical Music

Music In The Making: America In Sound And Motion

Move and groove this Fourth of July with American dance music!


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On this week’s episode, we’re exploring all-American art, with music commissioned for American dancers by American composers. We’ll hear balletic offerings by Samuel Barber, John Cage, and Aaron Copland.

Portrait of Samuel Barber
Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress
Portrait of Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber — Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance
Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra; Larry Rachleff, conductor
Stude Concert Hall

Few American composers received as many accolades as Samuel Barber, including two Pulitzer Prizes, an American Prix de Rome, and a Guggenheim fellowship. In 1946, Barber collaborated with another titan of the American artistic scene: dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. Together, they conceived a ballet based on the myth of Jason and Medea. Barber later revised the work, extracting a single-movement tone poem that follows Medea’s development. Barber described, “Tracing her emotions from her tender feelings toward her children, through her mounting suspicions and anguish at her husband’s betrayal and her decision to avenge herself, the piece increases in intensity to close in the frenzied Dance of Vengeance of Medea, the Sorceress descended from the Sun God.”

Portrait of John Cage
Nationaal Archief, Dutch National Archives
Portrait of John Cage

John Cage — Bacchanale
Jeanne Kierman Fischer
Duncan Recital Hall

John Cage was known as a forerunner of the Avant-Garde movement, experimenting with non-traditional sounds and famously, incorporating chance events into his music. In Bacchanale, we’ll hear Cage’s first attempt to compose for prepared piano–where he’s placed objects inside the piano to create a variety of unusual sounds. Cage later received recognition for the creation of this new style after writing his Sonatas and Interludes. This work was composed for American choreographer and dancer Syvilla Fort, who commissioned Cage while working at the Cornish School.

Portrait of Martha Graham
Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada
Portrait of Martha Graham

Aaron Copland — Appalachian Spring
performed by students of the Shepherd School of Music, conducted by Levi Hammer
Duncan Recital Hall

Virgil Thomson once described fellow composer Aaron Copland as “the president of American music.” Copland’s aesthetic, with its sparse textures, traditional tunes, and open harmonies, seemed to capture the imagination and hearts of American music lovers. This is epitomized in Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Originally commissioned by dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, the ballet tells the story of a young pioneer couple and is a celebration of daily life in rural America. In its choreography, story, and music, Appalachian Spring has become an enduring and popular example of American art.


This episode originally aired Sunday, July 3rd, 2016. Catch Music in the Making every Sunday at 7:06 PM on Classical.