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The birth of the American symphony in the 19th century was fraught, with creative egos, feuding critics, political intrigue and frustrated ambition adding to the pains of its protracted labour. With orchestras, audiences and critics steadfastly in thrall to the dominance of european music, american composers had to fight tooth and nail to argue the case for the indigenous American symphony. Realising the ambition proved even harder.

It was an unequal task, one that became more pronounced as the century progressed and the symphony acquired sufficient prestige to usurp opera’s pre-eminence and popularity. The form itself was witnessing a remarkable extended birth. even as the ink was drying on putative ‘American’ symphonies, Europe, with a venerable musical tradition as its hinterland, was producing the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms and schumann and the orchestral extravaganzas of liszt and Wagner. There was simply no one in the New World to compare – or to compete – with the giants of the Old World. But that didn’t stop American composers trying.

Douglas W Shadle’s pioneering Orchestrating the Nation charts the turbulent course of ‘The nineteenth-century American symphonic enterprise’ (as its subtitle has it) with scholarly detail and illuminating commentary. He estimates around 100 symphonies were produced by American-born or domiciled composers during the century. Initially derivative of their European counterparts, successive generations went to the land, to native folklore and to politics to source an authentic sound.

The book is alive with the efforts of John Knowles Paine, George Frederick Bristow, William Henry Fry, Robert Stoepel, George Whitefield Chadwick, Anthony Philip Heinrich, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and a host of others to fashion the American symphony. Many are now all but forgotten and some deserving of greater attention.

Ironically, it concludes with the ‘Bohemian prophet’ Dvořák’s New World symphony. With its borrowings from native American melodies and African-American spirituals, it returned a disputatious century at its end to its beginning and in doing so paved the way for the maturing of the American symphony.

With a companion website offering musical excerpts of works discussed, this is an invaluable introduction to a woefully neglected aspect of American music making.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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