Classical Composers

Updated: February 28, 2011

In the late nineteenth century, classical music composers initiated a movement (based on late-eighteenth-century European antecedents) to create a distinctively American national music, often incorporating traditional melodies.

In the late nineteenth century, classical music composers initiated a movement (based on late-eighteenth-century European antecedents) to create a distinctively American national music, often incorporating traditional melodies. In 1892 Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak (1841–1904), who felt that any nation’s most important musical legacy lay in its folk songs, came to the United States to head the National Conservatory of Music. Through such works as his New World Symphony, which utilized African American spirituals, Dvorak demonstrated to American composers how traditional songs might be used in classical compositions. Composers who immediately followed Dvorak tended to evoke Native American music, yet several composers reinterpreted traditional Appalachian music.

Most classical composers who worked with Appalachian folk materials made arrangements of traditional songs. Arthur Farwell (1872–1952) created a piano setting of “Sourwood Mountain” and Elie Siegmeister (1909–1991) arranged “The Deaf Woman’s Courtship” for vocals, while Charles Seeger (1886–1979) and Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953) arranged numerous traditional Appalachian ballads and songs for voice and simple instrumentation. More recently, Robert Beaser (b. 1954) composed the chamber work Mountain Songs for Flute and Guitar (1985), which was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Other composers borrowed regional folk melodies and expanded them into orchestral works. Raleigh, North Carolina, native Lamar Stringfield (1897–1959), for instance, wrote From the Blue Ridge—Symphonic Sketches and the suite From the Southern Mountains; John Powell (1882–1963) com- posed From a Loved Past, A Set of Three, and In Old Virginia; Harvey B. Gaul (1881–1945) is remembered for String Quartet; and the English composer Frederick Delius (1862–1934) was praised internationally for his orchestral piece Appalachia after its debut in 1902. A native of Texas, composer Annabel Morris Buchanan (1889–1983) spent her adulthood in south- western Virginia, where she collected, promoted, and arranged Appalachian music.

Several more recent composers have based compositions on traditional melodies from the region. For example, John Duarte (b. 1919) composed Appalachian Dreams (1999), a five-movement suite based on nine songs collected in southern Appalachia. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, native Edgar Meyer (b. 1960), a bassist and composer, collaborated with fiddler and composer Mark O’Connor and cellist Yo-Yo Ma in producing Appalachia Waltz (1996) and Appalachian Journey (2000), two best-selling albums that blended those musicians’ original compositions with their interpretations of traditional Appalachian instrumental tunes and such popular songs as Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.”

Few American classical composers have been as fascinated with traditional music as Aaron Copland (1900– 1990). Even in his only full-length opera, The Tender Land (1954), in which he does not quote any folk or popular material, Copland simulated folk music styles. In the “Hoedown” section of his 1942 ballet Rodeo, Copland based the melody on a Library of Congress field recording of the Appalachian fiddle tune “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” performed by eastern Kentucky fiddler W. H. Stepp. Copland’s most celebrated use of folk music was in his score for Martha Graham’s ballet Appalachian Spring (1944), for which he composed variations on the melody of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” (also known as “The Gift to Be Simple”). Because of the great popularity of Copland’s score for Appalachian Spring, “Simple Gifts” was frequently heard in schools, churches, and other venues during the urban folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

Composers of opera have generally been less attentive to Appalachian folk music. A notable exception is Carlisle Sessions Floyd (b. 1926), a South Carolina native whose third opera, Susannah (1955), while not actually utilizing any folk music, simulated traditional hymns and songs to provide atmosphere for the opera’s retelling of a biblical story in an Appalachian setting. Also, renowned German composer Kurt Weill (1900–1950) produced Down in the Valley, a 1948 one-act opera written for school productions. Making extensive use of traditional melodies collected in Appalachia, Weill interpolated the title song and four other regional folk songs into his score. Although important as an example of Weill’s involvement with folk and folk-influenced materials, the opera, because it was written for amateurs, has generally been overlooked.

Since the mid-1970s, there have been several overt efforts to conjoin bluegrass instrumentation and classical orchestration, including works from composers Phillip Rhodes, Peter Schickele (a.k.a. P. D. Q. Bach), and Newton Wayland written specifically for performance by the McLain Family Band with various orchestras across the nation. Other classical music composers from Appalachia include George Crumb (b. 1929), of Charleston, West Virginia; Ethelbert Nevin (1862–1901), born in Edgeworth, Pennsylvania; and Kenton Coe (b. 1930), of Johnson City, Tennessee.

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Classical Composers," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2018, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 23 Sep 2018 <>

APA Style

"Classical Composers." (2018) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved September 23, 2018, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia:

Music Sheet for “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copeland