Elections in the United States come around with brutal regularity. This November the world stands agog as once again the deeply anti-democratic Republican Party stands to regain the House of Representatives.

US elections are gaudy reminders not just of the vast amount of money that washes through its politics, but also the country’s profound deficiencies. US composers have often been motivated to capture elements of this political brokenness – and depict how the American people have shown togetherness in the face of it.

1 Anthony Philip Heinrich: Moan of the Forest Cherokees’ Lament

Pianist Artis Wodehouse gives the likely world premiere of Anthony Philip Heinrich's Moan of the Forest Cherokees' Lament

Anthony Philip Heinrich is a compelling figure in the history of classical music in the United States. Emigrating from Bohemia in 1805, after a career as a jobbing musician he made a seven hundred mile journey from Boston to Kentucky, eventually residing in a small log cabin. His first compositions date from this period, beginning in 1818 when he was thirty-seven.

His music typically depicts the special wildness of the landscape he inhabited – the birds, forests, mountains, rivers. But he also had close contact with and sympathy for Native Americans. Moan of the Forest Cherokees’ Lament (1849), for piano and narrator, is one of several of his compositions concerned with depicting the history and struggles of America’s indigenous peoples. The Cherokees’ forced removal westward in the late 1830s, from Mississippi to Oklahoma, is the topic of this composition, rare subject matter in pre-Civil War classical music in the US. Much of the piece depicts the profound suffering of enforced migration, but also Heinrich’s characteristic optimism – an optimism tragically betrayed by later history.

2 Scott Joplin: Treemonisha

Treemonisha Act III Scene 26 – “We Will Trust You As Our Leader”

Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha, published in 1911, was never fully staged during his lifetime. (It was revived in 1972, as part of a wider rejuvenation of interest in Joplin’s work.) It is arguably his greatest musical achievement.

The opera depicts the life of a young Texarkana freedwoman Treemonisha, and her family’s battles with a number of tricksters and conjurors who appear in the community. They soon capture her and plan to subject her to cruel punishments for foiling their earlier schemes. After her rescue, the opera concludes with Treemonisha’s return. While others in the community wish to punish her captors severely, she advocates for them to be forgiven, and is later elected the community’s leader.

Treemonisha’s wisdom is a product of her education (narrated earlier in Act I), and the opera is Joplin’s paean to the power of education to lift Black Americans out of poverty and enslavement. That this never truly materialised for Joplin himself is an indication of the deep failings of American society. Despite the huge success of his music during his lifetime, Joplin died in poverty, with his greatest work never being completely heard until more than fifty years after his death.

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F. Victor Gillam, “Keep off! The Monroe Doctrine must be respected”, 1896
© Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons

3 Charles Ives: Orchestral Set no. 2

Mvt 3 – “From Hanover Square North At the End of a Tragic Day The Voice of the People Again Arose”

The hugely individual music of Charles Ives drew from a wide gamut of contemporary American musics – military bands, hymns and spirituals, salon music, ragtime and popular songs. Almost everything he wrote sought to depict society around him in one way or another, but one notable highlight is his Orchestral Set no. 2, completed in 1919.

Its first movement (“An Elegy to our Forefathers”) presents a fragmentary series of half-remembered recollections of Stephen Foster tunes, and its livelier second movement (“The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting”) depicts a typical camp meeting. But it is the third movement that is most haunting. It depicts Ives’ experience of the spontaneous outbreak of song in a crowd, learning of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Titled “From Hanover Square North, At the End of a Tragic Day, The Voice of the People Again Arose”, it is one of Ives’ most overpoweringly emotive musical achievements.

4 William Grant Still: Darker America 

William Grant Still is another unique and important figure in classical music in the United States. A prolific composer of large-scale works, from orchestral tone poems, to symphonies, choral works, and operas, he is best known for his earlier compositions, from the end of 1920s to the 1930s. The Symphony no. 1 (African-American), 1930, was for many years one of the most performed symphonies by any American composer. His remarkable first opera, Troubled Island, which depicts the Haitian Revolution, was the first grand opera by an African American to be staged in the US.

This fascinating earlier work, Darker America (1924) displays some of the fragmentary, collage-like structure of his teacher Edgard Varèse. Yet Still’s music is very much his own – infused with blues harmony, longing and spirituality. The topic of this piece are the sorrows and hopes of African Americans, a concern he would return to repeatedly through his career, in his many tone poems and in his second opera A Bayou Legend (1941).

5 Ruth Crawford Seeger: 2 Ricercari

Ruth Crawford Seeger was a gifted and individual composer, whose music became steadily more politically aware through the late 1920s and into the 1930s. These two songs from 1932 (named “ricecari” after the Italian word for “searching”) represent a unique transitional moment in her output, combining modernist dissonant harmony with verse of Chinese-American leftist Hsi Tseng Tsiang.

The first of these two songs is a tribute to the Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, wrongfully convicted of murder and armed robbery. One of the largest scandals of the period, massive protests in their favour were held across the world in 1927. Despite this public pressure, and petitions from thousands of prominent writers, artists and academics, they were executed in August 1927. Crawford Seeger’s setting of Tsiang’s vociferous hymn to two unjustly executed martyrs is a great example of her musical boldness and directness.

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Ben Shahn, “For all these rights we’ve just begun to fight”, CIO Political Action Committee, 1946
© Public Domain | Library of Congress

6 Ornette Coleman: Skies of America

One of the most inventive and iconoclastic figures in American music, Ornette Coleman’s stunning album-length composition for jazz combo and orchestra Skies of America (1972) is one of his darkest and most overpowering musical accomplishments.

His characteristic “harmolodic” approach to harmony and melody – of large harmonies moving in parallel, in dense masses, captures something ineffable and grand, especially when combined with the incessant rhythms of drummer Ed Blackwell. His and Dewey Redman’s incisive contributions on alto and tenor saxophone respectively also add the presence of blues to an orchestral context sometimes of great austerity. The concluding section “Sunday in America” combines vistas of open string harmonies with skittering and chattering from the winds and percussion, leading to a final moment left brutally ambiguous.

7 John Cage: Apartment House 1776

Performed by New England Conservatory Philharmonia and soloists

Mirroring Ornette Coleman, John Cage’s own contribution to American music was iconoclastic. Despite his internationalist and anarchist politics, a strand of his output considers his being explicitly an American composer, from the early Credo in US (1942), to one of his most emotionally arresting works, Apartment House 1776. Written in 1976 to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of the founding of the United States, the work calls for four solo vocalists and orchestra. Cage enfolded four distinct vocal traditions – Protestant, Sephardic, Apache, and African-American – into a wider texture suffused with congregational and marching music written around the time of the founding.

Cage’s work is superficially similar to Ives, in its simultaneous imposition of multiple musics. Yet Cage’s attitude to presentation differed, in its detachment rather than romantic engagement. Cage sought to present historical musics as pieces of material, to be placed next to one another, according to chance operations. One is faced with a tapestry of materials that sometimes simply abut one another. As a listener one is often left emotionally uplifted by the spirit of music, by the multiplicity of the cultures of the American people, but what the piece wishes to say about the United States itself is profoundly ambiguous.

8 Frederic Rzewski: Coming Together

Performed by vocalist Steve Ben Israel and ensemble

One of the most prominent radical US composers, Frederic Rzewski, who died last year, was also a gifted pianist. His most famous work for piano, The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1975) is one of the most significant piano works by an American composer, and surely the most remarkable set of variations from the twentieth century. Yet it is his other work from mid-seventies, Coming Together (1974) which is in my mind at this time of political decay and despair.

The work sets a text from Sam Melville, a key organiser of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. “I think the combination of age and the greater coming together”, Melville wrote, “is responsible for the speed of the passing time. It’s six months now and I can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but I feel secure and ready.” The piece manages to capture the peculiar combination of energy, calculation and calmness so required of those involved in political organisation.

On top of this, we know the outcome of the Attica prison uprising: Melville, along with 28 other inmates and ten hostages, was shot by state police on September 13th 1971. This lends Coming Together an extraordinary emotional and dramatic frisson: through Rzewski’s music, Melville speaks to us with the voice of every American political agitator wishing for a more just world, and willing to die for that aim.

“In the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, I can act with clarity and meaning.” Perhaps this is the ideal way to greet the bleakness and cacophony of US politics.