An Important Branch of American Music

An Important Branch of American Music

In the world of classical music, so-called “masterworks” and “pops” concerts each live in their own world, but is a suite from a ballet any more or less valid than a suite from a movie score?

Written By

Carl Topilow

Carl Topilow
Photo by Gary Kellner,
Kellner Studios

In the world of classical music, it appears that the so-called “masterworks” and “pops” concerts each live in their own world, and never the twain shall meet. Analysis of concert audiences also seems to support this assumption, as each series of concerts has its own following, with little crossover.

My idea of a pops concert is not one in which the orchestra is on stage playing largely inaudible whole notes for singers accompanied by a heavily amplified rock band. These are the kinds of concerts that musicians dread playing. I prefer thinking of pops concerts as presentations of an important branch of American music: music of Broadway, Hollywood, jazz, and light classics. In addition, lighter works of European composers such as von Suppe, Johann Strauss Jr., Offenbach and many others may be included in the mix when appropriate.

However, this music is generally relegated to concerts entitled “The Pops Goes to the Movies,” “A Night on Broadway,” or “Music from Around the World” and are looked upon by many as inappropriate for masterworks concerts.

But the notion of substituting works of this kind of American music in place of traditional standard repertoire leads to some interesting parallels. Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute would be considered a fine way to begin a concert. However, considering that Mozart’s operas, especially his German singspiels, were essentially the musical comedy of his era, why couldn’t we hear one of Gershwin’s fine overtures, such as Of Thee I Sing, Strike Up the Band, or Girl Crazy in its place? Taking this premise a step further, is a suite taken from a movie score any more or less valid than one from a ballet? Stravinsky’s 1945 Firebird Suite is a splendid piece which I have enjoyed performing for many years. However, the five movement suite from John Williams’s The Empire Strikes Back is a stunning work, filled with beautiful melodies and dramatic battle scenes, much the same as the Firebird.

There are many outstanding pieces that would make fine additions to masterworks concerts. These works really are American classics, and would work well on many symphonic programs. To cite just a very few: Rodgers’s Carousel Waltz and Slaughter on 10th Avenue; Sondheim’s Waltzes from A Little Night Music; Williams’s “Escape from Venice” and Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; Bruce Broughton’s Themes from Silverado; and, one of my personal favorites, the Suite from High Noon by Dmitri Tiomkin.

If works such as these were part of the symphonic repertoire, suites from new movies could be presented with the same anticipation that a new opera by Giuseppe Verdi or Giacomo Puccini had been in a bygone era. The haunting score from John Williams’s recently composed Memoirs of a Geisha could be performed by an orchestra featuring its concertmaster and principal cellist and publicized as an exciting and timely event.

Subscription concerts presenting singers could easily contain masterpieces from American music theater, and in fact some singers do these works, though often only as encores. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote many fine songs which are essentially American arias. “Some Enchanted Evening,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Climb Every Mountain,” “The Sound of Music,” “Soliloquy” from Carousel, “Surry with the Fringe on Top”; the list goes on and on. Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Jerry Herman, Marvin Hamlisch and many others can also be included in this group. Their arias are no less valid than those of Mozart or Verdi.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why these and other excellent American works of Broadway and Hollywood are considered unfit fare for concerts – is it that the concert hall is considered a European-dominated space, or perhaps there exists an American inferiority complex? Our music of the past 100 years contains informal, fun-loving, and jazzy elements. Does that mean that it doesn’t belong on a masterworks concert? Perhaps conductors feel that the concert hall experience needs to be a serious and solemn one.

Ironically, if Bernstein’s wonderful jazz inspired Three Dances from the Broadway show On the Town, would appear on a concert, it would be accepted without question. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Bernstein is a well known figure in the concert hall, as composer, pianist, and conductor. However, if John Williams’s fun-filled Cowboys Overture or Korngold’s thrilling Overture to Captain Blood are played, they are dismissively labeled as film music, since these composers’ main claim to fame has been their work in Hollywood. However, the Bernstein work is as much or more of a “pops” piece than is the Williams or the Korngold, having its roots in the “popular” music of Broadway and jazz. Other well known symphonic composers who have written film music include Copland, Corigliano, Prokofief, and Shostakovich, and their film music is often heard in concert. Composers such as Elmer Bernstein, Patrick Doyle, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, James Horner, Ennio Morricone, Rachel Portman, Miklós Rózsa, Nino Rota, Lalo Schifrin, Max Steiner, and Franz Waxman are just a very few of the outstanding film composers whose music would add much to the live concert experience.

Esa-Pekka Salonen has performed and recorded the music of Bernard Herrmann with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has done this solely based on the merits of this music. According to Salonen (as quoted in an interview on “I don’t believe in there being an annual dose of film music for the sake of it being film music. If we program film music, it will be because there is a real artistic reason for doing so.”

As there exists a veritable gold mine of excellent film music, it would be easy to justify the inclusion of this music on artistic grounds. I believe that a traditional symphonic audience would be surprisingly receptive to a sprinkling of outstanding film, Broadway, and jazz influenced music. It’s surely worth a try!


Conductor and clarinetist Carl Topilow is the founder and music director of the Cleveland Pops which is now in its 11th season. He also serves as director of the Orchestral Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the music director of the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge, Colorado.