Symphonic Music & Jazz – Compatible?

Symphonic music – called many things including art music, serious music, classical music, and long-hair music, has dominated the world of orchestral symphonic music for hundreds of years.

Can an upstart form of music namely jazz, developed in the early years of the 20th Century, primarily in the United States, be part of and combined with symphonic music successfully? The answer is, a resounding “yes!”

The influence of jazz on serious composition can take a number of forms, including particular dance rhythms, special types of syncopation, new instrumental combinations and special types of instrumental and vocal techniques. A signature characteristic of jazz is, of course, improvisation.

In the last hundred years, a number of forms and styles of jazz has evolved: rag-time, blues, swing, hot jazz, commercial (sweet) jazz, progressive jazz and boogie-woogie, among others.  Jazz in symphonic music came of age in the 1920s. Four of the many leading composers who combined classical music and jazz were George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein.

Gershwin, (1898-1937) one of the most talented pianists and composers, was born in Brooklyn, New York. His fame and fortune began to increase with an early published song, Swanee. Al Jolson sang it and it became an instant hit. Gershwin was one of the first composers to utilize the jazz idiom in serious symphonic compositions. It was said that he was the link between Tin Pan Alley and the concert stage. Gershwin’s most notable compositions using elements of jazz are: An American in Paris, Concerto in F, the folk opera, Porgy & Bess and the incomparable, Rhapsody in Blue.

Paul Whiteman (1891-1967) an American band leader in 1924 in New York, presented a program, “An Experiment in Modern Music,” where Rhapsody in Blue, with Gershwin playing the piano solo, had its premiere. A year later the first performance of Concerto in F, again with Gershwin playing the piano part, was first performed.

The Concerto in F was the most successful of the many compositions incorporating jazz techniques in traditional forms. Some of Gershwin’s notable songs are: Summertime, I got Rhythm, and Who Could Ask for Anything More.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) another New Yorker, was known as the “Dean of 20th Century American Composers.” He was also a strong voice for new American music and influenced many young composers. Copland was given many awards including a Pulitzer Prize. Some of his early works were classified as neo-classicism.

Copland was influenced by Stravinsky and the famous French teacher, Nadia Boulanger. His works incorporating jazz idioms were: Piano Concerto, El Salon Mexico, Billy the Kid, the film score Of Mice and Men, Our Town, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring. Copland’s compositions were both exceptional and innovative.

Igor Stravinsky, (1882-1971) although born in Russia, is also considered a French composer having lived in Paris after 1918, becoming a French citizen in 1934.

Stravinsky lived in the United States after 1939. He studied with the noted composer Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia. Stravinsky showed interest in jazz dance rhythms of American popular music. No composer had a greater impact on modern contemporary art music.  Stravinsky was a prolific ballet composer, writing, Firebird, Petroachka and The Rite of Spring. A riot ensued when The Rite of Spring first premiered in Paris, shaking the music world to its foundation because it was so unconventional. It is said that no piece of music had a greater influence on 20th century composers. Stravinsky’s ballet music put him on the musical map. “He turned western musical thinking on its head,” said Marcus Weeks, in his book, Music: A Crash Course.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts and studied at Harvard. He later became conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein was a distinguished composer, piano soloist, conductor, and orchestrator. He was a major force in promoting American 20th Century music. Bernstein was a genius at synthesizing popular jazz with established symphonic elements.

Some of Bernstein’s most noteworthy compositions are On the Waterfront, Candide and his most popular, West Side Story. He was a master at bringing jazz to the symphony orchestra. For many years Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” were produced on television bringing good music to children in an entertaining and exciting way. William Schumann said, “Bernstein is an authentic American hero, a new breed of hero, an arts hero showing that America does honor her artists.”

Duke Ellington, (1899-1974) formed a big band in 1923 to primarily play jazz that previously was performed by smaller groups. He revolutionized jazz by bringing it to symphonic proportions with his complete scores and improvisational patterns.

One can see that from this small sample of noted composers that indeed jazz can be assimilated into symphonic music quite successfully; making great music even greater for all to enjoy.

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