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Learn more about the men behind American classical music

Posted 8:39am on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012

For the second year, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra's annual Great Performances Festival, which begins Friday at Bass Hall, will shine a spotlight on a relatively overlooked subset of classical-music composers: the Americans.

The three-concert series, dubbed the American Festival, will feature works by some of the greatest musicians our nation has produced, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Samuel Barber, Philip Glass and Duke Ellington.

Since our composers so seldom find their way onto symphony programs overflowing with the usual suspects from Europe (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, et al.), even regular concert-goers may only have a only a passing knowledge of our best and brightest note-slingers.

And even if the you are familiar with their names and a few of their works (like Copland's bucolic Appalachian Spring or Barber's haunting Adagio for Strings), you may not be aware of some of the interesting, unexpected parts of their biographies.

Did you know, for example, that one of these musical titans worked as a cab driver and plumber to support his composition habit? Or that one apparently had a pretty good pick-off move to first base? Or that another was a soldier who was briefly stationed in Fort Worth during World War II?

If not, read on.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

What you might know: That he is best known for his works celebrating rural America (such as Appalachian Spring and his opera, The Tender Land) and the Old West (his ballets Billy the Kid and Rodeo).

What you might not know: Copland was a city boy who had little, if any, direct experience with the Americana he so vividly brought to musical life.

Copland, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn. And when he finished high school and left to make his way in the world, he did not go west. He went to Paris, where he studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.

His distance from the subject matter of his works was something that often concerned Copland. On a later trip to Paris, the composer took along a commission from dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein for a ballet about the outlaw Billy the Kid, and two collections of cowboy songs for inspiration.

"Still, I was wary of tackling a cowboy theme," said Copland in his autobiography. "When I suggested that, as a composer who had been born in Brooklyn, I knew nothing about the Wild West, Lincoln informed me that [choreographer Eugene] Loring's scenario for Billy the Kid was based on the real life of William Bonney, a notorious cowboy who had been born in Brooklyn! ... Thus during the summer of 1938 I found myself writing a cowboy ballet in Paris."

It was the sort of story that would be repeated often in Copland's career (he completed this highly atmospheric El Salon Mexico while visiting Minnesota, for example). But rather than being a knock on Copland and his works, these anecdotes stand as proof of his genius. They reveal his uncanny ability to channel past forms, such as our folk-music heritage, into modern works that are richly and distinctly American in character.

John Williams (b. 1932)

What you might know: That he is one of America's finest film composers, known for providing the scores for some of the greatest films of past 50 years, including Jaws, the "Star Wars" saga and Saving Private Ryan.

What you might not know: In his salad days, he provided music for television dramas, Westerns and sitcoms.

Williams is justly lauded for his grandiose film scores and his prowess as a conductor. But, like almost all artists, not every line of his résumé is a dazzler.

In the late 1950s and through the 1960s, when he was usually billed as "Johnny Williams," the man who would later add poignancy to the heartbreaking visuals of Schindler's List provided a sound bed for a wide range of television shows, such as the cheesy sci-fi adventure Lost in Space.

His credits from that early period cover about every major television genre. He provided music for several of the live dramatic series of that era, such as Playhouse 90 and Alcoa Theatre. And he also spun notes for much lighter fare, such as the Western Wagon Train, the sci-fi series The Time Tunnel and the sitcom Bachelor Father.

But here is the real kicker: Although he did not write the famous theme song, he did contribute original music to 20 episodes of Gilligan's Island.

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

What you might know: That he was a man many consider to be our country's first important classical composer.

What you might not know: That he was an outstanding pitcher in this youth who was probably better known in his adult life for his contributions to the insurance industry than for his music.

New Englander Ives was such a force on the pitcher's mound that, as a 19-year-old, he led his prep-school team to a victory over Yale's freshman nine.

But, rather than pursuing a career in pro ball, Ives landed in the insurance business. He somehow managed to compose a staggering number of works for orchestra, band, small ensemble, keyboard and voice while also prospering as an insurance salesman. He formed the Ives & Myrick Insurance Agency and was such an important figure in his field that the guidebooks he wrote about selling insurance were known throughout the industry.

In the early 20th century, he was considered an avant-garde composer, and his works were seldom performed. He ceased most of his composing activities while still in his 40s (primarily for health reasons), but his works gradually became more well-known thanks to a series of American conductors and composers who championed his cause.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

What you might know: That he, like Copland, is considered to be one of the foremost American composers of the mid-20th century and is best known for his masterwork Adagio for Strings.

What you might not know: That, while serving in the Army during World War II, he was briefly stationed in Fort Worth.

Pfc. Barber was sent to Fort Worth, which was then the national headquarters for the Army Air Forces Flying Training Command, in August 1943, for the purpose of writing a symphony celebrating military fliers. The idea was for him to compose the piece while living among the pilots and their crews.

But Barber was not exactly a fan of Cowtown.

"I arrived in Texas on a hot Sunday, temperature 105," wrote Barber to a friend. "I wandered about the camp and the miserable city of Fort Worth, thick with soldiers, and almost highest on the list of cities notable for venereal diseases."

Barber thought he was stuck here, but his commanding officer (perhaps sensing Barber's disgust with his new home) shipped him out less than a month later to what he considered to be the more hospitable composing environment of West Point.

That particular orchestral work for the Army never worked out, although it did eventually became his second symphony.

But his time in Fort Worth was not a complete washout.

"The third day I met a Lieutenant Holden, who turned out to be a movie star," he wrote.

That would be William Holden.

Philip Glass (b. 1937)

What you might know: That he is considered to be the foremost composer of the minimalist movement.

What you might not know: That he also earned a living by driving a taxi and working as a plumber.

Glass, who is one of the most influential composers of his generation, was well-known long before he was rich. There are two stories that are often told about the vocations that put groceries on the table while he was emerging as a composer.

While driving a cab in New York, he was once sweetly asked by a female passenger looking at his identification card, "Young man, do you realize that you have the same name as a very famous composer?"

The other incident involved art critic Robert Hughes, whose death earlier this month was noted around the world.

Glass was installing a dishwasher in a New York City apartment when the tenant, Hughes, walked in and recognized his plumber.

"But you're an artist," protested Hughes. "I won't permit you to work on my dishwasher."

The composer wrote in his book Music by Philip Glass that "I explained that I was an artist, but that I was sometimes a plumber as well, and that he should go away and let me finish the job."

And one final note about what is known and not known about Glass: If you still think of him as just a minimalist, you haven't heard much of his music.

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