Compact Discoveries
a series of one-hour radio programs produced, written, hosted, and edited by Fred Flaxman
©2003 by Fred Flaxman

Program 34
"More One-Hit American Composers"

MUSIC: Theme from The Romantic Symphony by Howard Hanson, performed by the Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz [Delos D/CD 3073, track 5], under

FLAXMAN: When I was a high school student at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, during the summers of 1955 and 1957, every symphony concert ended with this beautiful, romantic theme. And that is how I was first introduced to the music of Howard Hanson. I'll play Hanson's complete Symphony Number Two, from which this theme is taken, in a moment, so stay with me!

MUSIC: fades out

FLAXMAN: Hello and welcome to Compact Discoveries. I'm your guide, Fred Flaxman, and this hour is devoted to "More One-Hit American Composers."

A one-hit composer is a composer who had just one big hit in his career. That doesn't mean, of course, that he wrote only one piece. It doesn't mean that he didn't write several pieces that are worth listening to. What it means, to me at least, is that he wrote only one piece that makes the list of must-have compositions in every classical music lovers compact disc collection.

When I went through my own CD collection trying to pick-out one-hit composers, I discovered that there were quite a few, and they were of many nationalities. I picked out enough one-hit American composers alone to fill at least two hours of Compact Discoveries programs.

In the first hour I included Morton Gould's American Salute, Edward MacDowell's Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Walter Piston's The Incredible Flutist, and an excerpt from Virgil Thomson's The Plow That Broke the Plains.

In this hour I'll feature Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2, Samuel Barber's big hit, his Adagio for Strings, and excerpts from Ferde Grofe's one huge hit, the Grand Canyon Suite.

Let's begin with Howard Hanson, who lived from 1896 until 1981. Hanson was the director of The Eastman School of Music for forty years - from 1924 until 1964. He conducted the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra as well. So he was a very busy man. Nevertheless, he wrote a fair amount of music. But none of it was as successful in capturing the audience for classical music as his Romantic Symphony. And it certainly could not have hurt the promotion of this particular work by exposing its main theme to generations of music students at the Interlochen Center for the Arts.

In the opinion of some musicians, the Eastman School of Music was the country's finest music school from the 1930s until the 1950s. That was certainly Howard Hanson's opinion. Once at a large dinner in his honor, when someone complimented him on the fact that many of his students had become faculty members at the Julliard School, Hanson replied that he was very proud that so many of his students were teaching at one of the best community colleges in New York City.

How did Hanson justify writing such romantic music as his Second Symphony in the 20th Century? That was easy, really. He considered romantic music a style, not a historical period. It was a style which could be called upon by any composer at any time. And I'm sure glad that Howard Hanson decided to call upon it for his Symphony No. 2.

MUSIC: Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2, The Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz [Delos D/CD 3073, tracks 5, 6, 7] [28:10]

FLAXMAN: Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2. The Seattle Symphony was conducted by Gerard Schwarz.

You are listening to Compact Discoveries. I'm your guide, Fred Flaxman, and this hour is devoted to "More One-Hit American Composers." The Symphony No. 2 was most certainly Howard Hanson's one big hit.

The case of Samuel Barber is perhaps a bit different. You could argue that he had more than one hit, or, at least, that some of his other works, like his Violin Concerto, deserve to be big hits. But I'm calling him a one-hit composer because his Adagio for Strings is so much bigger a hit than anything else he composed in his lifetime, which lasted from 1910 to 1981.

The story of the Adagio's premiere is an interesting one. When the famous Italian conductor, Arturo Toscanini [ahr-TOO-roh "toss"-kah-NEE-nee], accepted the post as conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, he asked another conductor to recommend an American composer whose work he might program the next season. The 27-year-old Samuel Barber was named, and Barber then completed and sent to Toscanini his First Essay for Orchestra and his Adagio for Strings.

Toscanini return both manuscripts without comment.

The following summer Barber traveled with fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti [jahn KAR-loh meh-"NOTE-tea"] to Italy, where Menotti was to meet Toscanini. Barber refused to go with Menotti to Toscanini's home.

Menotti told Toscanini that Barber could not join them because he was sick. "No," replied the conductor, "he's perfectly well; he's just angry with me, but he has no reason to be - I'm going to do both of his pieces."

And Toscanini performed the Essay No. 1 and the Adagio for Strings on his November 5, 1938, broadcast with the NBC Symphony, though he did not ask to see the scores again until the day before the rehearsal. He had already memorized them.

The Adagio was an instant success.

MUSIC: Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings [Telarc, CD-80250, track 5] [8:12]

FLAXMAN: Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Yoel Levi conducted the strings of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in that Telarc recording.

You are listening to Compact Discoveries and I'm your guide, Fred Flaxman. This hour is devoted to "More One-Hit American Composers."

We'll conclude with some excerpts from Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, which is surely his greatest hit if you exclude his orchestration for George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Ferde Grofé was born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé in New York City in 1892. Both of his parents were of French Huguenot extraction. The highly musical family moved to Los Angeles soon after his birth. Grofé's father was a baritone and actor; his mother was a cellist and music teacher. In fact, the extended family was chock full of professional musicians.

Grofé's mother taught him the piano, violin and harmony. His grandfather taught him the viola.

The famous band leader, Paul Whiteman, discovered Grofé when he was playing his original arrangements and jazz improvisations at a club in San Francisco in 1915. Grofé joined the Whiteman orchestra as pianist two years later. He then became assistant conductor, orchestrator and librarian for the group. His first real break came when he orchestrated Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. After that he concentrated on creating original works. These eventually included Broadway at Night, Theme and Variations on Noises from a Garage, Symphony in Steel, the Tabloid Suite, the Mississippi Suite, the Death Valley Suite and the ever-popular Grand Canyon Suite.

The Grand Canyon Suite was first performed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra in the Studebaker Theater in Chicago in 1931. It was an immediate success.

We hear two excerpts from the five-movement piece now as performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra of England led by the American conductor, William Stromberg. First, "On the Trail;" then "Sunset."

"On the Trail" begins with a huge hee-haw and a violin cadenza which sounds like a reluctant mule being awakened for the ride down the canyon walls just before the journey begins. Then we hear the bouncy burro rhythm under a romantic cowboy tune as we descend the canyon.

MUSIC: Grofé: excerpts from the Grand Canyon Suite, performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Stromberg [Naxos 8.559007, tracks 7 and 8]

FLAXMAN [over the end of "Sunset" from the Grand Canyon Suite]: Sunset over the Grand Canyon is also the sunset for this hour of Compact Discoveries. This is your guide, Fred Flaxman, hoping that you have enjoyed this musical journey. I welcome your comments on this and past Compact Discoveries programs and your suggestions for future themes. My e-mail address is That's all one word and Flaxman is spelled F-l-a-x-m-a-n.

Compact Discoveries is made possible by the generous, caring people who support classical music on public radio with their membership contributions, and is a production of WXEL-FM, West Palm Beach/Boca Raton/Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

MUSIC: fades out at 58:00

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