Celebrate the Fourth of July with Classical Music About Famous Americans

American FlagInstead of celebrating the 4th of July with the typical 1812 Overture, we decided to highlight classical music about famous Americans written by American composers.  This list focuses on individuals who have fought for what the Declaration of Independence stood for – freedom, equality and justice for all.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), one of founding father of the U.S., helped orchestrate the Declaration of Independence. In addition, Franklin was a leading author, political theorist, scientist and an inventor.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec is a professor at Adelphi University. Useful Knowledge: a Franklin Fantasy is a cantata for baritone, oboe, violin, viola, cello, glass armonica (an instrument which Franklin invented). The work is comprised of excerpts from Franklin’s various private and public writings and almanacs.

Paul Revere

Paul Revere (1735 – 1818) is famous for his midnight ride to different towns around Boston.  On the evening of April 18, 1775, he warned colonists that the British were coming to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock. California-born David del Tredici commemorated Revere’s bravery in Paul Revere’s Ride for soprano, chorus and orchestra.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (1809 -1865) was the 16th President of the United States. Lincoln led the United States through the American Civil War and abolished slavery. He was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1865 shortly after being re-elected as president.  His legacy has inspired many composers. Two works worth noting include Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait and Charles Ives’s Lincoln, the Great Commoner.

In A Lincoln Portrait, scored for narrator and orchestra, Copland took Lincoln’s quotations emphasizing justice and freedom. Only a portion of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is included. Copland used Lord Charnwood’s 1917 biography about the president as the source.

In Lincoln, the Great Commoner, scored for chorus and orchestra, Ives drew inspiration from a poem by Edwin Markham. The works uses bits and pieces of melodies from songs including “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “America” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Rosa Parks

Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (1913 – 2005) was an African-American civil rights activist considered to be the “the first lady of civil rights.” On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks refused to obey a bus driver’s order to give up her seat in the colored section to a white passenger. Her action brought national attention and became a powerful symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.

Hannibal Lokumbe has composed for the Kronos Quartet and major symphonies including Philadelphia, Cleveland and Houston.  Dear Mrs. Parks, an oratorio commissioned and premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2005, features a full orchestra, choir and four vocal soloists. Lokumbe incorporates blues, jazz, African and Gospel music to pay homage to Rosa Parks through imaginary letters to the civil rights heroine.

John F. Kennedy

Considered the first “television president,” 35th President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917 – 1963) captured the hearts and imaginations of the American public. In his short presidency, Kennedy faced challenges including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement. On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.

Borrowing from Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, Peter Lieberson’s Remembering JFK—An American Elegy juxtaposed spoken passages taken from Kennedy’s speeches with orchestral accompaniment.  The work was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s inauguration. Academy Award-winner Richard Dreyfuss is the featured narrator on the recording.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

American clergyman, activist, and leader Martin Luther King, Jr (1929 – 1968) was a pivotal figure during the Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his advocacy of civil rights through nonviolent civil disobedience.

Nicolas Flagello, Manhattan School of Music faculty member and a longtime admirer of King, was inspired to memorialize the civil rights activist after his assassination. In Passion of Martin Luther King, Flagello set King’s words for voice and orchestra. The end of the work includes a portion of King’s inspiring ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. However, a later version of the work excludes King’s words. The recording we recommend is the original version.

Legendary jazz composer and pianist David Brubeck penned The Gates of Justice, a cantata based on biblical and Hebrew liturgical texts—together with quotations from Martin Luther King’s speeches.  It was a joint commission by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) and the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.

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