For the past one hundred and twenty years, the symphony orchestra has served as one of America's premiere cultural institutions, presenting timeless music to audiences across the nation, and more recently, throughout the world. The American orchestra does more, however, than passively present concerts to a captive audience; it has actively participated in the creation of public taste through the selection and distribution of certain works by particular composers, ultimately functioning as a powerful arbiter of twentieth-century music. Examining what types of composers and music were supported through commissioning, performance, and commercial recording reveals the orchestra as an important distributor of new music.
This discography will highlight works commissioned, premiered, and/ or recorded by American orchestras since World War II. While the list is in no way exhaustive, the recordings and scholarship referenced in this essay were chosen carefully to represent some of the most important orchestras and composers working in the last half of the twentieth century. The focus here is on American orchestras and composers which had ongoing professional relationships, and goes beyond the so-called "Big Five" orchestras and the works of established composers such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, though their legacies remain integral to this story. (1) The result is a handful of compositions that, in addition to their significant contribution to the canon of Western classical music, show how institutions and organizations have shaped and refracted consumer tastes by recording and distributing certain musics for a mass audience.
This is not to say that orchestras have always strived for popular appeal. In fact, the founding of the modern American orchestra was rooted in the distinction between high and popular culture. Indeed, the American orchestra "emerged in the period between 1850 and 1900 out of the efforts of urban elites to build organizational forms that, first, isolated high culture and, second, differentiated it from popular culture." (2) Before 1870, orchestras in America were organized as cooperative enterprises, communal associations, or even for-profit firms. The New York Philharmonic was one of the first, presenting a series of concerts as a loosely organized association as early as 1842. According to orchestra scholar John Spitzer, the so-called enterprise, or privately run, orchestras present in nineteenth-century Europe and America "were commercial ventures," with musical performances labeled as products and players as employees, not artists. (3) Others, like the Boston Symphony Orchestra, were founded as autocracies under a wealthy patron or entrepreneurial conductor.
Not surprisingly, these cooperatives were unable to secure the complete loyalty and support of their members, forcing the most successful organizations to seek out alternative operating models. In Europe, this meant government support for the arts. In the United States, however, orchestras began to move towards a more sustainable private model. The nonprofit structure adopted by American performing arts organizations around this time was thus a direct result of the growing distinction between high and popular culture. Yet, some fifty years later, these same organizations began to experience the liability of being elite, and found themselves trying to reengage with popular culture and reassert a connection to a mass audience. The repercussions from this shift in function were immediately apparent in the populist works of Aaron Copland and the rhetoric of "music for the masses" employed by conductors such as Serge Koussevitzky and Leopold Stokowski. (4)
In the decades following World War II, the ideology of mass consumption continued to resonate throughout the American orchestral scene as major ensembles signed lucrative recording contracts and continued to broadcast their concerts on radio. Much of the repertory recorded, however, consisted of masterworks from the nineteenth century, not newly commissioned works for orchestra. …