America's Classical Music Tradition


While classical music in this country was largely imported from Europe, uniquely American influences are unmistakable. This program explores how a classical, concert music culture and repertoire developed in the U.S. over the course of the 19th century, and the role it played in American society. We’ll discuss the establishment of music institutions (music societies, schools, concert halls), and individuals including music educators, critics, conductors and composers who helped cultivate this important musical style into an American cultural practice.


  • The establishment of music institutions in the U.S. was one part of the process of cultivating classical music traditions into an American cultural practice.
  • The Protestant Calvinist churches of New England were among the first American institutions to foster musical arts. This began through efforts to improve and teach congregational singing through local singing schools as well as the publication of new compositions by American composers such as William Billings (1746-1800).
  • The Protestant singing schools grew and developed into larger choral societies, such as the Boston Handel and Haydn Society established in 1815, which focused on the performance of sacred works such as Handel’s Messiah.
  • As the quality and demands of these singing societies increased, so did the need for more formal music education, and including secular music. Lowell Mason (1792-1872) is largely credited as the father of American public music education, as he helped establish the Boston Academy of Music in 1832 and introduced music education in the Boston public schools by 1837. After the Civil War, several music conservatories were established, such as Boston’s New England Conservatory in 1867.
  • Concert life in the U.S. increased greatly in the first half of the 1800s, as many European musicians came on tour. Among them were Spanish tenor Manuel Garcia in 1825, Norwegian violinist Ole Bull in 1843 (and several later tours as well), Swedish soprano Jenny Lind in 1850, the Germania Music Society orchestra from 1848-1854, and the Louis Jullien Orchestra in1853.
  • The import of performers from Europe – as well as a mid-century influx of immigrants from central Europe – further encouraged the establishment of American musical organizations. For example, the New York Philharmonic was established in 1842, and the Academy of Music in New York built its first opera house in 1854.
  • One of the most influential individuals to advocate for classical music in American culture was Boston music critic John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893) who published Dwight’s Journal of Music from 1852 to 1881.
  • Another major figure in the establishment of American classical institutions was conductor Theodore Thomas (1835-1905) who founded the Thomas Orchestra, which toured the entire country from 1865-1890.
  • Classical music gained more exposure post-Civil War, with enormous events such as the National Peace Jubilee in Boston (1869), and the establishment of the first permanent symphony orchestras (e.g., Boston Symphony, 1881; Chicago Symphony, 1891).
  • In spite of the development of American music institutions, repertoire was largely limited to European masterworks. The composition of new works by American composers developed more slowly.
  • A few mid-century American composers who stand out include Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861), piano virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), and William Henry Fry (1813-1864).
  • It was not until the end of the 19th century that repertoire composed in the U.S. increased. A “New England School” of composers, again centered around Boston, emerged in the 1890s with John Knowles Paine (1839-1906), George Chadwick (1854-1931), Arthur Foote (1853-1937), Horatio Parker (1863-1919), Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), and Amy Cheney Beach (1867-1944). Even though the majority of these composers were educated in Europe and followed continental trends, they would set the stage for the next generation of American composers to distinguish their music and American identity.

Exploration Questions

  • In his history of American music, Richard Crawford describes the development of classical music in the U.S. as moving from “the church to the concert hall.” In what ways can this be understood?
  • Why were Boston and New York City such prominent musical centers?
  • Which institutions were the first to develop, and which musical repertoire did they foster?
  • Why did it take so long for American composers to emerge, and for their work to be recognized?

Reflective Questions

  • What were some of the unique relationships between American culture and society and European classical music traditions? How was classical music considered a means to intellectual and moral edification?
  • In what ways did American classical music develop into an elite cultural practice?
  • In what ways were American composers of the 1890s trying to distinguish themselves from their European counterparts? Do you think they succeeded?

More to Explore

  • Digitized copies of Dwight's Journal of Music: Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. W.W. Norton. 2005. 992 pages. Crawford surveys American music history from the late 18th century up to the 21st, covering the development of many styles and genres of American music from popular to classical.
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  • Faucett, Bill F. Music in Boston: Composers, Events, and Ideas, 1852-1918. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016. 294 pages. This is an informative chronicle of classical music life in Boston from 1852 (the first year of publication of Dwight’s Journal of Music) until 1918. Faucett, a scholar of American music, looks at the development of music institutions such as the New England Conservatory and Boston Symphony, the role of music critics such as John Sullivan Dwight, composers including John Knowles Paine, George Chadwick and Amy Beach, as well as the public’s reception of classical traditions.
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  • Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Harvard University Press, 1990. 320 pages. Levine argues that over the course of the 19th century, rigid cultural categories developed in the U.S. that have since distinguished some art forms as elitist or “highbrow” (for example, Shakespearean theatre, opera, and the symphony). While some of his arguments could be challenged, he provides fascinating examples and evidence of 19th century American culture and musical life.
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  • Spitzer, John, ed. American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 493 pages. This is a collection of scholarly essays about the variety of orchestras in the 19th century United States, how they were formed and organized, and the repertoire they played. The authors examine everything from beer garden orchestras and elitist women’s orchestra clubs, to the politics and economics of the music business.
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