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In Search Of The Great American Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have been consistent champions of American music of all shapes and sizes. Are there — or will there be — American symphonies that stand with those of Mozart and Beethoven, Mahler and Shostakovich? (San Francisco Symphony)

Critics and fans love a good debate over the great American novel or great American movie. But what about the great American symphony?

Is there one? If not, why? If so, which symphonies are good candidates for the title? (Check out our Spotify list for some contenders.) And in the land of the melting pot, what does it mean for a symphony to be "American" in the first place?

These are just a few of the questions we're asking as July 4th approaches. And our search for a symphony deserving the stature of works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Citizen Kane or The Godfather is just beginning.

Throughout the summer, we plan to ask a variety of composers, conductors, critics — and especially you — to help us think about the state of American symphonic music. We're not out to crown the best American symphony, to decide whether Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3 is more important than John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1. Instead we're wondering: Is the music still viable? Who writes symphonies in America these days? And who hears them? What relevance do they have in the American artistic landscape?

Buffalo Philharmonic Music Director JoAnn Falletta is scheduled to offer her thoughts about the American symphony Wednesday both in an essay she wrote especially for this project and in a discussion she'll have on All Things Considered with host Robert Siegel.

A fine orchestra in full cry (or delicate whisper) is an extraordinary thing to behold. And yes, the Europeans — from Haydn to Shostakovich — may have the symphony market cornered. But Americans — from Louis Moreau Gottschalk to Charles Ives to Philip Glass — have made significant contributions.

You can hear the playlists we've built as a jumping-off point for consideration on Spotify and on Rdio — our selections range from the well-known and widely beloved to nearly forgotten treasures. (Be sure to follow us!)

If you have thoughts about American symphonies or favorites we should add to our list, please tell us on Twitter (@nprclassical), on Facebook or in the comments section. What's your democratic fireworks music?

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