5 Renowned American Composers

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
We might never be able to understand the brilliant musical minds of composers, but we can appreciate their work and recognize the influence their creativity has had on our lives. Many of the most recognizable musicals, songs, and films have been touched by their ingenuity, and we have the honor of being their listeners. These are just five of the most renowned composers whose work continues to excite and enchant their listeners.
 
Lin Manuel-Miranda
 
Creator of the acclaimed musical Hamilton and the man behind the music of the 2018 release of Mary Poppins, Lin Manuel-Miranda has undoubtedly left his mark on the world of composers. Manuel-Miranda’s family hails from Puerto Rico, but he was born in New York, New York in 1980. His first experience on Broadway was when he was just seven years old and it left a lasting impression. He also learned to rap as a boy, a skill that was put to use in his production of Hamilton and was heavily involved in his high school’s drama program. It was around this time that he met Stephen Sondheim who would mentor Manuel-Miranda into the early years of his career. 
 
He studied at Wesleyan University where he wrote the first drafts of In the Heights, a musical set in a neighborhood similar to his own of Washington Heights, Manhattan. After college, he continued writing his musicals and songs while appearing in films and on television in small roles. In the Heights premiered in 2007 Off-Broadway and it was a hit, winning two Drama Desk Awards. The musical debuted on Broadway in 2008 where it won four Tony Awards. The success of this performance skyrocketed Manuel-Miranda to fame. His 2015 musical, Hamilton, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016 and 16 Tony nominations. Manuel-Miranda has become one of the most influential figures in the modern drama scene. 
 
Aaron Copland
 
Aaron Copland was born to a Russian-Jewish family in New York City where he learned to play piano from his sister early on. By the time he was 15, Copland had decided that he would become a composer. After several years of struggling to gain his artistic foothold, Copland met Nadia Boulanger in the summer of 1921. She helped dramatically shape Copland as a composer. He spent three years mastering his art in Paris under her guidance before returning to New York City to write an organ concerto for Boulanger’s planned American appearance. That summer, Symphony for Organ appeared in Carnegie Hall played by the New York Symphony and conducted by Walter Damrosch. The outstanding acclaim it received rose Copland to international fame. He wrote Music for the Theater using contemporary jazz sounds and was strongly influenced by musician Igor Stravinsky. In the latter years of his career, Copland wrote film scores and operas. 
 
George Gershwin
 
Born in 1898, composer George Gershwin built his career creating musical pieces for both film and theater stage. Gershwin dropped out of high school when he was 15 years old to begin playing the piano professionally. He quickly grew into one of the most famous composers in America, writing jazz, opera, and stage songs that helped establish the standards for modern musical compositions. Gershwin caught the attention of renowned piano teacher Charles Hambitzer who remarked, “I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius.”
 
During his 23-year career, Gershwin would study under several renowned composers and create pieces that would influence generations. From 1920-1924, Gershwin composed yearly productions for George White that helped build his legend. He wrote one of his best-known works, An American in Paris - a jazz-inspired orchestra that pushed the boundaries of the genre. He composed several famous pieces before moving to Hollywood to work on music for Shall We Dance, a film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He met an untimely death following brain surgery to remove a malignant tumor in 1937. 
 
Samuel Barber
 
American composer, Samuel Barber began learning the piano and composing from a young age. He studied conducting and singing at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1924 where he fine-tuned his skills. During his earliest years of composing, Barber developed a reputation for writing pieces that make allusions to famous literary works. Barber wrote his String Quartet in 1936 and it was performed under Adagio for Strings by the NBC Symphony. The piece brought him wide acclaim in both the United States and Europe. 
 
In 1958, Barber won the Pulitzer Prize for Vanessa, a composition created with his longtime partner Gian Carlo Menotti. He won a second Pulitzer for the opera Antony and Cleopatra and received further international praise. Barber’s career was enormously successful and earned him a brilliant legacy. Music critics referred to him saying, “Probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent and such long-lasting acclaim.” 
 
Leonard Bernstein
 
Leonard Bernstein spent his career divided between classical and popular music. He was born in New York City in 1918 and began playing the piano when he was just 10 years old. In 1939, he attended Harvard University where he studied music theory before enrolling in the Curtis Institute of Music. In 1942, Bernstein became the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic then, one year later, had the opportunity to substitute for the conductor. His performance made an impression that kicked off what would become an exceptional career. 
 
Bernstein went on to be a guest conductor throughout the United States, Europe, and Israel. He was the first American to conduct at La Scala in Milan in 1953 and conducted the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969. During this time, he toured Latin America, Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan. Along with his work as a conductor, Bernstein made appearances explaining classical music to young people on TV shows like Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts. After a long and successful career, complete with several international appearances and awards, Bernstein retired in 1990. He died of a heart attack five days later. 
 
While their careers might have been vastly different, each of these composers left their mark on the music industry. We continue to listen and marvel in their work today.