Who's the most popular American composer, alive or dead?

Who's the most popular American composer, alive or dead?


norman lebrecht

April 16, 2010

The League of American Orchestras has published two lists of its most performed national composers in 2008-09, alive and dead. The rankings, which understandably exclude small-scale, choral non-professional and opera performances, restore John Adams to the top of the charts from which he slipped rather miserably in Last Composer Standing.
Jennifer Higdon, newly decorated with the Pulitzer, has a stunningly good result.
Here are the two lists. Make of them what you will.
 Living Composers
1 Adams, John 52 (performances)
2 Higdon, Jennifer 49 
3 Daugherty, Michael 34 
4 Corigliano, John 32 
5 Williams, John 31 
6 Schwantner, Joseph 23 
7 Theofanidis, Christopher 22 
8 Kernis, Aaron Jay 20 
9 Rouse, Christopher 19 
9 Tower, Joan 19 
11 Meyer, Edgar 16 
12 Stucky, Steven 14 
13 Frank, Gabriela Lena 12 
13 Torke, Michael 12 
15 Argento, Dominick 10 
15 Glass, Philip 10 
17 Carter, Elliott 7 
18 Jones, Samuel 6 
18 Schickele, Peter 6 
18 Thomas, Augusta Read 6 
18 Walker, George Theophilus 6 
18 Ward, Robert 6 
18 Wuorinen, Charles 6
Alive or dead
1 Copland, Aaron 216 
2 Bernstein, Leonard 183 
3 Barber, Samuel 173 
4 Gershwin, George 129 
5 Ives, Charles 58 
6 Adams, John 52 
7 Higdon, Jennifer 49 
8 Anderson, Leroy 42 
9 Daugherty,Michael 34 
10 Corigliano, John 32 
11 Williams, John 31 
12 Schwantner, Joseph 23 
13 Herrmann, Bernard 22 
13 Theofanidis, Christopher 22 
15 Kernis, Aaron Jay 20 
16 Rouse, Christopher 19 
16 Tower, Joan 19 
18 Ellington, Edward Kennedy (“Duke”) 17 
19 Meyer, Edgar 16 
20 Cage, John 14 
20 Stucky, Steven 14
I wonder that the rankings of German composers by German orchestras would look like. Or British ones for that matter. All submissions gratefully received.



  • Chris Foley says:

    The rankings seem a bit skewed, as they reflect only orchestral works. What about works for concert band? For example, Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968 is standard repertory for every college wind ensemble and has had thousands of performances. Since Music for Prague 1968 was written for concert band, it disseminated through entirely different networks than orchestral music.
    BTW Music for Prague 1968 is published by Schirmer, and has had over 7000 performances as of 2007, according to Steven Stucky’s program notes for an LA Phil program:

  • D. J. says:

    I believe you miscounted some of the list… I
    count “Puts” at 10 performances…

  • The lesson here: For composers, it is better for your career to be dead than alive.

  • RichardB says:

    Fascinating stuff. Same caveats apply as in the last “most performed” discussion – John Williams has put a substantial amount of his film music in the public domain (for sale, not hire), meaning that many non-professional performances can’t be tracked.
    And I’ve a strong hunch that, despite Adams’ unquestioned popularity, the USA’s hundreds of amateur orchestras and High School wind bands are probably playing “Harry Potter” more frequently than the Dr Atomic Symphony (or even A Short Ride in a Fast Machine). Would be keen to hear an opinion from across the Atlantic on this, though.
    In the light of the comments one sometimes reads about contemporary British music not “travelling”, would be interesting to see a list of most-performed US composers in the rest of the world – where I suspect that Higdon, Theofanidis, Tower and Stucky, for starters, would make a rather less impressive showing.
    Wow…so someone is still performing Charles Wuorinen! Milton Babbitt, meanwhile, will not care that no-one, apparently, is listening…

  • Herbert Pauls says:

    I find this kind of information especially interesting, as do many others. I just wish that the League of American Orchestras would publish all the data on repeat performances when an orchestra has multiple performances of a given program, and not just list the first performance. There were some preceding years where they did just that (it made for a longer document) and I caught more than a few listings that were not correctly counted, and occasionally, composers that should have been on the list but were left off. In 2002-3 Barber was left off the list entirely when he should have been No. 2, at 103 performances, between Copland and Bernstein. Rachmaninoff, always in the general top 10 or 15, has also been under-counted in the past. The reason for these comments is that in looking at Howard Hanson’s data, I am thinking that he may well be on the top 20 ‘alive or dead’ somewhere between Rouse and Stucky but one could only confirm that for sure if all repeat performances were listed on the comprehensive listing.
    An expanded listing in the general A to Z document would make it even longer, but would be much more useful to the researcher. It would dispel any doubts about possible counting errors, which are easy to make! No criticism is intended regarding the hard work on the part of the compilers.
    And yes, I would second the call for European data.
    Herbert Pauls

  • About the situation in Germany: It’s an old dilemma. There are no reliable statistics at all on modern composers being performed by German orchestras, concert halls and operas.
    I’ve been wondering for years why the German Composers Association is not able to collect and publish these data. But the lobby for living composers is rather small…
    NL replies: Challenge them, Gerald! You’re in a good position to demand the information and to publish a proper chart. I know it will probably be Rihm, Rihm, Rihm… but wouldn’t it just be interesting to know?

  • Harmony Twichell says:

    I’m surprised not to see Alan Hovhaness on this list… A grossly underrated composer.

  • This is a fascinating list – thanks for sharing!
    American Composer Ralph Kendrick