Poster The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is the inspiration for Ferde Grofé's well-known work, 'Grand Canyon Suite.'
Nate Ryan

Take a musical trip to our national parks

It’s road trip season, and you might be headed to one of America’s awe-inspiring national parks. It’s no surprise that they’ve also been an inspiration for composers who captured the grandeur and beauty of these natural wonders during their own travels (actual or imaginary). Here’s some music for the journey.

Grand Canyon Suite (Ferde Grofé): Titled Five Pictures of the Grand Canyon when it was composed from 1929 to 1931, its sections (“Sunrise,” “Painted Desert,” “On the Trail,” “Sunset,” “Cloudburst”) reflect a day spent at the immense abyss. “On the Trail” might be the most familiar; listen beginning at the 12:35 mark for the clip-clop that evokes old westerns (and cartoons — Walt Disney was a fan).

America’s National Parks (Wadada Leo Smith): The composer/trumpeter’s six-movement suite from 2016 celebrates parks, including Yellowstone (listen below), Yosemite and Sequoia. One movement is named for musicologist Eileen Southern, whose book The Music of Black Americans has been called “a literary national park” by Smith. In the conceptual spirit of his Ten Freedom Summers, he aimed to challenge the notion of national parks as sacred cathedrals.

“Alligator Alley” (Michael Daugherty): The relentless and immersive motif of this 2003 piece for wind ensemble, name-checking the stretch of highway that crosses Florida’s Everglades National Park, takes hold of you and won’t let go — kind of like an alligator! Do you hear the snap of the creature’s jaws throughout?

Canyon Trilogy (R. Carlos Nakai): The Native American flutist’s homage to his Arizona home, composed in 1989, is meditative and otherworldly, like the natural phenomena it honors. The soothing cadences of his cedar flute are perfect for listening to at a rest stop (or during the massage you’ll need after hiking). Check out “Song for the Morning Star”:

Appalachian Spring (Aaron Copland): This beloved work was commissioned as a ballet “with an American theme” by choreographer Martha Graham in 1944. Copland reportedly was amused to hear his music described as capturing the spirit of the Appalachians, since he wrote the piece before knowing what Graham would christen it. Nevertheless, can’t you picture the Great Smoky Mountains in the trilling woodwinds and the, by turns, folksy and majestic strings?

The Oak (Florence Price): This symphonic tone poem composed in 1943 moves from contemplative to brooding to uneasy, with sonorous passages alternately coming from strings, woodwinds and brass. The dissonant climax (beginning at the 11:20 mark) is a fitting companion piece for admiring the 130-foot oak canopy at Congaree National Park in South Carolina.  

Des Canyons aux Etoiles (Olivier Messiaen): While writing this 12-movement work to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial, Messiaen was struck by the rich colors of Utah’s rugged Bryce Canyon National Park. He immortalized them in the seventh movement, “Bryce Canyon et les Rochers Rouge-orange [Red-orange Rocks].” Listen to it here.

“Crown of the Continent” (Stephen Lias): The composer has said that this 2015 work, inspired by a monthlong stay at Montana’s Glacier National Park, embraces a Wild West feel, even evoking a locomotive (at the 1:19 mark). The extended xylophone line conjures the cool of a crystalline, glacier-fed lake.

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