Ask a connoisseur of classical music which composers should be included in the American Canon, and they’re bound to toss out a few names: Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein, the other John Adams. But ask them if Eric Whitacre belongs at the top of that list, and they’ll scoff and roll their eyes.
That’s because in serious circles, it’s become popular to dismiss Eric Whitacre as nothing but a hack, a pretty-boy peddler of schlock and schmaltz.
Despite this reputation, Whitacre has amassed a sizable fanbase. His 2010 album, Light & Gold, became the number one classical recording in both the United States and United Kingdom just weeks after its release. He has dedicated fan accounts on Instagram. He was even profiled by Politico.
People tend to explain Whitcare’s polarizing nature in one of two ways: either he’s pandering to the hoi polloi, or he’s misunderstood by all but the enlightened few. But Whitacre isn’t polarizing because he’s a genius or a sellout—he’s polarizing because he’s intensely American.
To understand the depth of Whitacre’s Americanness, we must start with the man himself. Born in Reno, Nevada in 1970, Whitacre was not a musical prodigy by any means. When he entered the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (that most American of towns) as a music major, he couldn’t yet read music.
But that didn’t stop Whitacre, who, like many American kids before him, wanted to be a “rock star.” By 1997 he had earned a Master’s degree from Juilliard. He had a rapid ascent, achieved fame in the choral world, became (literally!) a professional model, and soon got that rock star status, groupies and haters included.
Roll over, Beethoven.
But let’s take a step back. What fueled the rapid ascent? Talent, charisma, and looks, yes. But if we were to pinpoint one moment that defined Whitacre’s career, it would be the premier of a single work, composed just three years after he left Juilliard.
It was, originally, a setting of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which Whitacre composed without securing the copyright. When the Frost estate forbade him from using the text, Whitacre didn’t abandon the project. Instead, he asked Charles Anthony Silvestri—an Ameican poet, also from Las Vegas—to write new lyrics to his melody.
The result is “Sleep,” a brilliant, dream-like piece full of slightly-strange harmonies and, to borrow one of Silvestri’s lyrics, “soaring leaps.” The song somehow captures the essence of Frost’s poem while still being entirely original. In a particularly clever turn, Whitacre and Silvestri set the three-word denouement of Frost’s poem, the phrase “dark and deep,” as the climax of their piece.
It was a hit. The song, which has close to 3,ooo,ooo plays on Spotify, is performed by choirs across the country every year. Like Frost’s poem, “Sleep” has become a beloved standard—beloved by everyone, that is, but critics.
The Brits were particularly harsh. One sneered that Whitacre’s music is “religious music for the commitment-phobe” that “offer[s] instant uplift at no emotional cost.” Another described Whitacre’s compositions as “the sort of music Vaughan Williams might have composed in the Cambridge branch of Dunkin’ Donuts.”
This is the type of critique that one suspects reveals more than its author intended. The point is not so much to critique Whitacre’s music, but to imply that while Vaughan Williams the gentleman composed in a proper English country house, Whitacre the ugly American simply scrawls notes on the back of a box of Munchkins.
David Bahr writes that because of “our egalitarian instinct,” “the American soul…grows uneasy when it comes to canon-talk.” He’s right about that. But Whitacre offers a solution to this problem. He should be included in the Canon for the same reason critics hate him: he and his music are both profoundly democratic.
Stephen Sondheim—another American composer who belongs in the Canon—has often said that “content dictates form.” If Whitacre’s music is truly democratic, then one would expect it to be performed in an equally democratic way. And it is.
In 2009 Whitacre launched his Virtual Choir project. Performers from around the world upload videos of themselves singing Whitacre’s songs, which are then synthesized into a single “performance.” Thanks to the Virtual Choir, it’s possible for a prima donna to sing “alongside” a mechanic with no vocal training, and vice versa. Status, training, location—none of this matters in the Virtual Choir. If you sound good and have the wherewithal to record yourself, you’re in.
In other words, in the Virtual Choir all men are created equal.
But Whitacre’s democracy isn’t the only reason he belongs in the pantheon of American greats. A consideration of his work can also help us sketch the broader contours of the Canon in which he belongs.
Few composers have managed to set Frost’s poem to music. One of them was Randall Thompson, the American composer whose Frostiana includes settings of “Stopping by Woods,” as well as “The Road Not Taken” and “Choose Something Like a Star.” The piece was commissioned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the incorporation of Amherst, Massachusetts, a town to which Frost was intimately connected. In a beautiful moment of Americana, Frost was present at the premier.
Frostiana is now rightly celebrated as an American choral masterwork, but Thompson was once the recipient of critiques quite similar to those now levied at Whitacre. One music scholar notes that Thompson’s music was often dismissed as “provincial” because it was “all American.” That same scholar notes that in a similar way “Frost’s accessible, deceptively ‘easy’ side at once appeals to the common reader, as well as prompts some of the literary elite to dismiss him.”
Like Frost and Thompson before him, Whitacre’s work captures something of the country’s democratic spirit. And like both of his great American predecessors, he is panned by the cultural elites for precisely this reason. If you want to build an American Canon, start here.