American Gothic for Orchestra (2013)

I. On a Roll

II. Winter Dreams

III. Pitchfork

Instrumentation:  piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players), harp, piano and strings

Publisher: Michael Daugherty Music

Duration: 22 minutes

World Premiere: World premiere by Orchestra Iowa, under the direction of Timothy Hankewich, at the Paramount Theatre, Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 4, 2013. Commissioned by Orchestra Iowa, Timothy Hankewich, Music Director and Conductor.  

Program Note: 

American Gothic (2013) for orchestra was commissioned by Orchestra Iowa, Timothy Hankewich, Music Director and Conductor. The world premiere was given by Orchestra Iowa, under the direction of Timothy Hankewich, at the Paramount Theatre, Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 4, 2013. The composition is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano and strings. Duration is about 22 minutes. The composer writes:

American Gothic for orchestra is a contemporary musical reflection on the creative world of Iowa artist, Grant Wood (1891-1942). Composed in memory of my father, Willis Daugherty (1929-2011), the music also reflects on the years I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. With exceptional public schools, opulent movie palaces and a marvelous symphony orchestra, art museum, public library and community theater, Cedar Rapids is a splendid Midwestern center for the arts.

Music was an important activity in the Daugherty family. My father was the manager of the Seiferts downtown department store by day and a drummer with local dance bands by night. My mother, Evelyn Daugherty (1927-1974), was physical education teacher at Franklin Junior High School, who often appeared in community theater productions such as Gypsy. And my grandmother, Josephine Daugherty (1907-1991), played piano for silent films in Vinton, Iowa back in the 1930s. They all encouraged the five Daugherty boys to pursue music. Today, my four younger brothers are all professional musicians: Pat (b. 1956), Tim (b. 1958), Matt (b. 1959) and Tom (b.1961).

I first became aware of Grant Wood when I was a ten-year-old boy enrolled in art classes at the old Cedar Rapids Public Library (now the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art). Prominently displayed in the room where we learned to draw and paint was Grant Wood’s original painting of his mother, entitled Woman with Plant (1928). I realized that Grant Wood was everywhere in Cedar Rapids: his paintings and lithographs at the Museum of Art; his farm mural at the old Montrose Hotel; his carved wooden Mourner’s Bench in the principal’s office at McKinley Junior High School; his stained glass Memorial Window at the Veteran’s Memorial Building. I often rode my bicycle past the artist’s studio at 5 Turner Alley, where Grant Wood created his most famous painting, American Gothic (1930).

My father was a fan of Grant Wood’s regionalist art. He was a tour guide at the Grant Wood Studio, and he displayed reproductions of American Gothic along with Stone City (1930) at his home. Much like a character in the background of Grant Wood’s paintings from the 1930’s, my father milked the cows and fed the horses every morning on the farm before walking several miles down a desolate gravel road to a one-room country grade school located in Walker, Iowa.

In 2012, I returned to Cedar Rapids to revisit the small towns of Eastern Iowa. I drove along the back roads and farms where my father grew up, and where Grant Wood found inspiration for the people and places captured in his art. All the while, I was collecting   musical ideas and mental images to create an emotional framework for my composition.

I.  On a Roll

The first movement features a rollicking melody with colorful orchestration, suggesting the vivid colors and dynamic curves of Grant Wood’s paintings of rural Iowa. Just as Grant Wood simplified elements of the Iowa landscape into a precisely placed compositional design, I have created an abstract musical pattern. Like the modernist geometric patterns imposed on rolling hills in Young Corn (1931) and in Spring Turning (1936), the music rolls along in a continuous ascending and descending melody that moves from one instrument to the other, from the tuba to the string pizzicato. The percussion crackles like the sound of the corn growing in row after row on a hot summer day. 

II.     Winter Dreams

The second movement is inspired by the bleak winter scenes of rural Iowa depicted in Grant Wood’s black and white lithographs of the 1930’s, such as “January” and “February.” The violins play a haunting melody in harmonics and the cellos respond with a melancholy countermelody, evoking a cold winter wind whistling down the valley. The title of this movement hearkens back to Jay Sigmund (1885-1937). As an Iowa poet and close friend of Grant Wood, Sigmund was instrumental in persuading Wood to turn his attention from France back to Iowa for artistic inspiration. In a poem entitled “Grant Wood,” Sigmund describes how “time found a new son / Dreaming on the plain.” 

III.       Pitchfork

The title of the third movement refers to the pitchfork gripped by the dour farmer who stands alongside his spinster daughter in Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic.  Many have speculated on the hidden meanings of this American masterpiece: is it a homage to the farmers of Iowa? A social satire? A political critique? A private joke?  For me, this iconic painting reveals the ambiguities of American culture and Grant Wood’s dry wit. After all, Grant Wood was a founding member of the infamous Grant Wood Garlic Club in Cedar Rapids, and a practical joker, like my father. For this movement,  have composed playful, toe-tapping music.  A quirky melody played by the woodwinds is punctuated by spiky chords in the brass section, and bluegrass riffs in the string section. Like the gothic window in the background of Grant Wood’s painting, this movement is a window into my contemporary musical vision of American Gothic.

                                                                                                      --Michael Daugherty


Daugherty's American Gothic paints new pictures with thrilling sonic sweeps

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Orchestra Iowa took a cheering audience on a wild ride through Grant Wood country Saturday night (5/4/13) with the world premiere of Michael Daugherty’s “American Gothic.”

The 20-minute work in three movements — commissioned by the orchestra for its Paramount Theatre triumphant homecoming season — is brilliant and breathtaking in scope and virtuosity.

This Grammy-winning native son, Daugherty, now 59, is among the world’s most-often performed American classical composers. We are so very, very fortunate that he remains so grounded, so tied to his Cedar Rapids roots that he jumped at the chance to not only create a work for the orchestra, but to spend a week lecturing, conducting, performing, meeting and signing autographs with area students and audiences.

Saturday’s 1,000+ Paramount audience crackled with excitement in the lobby, in a packed Insight discussion before the concert and in the spontaneous eruption of cheers, applause and an immediate standing ovation following the final notes. In a break with tradition, the audience also applauded between movements of the work. It was that outstanding.

In a very smart and much-appreciated move, Daugherty, a professor of composition at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, came onstage before the piece to give us a slide show and explanation of the music we’d be hearing. He took us on a pictorial journey through his childhood, as the eldest of five brothers who are all now professional musicians scattered across the country, then moved into the Grant Wood paintings and lithographs that inspired his “American Gothic.”

We knew that when the snare drum rolled at the start of the piece, we were hearing a tribute to Daugherty’s late father, Willis, a dance band drummer of regional renown who also led a decade of tours at 5 Turner Alley, the Cedar Rapids studio where Wood painted “American Gothic.” When the three trombones and tuba united near the end of that movement, we knew it was in homage to Iowa’s barbershop quartet heritage, captured in Wood’s 1939 lithograph, “Shrine Quartet,” and that Wood, himself, sang in a Shrine quartet.

All the details Daugherty shared with us sprang to life as the music unfolded.

“On a Roll” took us on a roller coaster ride through the hills and valleys of Wood’s Eastern Iowa homeland. “Winter Dreams” painted a haunting, stirring picture of Depression-era desolation amid whipping winter winds and snowdrifts. “Pitchfork” — as sharp and witty as the iconic centerpiece of Wood’s “American Gothic” — gave us a rousing hoedown finale leading to a thunderous audience ovation.

Like Wood’s art, Daugherty’s work is complex, layered, evocative and laced with humor. The Paramount’s retooled acoustics let all the solo voices shine, from piccolo and alto flute to rapid-fire tuba. Oboe, French horn, clarinet, percussion, strings, trumpet — all had their moments of glory.

A special shout out, however, goes to the guest concertmaster, Julliard student Luke Witchger of Omaha. Not only does he handle all the demanding classical and avant-garde violin demands with grace and impeccable style, he rips through some darned good orchestral bluegrass like an Appalachian pro. That summer he spent at fiddle camp — which he admits to with a shake of his head — really paid off.

That was the sheer joy of the final movement. Orchestral bluegrass. How many times do you see that in a sentence? Or the final crash of the harp on “Winter Dreams” or the opening mallets on everyday glass bottles from the farm on “American Gothic.” That’s typical Daugherty — full of surprises when you least suspect them. Listeners never know what to expect from him, but it’s always magnificent and a joy to behold.

The concert opened with “The Rock,” a lesser-known work by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and closed with Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor. Both pieces tell stormy tales — the first of a blizzard, the latter punctuated by aural thunder and lightning — making them perfect pairings for Daugherty’s environmental theme.

With all the wildness crashing around, each composer gives us gorgeous, shimmering passages that just make you say, “ahhhh.” And Maestro Timothy Hankewich, always so focused and in command, especially during Daugherty’s demanding artistry, got to relax and dance in his signature style through the Dvorak, making this final work as fun to see as it was glorious to hear.

This triumphant concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sunday (5/5/13) at West High School in Iowa City and May 12 at Ottumwa’s Bridge View Center. Orchestra Iowa will record “American Gothic” next week, and CEO Robert Massey says it will air on Iowa Public Radio later this year.

Related: Orchestra Iowa premieres ‘American Gothic’


Young Corn (1931) Grant Wood

                                        YOUNG CORN (1931), GRANT WOOD


January (1939) Grant Wood

                                                JANUARY (1939), GRANT WOOD


American Gothic (1930) Grant Wood

                                    AMERICAN GOTHIC (1930), GRANT WOOD


Grant Wood

                       GRANT WOOD (1891-1942)





For more information on Michael Daugherty' music visit:
Boosey & Hawkes
Peermusic Classical
Faber Music
American Composers Forum
Michael Daugherty Music