Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Program Notes for October 2012

What does it mean for music to be American? Is music as simple as birthright? Is it American music if the compositional styles in the work were strongly influenced by a different culture? What if a significant part of the composer’s training took place outside of the United States? And what if, within the diversity of the great American experiment, musical styles were mixed and boundaries were blurred…the music might be American, but is it still classical?

These questions have been asked in many contexts—sometimes with agendas—since the idea of Americanism began to form, and while it may remain elusive to define, American music is distinct. Tonight’s program is a celebration of musical Americana.

Samuel Barber
Essay no. 1, Opus 12
Instrumentation: 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, piano and strings

Samuel Barber was born in West Chester Pennsylvania; a borough steeped in the American Revolutionary lore of nearby Valley Forge and the Brandywine Battlefield. West Chester is only twenty-five miles west of Philadelphia, and it was there, at the recently opened Curtis Institute that Barber began his academic musical training at the age of 14. When he was 21 he began to put himself on the map by composing works (like Dover Beach and the School for Scandal Overture) still in the repertoire today.

Barber was 28 on November 5, 1938 when Toscanini premiered both the “Adagio for Strings,” and this “Essay for Orchestra” on a single program. The live radio broadcast was heard by millions of Americans in that golden age where whole families huddled around a piece of technology that gave them new access to live events. The broadcast, like all of the NBC symphony Orchestra programs by Toscanini, was transmitted from studio 8H in Rockefeller Center; the same studio from which Saturday Night Live has been transmitted since its inception in the mid 1970s.

Both the “Adagio for Strings” and the “Essay for Orchestra” resonated with the concerns of an age on the very doorstep of the second world war. The Adagio remains the most frequently performed orchestral work by Barber, but the Essay allows us a glimpse into American music from the late 1930s and its associations remain almost completely unchanged.

By “Essay” Barber did not mean the kind of assignment drudgingly created for a teacher the night before it was due. Instead this was a reference to the classical essay; the highly personal exploration of a theme developed by writers of the age of enlightenment, like John Locke or Alexander Pope. Essays span the compositional career of Barber: he wrote a work called “Three Essays for Piano” at age 16 and wrote two other essays for orchestra, the second in 1942 and the third in 1978.

The Essay No. 1 opens in melancholic mood with a quickly identifiable “theme.” The music intensifies in steady and gradual motion until a massive brass fanfare is sounded three minutes into the piece. A transitional passage follows in which the mood of the opening in punctuated by swells and fanfares. Next is developmental music marked by quickly articulated string figures. The melancholy opening theme is overlaid on this playful music, then the piano enters and the texture intensifies quickly. A tense coda with echoed trumpets closes the work abruptly without a sense of finality.

Edward MacDowell
Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 23

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.

Edward MacDowell was a versatile and internationally trained musician. He was born in New York City and began his musical studies there. As a young man he enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire and a year later traveled to Germany to study in Frankfurt before settling in Wiesbaden. He returned to the Boston in 1888 where he lived until 1896, then moved back to Manhattan to begin a professorship at Columbia University. He held that position until his health gave way in 1904. It was while he was living in Boston that he wrote his second piano concerto.

MacDowell spoke the language of Victorian chromaticism. When the floating string texture that opens the work is finally broken by otherinstruments it will sound like a modulation, but it is actually a clarification that brings us back toward home within the tonality of D minor. Like the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, written less than ten years before it, the MacDowell concerto features a vigorous cadenza for solo piano just after the opening orchestral statement. The first movement sparkles with variety. Listen in particular to differences in the speed and flow of its articulations.

There is also a wit characteristic of MacDowell in transforming themes throughout the entire work; in developing ideas that are more related than they might appear to be at first to be. There is also a kind of pleasure taken in finding unexpected textures within this concerto. When the first movement finds its way into F major for its second theme group we might expect the piano soloist to articulate the gorgeous tune set against the flowing background, but instead the piano plays effervescent figuration throughout this passage, and even when the same passage is resolved in D major near the end of the movement the piano does not state the theme.

Another unusual feature is that both the second and the third movements explore playful textures. The third movement begins with a slow introduction developed from transitional music in the opening movement, but once the quicker tempo gets underway its puckish humor is marked by pastoral interludes.

MacDowell’s wife was also a talented pianist. She described his interest in “sprites” and other elfin spirits, and according to her he favored “the mischievous demons or elves who fly in clouds through the air, like pixies. They were light gossamery nothings, mischievous, but delicate as a feather, wafted by the swift March breezes.” Perhaps as you listen you will become aware of these and other fascinating spirits in the music.

George Gershwin
An American in Paris
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 3 saxophones and strings.

At age 15 he was a “song-plugger.” He was paid the respectable salary of $15 a week to play new sheet music in a retail store to generate interest and promote sales. But George Gershwin also wrote his own songs, and at age 21 his song “Swanee” put him on the charts and changed the course of his life. In 1924 he began a string of legendary Broadway productions with “Lady Be Good,” and simultaneously broke into classical music with “Rhapsody in Blue.” Gershwin’s third significant orchestral work in the classical idiom (following the Concerto in F from 1925) was “An American in Paris.”

The original program notes indicate that Gershwin intended to “portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.” We can easily follow this “tourist” through the work if we set our aural GPS to mark occasions when the concertmaster plays alone, because the music divides into sections that are clearly divided by passages for solo violin.

The first half of the work is given to various transformations of “walking music.” The sound of car horns punctuates this extended section and gives it attitude. Throughout you will notice moments where the drive of energy pauses in reflective stances, or in melancholy lyrical interludes that pull at the otherwise cheerful proceedings.

The entrance of the celesta precedes the first passage for solo violin, which ushers in a slow blues in B-flat. Listen for the sound of the trumpet that plays with a special mute called a “felt crown.” Solo violin writing also marks the transition into a fast blues based initially on a 12-bar pattern.

Themes return and combine in new ways as the music seeks finality. The walking music brings us to the musical equivalent of an “escalator” that closes the work in high spirits.

George Gershwin
Rhapsody in Blue
Instrumentation: solo piano and 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 alto saxophones in E-flat, tenor saxophone in B-flat; 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; percussion: timpani, banjo, and strings.

Imagine the surprise when he opened the New York Tribune on Friday morning January 4, 1924 and read that “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto.” It was the first that he had heard of it. The concert was already booked for February 12—less than five weeks away, and though he had spoken informally about writing a short piece for this ensemble nothing had ever been finalized. The event was organized by a bandleader named Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) who had a golden touch and was recently dubbed “The King of Jazz.” Gershwin did not want to disappoint the “King.”

Whiteman’s 24-piece dance ensemble was to be featured in an educational program called "An Experiment in Modern Music." The intent was to show how jazz had developed in recent years and how it could hold its own in the concert hall. Gershwin could not resist, even though his show “Sweet Little Devil” was about to open and he was rehearsing for a recital with soprano Eva Gauthier. He produced a two-piano score and gave it to Whiteman’s pianist and speedy arranger Ferde GrofĂ© (1892–1972) to orchestrate for the Whiteman ensemble. Gershwin played the piano at the premiere. GrofĂ© expanded upon the orchestration of the work in 1926 and again in 1942, as the work became ever more popular.

The music opens by stating and developing a blues theme. The collection of episodes that follow have acquired colorful names: the “train theme,” followed by the “stride theme,” and the “shuffle theme.” Textures built from these themes mix and alternate until the appearance of the famous “love theme” in E major.

In 1976 United Airlines reportedly licensed segments of the “Rhapsody” from the Gershwin estate for $500,000, and the shuffle theme and love music became mainstays of United Airlines commercials in the mid 1980s. According to the Chicago Tribune the airline plans to continue the association even after its recent merger with Continental Airlines. This advertising context created an awareness of the music across audiences more diverse than either Gershwin or Whiteman would have ever predicted in their original “Experiment in Modern Music.” Is there another work of American classical music which has the visibility and general recognition factor of this Rhapsody?

Jeffrey Johnson
University of Bridgeport

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