Classical Break – America 3
We'd like to thank Judy Kirkham for the reading of two quotations in the course of this programme.
Track 1: Introit, The Peace, Let not your heart be troubled, Suite for Trumpet and Piano, Stephen Shewan
This is Classical Break and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme, researched and written by Mike Burrows, is an anthology of music from the United States.
We have just heard The Peace, Let not your heart be troubled, the second movement of the Suite For Trumpet and Piano, by Stephen Shewan. The Suite was written for the New York composer’s life, in 1995. A New Testament verse provided the melody for The Peace, which first saw the light of day as a hymn for soprano and piano. Taught composition by Samuel Adler, Shewan has a tonal though often dissonant idiom inflected by jazz, religious chant and the hymnal.
Actually, there in one sentence may lie the astonishing power of American Music: its culturally rich and creative mix. It achieves frequently what other countries’ musicians have struggled to do, squaring the circle of musical theory and self-expression with an appeal for others. In American music today, there are tonalists, pantonalists, serialists, jazz-composers, minimalists, folk-lorists, populists, all of whom, on their day, have the ability to bring the listener into intense communion.
Imagine how exciting it must be to belong to the evolution of a music in a country that has thriving academic departments and outreach in every major city, supported by a school and municipal system that values music as a communal expression... Choirs, orchestras, operatic and chamber ensembles, combos, bands: record companies whose interest is drawn by the music of every stripe and colour of Art-music... The frontier spreads, the possible ethnic and aesthetic syntheses of music
continue to be made. The philosophical achievement is great and healing for one of the world’s more inequitable and divided of societies.
Shewan is regarded as America’s John Rutter. This is not held against him by a nation that values the accessible and whose cognoscenti do not necessarily seek to prevent the lower orders from trespassing on the preserves of the affluent and privately-educated.
Vijay Singh is director of the Vocal Jazz Program at Portland State University. Here is his song of Winter for mixed choir, A Glimpse of Snow and Evergreen. This piece, faithfully reflecting the sentiments of its little verse, is set not a million miles from the Shakerish simplicity of quieter moments from Appalachian Spring - its harmonies, movement with passing notes, and even melodic shape from the days when United States art-music strove to escape the influences of German academe.
“So free, pristinely at peace,
So free, and free for all,
So peaceful, tranquil, beauty fair,
The cool white hush of snow.”
Track 2: A Glimpse of Snow and Evergreen, Vijay Singh
A New Yorker, Joseph Fennimore was trained at the Eastman and Julliard, and won a Fullbright Scholarship to study further in London. He has written in most genres. He made his name as a pianist and was director of the annual Hear America First concert series for five years before turning to full-time composition of music and libretti. His style is eclectic and often introspective, akin to that of Shostakovich – unexpected dissonant melodic turns or progressions causing one to question romantic expectation. Here is the opening movement from his Cello Sonata no 2, Fast, anguished.
This piece dates from 1984.
The restlessness of the music acts on the surface of music that owes much to romanticism – Brahms, for example - and Impressionism as well as social realism. There are clear contrasts in harried attempts at repose in cello, agitation and flightiness in the piano.
For an idea of the stylistic mix to be found in American music, the second movement of this Sonata, for which we sadly don’t have time, is in the tempo of a Mariachi (Mexican band-style) waltz, and sounds like Brahms or Dohnanyi gone wrong.
Track 3: Cello Sonata No 2, Fast, anguished, Fennimore
Joseph Lucasik’s Concertino for Alto Saxophone and Electronic Sounds was first performed at the World Saxophone Congress at Pesaro (the birth-place of Rossini!), in 1992. It is an intriguing piece, the accompaniment of the flighting soloist unearthly in shiny tingling timbres, long pedal-notes, unresonant harmonies and rhythmical crispness. Jazz – specifically the improvisatory music of John Coltrane – is clearly the idiom of the piece, the saxophone’s often rapid, high--pitched riffs in the outer movements requiring skill of a high order to perform. The middle, slow, movement is a night-piece, haunting, possibly influenced in its subtlety by the night-music of Bela Bartok, who succumbed to poverty and Leukaemia in the United States. The music moves meditatively through various consistent shifts in mood and style – the accompaniment consisting of sudden percussive knocks, oscillations, held harmonies and at times, a slow tread, under the gathering, rising and relapsing song of the saxophone. Loneliness in the city, a favourite subject with American composers since the days of Charles Ives and later, Aaron Copland? All ends inconclusively. The composer is a staff-member at the music theory and jazz faculties at the University of Colorado. Here is the Nocturne from his Concertino.
Track 4: Concertino for Alto Saxophone and Electronic Sounds, Lukasik
A song for children, now, by Bill Crofut. The Chipmunk’s Day. The poem was written by Randall Jarrell. The melody and style of accompaniment shows that traditional manners of folksong remain hardy in music of the United States.
Track 5: The Chipmunk’s Day, Bill Crofut
“There came to me in this case, a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood; that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale.”
This quotation from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden heads the score of Brian Banks’ tone poem for small ensemble, Forest Echoes. This transcendental evocation of the wilderness began as a piece for bass clarinet solo; the composer added other parts that act as ‘albeit abstract accompaniment’. String quartet, flute and percussion encircle the bass clarinet with fine-drawn or menacing Ravelian
pointillisme of harmonics and held notes, bird-calls, strokes of the wood-blocks and clash of gong, echoes perhaps of the Great (and deep) Spirit at centre: all reaches a level of intensity and fades out again...
Track 6: Forest Echoes, Brian Banks
In the Winter of 1942-3, almost a third of a million men of the German 6th Army were trapped by multiple forces of the Red Army at the city that they had been sent to take - Stalingrad. Efforts were made in freezing blizzard-weather to supply them with food and equipment by air, but failed with huge losses in men and transports. From Berlin, the Leader gave the Commander in the field the order to fight to the death.
Shortly before the surrender, a final mail-run was afforded the troops, so that they could send home
their last thoughts to loved ones or friends (in fact so that the state of morale, ie, loyalty, at Stalingrad and at home could be gauged). These letters were not passed on, but preserved on file,
names and addresses excised, by the Nazi Authorities.
Elias Tanenbaum, a modernist and jazz-musician from Brooklyn, was taught composition by a number of fine composers, including Wallingford Riegger and the Czech, Bohuslav Martinu.
In 1981, at a time of extreme international tension, he took twelve of the hoarded letters and created a powerful statement against War. Last Letters From Stalingrad – for Baritone, Guitar, Viola and Percussion.
The cycle has the immediacy and strange authenticity (not to mention expressionistic procedures) of Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw. A kind of speech-song is employed, with unnerving occasional use of a high falsetto register. The instrumentation is harsh, the violist required to play frequent harmonics and microtonal slides, the guitar oddly like a reminder of home, the percussion – various drums, bells, marimba - inimical, cold or funereal. The Winter chill, wreckage and threat of violence of these men’s last environment are palpable. The listener is entrapped.
The Gregorian funeral chant, Libera nos is referred to at every fourth song; during the last, the violaplays the German folksong, How Glorious Is Youth.
Let’s hear one of the songs - During The Last Two Nights. At its close, one hears a fragment of the Libera nos, to strokes of a passing--bell.
Track 7: No 4 of Last Letters From Stalingrad, No 4, Elias Tanenbaum
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914, Robert Ward studied at the Eastman and Julliard Schools of Music and the Berkshire Music Center – latterly with Aaron Copland. Another of his tutors was Howard Hanson. Here is a duet from Act 2 of his opera of 1964, LadyKate. Kate emigrated to England with her English husband, but the couple have now returned to their farm, disappointed in their hopes of wealth and social success; she is comforted by her friend, Eve, who is given a theme of certain faithand hope and some beauty.
The idiom of this piece is romantic, tonal, lyrical; less searching than that of Bernard Herrmann, and inhabiting, some might say, a zone that stretches between opera and musical theatre. In the US, later than in most other parts of the world, there was a vein of lyrical, period opera, mimicking the gold of European Late Romanticism, misnamed Grand and mined into the ‘Sixties and even ‘Seventies by many composers besides Virgil Thomson, whose opera, Byron, was perhaps the last gasp of the genre.
Eve, I can’t lie to an old friend, by Robert Ward.
Track 8: Lady Kate, Eve, I can’t lie to an old friend, Robert Ward
Four years older than Robert Ward, Read Gardner, from Illinois, studied at Northwestern University and the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan. A symphonist at his most ambitious, his strongest gift in composition was for writing art-songs. His choice of verse was wide, ranging from American and English poets of various epochs to Chinese poets in translation and Rabindrath Tagore. His painstaking style ranges from impressionistic modal and whole-tone work to a more abrasive expressionism. Here’s his ‘Lullaby For A Man-Child’, a setting for soprano, flute, harp and string quartet of a poem by Jean Starr Untermeyer, from his collection, Songs To Children, Opus 76, of 1947-9.
Track 9: Lullaby For A Man-child, Read Gardner
Another song for children by Bill Crofut, now, again, setting Randall Jarrell, The Bird of Night.
Track 10: The Bird of Night, Crofut
Leo Sowerby is remembered as “the Handel of Michigan”. It was the city in which he lived for most of his life. He was prolific, producing 550 works in all the art-genres save ballet or opera. Like many composers of his generation – he was born in 1899 – he learned to use modern techniques as they came along, and relied on a grounding in traditional styles that helped him to evolve with consistency, rather than this or that mark of fashion. His songs evolved as he did, from the idiom of Macdowall or Cadman through impressionism to astringent chromaticism. He was descended from English North Country people, and always felt an affinity with English music. This can be heard at every turn.
Here is his gaunt but determined Lyric of Spring, from 1944-6, a setting of Jeanne DeLamarter.
Track 11: Lyric of Spring, Sowerby
Our latest journey in the United States ends with the second movement of a diptych for wind orchestra, from 1979, After A Gentle Rain, by Anthony Iannacone. Iannacone was born in 1943, another alumnus of the Manhattan and Eastman Schools of Music.
The movement is entitled The Dark Green Reflects with Old Reflections. “The light reflecting off moist green foliage as a metaphor for ‘reflections’ (thoughts) on old memories” is, according to the composer, the subject of this music of vivid colours, in which impressionistic musical ideas seem indissolubly one with instrumental scoring. The composer believes that the music of Debussy – to be specific, the Prelude for piano, Les Collines d’Anacapri - was an unconscious influence on his methods in this work. Certainly, there is a use of short phrases, motifs and sequences and unsparing progressions through modal or whole-tone dissonance that might just be the work of the later Debussy.
This was Classical Break, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme on music from the United States was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon. Goodbye!
Track 12: The Dark Green Reflects with Old Reflections, Iannacone