CB America IV - for Thanksgiving weekend
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today, we continue our exploration of music of the United States. The script was written and researched by Mike Burrows. We began with a setting of Psalm 121, I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, for mezzo-soprano, choir and organ by the Michigan composer, Leo Sowerby (1895-1968). This work was written in the composer’s late twenties, after war-service in a US Artillery unit, and is remarkable for its serene, blues-tinged simplicity. The melodic line is narrow, overwhelmingly syllabic, the accompaniment sparse and largely chordal, the choral counterpoint limited but effective, the soloist preceding and following the affirmatory chorus, who have the last word – a single, syllabic Amen. Sowerby was a great and well-regarded writer of music for the Anglican Episcopal Church. He held a number of positions as organist and choirmaster – for example, at the St James Episcopal Church – now, cathedral – in Chicago. Self-taught at first – studying from books and the scores of composers such as Franck and Reger – and taking a correspondence-course with the Chicago Conservatory whilst in the Army, he was a modest practitioner who may have had much in common, as man and artist, with Cesar Franck, the ‘Pater Seraphicus’ of St Clothilde’s and Paris Conservatory.
Any ‘blues’ in this piece are owed more to the innocently Wagnerian Franck than to the jazz that as beginning to enliven most forms of American music in the first quarter Of the 20th Century.
Track 1: Psalm 121: I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes, Leo Sowerby
Some of the most tatty, rackety Instrumental playing ever recorded was issued In the teens of the Century In albums of New Orleans jazz. It has a raffish gloire all its own that increases the breadth of one’s smile when one is told of how American church leaders, social crusaders and municipal authorities campaigned with high zeal for crackdowns on jazz-clubs, and Jazz-performances after midnight, if not for a total ban! Jazz destroyed the moral fibre of all who heard it; it was the music of sexual abandon, alcoholism, drug-addiction and gambling! Jass was the negro word for sexual arousal! This appalling threat to religion and public morals began at revival meetings, in theatres, dance-halls, restaurants, bars and brothels and on bandwagons; many of the performers were blacks or poor whites, self--taught and, worse still, talented and, to a high degree, rightly cocky.
Growing out of rag-time and blues,and also Jewish klezmer, Jazz’s busy textures and frantic manners would be nothing without the momentum Created by characterful rivalry for predominance in the hectoring vividness of the band. Cornet, clarinet, trombone, piano and percussion – a typical early jazz-line-up - form a brilliantly humorous or sardonic combination – possibly originating in the theatre orchestra-pit: a raucous, gaudy combination, razzing all classical or romantic concepts of their natures . Here is one of the earliest jazz-recordings: The Ostrich-walk, composed by Nick LaRocca, cornetist extraordinaire, and performed by him in the company of his Original Dixieland Band, in 1917.
Track 2: The Ostrich Walk, LaRocca
One may say that the aggressive on-olling sound moves faster than tanks of the day, to crazy effect.
The tune comes in for treatment – It is made to be an indestructible ‘standards, made up by someone who had a talent for invention; apparently, LaRocca was the only member of his band who could read music: improvisation, very often an informally-acquired skill, took over, the piano and percussion maintaining rhythm, the cornet,clarinet and trombone given the spaced, repeated hooks, imitations and discoveries that characterize this idiom.
In contrast to LaRocca’s “white jazz”, here are Jelly-roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers in Dr Jazz, by King Oliver, recorded In 1925. It Is matter for conjecture why the boys of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, surrounded as they were by black bands, were the First recorded jazz-musicians. They have impetus and blague not matched by Morton and his fellow band-members, a comic timing hard to define but real. In comparison, the black band appears less abrasively assertive, but it is arguable that LaRocca and Co have less poise and self-awareness, less independence within their ensemble – less-developed solos; overall, theirs seems the less fluent accomplishment...
Track Three: Dr Jazz, Oliver
There’s no doubt that early jazz, whether white or black, was an accomplished form of music; its practitioners could say that if they were not concert-hall musicians, it might be equally said that concert-hall musicians hadn’t the first idea of how to make jazz-music. The skills of self-taught folk-musicians who conceal awkward note-acquisition, pentatonic modality, unmigrating tonality and harmonies discovered whilst a-wandering behind quick tempos, repeated notes and daring or wrong-right harmonic or contrapuntal shifts, are often coveted by trained virtuosi. So it is between jazz- and Art-musicians. At the same time, folk-music has a lyrical pathos of simplicity, and jazz had developed in that direction, too, in slow blues and Spirituals. The blues originated in work-songs, The spiritual in white hymns. Jazz is neither Black nor White. It is migrant: it is the music of the oppressed – of Italians, Jews and African Americans – all victims of the post-Civil War settlement and a competitively capitalist industrial society in which the Dollar is President, and slum-dwelling, low-paid labour, deprivation and the poorhouse are the lot of those who give him his wealth in return for uncertain employment and subsistence. How’s this for thrift: the poor turn misery and defiance into music - and that music beggars spoilt rich people’s best efforts in verve and expressiveness: sooner than wealth can synthesize this elixir vitae, it finds itself paying true exponents, whose genius changes and reinvigorates bourgeois art-music forever. Good jazz is a locus classicus for unpermitted culture and dexterity, spirit, intelligence and expressiveness. It was once seen as revolutionary. It is a music of passive or active resistance and folkish self-assertion, a music that illuminates fashionable life to this day, at its most characteristic when provided by brilliant, burn-out-risking illuminati among the poor or descendants of the poor of all races.
Let’s hear the traditional song, I’ve Heard of A City Called Heaven,performed by the Hall Negro Quartet, in 1941.
Track 4: I’ve Heard of A City Called Heaven, Trad
Archishman Ghosh is a young Indian scientist and musician. He composes songs and piano-pieces in his spare time, inspired by German romantic poetry and the music of Romantics such as Chopin, Wagner, Wolf, and, most recently, Grieg and Grainger. He earns his place in this programme as he resides in Florida and as hewrites as well as anyone, having both the ‘can-do’ attitude and faculty of stern self-criticism to boost his undeniable technical skills. Out of many influences, he appears to be forming himself, as any American would be proud to do. One has a few small but well-made piano-pieces, and thoughts that potential is already realizing itself. Here is the March in A, a droll march and more searching trio. The piece ends with both flourish and question-mark – an achievement in itself! Its material is rich and enharmonically modulatory, while the direction remains adroitly clear.
Track Five: March in A, Archishman Ghosh
Peter Boyer, born in 1970, wrote a work that expresses much of the awe, gratitude and trepidation felt by immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island, the immigration reception-point lying off New York City, watched over by the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island: The Dream of America is a melodrama – a piece for speakers and musical accompaniment, in this instance, a symphony orchestra. Actual memories are linked by orchestral commentary and interludes. The style of the music is filmic. Its sturdier moments, in the currently revived everymanish Copland-era idiom, are surrounded by a neo-romantic lyricism suited to epic movies, and more imaginatively conceived passages of menace – of which modern film-composers are well-capable. Here are the Second Interlude and memories of Lillian Galleta, who emigrated from Italy in 1928.
Tracks 6, 7: Ellis Island: The Dream Of AmericaThe United States had its share of pianist-composers formed in the mould of the European tradition. Such an one was Henry Holden Huss, who hailed from Newark, New Jersey. Born to an affluent, musical family – his father was a friend of the much-travelled lion of the keyboard, Anton Rubenstein – he was trained at Munich and became not only a Fine pianist with a national reputation, but also a purveyor of excellently-crafted salon-pieces that became popular with pianists of the parlour. Books of character-pieces, dances, album-leaves, reflections and the like flowed from his pen. A class or more up from hymns, patriotic or sentimental songs, ragtime or darky-music, it is music wonderfully well-turned by a hand that has worked hard enough to conceal all effort in the making. Then again, it is of its time as experienced by a very isolatedly cultured class. Formally unexceptional in every regard, melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, tonal and developmental, it must be heard on its own terms. Isn’t this true of all music of another age? Much of it was of another age when composed. Francophile, Russophile, Brahmsian? It is none the worse for its conservatism, it seems. Here is the Menuet Rococo, Number one of Three Pieces, Opus 26, published in 1917.
Track 8: Menuet Rococo, Huss
All Day and All Night, Music. The 13th Century Sufic poet, Jelaluddin Rumi Wrote a work of six books, the Mathnawi; 64,000 lines of verse that have exercised men’s minds ever since. Once a source of wisdom for New England’s Transcendental philosophers and novelists, Rumi has inspired a thirteen-movemented cantata by that hugely active figure in modern American Art-music, Christopher Theofanidis. At the time of its composition, there was increased curiosity about Islam, owing to the suicide attacks on the WTO buildings and Pentagon. Nine-Eleven Is not to be seen as An inspiration or influence on the form that this work took. Written in an idiom similar to that of Carmina Burana, with clear lines and harmonies and rhythmic spring percussively underlined, largely homophonic or chordal writing for the choir, and bold contrasts in orchestral tone, The Here and Now is a further example of contemporary attempts to relate post-modern Art-music to the moods and musical sense of the public. It reminds us of concepts of Gebrauchtsmusik of the ‘20s and ‘30s of The Last Century, perhaps without the sense of educational zeal. This is practical music with a social purpose, a commissioned message. Here is the Fourth Movement, All Day and Night ,Music.
Track 10: The Here and Now, 4. All Day and Night, Music, Theofanidis
Meredith Willson, from Mason City, was given formal training at the Damrosch Institute in New York, where he became a flautist, paying his way through school by performing as a cinema-pianist. He was offered a place in Sousa’s famous band, and from there made his own name as a composer. A hit on Broadway with such musicals as The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, he also wrote concert-music, including two symphonies in the pictorial manner of Ferde Grofe. His Second Symphony, The Missions of California, dates from 1940, and commemorates in particular the missionary work of a Spanish Franciscan, Father Junipero Serra. The finale is a celebration of the building of a road that connected the missions. As might be expected of an alumnus of Sousa’s band, the writing for all sections of the orchestra is impressive in blend and contrast, bright-toned, and the overall mood both active and optimistic. Themes from the earlier movements are redeveloped and combined and come to a brassy, bell-capped climax. A fine work.
Track 11: Symphony No 2, lV, El Camino Real, WillsonThe murder of a President of the United States causes reverberations that last for decades. Horror that such a deed against the person of the supreme elected official of the Union remains possible is increasingly succeeded by suspicions as to who ‘put the assailant up to it’. The United States has a highly organized Society, with powerful sectional interests that have very little to do with democracy if they can help it. In September, 1901, it was President McKinley who lay dying, reportedly singing Nearer, My God, to Thee. In New York digs nicknamed Poverty Flat, Charles Ives wrote a Memorial Slow March that has sadly not come down to us in its original form. On the other hand, he worked on another piece at about this time. Scored for trumpet, trombone and four sets of bells pitched in different keys, From The Steeples and The Mountains originated in a childhood memory of his father’s trying to reproduce the effect of Danbury’s church-bells on the family piano as they were rung in a rainstorm. George Ives was every much as revolutionary a musician as his son, a Civil War Army bandmaster – thus the Taps-call at the outset - who had his own ideas. Charles’ mother remembered that the bells were rung in alarm in the middle of the night, after a lightning strike on a row of a houses. This piece speaks of those bells – and, also, of how the age-old New England hills take up the shout of New England bells. It sounds like a reaction to the death of a McKinley – or a J F Kennedy. From The Steeples and The Mountains, by Charles Ives. We began our programme looking to the hills, like Leo Sowerby, and end it by looking to them in the manner of Charles Ives. It’s the American way.
This was Classical Break, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme, on music of the United States, was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon. Goodbye!
Track 12: From The Steeples and The Mountains, Ives