Saturday, 28 March 2015

CB America V 28 & 29 March 2015

CB America V

Track 1:  Fanfare For The New Atlantis, Hovhaness

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme of music from  the United States was researched and written by Michael Burrows.  We’ve just heard Fanfare For The New Atlantis by Alan Hovhaness.  Atlantis, a city fabled retrospectively for its advanced civilization, science and philosophy, is said to have disappeared beneath stormy waves of the Mediterranean, to be Invoked by ancient scholars and neo-Platonists of the 17th Century alike, a kind of missing link in the chain of human culture, a void on which any imagination could work wonders of Utopia and hopeful searching for solutions to earthly and heavenly mysteries, its true geographical and historical position or circumstances of loss being not the least of those mysteries.

Drawing of Atlantis

Hovhaness’ music calls forth this State of story in effortless grandeur of broad paragraphs, fluid but unobscure harmony and rich but clear-lined, trumpet--led orchestration, timeless, sombre, pure, with ancient gravity wrought out of chant and responses of deliberate weight, melody forming the rhythmical patterns, adorned by brass tuckets on one note and, latterly, thrilling scalic rushes in the string-section.  Some long-lost marvel rises up before our eyes.  An extraordinary vision, this, from 1975.

The United States has developed an enviable variety in self-expression in All genres of Art-music:   symphonists of the calibre of Hovhaness, Ives, Copland, Schuman, Sowerby,  Harris... and purveyors of morelight-weight music whose productions, though popular, are also to be discussed as an artistic achievement.   In light music, Jazz, though in itself an inexhaustibly creative tradition, surely doesn’t have things all its own way.  What are we to make, for example, of this spry and sage song written in evident heartfeltness by the  immensely vigorous and prolific March-king, John Philip Sousa?

Track 2:  You’ll Miss Lots of Fun When You’re Married, Sousa

You’ll Miss Lots of Fun When You’re Married, by Sousa.

Trained at Reed College and the Eastman School of Music, Jacob Avshalamov was born in China in 1919.  His Siberian father, Aaron, was his first teacher, a composer in his own right and collector of Chinese folk music, which influenced his and, later, certain of his son’s works; Jacob’s other tutors included Ernst Toch and Aaron Copland.   His works include large-scale cantatas and symphonic movements as well as numerous small-scale instrumental pieces and songs.  Let’s hear his song for soprano, accompanied by flute, viola and piano, Taking Leave of A Friend, one of 3 settings of poems by the T’ang poet, Li Po.  Wholetone, euphonious and gentle, there is a Ravellian sensibility in this music, the accompaniment seemingly incised in its sparseness, the line improvisatory-sounding in its imitative entries.  After a long introduction, the voice comes in on its deeply nostalgic atmosphere.  This song was Avshalamov’s first chamber-piece, composed when he was 20, but revised many years later.    

Track 3:  Taking Leave of A Friend, Avshalamov

One name in our list of great symphonists of the United States may not be well-known to even many Americans.  Leo Sowerby, known largely for his church-music and songs, wrote 5 symphonies for orchestra, one for solo-singers, choir and orchestra  and two for organ-solo.  The Second orchestral Symphony was written in 1927-8, when Sowerby was 32 years old, his career as composer and choir--master and teacher well into its stride, with frequent large-scale commissions from  the then conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock to live up to.  In three movements, the Symphony in B Minor is a compact, well-argued piece, elliptical and introspective, in which power is derived from limitation of means.  The first movement, Sonatina, is formed from two subjects with a bridge-passage between them.  The first subject is chant-like, with some jazzy irregularity of rhythm and teasing turns of harmony.  The bridge passage brings one to a less busy but somehow restless, questioning lyricism.  Development follows, with percussively underlined fragments of the chant in canon and imitation, combined with the second  subject, which is as summarily dealt-with.  The First Subject and bridge-passage only are recapitulated, the bridge-passage elaborated and, after further squalls, the close gives almost the last word to the bridge-passage, as fresh in high woodwind as at first, but the dying fall belongs to the first subject, smoothed, but defiantly in the minor.  This is fascinating, teasing music, recognizably of its time and nation, every bit as effective as the symphonies of Copland, and of similar sources in Americana – perhaps of urban jazz and New England, with a soupcon of the Mid-West.

Track 4:  2nd Symphony in B Minor, Movt 1:  Sonatina, Sowerby

The film-music of Elmer Bernstein increased the stature of movies of all kinds.  Westerns, war-films, thrillers, fantasy-pictures for children.  The BridgeAt Remagen was no masterpiece as either history  or convincing drama unless Bernstein shaped one’s reaction to what one saw or heard.  In the brazen fanfare and loping, syncopated titles-theme – note the violins in unison here   - one crosses the Rhine, whatever the cost.  If you ignore the syncopation you may think that the tune resembles either liturgical chant or a Lutheran hymn; it is certainly an impressively broad and valiant melody.  Syncopation cuts across its accents, and  the harmonies refuse it easy passage.  War’s toll on young lives is hinted-at by a contrasting, slow-swinging, waltz--like theme heard after the repeat:  a tune of pathos and near-musical-box sonority, sweet violins singing in a nursery of the vanity of human wishes and of just war, given tension by regular phrasing, passing-notes and appoggiaturas.  This apparition ripples over one’s ears before one is returned to the theme of duty and endeavour and fanfare to close.  One may wonder if in this piece, one has the opening of a monumental symphonic movement.  How often this is true of music written for films.

Track 5:  The Bridge At Remagen, Bernstein

Carl Ruggles, born a year after Charles Ives, died in 1971, having outlived all the great early experimenters of the early 20th Century United States.  A comrade-in-arms of the immensely prolific Ives and Henry Cowell, he also enjoyed a long retirement, leaving a small corpus of work.  An individualist of dogmatic, arrogant manner, he wasted few words on detractors or supporters.  Such works as Suntreader,an orchestral piece based on Apache ritual, are proof that he had no time for conventional tastes or consonance; to him, discord pursued to the conclusion one wished was the be all and end all of real, individualistic music – of real American music.  On the other hand, one can adduce the day Ives caught him sounding the same simple chord over and over on the piano – Ruggles said that he was giving the chord ‘the test of time’!   Here, in contrast to his friend Cowell’s Grinnell Fanfare, is his piece for muted brass ensemble – four trumpets and two trombones -  Angels.

It should be noted that to score a piece for brass wholly con sordino is a fine way to create almost the dullest sound imaginable; only a real or exceptionally self--important composer would set himself such a challenge.  Then again, mutes ensure that the clashes in the parts are set up without unintentional resonance.   Angels is, as perhaps it should be, a remote, hieratic experience for the listener, immediate and becomingly terse. Angels are not necessarily beings of heat.

 Track 6:  Angels, Ruggles

Aaron Copland was not only one of America’s great modernist composers and teachers, but also a committee-man who represented the interests of composers in a nation of individualists that was and is curiously addicted to  committee-work.  Driving him thoughout his long career was a determination to create a democratic form of art--music that would break the hold of internationalist elitism on the world of American music, and represent more truly and inspire the best aspects of the peculiar nature of the American people.  Personally left-wing and liberal -as such allegiances are understood in the United States – he was inspired by American national symbolism in which a folk-hero – be he Billy The Kid or Abraham Lincoln – expressed something Of hope in the national character.  One of his most famous populist Works is, of course, Lincoln Portrait, an orchestra-accompanied  monologue  based on extracts from Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress of December 1862, a political debate held before Lincoln became President,  a letter and the famous Gettysburg Address, possibly the greatest, most powerful – and unifying - speech heard during the Civil War.  Interleaved are framing interjections including a physical description of him during his presidency.  The work, written with obvious moral effect in mind, was premiered within a year of the United States’ entry into the Second World War.  It is formed in three parts beginning with an introduction to evoke what Copland called ‘the mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln’s character.  Also,...something of his  gentleness and simplicity of spirit.’  A hymn, is quoted, Springfield Mountain, the tune given to clarinet over simple chords for strings.

A livelier, percussive, section treats Lincoln’s wilder days of youth – Copland utilizing his own gift for ‘American’ Tunes and sonorities - and adding Campdown  Races for good measure.  At the close of this scherzando section, the music broadens as destiny – or mysterious fatality – takes over.

The third section brings the piece to its climax – the spoken word and – at last, the Gettysburg Address capped with Springfield Mountain, most poignantly given to a Taps - or Last Post-like trumpet.  The piece ends in an abiding expression of wonder, love and inspiration.  Is this President Lincoln or another New Atlantis that we hear rise before us?  The symbol is perhaps greater than any man, but a hint of the ideals that we should serve as citizens as well as individuals.  Certainly, no modern politician in his or her right mind should set him- or herself up as speaker in this piece; to do so insults the historic symbol and is bound to let down listeners in their actual hopes; no real politician can be a Lincoln, and no-one should ever clothe him- or herself in words that will certainly dwarf him or her – as kingly robes dwarf Macbeth.  Those politicians who try  (and some have unaccountably done so), sound absurd or flatly disingenuous.

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and  I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme of American music was written and researched by Mike Burrows.  We hope that you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon.

Track 7:  Lincoln Portrait, Copland