Scott Joplin Made Ragtime His Own

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 23 Nov 2015.]

This week we celebrate Scott Joplin’s birthday, which many believe was on November 24th, 1868. WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at a facet of his life that may have led to that unique contribution he made to American music: ragtime.

ScottJoplinA German immigrant taught music for five years in a little Texas town to a poor African-American boy; taught him for free; taught him piano and harmony, music theory and music history; taught what he considered the greatest music of all—opera.

Scott Joplin never forgot Julius Weiss, and sent him money later on, when he had some. In between, Joplin entertained at the piano and with bands, and wrote songs. He may have first heard ragtime at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It became a craze, but skyrocketed in 1899 when Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” was published.

Ragtime mixes Sousa marches, European dances like the polka, and African-American syncopation. Joplin lifted it from crude dance accompaniment into a miniature art-form, filling it with luscious harmony and smart melody. There would be no improvising in his music.

But during his ragtime success he was trying to write operas. One was lost, and then he worked night and day on Treemonisha, but it failed at its hastily prepared New York premiere just before he died in 1917.

Ragtime revived decades later, not the least because of the 1973 film The Sting. We now see Scott Joplin’s gifts, and perhaps we can see what he couldn’t: Maybe “The King of Ragtime” was writing opera after all.


Vespers with The Choristers

VespersChoristersWhat a stupendous concert with Vespers and The Choristers! They are the first non-professional, non-university choir to perform the entire Vespers, and it came off brilliantly at Saturday night’s concert in the beautiful Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pa.

When their artistic director David Spitko approached me about taking on Vespers, the first thing I told him was, “It’s hard, you know.” This is a bit of an irony for me, since I had spent a good bit of my career writing fairly easy choral music for small church choirs. But Piffaro, The Renaissance Band commissioned me for a work for which they would hire The Crossing, the contemporary-music choir who can sing anything with one arm tied behind their back. So I made much of it, well, hard, including polyrhythmic (and unmeasured) chanting, long swaths of unaccompanied singing, and much divisi, including a good chunk of one hymn written in 16 voices.

Piffaro and The Crossing followed up the premiere and recording with more performances a couple years later. University choirs and others took on separate parts of it, some of which used modern-instrument arrangements I made ad hoc. Donald Nally, conductor of The Crossing, took it with him for performances with Northwestern University. Seraphic Fire gave multiple performances this past spring with Piffaro, and there are future concerts in the works.

David said that, yes, he knew it was hard, but that he absolutely had fallen in love with Vespers, had already pored over the score (PDFs come with the CD), was convinced that his group could do it, and was determined to hire Piffaro for the concert. Clearly, Dave had done his homework, and very quickly made all the stars align for this to happen.

His preparation paid off. When I arrived at a rehearsal over a week ago, they had already been looking at it and rehearsing since the summer. I knew at the rehearsal that it was going to work. At the dress rehearsal Friday night, it was glorious.

They opened the concert with three Palestrina works, led by associate conductor Kelly Wyszomierski. Piffaro then performed an instrumental-only set. I talked a bit, there was a short intermission, and the second half was Spitko conducting The Choristers and Piffaro in Vespers.

They lifted the roof.

I can’t thank David enough for his love of the music and for his doggedness in willing this performance into reality. The soloists were marvelous: Malinda Hasslett, Maren Montalbano, Lawrence Jones, Frank Mitchell, and joining on the Magnificat, Rebecca Siler and Jacqueline Dunleavy. The choir of about 65 rocked! I was thrilled beyond words by their work, dedication, and beautiful sound. Many of them came up to me during rehearsals and after the concert to tell me how much this experience meant to them, and how touched they were by Vespers. This means everything.

Thank you, David, thank you, Choristers, thank you, supporters and funders, thank you, Piffaro, thank you, soloists, and thank you friends old and new who came out. It was a special experience I will never forget.

Patriotism and Music

[First published in Broad Street Review, 17 Nov 2015; printed here by permission.]

flagOn 9/11, on that Tuesday in 2001, the first thing I did was to put up the American flag. I went into the coat closet, fetched it, went out on the porch, put the staff into the holder, tightened down the knob, looked at the flag hanging there for a minute, and went back inside. I left it there for 11 years. I asked myself often in the days following 9/11, and then in the ensuing weeks and months and years, if I should take it down. The answer was always “No.” Eventually, though, one day the answer came back, “Okay, that’s enough,” and now it’s back to flying on holidays.

Sibelius’s Finlandia, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and a new work by Hannibal, One Land, One River, One People were on the Philadelphia Orchestra program Saturday evening. But the concert opened with an unscheduled piece, “La Marseillaise.” Because of the terrorist attacks in Paris the day before, concerts everywhere included the French national anthem. Whether it’s a natural calamity that devastates, like a tsunami hitting Japan, or a proclaimed and common enemy that attacks, like the Islamic State, we look for ways to unite with others in their grief.

Skip the national anthem

A couple of weeks ago in the Washington Post, Scott Cantrell expressed his dislike of hearing the national anthem at concerts. I appreciate his sentiment; I don’t think I’d like to hear it at every concert. But every one of his arguments, I believe, is wrong. Concerts are not patriotic displays, he writes, and this is true. But neither is a ball game. There’s no more reason for a patriotic display at a sporting event than at a musical one.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” doesn’t fit with Beethoven and Mozart in a concert, he writes. This may be true (I’m not sure it is, even though our anthem isn’t great music), but the appeal of the patriotic display lies in its dissonance—even its inappropriateness—to its surrounding. “That’s not why we’re there,” is correct. But a red, white, and blue flag also clashes with the cream yellow and green trim of my house. The clash is of no consequence; the appeal of both is even enhanced by the jarring.

Is patriotism the problem?

The problem, however, isn’t with patriotic display. It’s with patriotism itself, isn’t it? We can tell because the word is seldom allowed to stand on its own. Cantrell mentions “perfunctory patriotism” as if patriotism is always a pose, just as he mentions “narrow nationalism” as if nationalism is always jingoism.

But when I think of nationalism, I first think of that Sibelius Finlandia or of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, of Borodin and Grieg and Ives and Vaughan Williams and Bartók. I think of all the composers in all the countries who looked for, and found, and created their own country’s voice. Many times this nationalism sprang up to break the 19th-century hegemony of German training that ruled classical music. But whatever the reason, it advanced a love of country, and behind it, a love of liberty, which is after all what the “Marseillaise” or the “Hymn to Liberty,” is.

But doesn’t patriotism go beyond this?

Too much of a good thing?

Certainly it can feed into domination or tyranny or imperialism. But any good thing can be turned. Macbeth shows that even the love of one’s wife or husband can be ill-used. Loving your mother can be perverted, according to Psycho. But the love of mother, spouse, and country are good things. I don’t love America and my family because they’re good (I happen to think they are), but because they’re mine. I don’t therefore hate France or Finland or somebody else’s family; it’s not either/or. Rather, my love of country and family opens me up to all countries and to all families, because it opens me up to love.

True, it means that I’ll defend what’s mine. I haven’t lived in New Jersey for 40 years. But that’s where I’m from; I’ll always be a Jersey kid. I can make jokes about New Jersey, but, as this bit of doggerel explains,

The Barrens, gardens, suburbs, speak—
Along with beaches stretching wide,
Along with roads on which you ride—
And by themselves defy your cheek.
They don’t require, for all your fun,
Defense from me at what you spoke.
But try your lame New Jersey joke
On me; let’s see how much you laugh when we are done.

Flying many flags

Driving up Fifth Street, into Hunting Park and north, I see flags of Puerto Rico flying from cars. Pennsylvania is one of 19 states requiring just a rear license plate, so it’s not uncommon here to see Irish, Italian, German, U.S., and other flag plates on the fronts of cars. Those flags, of whatever country, are the emblems of American patriots, because anyone who loves any country that much knows what patriotism is, and will love this one, too.

I just finished a work called Grandmother’s Garden for the Settlement Music School Children’s Choir, to be sung next spring. The children’s book by John Archambault says that all of us—roses, carnations, whoever we are—grow in one garden. The rain falls and the sun shines on all of us together. Then it says this:

José from Mexico, Celine from France,
David, Mohammed, Sarah, and Hans,
Stanley, Tyler, Michael, and Collette,
Sergei, Kevin, Keiko from Japan,
In Grandmother’s garden, we are all one.

I love that José is from Mexico and that Celine is from France. That pride is real; that pride is good. I will stand during their national anthem any day of the week. There is no time clock on patriotic display or on grief. National pride is not the enemy of the oneness we hope for. Patriotism is the very ground of unity.

[Editor’s note: I am reminded of the scene in Casablancayou know the one.  Judy Weightman]

The Spirit of Copland

CoplandConductingThe spirit of Copland looks over Now Is the Time, Saturday, November 14th at 9 pm. It would be the 115th birthday of the son of Lithuanian immigrants, the son of Brooklyn, who, more than any other composer, defined what is “American” in American music. We think that there is at the very least a little of his spirit in the works on today’s show.

We open with Jennifer Higdon’s Fanfare Ritmico for orchestra, and proceed to the octet of Michael Whalen called The Circles of a Swallow. Jonathan Bailey Holland’s glowing Halcyon Sun provides counterpoint to Ben Hjertmann’s spare, incisive piano writing in On the Drawing of Constellations. Composer/cellist Clancy Newman closes the program with the fiddle-tune energy of his piano trio, Juxt-Opposition.

from Jonathan Bailey Holland: Halcyon Sun 

Jennifer Higdon: Fanfare Ritmico
Michael Whalen: The Circles of a Swallow
Jonathan Bailey Holland: Halcyon Sun
Ben Hjertmann: On the Drawing of Constellations
Clancy Newman: Juxt-Opposition

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, new American classical music on WRTI’s all-classical stream. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Aaron Copland’s Birthday on Fleisher Discoveries

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, November 14th, 5 to 6 pm (2nd Saturday this month!)

Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Fanfare for the Common Man (1942)
Copland. Dance Symphony (1925)
Copland. Short Symphony (1933)
Copland. Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra (with harp and piano) (1948)

coplandwmspaperThere are those who dislike speaking of greatness, either because they are uncomfortable with things that are great or with things that can be measured. But most of us acknowledge that things, people, music, and even composers can be great, and so, by just about any measure, most people would acknowledge that the great American composer is Aaron Copland. November 14, 2015, would be his 115th birthday.

His years, nicely rounded for remembering, span 1900 to 1990. They neatly illuminate his standing as the pre-eminent composer in the United States during the 20th century. All we have to do is scan a list of his works to see not only how many are continually performed, but how they have defined what is “American” in American music. Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, El Salón México, Old American Songs, Lincoln Portrait, the Third Symphony, Fanfare for the Common Man, film scores, and chamber works all attest to his importance as the composer above all others who would rightly be called the Dean of American Composers.

The irony of the son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants in Brooklyn becoming this bellwether of Americana has often been noted. That Copland was the most famous of the Americans who flocked to Paris for studies with Nadia Boulanger is also well known. What is not as familiar is the music he wrote even in Paris—ballet music that he worked into the Dance Symphony. We can hear him toying with the jazz language of the ’20s in this. It’s an element that would fade, but not disappear, from his composing toolkit. Leopold Stokowski gave the first performance of it in 1931 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, on a benefit concert for out-of-work musicians.

Dance Symphony is not one of his numbered symphonies, but the Short Symphony is actually No. 2. The Mexican composer/conductor Carlos Chávez gave the first performance with the Mexico Symphony Orchestra in 1934. (Chávez would also premiere El Salón México three years later.)

Benny Goodman, the huge entertainer of the 1930s and ’40s, commissioned Copland for a concerto, and he answered with one of the most delightful works of his career. Goodman was a highly respected musician beyond jazz and swing, and Copland presented him with a brilliant piece for the clarinet repertoire.

Our show begins with music Copland submitted for a project of 10 fanfares commissioned during the war by Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The music is ubiquitous, but let the Fanfare for the Common Man be a blazing reminder of the power, the individuality, the scope, and, yes, the greatness of Aaron Copland.

The Simple Gift of Aaron Copland

Copland[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 9 Nov 2015]

Even without Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland might still be considered the greatest American composer. But this week, as we celebrate Copland’s birthday, WRTI’s Kile Smith thinks that the key to Aaron Copland is heard more clearly in Appalachian Spring than in any other of his works.

He wrote complicated music, deep music. He was erudite, urbane, smooth, and up-to-date. He wrote books, he advised, he conducted, he moved and shook the centers of power. He was in Paris, he was in New York. He was all these things—but so were dozens of other composers.

What made Aaron Copland the American composer of the 20th century?

Without Appalachian Spring, Copland would still be one of our greatest composers. With Billy the Kid, Rodeo, the Third Symphony, Fanfare for the Common Man, and others, he would still be the most well-known.

But his 1944 ballet for Martha Graham, so identifiable as his, is a thing unto itself. Even though Graham came up with the title, even though Copland had no story in mind, Appalachian Spring defines him and defines American music unlike anything else.

And why? Well, the answer is simple. It’s summed up in a little tune he took from a mostly-forgotten religious sect, the Shakers. “Simple Gifts” is the answer. Yes, of course, it’s what Copland did with it, how he arranged and placed it, how he did all those complicated and deep and smooth things composers do. But the key to Aaron Copland’s greatness is exactly what he discovered in Appalachian Spring.

The answer is simplicity itself.

Two Pianos on Now Is the Time


detail from Lowell Liebermann: Complete Works for Two Pianos

It’s two pianos, four hands, and more on Now Is the Time, Saturday, November 7th at 9 pm. Lowell Liebermann has two works on the program, starting off with two pianos and eight hands (two belonging to himself), on Daydream and Nightmare. Later we’ll hear his Sonata for Two Pianos.

John Corigliano’s Chiaroscuro is for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart, producing luscious and unsettling sounds. Loose Changes is the Jed Distler work for two pianos, in ten short, continuous movements. Rounding out the show, the sound of Mexican children playing marbles inspires the “skulls and doves” of Calacas y Palomas by Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez.

from John Corigliano: Chiaroscuro (for 2 pianos tuned a 1/4-tone apart) 

Lowell Liebermann: Daydream and Nightmare for Two Pianos, Eight Hands
John Corigliano: Chiaroscuro
Jed Distler: Loose Changes
Lowell Liebermann: Sonata for Two Pianos
Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez: Calacas y Palomas

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, new American classical music on WRTI’s all-classical stream. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI!