Monthly Archives: December 2015

Bristow and the Beginning of American Orchestral Music

George Frederick Bristow (1825–1898). Rip Van Winkle, Overture (1855)
Bristow. Symphony No. 2. “Jullien” (1853)


George Frederick Bristow (1825–1898)

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, Jan. 2nd, 5–6 pm…

At the beginning of a new year, consider the beginning of American orchestral music. George Frederick Bristow was the first American-born composer to succeed with that transplanted European institution, the symphony orchestra.

It took until the 1850s for this to happen, but that shouldn’t surprise. The oldest major symphony orchestra in the United States, the New York Philharmonic, wasn’t founded until 1842, as the Philharmonic Society of New York. Orchestras in the U.S. were until then mostly small ad hoc groups assembled for dances or other festivities. Musical organizations such as the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, founded in 1815, and the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia (1820), both still going strong today, generally focused on choral or chamber works. Italian opera was popular, as were varieties of light entertainment.

But the need for groups capable of playing the new symphonies from Europe was felt keenly. Simply put, America wanted Beethoven. This repertoire required, however, commitment of talent and time, so symphonic orchestras slowly began to be established and halls to house them began to be built.

American music for these American ensembles took longer. Bristow, a violinist in the Philharmonic Society, became its concertmaster in 1850. Taught music by his father, he was beginning to be noticed as a composer. A spike in his notoriety came when a composer/critic from Philadelphia, William Henry Fry, praised him. It came in the middle of a contretemps between Fry and a New York reviewer, Richard Storrs Willis, in a Boston journal. Reviewing Fry’s Santa Claus Symphony, which had premiered Christmas Eve 1853, Willis compared it negatively to Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, et al.

Fry shot back, “How are Americans to win their way in composition unless their compositions are played?” and held up Bristow as one such composer, who he said was unfairly treated even by his own Philharmonic. The critics dueled in the journal, which was thrilled to supply column inches, to the effect that Bristow, now an unwitting focus, quit the orchestra.


Jullien, caricature by Benjamin Robaud

Already in the midst of this war for American compositional independence, however, was the French conductor and impresario Louis-Antoine Jullien, touring the States with his highly skilled orchestra. Jullien asked for, and received, Bristow’s second Symphony, conducted parts of it, and took it back with him to Europe. (His orchestra, populated with French virtuosos, had also premiered Fry’s Santa Claus, which explains its saxophone, probably the first use of that newly-invented instrument in any orchestral music in the world.)

We may speculate that Bristow’s regard from Jullien and elsewhere (his opera on that most American of stories, Rip Van Winkle, was a fine success) may have prompted second thoughts from the Philharmonic. But in any event he did rejoin the orchestra, and they did finally play his music. In this infancy where playing in a major orchestra, let alone writing for one, was not a full-time job, Bristow continued to compose and conduct his own groups, and for decades was a New York City public school teacher.

American composers might resolve in this New Year to say “Thank you!” to George Frederick Bristow.

The Stars Shine released by The Same Stream

SameStreamI’m honored to have my choral work The Stars Shine included with Thomas LaVoy and Cortlandt Matthews on this, the inaugural recording of the new choir The Same Stream! They sound absolutely wonderful. Do check out the recording on iTunes or at Amazon.

The Stars Shine is the last (short: about 3′) movement from The Consolation of Apollo, which premiered around this time last year. It was commissioned by Donald Nally and The Crossing—whose names I lift up in thanks!—as a companion piece to David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, is about the same length as the Pulitzer winner (38′), and uses just a couple of the same percussion instruments, in my case crotales and bass drum.

Here are the notes on the entire piece, but the text of The Stars Shine, by Boethius, is this:

The stars shine with more pleasing grace when a storm has ceased to roar and pour down rain. After the morning star has dispersed the shades of night, the day in all its beauty drives its rosy chariot forth. So thou hast looked upon false happiness first; now draw thy neck from under her yoke: so shall true happiness come into thy soul.

A huge thank-you to conductor James Jordan, who took this work to the Westminster Choir workshop at Oxford last summer, and to everyone in The Same Stream for their magnificent work bringing this together! For now you can get the sheet music from me; that may or may not change soon!


De profundis

[First published in Broad Street Review, 22 Dec 2015, reprinted here by permission.]


Brad Pitt, “Fight Club,” © 1999, 20th Century Fox

The first thing I noticed was his bare torso, the shirt ripped or pulled off, his large belly expanding and tightening as he bellowed. Two men held him from behind. One in front, leaning into him, arms extended, elbows locked, grabbed his shoulders. They seemed to be his friends, trying to calm him down with “C’mon, man,” and “It’s not worth it,” spoken into his ear and at his face.

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord

He was having none of it. “Right now! Right here! With all your friends! I will break—you in half— you—mother—” he yelled, peppering his howl with every curse in his repertoire, cycling through them one by one. His target was a guy in a clutch of men 15 feet away.

We were in a local establishment, usually a quiet place. Everybody knows each other here. “Mike!” (not his real name) an employee yelled at him. “Mike! Stop it!” She tried to get his attention. “Mike! Mike!”

Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications

He ignored her and his friends, trying, in fits and starts, to lunge at his target. He was a downed wire, sparking, fuming, spitting, ready to kill something. “I will break—your—neck!” His voice—in that brass report that caroms off the top of your throat and through your skull, part Braveheart, part Olympic hammer thrower—pummeled the air as if it were a heavy punching bag.

If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?

From our group, my buddy, let’s call him B, looked over. Without hesitating he got up from his chair, walked toward the space left by the crowd’s quick dividing, glided up to the edge of it, and wedged himself in, through the spectators and Mike’s people and the guy’s people.

They made way. And he stood at the edge of the space.

But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared

B’s arms are as big around as Mike’s legs. B’s legs are dock pilings, his back and shoulders a jetty. But he had moved to that spot so quickly, and had inserted himself so quietly, that it was a moment before I had realized what he’d done.

He just stood there. He did not face Mike. He did not cross his arms, he did not put his hands on his hips, he did not stick out his elbows. His arms hung down, and he stood, casually, like he was reading the headline on a newspaper that had dropped to the floor.

B’s stance drew no attention to itself, but B had placed himself in the exact spot that was in the way. If Mike’s friends let go, Mike would have to go through B to get to the guy.

I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope

In tai chi, they talk about stepping as if your legs extend six feet into the ground. If you visualize this during moves, your feet become both lighter and more determined. It is commitment and detachment at the same time.

Six feet, I recall, is the depth we are buried at. It’s as if taking steps is a matter of life and death. No. Taking steps is death; you are stepping from your death, from where you will end up, from where we all end up. Every move is energized by—every step lives from, you might say—its rootedness in the awareness of death.

My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning

I was composing a setting of Psalm 130 for Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, to be sung in the spring. It’s the De profundis or “Out of the depths” psalm. I hadn’t finished it, but was getting close. I felt good with what I had written, as it had progressed from terrible to okay to good. But it was just good, and I felt—just—good. Maybe it needed more heat, deeper “depths” from which to bellow. But everything I threw at it sounded fake, sounded like posing.

I say, more than they that watch for the morning

I was trying, in a word, to be Mike, whose cries, it turns out, were not all that deep. When he left, trailing more curses, you could hear him complaining to his friends, “He did the same thing last year—he thinks he can get a-way with it!” and just like that he was a melodrama. His cause may have been just, but he was whining.

Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption

And my mind turned to B, who had just stood there, and whose standing there nicely coincided with a subtle change in Mike’s passion. Mike kept yelling, but he struggled less. He wasn’t quite lunging against his friends to break free. He would have to go through B to get to the guy, and now, perhaps, it didn’t seem quite so necessary to get there. Maybe the thought dawned on Mike that—what I knew and what everyone else there knew—no matter what, he was not going to get through B.

And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities

And so I relaxed, and what I had written, I let stand. Oh, I closed some things up, knit up the voices better. And because of that, I was able to lighten some things later on. The piece was rooted deep and that allowed the music to move quickly and lightly. It’s strong now, but doesn’t bellow. The music won’t call attention to itself, and that’s just how I like it. And B just walked back to his chair, and that was that.

The Greatness of Hansel and Gretel

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk, 21 December 2015.]


Hänsel und Gretel; Alexander Zick (1845 – 1907)

A young mother wanted to sing to her children. She wrote poems based on a story by the Brothers Grimm and asked her brother to set them to music. He did, but then kept working with them, and in two years those songs turned into Hansel and Gretel.

The 1893 fairy-tale opera by Engelbert Humperdinck was a hit at its premiere. It immediately swept from Germany through Europe, and into England and the United States. Its popularity has never wavered.

Hansel and Gretel premiered on a December 23rd, and although Christmas doesn’t appear in the opera, Christmas-time most often sees performances of this. It’s a morality tale and a witch story, but it’s really about two things: children and great tunes.

The music ranges from flighty to folksy to scary to heart-rending, but it’s all brilliant, all colorful, and all deeply emotional. Humperdinck shatters the idea of children’s entertainment as, well, childish, and the idea that serious art has to be oh-so-serious.

Hansel and Gretel completely engages everyone. If artistic greatness is measured as emotional reach across people and countries and centuries—and age groups—then here’s a vote that one of the greatest of all operas has to be Hansel and Gretel.

The Stars Shine, New Release on iTunes

I’m so happy to report that The Same Stream, the new choir formed by Westminster’s James Jordan, has chosen a work of mine to be on their inaugural recording. “The Stars Shine,” the last movement of The Consolation of Apollo, is included on The Same Stream. It’s an honor to be included with music by Thomas LaVoy and Cortlandt Matthews.

Here’s a promo for the release:

The wonderful English sound engineer Andrew Mellor is part of the recording team on this. Release date is December 28th, and you can pre-order here.

James Jordan heard The Crossing’s premiere of The Consolation of Apollo and immediately programmed “The Stars Shine” with his Westminster Williamson Voices, then brought it over to The Same Stream for this project. Thank you to James Jordan, and thank you to The Same Stream choir… and thank you to Donald Nally and The Crossing!


Frank Sinatra: Jazz His Way

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 4 Dec 2015.]

Frank Sinatra was born 100 years ago on December 12th, and there have been any number of stars in the entertainment world during that century. But WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at what truly sets him apart from all the rest.

FrankOver all the music entertainers of the last hundred years, over the stars and the superstars, there remains one name: Frank Sinatra. Some were incandescent for a time; some innovated; some influenced; some were multi-talented; some sold, and sell, millions of records. But Sinatra had all this, and something more.

Frank Sinatra reinvented the entertainment world. He created a continental divide in the pop music industry by bringing jazz out of itself and into popular music, and making it stick.

Instead of being the singer with the band, he made himself into an instrumentalist—of the voice. He bent rhythms, he shaped time, he colored his voice, he even changed the words if he wanted to. And, he could swing anything.

But is it too much to call Frank Sinatra a jazz singer? Well, not according to jazz musicians. They recognize his professionalism and control, his musicality and poetry. He owned the stage, the studio, and the screen, but no voice exposed the emotion of a song like the care-worn and burnished baritone of Frank Sinatra.

For five decades he reigned as Chairman of the Board. Everybody felt his impact, whether they knew it or not. Over all the stars and all the superstars there is simply before Frank and after Frank.

Here’s a good article on what jazz musicians have said about Frank Sinatra and jazz. And here’s one from the BBC on why he’s still the best.

Meeting Places on Now Is the Time


David Amram

[After a broadcast glitch last week, we’re loading this up again for this week!]

Call it post-Thanksgiving thoughts on Now Is the Time, Saturday, December 12th at 9 pm. The recent feasts bring to mind A Festive Proclamation for organ by Samuel Adler which he wrote for celebrations by the National Symphony Orchestra. Marc Mellits gets real with Platter of Discontent, a delicious suite honoring—or decrying—various foods (it begins with The Seduction of Brie).

Arthur Kreiger ingeniously brings together taped sounds with live performers in Meeting Places, and the cello concerto Honor Song for Sitting Bull displays David Amram’s unrelenting joy working with folk materials.

from Marc Mellits: Platter of Discontent:

Samuel Adler: A Festive Proclamation
Marc Mellits: Platter of Discontent
Arthur Kreiger: Meeting Places
David Amram: Honor Song for Sitting Bull

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!