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Ulysses Kay (1917–1995). Sinfonia in E (1950)
Paul Hindemith (1895–1963). Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass (1930)

Hi and welcome to another Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. I’m Kile Smith and here we are on SoundCloud; in SoundCloud just type in “Fleisher Collection,” and that’s where you’ll find all our podcasts.

On today’s podcast, two works by composers in their 30s, but the works were written 20 years apart, and one composer had at one time been the student of the other. Ulysses Kay and Paul Hindemith are the composers. Hindemith we’ve met already on a previous podcast, but Ulysses S. Kay is new to Fleisher Discoveries.

He isn’t new to the Fleisher Collection, however, where almost 20 of his works are housed, along with letters from him and to him by the Collection. Ulysses Kay was not only a well regarded composer but was the recipient of many awards, including a Fulbright for study in Italy and two Rome Prizes. These and many other awards and commissions are difficult enough to obtain for any composer, and are even more significant when you know that Ulysses Kay was African American.

The older William Grant Still, who was born in 1895, the same year as Hindemith, had in some respects paved the way for the acceptance of African American classical composers. Harry Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett, and Florence Price (whom we heard on our first podcast almost a year ago) were older than Still, but while progress was slow, there was progress for the younger Ulysses Kay, born in 1917, for Margaret Bonds, and others. We’ve already heard William Grant Still’s music on Fleisher Discoveries and will return to him in another podcast.

An uncle of Ulysses Kay was the great jazz musician King Oliver, the band leader and fabulous cornet player. He encouraged his nephew’s musical interests when they began to appear, and suggested he should study piano. He did, and the violin, and then the saxophone, which appealed to him so much he then gave up piano and violin for a time. He started his own jazz quintet and began writing for it. At the University of Arizona he met the already established William Grant Still, who further encouraged his composing. He switched from a liberal arts major and got a degree in music education, then went to Eastman for his Master’s, studying composition with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers.

He received a scholarship to Tanglewood and began to study with Paul Hindemith, who, as we saw on a previous Fleisher Discoveries, had arrived in America the year before. Kay continued studies with Hindemith at Yale, then went into the Navy, where he composed and arranged for, and played in, a Navy band stationed in Rhode Island. Following that was work at Columbia and at Yaddo, as Ulysses Kay was beginning to be noticed. Then came Rome Prizes, a Fulbright, a Guggenheim, teaching positions at universities around the country, work at the licensing agency BMI, a State Department cultural exchange with the Soviet Union, and prestigious commissions.>

He wrote many orchestral and choral works and five operas, the last of which, Frederick Douglass, premiered four years before Kay’s death in 1995. That opera, and another, Jubilee, incorporated African American spirituals, but he was not a composer who typically used ethnic elements in his music. He was quite aware of that, but noted that while artists are products of their environments, he was of the opinion they shouldn’t be locked into them.

His Sinfonia in E is what we’ll hear now, and it is an excellent example of his writing. Crisp and melodic, it is approachable but certainly not romantic. Long lines in the first movement, fugues in the second, a slow and graceful third movement, and an animated finale.

On Fleisher Discoveries, the Sinfonia in E by Ulysses Kay. George Barati conducts the Oslo Philharmonic.

[Ulysses Kay (1917–1995). Sinfonia in E (1950)]

George Barati led the Oslo Philharmonic in a work by the American composer Ulysses Kay, his Sinfonia in E. This is the Fleisher Discoveries podcast, and I’m Kile Smith.

Let’s turn to Paul Hindemith, who, I mentioned before, taught Ulysses Kay for a few years in the early 1940s. Hindemith had just arrived in the United States, escaping Germany, and was hired by Serge Koussevitzky, then the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to teach at Tanglewood. Ulysses Kay was there on scholarship the next year, and followed Hindemith to Yale where he took lessons for two years before entering the Navy.

Hindemith and Koussevitzky had already known each other. The conductor commissioned this composer among others for that fabled 50th anniversary season of the BSO, in 1930. Those monumental commissions included Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, the Prokofiev Fourth Symphony, Albert Roussel’s Third, Howard Hanson’s Second, and Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass.

This work, in this year, was a turning point for Hindemith. For the past decade he had been writing music, much of it chamber music, that was often thorny, and he felt the need to broaden his approach. While his music never became romantically lush in the sense of a Tchaikovsky or a Rachmaninoff or even a Richard Strauss, there’s a definite warming trend in Hindemith from here on in. Some of that goes into abstruse theory that needn’t concern us, but all of it was driven by the political landscape of 1930s Germany. Hindemith felt that in a time when people’s hearts were being turned by the increasingly influential Hitler, he needed to write music that spoke to their hearts.

It would be frankly political in his Mathis der Maler, the symphony and the opera, which came mid-decade, and which accelerated his emigration from Germany, but in the apolitical Concert Music for Strings and Brass, you can already sense his calling to the audience. It is uplifting, powerful, but always melody-driven music. Even his fugues sing.

So in 1930 he wrote three pieces called Concert Music. Opus 48 is for viola and large chamber orchestra (Hindemith was an excellent violist), opus 49 is for piano, brass, and harps, and the one we’re about to hear, opus 50, is Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass. And so it’s written for a symphony orchestra minus its woodwind and percussion sections. It’s in two parts.

The Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass from 1930 by Paul Hindemith. William Steinberg conducts the orchestra that commissioned it, the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Paul Hindemith (1895–1963). Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass (1930)

The Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass by Paul Hindemith, composed for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky. In this recording William Steinberg conducted the orchestra that you can say owns this piece, the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

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So, thanks for joining me today on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. We’re on SoundCloud, we’re on Facebook, and we’re having a great time coming to you every month with a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Hope to see you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.