Calling on spring with a trio of pieces, two from Americans Roy Harris and Mary Howe, and one from a German, Joachim Raff.
Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and on Spotify; search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.
I feel especially anxious for spring to get started this year, although I don’t really know why, because the winter around here at least has been mild. But maybe that’s the reason: as I’m putting this podcast together in late February, some of the early flowers, the crocuses, snowdrops, and others, have been out for weeks already. So I feel as if I’m being taunted by a spring that is still a ways off. So I’m anxious.
But it’ll happen in March no matter what, so let’s ring in spring with a trio of pieces for the season, two from Americans, Roy Harris and Mary Howe, and one from a German, Joachim Raff.
If you’re looking for one composer who encapsulates the 20th-century American sound in classical music, you need look no further than Roy Harris. That wide-open, bright, brash, raucous but always melodious, and hopeful sound infuses all his music. There are those you could name in this group of composers—Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson, William Grant Still, Virgil Thomson, many others, each with a different voice and each with a different take on that American sound—but Roy Harris is arguably the exemplar of it. His Third Symphony was the most-performed American symphony at one time and is still up there, along with the Copland Third and Hanson Second, generations later.
Harris became a great influence on American music not only through the popularity of his works, but also through his teaching. His students include William Schuman, Florence Price, and that famous discoverer of P. D. Q. Bach, Peter Schickele. He taught at maybe a half-dozen places including Juilliard, Westminster Choir College, and UCLA, but Roy Harris himself didn’t come up through academia. He was born on an Oklahoma farm and grew up on a farm in California, and later supported himself as a truck driver.
He did study at UC Berkeley and took lessons with two Arthurs, the English composer Arthur Bliss, who was living in California at the time, and Arthur Farwell, the composer who did so much to bring Native American–inspired music to the concert hall. And then, on an introduction from Copland, Harris studied for a few years in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, where he picked up a love for, of all things, Renaissance music.
Back in America he was championed by Serge Koussevitzky in Boston and by a conductor and an orchestra who arguably did more for American music than any other, Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra. The groundbreaking series of premiere American recordings produced by Louisville, along with commissions to international composers, is astonishing and courageous, and Roy Harris was a favorite of Whitney.
In 1949 Harris composed Kentucky Spring for the Louisville Orchestra. The title may have been a friendly poke at Aaron Copland, who only five years before had written Appalachian Spring. But in any case, it’s a sprightly, imaginative, and surprisingly strong work. I will not be the first to spy the influence of Jean Sibelius on Harris. You’ll remember the Sixth Symphony of Sibelius from last month’s Fleisher Discoveries, and how the music grows organically within each movement and from movement to movement, how the germ of a musical idea blooms. There is no story that we know of behind Kentucky Spring, any more than there was a story behind the Sibelius 6, but after listening to it we feel as if we’ve been on a journey, and it’s been a trip worth taking.
So here’s the Kentucky Spring of Roy Harris, with indeed that Louisville Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney.
[Roy Harris (1898–1979). Kentucky Spring (1949)]
Kicking off our anticipation of spring on Fleisher Discoveries with Kentucky Spring by Roy Harris, Robert Whitney conducting the Louisville Orchestra. I was saying before that there isn’t any storyline behind this piece, other than that Louisville is in Kentucky and that this was written for Louisville and Robert Whitney. But I’m taken by the music, by its energy and charm. I have no idea what that ending means, but it put a smile on my face!
In music Mary Howe was first a pianist, and although she had a growing career performing as a soloist and as a duo-pianist, she came to love composing more. She was from Richmond, Virginia and attended the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She traveled to Germany to study composition and to Paris, where, like Roy Harris and many other Americans, she studied with Nadia Boulanger. She married, had three children, and later returned to Peabody for a certificate in composition.
Not only did she compose, she was as active as could be in musical circles. She helped to found the Society of American Women Composers and the Chamber Music Society of Washington, now called the Friends of Music of the Library of Congress. She was the first woman to teach music at New York University. She was on the board of what is now the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and if that weren’t enough, Mary Howe and her husband in 1931 were among the co-founders of the National Symphony Orchestra.
And in 1936 that National Symphony Orchestra, under its first Music Director Hans Kindler, premiered the Spring Pastorale of Mary Howe. It is a beautifully romantic short piece, deeply emotional, with elements of what to me sound like both sadness and hope. American impressionism, you might say. William Strickland conducts the Imperial Philharmonic of Tokyo in the Spring Pastorale of Mary Howe.
[Mary Howe (1882–1964). Spring Pastorale (1936)]
The Spring Pastorale from 1936 by American composer Mary Howe. The Imperial Philharmonic of Tokyo was conducted by William Strickland. In the midst of three works about spring, this is Fleisher Discoveries, and I’m Kile Smith.
We’ll finish now with a work with a French title by the 19th-century German composer Joachim Raff, called Ode au printemps, or Ode to Spring. It’s for piano and orchestra. The pianist he wrote it for is Betty Schott—that’s her real name, Betty, and quite un-Germanic—but she was a well-known pianist, married to the publisher Franz Schott, the grandson of the founder of this influential classical music publishing house, headquartered in Mainz.
Like Mary Howe and her husband, the Schotts established an orchestra in Mainz, and supported much of the music-making in that city. The Schott publishing firm was influential in large part because it was focused on new music. They published Wagner’s operas. They published Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck. And they published one of the leading German symphonists of the day, Joachim Raff. He also was big in new music circles, in what we might even call avant-garde circles, being a disciple of Franz Liszt, whose strange harmonies and wild one-movement tone poems were all the rage.
Put this Ode to Spring in that camp. It may sound very 19th-century to our ears, very pleasant, very suitable for a salon, but in 1857 this was music of the future. Instead of a logical processing and outworking of a theme, this music seems almost like an improvisation, the music thrown from piano to winds to strings and back in a way that reminds me of film editing. Imagine walking through the woods, with your eyes moving from a brook to the sky between the leaves, then to a bird flitting by, then to a branch snapping behind you. It’s a story played out in sound, and here, in music. Be caught up in the delight Joachim Raff must have felt in putting this all together.
The Ode au printemps, the Ode to Spring by Joachim Raff. Lawrence Foster conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne. Jean-François Antonioli is the piano soloist.
[Joachim Raff (1822–1882). Ode au printemps, for piano and orchestra (1857)]
The Ode to Spring by Joachim Raff on Fleisher Discoveries. The piano soloist was Jean-François Antonioli, and the Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne was conducted by Lawrence Foster. Three works on Fleisher Discoveries today, by Roy Harris, Mary Howe, and Joachim Raff, to put a little spring in your step!
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From the good feedback on last month’s Sibelius show, Steve in New Jersey and Gene in New York City both wrote in to say that they very much enjoyed it, and Dolores in Pennsylvania also said that that Sixth Symphony is her favorite piece by that composer, which puts her in a very small crowd, I’m sure! But I love all the responses, including Phil’s, who never cared much for the Sixth but enjoyed the show nonetheless, and for that I’m glad.
Remember that all of our podcasts are available all of the time, so please check us out anytime for what we hope are the enlightening stories and wonderful pieces we uncover for every show. Stay tuned for more Fleisher Discoveries podcasts coming to you every month, right here.
And thanks again for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well and I hope to see you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.