Author Archives: Kile Smith

Lift Every Voice

[First published in Broad Street Review 28 Nov 2017 and reprinted by permission.]

Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for Broad Street Review

It was 2015 and I was staring up at another deadline. The art-song group Lyric Fest, with whom I was enjoying a season as their first resident composer, had asked me to write a work for a concert they were producing with the Singing City choir called “I’ll Make Me a World.” That’s a line from James Weldon Johnson’s imaginative re-working of Genesis called “The Creation.”

I had suggested setting some of Psalm 19, the great response to creation, and they liked the idea. Haydn and Beethoven had already found their way into texts based on that psalm, translated as “The heavens are telling,” their music, large and loud. That’s what I wanted: Large, loud, and, from the Renaissance I had been rediscovering for the past decade, polyphony. Independent voice against voice. That’s what I was looking for.

Then I read “The Creation”:

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world….

That stopped me. I already knew Johnson’s hymn “Lift every voice and sing,” called the “African American National Anthem” by the NAACP (Johnson, in his multi-faceted career, had led that organization in the 1920s). Associated with the Harlem Renaissance, he led me to other writers. This, from Langston Hughes, caught my eye:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
     I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
     He did a lazy sway…
     He did a lazy sway…
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

Something was hunting me; I couldn’t place what. The deadline was looming, I was far from Psalm 19, and composers know this desperation, when their eyes narrow as wolves’. I thought of Down from the Mountain, the documentary of the music and performers in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? It includes a male gospel group, the Fairfield Four, singing “Po Lazarus.” While they wring out the single, leathery, winding chant, they set the time, and the time is slow.

Stomp (and wait). Slap (and wait).
Stomp (and wait). Slap (and wait).

It’s a patient time, alarmingly so, a time slogged in fields and forged in chains. It’s a time with eyes that see all the way to the horizon, and beyond. My piece, which I had not written, was becoming different, and Johnson and Hughes and the Fairfield Four were showing me how.

I asked myself if this was cultural appropriation. I thought of Brahms’s Hungarian dances, of Paul Simon’s South African and Cajun songs. If it sounds Hungarian or South African, fine; if it doesn’t—well, also fine, right? It only matters if the music’s good, I answered myself. A culture can be identified, but can it really be owned? If nobody owns it, can it be stolen?

Black and white Americans were collecting African American folk music even before Vaughan Williams and Bartók collected theirs. Among others, the African American composers William Dawson, Hall Johnson, Jester Hairston, and the great singer Harry T. Burleigh began to arrange and sing them.

Choirs of all races performed them, complete with Southern patois. Jester Hairston couldn’t sing in Hall Johnson’s choir until he shed his Boston accent. Johnson told him, “We’re singing ain’t and cain’t and you’re singing shahn’t and cahn’t and they don’t mix in a spiritual.”

Culture is never monolithic. Most Germans wouldn’t be caught dead in Lederhosen. A black singer friend of ours left her mostly black church because the spirituals she wanted to sing, she was told, were “slave songs,” and they didn’t want to be defined by slavery. They wanted gospel instead.

This argument—folk music vs. oppression’s legacy—goes back to the Civil War. Later, the Harlem Renaissance urged a return to primitivism, away from European-sounding music. Other African Americans, though, wanted to show, and did show, that they could compose “Western” classical music just like anyone else.

These are arguments I have no part in. I cannot know what it’s like to be black, let alone a slave or a descendant of slaves, but I can respect, and I can take my time. Art takes time, just like good manners. Invited to dinner, I don’t push past the host to the table. We enjoy each others’ company and, you know what, dinner’s included.

So the guest should be understanding, but so should the host. Cultures host. Everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, we joke, and there’s something to learn, even from a saint’s day stretched beyond recognition. A culture lives through its people, but people don’t live through their culture. People live through other people.

James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes and the Fairfield Four had found me and were inviting me in. What was I to make of this world?

The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies announce the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour out their speech, night after night they tell what they know.

I stomped, and I waited. Then into me the music perceptibly swayed. Down from the large and loud mountain of Haydn and heavens it now found me, and now slowed me down, down to a mellow croon. From voice against voice, I now heard one voice. From my Renaissance polyphony I now saw all the way to the Harlem Renaissance, and past, to a spiritual, to a single chant. (See a video of the Lyric Fest/Singing City performance here.)

The Heavens Declare doesn’t sound like a spiritual, I don’t think, but I don’t mind saying that it comes from it. If it comes from my heart, and if it goes into other hearts, it will not be appropriation. If we hear it, together, it will not be appropriation.

1917 in Review: Andreae, Villa-Lobos, Prokofiev

Volkmar Andreae (1879–1962). Kleine Suite (1917)
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959). Uirapurú (1917)
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953). Symphony No. 1 “Classical” (1917)

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, December 2nd, 5–6 pm… We celebrated anniversaries throughout 2017: the 100th of the births of Robert Ward and Richard Yardumian, the 150th of Charles Koechlin and Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, the 200th of Niels Gade, and the 300th of Johann Stamitz. Last month we observed the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which inspired Bach and Mendelssohn. But we thought we’d hear music anniversaries, too, so today we look at the 100th birthdays of three quite different orchestral works.

The United States would enter World War I in 1917, but the war had already raged in Europe for three years. Neutral Switzerland was armed to the teeth along its borders. It was a center of intrigue and refuge (Lenin lived there before returning to Russia), but it saw no military action, so cultural life continued. In October, Volkmar Andreae left Zurich to conduct his Little Suite in Basel.

He was director of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, and so respected that the New York Philharmonic had asked him to lead them after Mahler’s death in 1911. He turned them down, and spent most of his life conducting and composing in Switzerland. Volkmar Andreae is little-known today, but his music is unfailingly charming. More than that, every piece is a gem, has real personality, and owes its sound to no one else. The recording on our program is conducted by Marc Andreae, Volkmar’s grandson.

Heitor Villa-Lobos, the leading classical composer of Brazil, if not all of Latin America, may be the most prolific composer of the 20th century. Larger than life, he composed as easily, it was said, as others breathed. All styles and forms of music flowed out of his pen, and an early interest in Brazilian folklore stayed with him. He tried unsuccessfully to interest Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Uirapurú, which is the name of a Brazilian wren, seldom heard and even less seen.

The ballet is the story of Brazilian Indians who, hearing the bird in the forest (click here for the sound), try to catch it. Headstrong young men drive off an old man playing a flute. A maiden sees and shoots the uirapurú with an arrow; the bird changes into a young man; the old man returns, shoots him with an arrow, and the youth turns back into the bird and flies away.

Along with a soprano saxophone in the sumptuous score, Villa-Lobos depicts the old man’s music with something rarer on the orchestral stage than the sight of the uirapurú in the forest, the violinophone. Sporting a gramophone-like horn, this odd-looking hybrid sounds surprisingly lovely, and it replaced actual violins in the earliest days of recording because of its projection. (See it playing on Uirapurú below.) Uirapurú seems to be heard as infrequently as its namesake, so we’re glad to bring it to you now.

At the other end of the popularity scale is surely the most-played classical work of 1917—in fact, the “Classical” Symphony of Sergei Prokofiev. Not too long out of conservatory, he was already establishing himself as a leading composer, with muscular solo piano works and his riveting graduation piece, the First Piano Concerto. He also already had the ear of Diaghilev and would soon have ballet success.

He composed his first symphony, he said, to be what Haydn might write were he alive. Propulsive and graceful by turns, it bristles with melody, audacity, ingenuity, and good humor, just like Papa Haydn. Prokofiev helped kick-start neoclassicism in 1917, and jumping back to Discoveries today, we’ll look forward to what 2018 has in store!

Reformation and Mendelssohn and Bach

Detail of the door of the Castle Church, Wittenburg

Anniversaries bump into each other on this Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday at 5 pm on WRTI. It’s year 500 since the beginning of the Reformation, almost to the day, when Martin Luther posted 95 theological and ecclesiastical points he wished to debate with all comers. Nobody dared to take him up on it, but from the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517 a revolution in religion, humanism, freedom, and language swept across the world. And it was accompanied by music.

The dust was far from settling in 1530 when the “Lutherans,” as they were being called, put together a meticulously reasoned defense of what they believed, and presented it to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. They wrote it in Augsburg, so this Augsburg Confession became a founding document of Lutheranism, and by extension, a pivotal moment for what would become Germany. In 1830, the 300th anniversary of that Confession, celebrations took place throughout Germany, particularly in Augsburg itself.

Felix Mendelssohn had already begun composing a celebratory symphony for this in 1829. But because of illness and touring, he missed the deadline. He had offered a version of it to Augsburg, but the city turned it down. A Paris orchestra also demurred. Mendelssohn finally completed it and conducted the premiere in 1832, in Berlin.

He placed into the symphony’s beginning what is known as the “Dresden Amen,” a bit of liturgical music known well in both Catholic and Lutheran churches. Wagner would later quote it in Parsifal and elsewhere. But Mendelssohn put the big statement of the Reformation—its national anthem, you might say—in the last movement. Martin Luther’s music for his own versification of Psalm 46, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott) receives a grand treatment from Mendelssohn. He later didn’t care for the youthful work, but after his death this second symphony of his was discovered and listed as No. 5.

The 80th in the catalog of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach uses the same Luther tune, but it took a while to reach the form we now know. This “Ein’ feste Burg” Cantata was used in Leipzig, where Bach lived from 1723 until his death in 1750. But he actually wrote much of the music when he was in Weimar, mostly from 1708 until 1717. It was for Lent, but Leipzig would not permit extravagant cantatas during this penitential season, so Bach rewrote it for the Feast of the Reformation on October 31st, and revised it again, sometime in the late 1720s and early ’30s.

What a work this is. Many of the Bach cantatas are intimate and jewel-like, but this is a huge outpouring of jubilant praise and musical explosion. The expansive opening choral fantasia is one of the most elaborate motets ever written. This is the Bach that astounds us just he did Felix Mendelssohn, when the 20 year old revived Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for its 100th anniversary—in 1829, the same year he began composing the Reformation Symphony.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). Symphony No. 5, ”Reformation”
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Cantata No. 80, ”Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”

Fanfare on Ein feste Burg

Fanfare on Ein feste Burg. Two versions. A. For 7 Renaissance instruments: 2 Soprano Shawms, Alto Shawm, 2 Sackbuts, Quartbass Dulcian, large Tabor. B. Brass Quintet with optional large Drum. 1:30.

Commissioned and Premiered 20 Oct 2017 by Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Brass Quintet version premiered 29 Oct 2017 by Musica Concordia, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Abington, Pa.

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “Smith’s piece exploded into life…. A slew of heavy thwacks on a tabor (a Renaissance snare drum) launched Smith’s Fanfare, mimicking the bang of hammer on nail in Wittenberg. The rasp of shawms and the splendid snort of a quartbass dulcian (a bassoon-like instrument) intoned Luther’s great hymn melody as Smith worked bristling variations on it. It was a bracing opening gesture…”

My Broad Street Review essay on the composing this is here. The first pages of both versions are below. Here’s a quick, live run-through of the brass & percussion version:

The Oak Tree and the Bird

First published in Broad Street Review 1 Oct 2017 as Following a road to “home.”

Illustration for Broad Street Review by Hannah Kaplan

In the few days and in the half-dozen times we had traveled the road from Hartenstein to Zwickau, he only now mentioned it.

“I have always admired that single-standing tree,” he said as he looked out the window.

It is an elegant road, leaning into its curves, bracing its villages, skirting pastures. Many roads here are purposely lined with trees but on this stretch there are no trees. Here there is only this tree, standing by itself in a large, worked field, 50 yards from the road.

“It is almost perfect. Like a ball.”

He is 85 and comes back to this corner of Saxony every year. It is part of the old East Germany, tucked between Thuringia and the Czech border. With his wife now three years gone he travels by himself or asks others to come with him. He visits family here, cousins close and far removed and a brother.

He grew up two miles from this spot. When he was seven, war started. When he was 12, the Allied planes would fly over his family’s farm. He saw two soldiers dead in a car in the village from the strafing. After the war, the soldiers kept coming, East Germans, Russians, sullen and hungry.

In 1953 he boarded a train to Berlin for a job. The Russians drove tanks into Berlin three weeks after he arrived. He bought a round-trip subway ticket. You could not buy one-way tickets to West Berlin after the war, even before the wall, and there were guards and wire barriers, but the U-Bahn under the entire city still operated. After the tanks came he decided it was time. He walked to the subway, carrying a suitcase filled only with dirty laundry in case he was stopped. He could say he was taking laundry home. He stepped out in West Berlin. No one checked his ticket and he kept walking.

He wrote to an aunt in America and declared himself to the American embassy. They put him on another train, to a West German detention camp. A farmer picked the strong 21-year-old out of a line, and for the next few months he worked with fruit trees near Heidelberg. Then the aunt arranged his immigration, and he came to Philadelphia. When he tells his story, other Germans nod. They know these stories.

I asked him if the tree was here when he was growing up. He laughed quickly. “Oh, no, it is only 40 years old. Maybe. But every year it gets bigger, I see it every year,” he said. “It is an oak.” Yes, it looks like an oak at a glance as I drive. “You can tell by the trunk. If nothing happens around it, it will live another 200 years, more.”

This tree says home to him. It speaks to me, now, in the same way. Music speaks like this. Schubert gives us a home in “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel.” The beginning and the ending are the same music, so at the end we recognize the road.

Sometimes, though, as at the incomparable end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we have traveled far and the road is different. But if the music is good, we will have come home, the home we didn’t know was already ours.

This foreign thing that is home, I experienced on this trip, a day after the tree. I was standing on the steps of a restaurant when it happened.

I was looking at people eating at tables on the wide porch of a large stone inn surrounded by forest. The day’s grayish sky had just begun to clear as the sun set. This far north, even in August the daylight would soon disappear, so the newly bright clouds were beginning to soften into a darkening slate-blue sky. The tablecloths were white. People were smiling and talking softly under iron and glass wall sconces and lamps suspended from the ceiling and lifting forks and holding glasses in mid-air while they talked as people in restaurants will smile and talk. Then from not too far into the forest a bird called. It was a call I had never heard. My head swerved up and to the right, toward the trees, toward the sound. It was a liquid, intense, remote sound. It sounded like a whistle or a child far away.

That’s when I knew I was in a foreign land. For three days it wasn’t the language or the road signs that did it but it was this. I had never heard this. But I have heard whistles and children and I have seen tablecloths and lamps and darkening skies. So, this, too, could be home. The strangeness somehow made it feel like home.

Music ought to take you to a foreign place and then bring you home. But, like some dreams, you already know the foreign place and the home is new. The end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony does this. The spinning wheel, even, does this. The end is the same as the beginning, but after Gretchen’s despair from love forever lost, the new shocks itself back into the old, changes the old. Home is an oak tree you have never seen in a place you escaped long ago, and a new bird call is something you have always known.

Music is both foreign and home. You may have escaped it, like a war, or you may not recognize it at first. But you will know that strange feeling of home, that dream of remembrance, when a bird calls to you like a child, or a road takes you by a field with a single-standing tree, almost perfect, like a ball.

The Symphony’s Declaration of Independence

The palace at Mannheim

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, Oct. 7th, 5 to 6 pm… Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) is the “Father of the Symphony” in the same way that George Washington (born the same year) is the “Father of our Country.” Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and he and others generated the Constitution and other central documents, but Washington’s leadership was the foundation on which the country was built. Similarly, the symphony owes its early growth to Haydn.

But was there a Thomas Jefferson? Of those who composed symphonies before Haydn, the most innovative was Johann Stamitz (1717–1757), born 300 years ago and a generation before Haydn. The Czech (Bohemian) Jan Václav Antonín Stamic dropped out of the University of Prague after only a year to be a violin soloist. Six years later he was in the German court of Mannheim as a first violinist. In two years he was concertmaster, and a few years after that he was appointed director of all instrumental music, his name now Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz.

The year was 1750, and how neatly this fits into music history. Stamitz, a transitional figure between the Baroque and Classical periods, becomes leader of the most influential orchestra of the time the very year the curtain drops on the Baroque period with the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. But what does a transition sound like?

Baroque is all curlicue lines, as in architecture and painting; Classical is balanced phrasing among similarly voiced instruments. Think string quartet, which the early symphony was a glorified version of. Baroque juxtaposes soft and loud; Classical blends dynamics and other elements and whips them into larger and larger forms.

Stamitz did things with an orchestra nobody had ever done before. People named his innovations after the place he worked. The Mannheim Rocket is a quick crescendo by all the instruments playing triads up and up. Everybody getting louder without triads is called a Mannheim Crescendo (simple, but nobody had thought of it before). The Mannheim Sigh is two lamenting notes, the second one falling—which is as old as music—but Stamitz dropped the second note farther for more emotion. The Mannheim Roller (not Steamroller) is an orchestral tremolo, a shaking, rattling, and rolling no one had ever heard, outside of opera.

And that’s another clue.

Italian opera influenced Stamitz’s symphonies by these and other devices. To the strings he added horns and oboes, instruments not fit for gentility but that expanded the dramatic palette. He added a fourth movement. His ensemble crescendos and fireball orchestrations worked because his employers hired the best players in Europe. Royal listeners approved, and as those players—many of whom were also composers—moved to other orchestras, the effects spread. His sons Carl and Anton continued it. Haydn heard it. Mozart and Beethoven picked up on it.

The symphony declared its independence and was off and running.

Johann Stamitz (1717-1757). Symphony in B-flat for Strings
Stamitz. Concerto for Flute (Oboe) and Orchestra in C
Stamitz. Symphony in A for Strings
Stamitz. Symphony in D for 11 voices, Op. 3. No. 2

The Connections of Niels Gade

Coming up on Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, September 2nd, 5 to 6 pm: Part of the joy of producing Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection is in the finding of connections. We’ve seen, for instance, how the German-English Frederick Delius became a real composer in 1884 by living in Florida, and we idly notice that this is the same year Niels Gade wrote Holbergiana, his tribute to the great writer Ludvig Holberg. This of course reminds us of the famous Holberg Suite of Edvard Grieg. We see that it, too, was written in 1884, and we wonder why.

Grieg would soon become a friend of and a musical influence on Delius when they met in Leipzig. But what is the Holberg 1884 connection, and why would the Danish Gade and the Norwegian Grieg both write Holberg pieces that year? Well, it turns out that Holberg was born in 1684, and the 200th anniversary of the man who has been called the inventor of Danish and Norwegian literature was well celebrated. Holberg was born in Bergen, Norway, but worked in Copenhagen, Denmark, and this was during the time when the two countries were united as one kingdom.

The Denmark-Norway union existed, with Sweden entering and leaving occasionally, until 1814, just three years before Gade was born, which reminds us of another connection: This year, 2017, is the 200th anniversary of Gade’s birth.

Niels Wilhelm Gade was the greatest Danish composer until Carl Nielsen. Nielsen, in fact, studied with Gade in Denmark’s capital of Copenhagen, as did Grieg for a time. Gade took the long way around, however, to end up back in the city of his birth. When he was 24 and playing in the Royal Danish Orchestra’s violin section, they performed his opus 1, Echoes of Ossian. Gade started to be noticed. But they demurred the next year, choosing not to play his opus 5, his first symphony.

One thing was clear: the Danish Niels Gade had better leave Germany, and fast.
Undaunted, he sent the score to Felix Mendelssohn, dedicating it to him. We know him today as one of the finest composers of the 19th century, but Mendelssohn was also the intrepid director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He liked what he saw in the young man’s music, and so the premiere of the Gade Symphony No. 1 took place in Leipzig in 1842. Gade impressed Mendelssohn personally, too. He became assistant conductor at Leipzig, and upon Mendelssohn’s too-young death in 1847, Gade was appointed the new director of the Gewandhaus.

Unfortunately, 1848 was a roiling year politically. Revolutions against the old order broke out all around the confederacy of states we now know as Germany. Wagner was caught up in it; many fled; many, in fact, came to the U.S. in 1848. The revolutions wouldn’t necessarily have affected Gade, but something else happened that year: Germany and Denmark went to war. It was over who owned the border area of Schleswig-Holstein, and while Denmark won out in the short term and Germany in the long, in this complicated business one thing was clear: the Danish Niels Gade had better leave Germany, and fast.

He went back to Copenhagen and began to construct a prominent career of composing and teaching. He influenced the next generations of Scandinavian musicians, including the next great Danish composer, Nielsen, and that greatest of Norwegian composers, Grieg, who knew Delius when they were in Leipzig, which was where… well, we just love all the connections we find through Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection.


Niels Gade (1817–1890). Holbergiana (1884)

Gade. Symphony No. 1 (1842)