The Stealth Populism of William Schuman and Jaromir Weinberger

This Saturday at 5 pm on Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection

PROGRAM:
William Schuman (1910–1992). New England Triptych: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings (1956)
SchumanSymphony No. 7 (1960)
Jaromir Weinberger (1896–1967). Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper (1926)

We heard Charles Ives by way of William Schuman last month on Discoveries, so it’s appropriate that we should hear Schuman on his own this month. You may remember that Ives had composed Variations on “America” for organ in 1891; William Schuman orchestrated it in 1964 and it’s been in the repertory ever since.

williamschuman.jpgIves is the epitome of an American-ness flowing through American music, but we could go back another century to a composer who is really the fountainhead—William Billings (1746–1800). Schuman’s 1956 homage to the shape-note composer, New England Triptych, uses three Billings tunes: “Be Glad Then, America,” “When Jesus Wept,” and the hymn-turned-marching-song “Chester.” These are strong and beautiful melodies, fresh with the spirit of a new country. Schuman’s treatment of them is brilliant.

But William Schuman was also a symphonist of great originality. His seventh out of ten (he withdrew the first two) is from 1960, a commission for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. Here Schuman is at the height of his power, composing music that is both aggressively rhythmic and deeply romantic. It is a large-hearted American symphony.

There is an irony: William Schuman is known mostly as a composer for his Billings and Ives forays into Americana. But this president of Juilliard, this president of Lincoln Center, this winner of Pulitzers and multiple awards also composed music inspired by the Sears-Roebuck catalog, wrote dozens of pop songs, and as a teenager played bass in his own wedding and bar mitzvah band, Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra. And he was, like Ives, a huge fan of baseball, even writing an opera called The Mighty Casey.

weinberger.jpgPrague-born Jaromir Weinberger studied composition with Vítězslav Novák and counterpoint with Max Reger, but his many works overflow with a love for folk music. His opera Schwanda the Bagpiper was an immediate and huge hit in 1926; the Polka and Fugue from it was introduced in concert four years later. The opera and the concert piece are still played today and are why most know Weinberger’s name.

He taught at Cornell and at what is now Ithaca College, returned to Czechoslovakia, then fled the Nazis after they started banning his music. He came back to the U.S. and received citizenship in 1948.

Schwanda and its Polka and Fugue were something of a curse for Weinberger, haunting him with the fact that nothing else rose to that level of popularity. Weinberger’s music, like Schuman’s, could be as strict and sober as might be expected of honored composers. As exciting and profound as their output could be, though, it was the populism that stuck. That bothers some composers more than others. For us listeners at this remove (Schuman died 25 years ago; Weinberger, 50), we’re happy they were here to produce all they did. Be glad then, America.

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Hitting a brick wall

[First published in Broad Street Review, 1 Aug 2017]

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This is the part they don’t tell you when they’re telling you about composing. This is the part where every start to your piece is wrong, every note is wrong, every page you’re disbelievingly staring at is false and mocking and hateful and you don’t know how to fix it. Two weeks and 26 pages go by—and all you need are three pages, maybe, because all you need is one minute, max—and not any of it is good. They came to you because it’s the big Reformation anniversary, and they wanted a fanfare to A Mighty Fortress, and you’re a Lutheran and you’ve done this Lutheran stuff before and oh, You’re perfect for this, they said, This’ll be great, they said, and you said, It’ll be great. A minute of music, and you are further away than when you started, further away because you have nothing, and now everyone will realize, finally, that you’re not a composer at all and you never were.

No, they never tell you this part about composing.

Sick of it, you slink out of your composing room and into the yard. Maybe you’ll move some bricks, there are always bricks to move. You made a patio out of old bricks once, you know bricks well. Hitting together, they make a clock sound, deeper than click. And always a double-hit. A flam, drummers call it. They sound higher when someone else is moving them and you’re farther away—they almost ping—but when you’re right on top of them, it’s clock.

From the front and side porches you’d removed all the bricks that held up the half-length wood columns when years ago you had full columns installed like what the porch originally had. All those bricks you carried to the backyard, stacking them into a low wall to hide the compost pile, then moving and re-stacking them later when you expanded to two piles. You bordered garden beds with them, and moved them again when you rejiggered the beds. You made brick holding areas for loose stone. You stacked extras next to the tottering old shed and when you tore that down stacked them behind the new shed. You know the sound.

Chunks of cement sound lower than bricks. You broke up a sidewalk once and tossed the chunks onto a pile: thud for the first chunk, then tuckle for all the others as they hit each other.

Oh stop it, you’re wasting time. You should be composing. But… you’ve always loved the personality of sounds. Maybe loved is too strong. You’ve always noted it. The hard susurration of an extension ladder, somehow cold and warm at the same time, like swimming in a lake. The finch’s peep and the cardinal’s liquid pip and the difference between the adult sparrow’s cheep and the young, fuzzy, fledgling sparrow’s chreef-chreef-chreef.

George Crumb once told you at a formal dinner about how when he was a boy growing up in West Virginia he would hear a dog bark at night, way down and across the hollow. There’s nothing in the world like that sound, he said, and you looked into his smiling eyes and in an instant you understood the music of George Crumb.

When you were a boy you remember saying the Lord’s Prayer in church but you were embarrassed because you loved—yes, loved is the right word—the s sounds. You waited for the s’s in the Lord’s Prayer in your church, a new one, built after you were born, one of those churches built in the ’60s, concrete and glass and acute and new, cold and bright and metal and modern because nobody wanted in the 1960s to be old. Those s’s rang with white and sharp echoes. They hit your face like a message, like a dive into water.

The s’s take a long time to show up in the Lord’s Prayer. It isn’t until “as it is in heaven” that you get one. But then they pelt, more and faster—give us this day, forgive us our trespasses—trespasses, a triple, what a delicious word to say out loud, and even then, even as a boy, you caught the curve of enjoying that word while praying it out of you. Each s caromed off concrete angles and bounced off glass and sizzled in your ears, as everyone prayed and you prayed, saying each s a little louder than the word around it.

As… we forgive those… who tres… pass… against… us…, each s springboarding, vaulting into the air. You could not write a prayer better than this, you’d think, ashamed at arrogating that place to yourself. The s’s slapped your face and you felt the tres… pass… against… us…: Sometimes you felt those trespasses more than your own, yes, yes, you did.

And then it came. Lead us not into—here came the only sh in the whole prayer; all this time you waited for the sh; and here it came—temptation, the sh, the shun, from you and from everyone, exploding into the walls.

A forgive us is left and a thine is is left, and that is it.

You carry that with you still. The s’s are unexpected signals, barks across the hollow for you, barlines in the music of the Lord’s Prayer. The irregularity as much as the sound is what you loved. It was like chant to you—you fell in love with chant in the same way, music in unlikely two-beat chunks and three-beat chunks tuckling over each other. Like chant and like, yes, those chorales from the Reformation, those original, word-driven, non-smoothed-out versions of chorales like… oh, wait, yes…

A Mighty Fortress.

Ein feste Burg. Da-dahhh, dahhh, dahhh. Yes—one-Two three Four five Six sev’n, one-Two three Four five Six sev’n. That could work. That could be a fanfare.

A day later, three pages and one minute later, you have it. This is the part they don’t tell you. You were so worried about composing and all you had to do was listen.

 

 

Give Ear, O Heavens

Give Ear, O Heavens. SATB, 4′. Commissioned for the 40th Anniversary of the Ordinations of the Rev. Dr. Michael G. Tavella and the Rev. N. Amanda Grimmer, pastors of Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Abington, Pa. Text is the canticle Audite Caeli. Premiered 23 Oct 2016, Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church Choir, Jacqueline Smith, organist and director of music.

If you would like to see the whole score, just let me know and I’ll send it!

Give ear, O heavens, to what I say,
and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.
Let my teaching fall like the drops of rain;
my words distill like the dew,
like gentle rain upon the grass
like showers on the growing plants.
I will sing of the LORD’s renown,
extol the greatness of our God,
the Rock, whose work is complete,
for all his ways are just;
a faithful God, who does no wrong,
righteous and true is he.
Remember the days of old;
consider the years long past;
ask your father to show you
and your elders to tell you.
The LORD will vindicate his people
and will have compassion on his servants.
Rejoice with him, you heavens;
all you gods, bow down before him.

—Canticle based on Deuteronomy 32, the Second Song of Moses

Fanfare for Three Voices

Fanfare for Three Voices.  Horn, Trombone, Tuba, 2′. For Carolyn Tillstrom’s Senior Recital, Rowan University, premiered 5 Mar 2017 by Martina Smith, horn, Hayden Adams, trombone, Carolyn Tillstrom, tuba.

This is a transcription of movement 6 from Annunciation and Magnificat, a 2016 work for brass quintet and narrator. Carolyn and Hayden are good friends of our daughter Martina. Carolyn asked me if I had anything for brass trio she could program on her senior tuba recital, and as I couldn’t recall that I had, I was able to work this movement into a kind of loudly lyrical fanfare.

Click on the page for the entire score; below is a MIDI recording until a live one is available:

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Kyrie and Gloria Patri

KyrieGloriaPatriEx

Kyrie and Gloria Patri. For congregation and organ, with cantor or choir (opt. SATB). The choir may sing in parts or unison. In the Kyrie the choir or a solo voice may be cantor. Separate congregation part available for bulletin. Commissioned by the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Daniel Spratlan, music director, and Cynthia A. Jarvis, minister.

I have composed a Kyrie, a “Lord, have mercy,” before, in the Mass for Philadelphia, but never a separate Gloria Patri (the words traditionally end Magnificat settings, and I do have several of those). Dan Spratlan has begun to commission settings for his Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, and asked me for one, to be used beginning in the fall of 2017.

It is bliss to write challenging music for professionals, but is in some ways even more delightful to write successful music for amateurs. The largest group of amateurs who sing new music every week is the church congregation. I’ve composed hymn and liturgical settings for congregations most of my career.

While the difference in musical abilities between amateurs and professionals may be great, the composer’s challenge—and honor—is always the same: to serve them, to help them sound their best, and to reveal truths.

The musical opportunities in small forms like this Kyrie and Gloria Patri are as profound as one wishes to make them. To create dramas through the text while not obscuring the line is a useful craft no matter what the music is, but the task is heightened in music for a congregation, since the moment a congregation is unsure of itself, it stops singing. The music must always support and encourage the congregation, and thankfully, every facet of music is available to assist in that task.

I’ve done something slightly new in this. It is not unheard of in choral music, but it doesn’t happen often, where voices will depart here and there from a “doubling” accompaniment. You’ll see an example in the alto line in measure 5 above, at “have”; the altos sing a D while the organ plays a C. It is not only to avoid the direct 5th (and avoiding those as we were taught is, yes, generally a good idea—although I kept it in the organ part). There were other ways to fix that fifth. No, it rather comes out of thinking of the choir and organ as part of an ensemble—an orchestra, if you will—where lines follow their own lights and are not simply copies of each other. I first noticed this only a few years ago in a Wagner chorus I was singing. The choral bass part did something other than what the orchestral basses were playing (and what I’d expected), and it charmed me.

If an SATB choir is available, it will sing what it sings and won’t get in the way of the congregation. And that’s the other challenge the composer is constantly trying to solve—to get out of the way.

(The Gloria Patri is in G major and the Kyrie is actually in a mode, G dorian, even though it ends more on B-flat. A certain fuzziness in cadencing can be appropriate, I feel, if that conflict in mood helps to drive home the feeling of the text. A Kyrie should offer comfort only with the knowledge that one who is unworthy of comfort falls completely on mercy. That is why I do not hear the last chord as an add 6 (Bb+6) or a Gm7/Bb, even though it is both of those. I’m not sure, in this context, what the chord is.)

KyrieGloriaPatriCadence

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Rejoice in the Lamb

Rejoice in the Lamb. SATB, 5′.

To Dr. John H. French, on the 25th anniversary of his ministry as organist/choirmaster of The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. Premiered 2 July 2017.

Live recording of the premiere:

 

Using the same title as the Benjamin Britten 17-minute cantata, and using words from the same monumental Christopher Smart poem, Jubilate Agno, that Britten used, this is a 5-minute a cappella anthem or concert work. The first two lines of my setting (text below) are also in Britten’s, but the other two lines are not. John French had asked if the Britten work, which he loves and has often conducted, could possibly inspire another setting, and so I looked closely at Britten’s piece, and then Smart’s original poem.

After long consideration—the poem is huge—the text began to take shape around the occasion I was asked to celebrate, French’s 25 years as organist and choirmaster at one of the great churches of Philadelphia, and a landmark on Rittenhouse Square, The Church of the Holy Trinity.

Smart was a profoundly pious man, and that did not make his life a smooth one. Taken to falling on his knees in the street and praying, he was viewed as unstable and was committed first to a mental asylum and then to a debtors’ prison. He wrote part if not all of Jubilate Agno in confinement.

The life of this poet and the circumstances of this poem colored the music’s character. The shifting between E major and a parallel mode of A lydian came out of this. I thought that the halting, almost-too-sweet “Give the glory to the Lord” was appropriate, as were the repeating Hallelujahs, driving to an ecstatic proclamation at the end.

I have been Holy Trinity’s resident composer since 2013, fortunate to have most of my anthems and another commission sung in that historic church. Among the distinguished leaders who have served there are the rector Phillips Brooks and the organist Lewis Redner, who created “O Little Town of Bethlehem” at that church for a Sunday School class in 1868. John French serves as the descendant of Redner, organist Robert Elmore, and many others who were dedicated to the spiritual growth of the congregation and the integrity of the music they produce, just as they are descended from Asaph of the Psalms, “the musician of the Lord.”

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable.
For a NEW SONG also is best, if it be to the glory of God; and taken with the food like the psalms.
Let Asaph rejoice with the Nightingale—The musician of the Lord! and the watchman of the Lord!
—Christopher Smart (1722-1771)

Charles Ives and Independence

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection July 1, 5–6 pm:
Charles Ives (1874–1954). Variations on “America” (1891), arr. William Schumann
Ives. Symphony No. 2 (1901)

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection starts the Independence Day weekend with that most independent of American composers, Charles Ives. His music is wild, grand, humorous, poignant, and, at times, ornery. Most of all, though, it is shot through with that very American streak of independence. It isn’t a non-musical independence, like a personal or a political statement would be, but goes deep into the grain of music. The independence of Charles Ives is that stubborn willfulness to grab a moment—any moment, no matter how exuberant or plain—and shake it until all artifice drops off and all that’s left of the moment is, well, its momentousness.

His Second Symphony is a perfect example. Composed when Ives was in his 20s, it’s his breakout symphony. The First is well done, but even with sharp corners here and there, it’s a little too schooled, too European.

With the Second, you hear “Turkey in the Straw,” “Camptown Races,” “America the Beautiful,” “Long, Long Ago,” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” They rub shoulders with, almost riot with, strains of Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’s First, Bach, and Wagner. And then Ives tosses in hymns, spirituals, reels, and more: enough to expand it into a five-movement symphony.

Like many Ives pieces, the Symphony No. 2 wasn’t premiered until years after its creation; 50 years, to be exact. Leonard Bernstein conducted the premiere with the New York Philharmonic in 1951. Ives, in ill health for much of his life, listened to the broadcast at home with his wife Harmony, on their cook’s radio. He was surprised by how much the audience clapped at the end.

Some of Ives’s earlier organ music made its way into this work. He was an accomplished organist, playing in churches from age 14, and one such work came to light because the organist E. Power Biggs asked him, in 1949, if he had anything Biggs might play. They uncovered Variations on “America.” Biggs then edited, published, and performed it. The composer William Schuman orchestrated it in 1963, and again the New York Philharmonic stepped up for the premiere, in 1964, with André Kostelanetz conducting.

It is a mistake to think of these Variations as satire. Ives never satirizes. It’s closer to the mark to listen to these as a young boy might, a boy who grew up with fervent bands of amateurs playing music as if their honor—or the honor of their country—depended on it. Ives’s father directed such bands. Young Charlie played in them. He is in love with this tune, and that is one secret to the strange pull and influence of Ives on American music.

The other thing to remember, and which gives context to these Variations, is that when Ives wrote it, as organist in a Brewster, N.Y., Methodist church, and played it at the July 4th celebration (after trying it out first in February—can you imagine what the congregation thought of that?), he wasn’t that far removed from the boy at the parade. Charles Ives composed Variations on “America” when he was 16.