There Is No Great and No Small

americanflagFor Lyric Fest’s opening concert of the 2016/17 season, titled I Hear America Singing, I was commissioned to set a poem of Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his 1841 first series of Essays. The poem sometimes carries the title of “The Informing Spirit.” I composed this song for mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis and pianist Laura Ward, the co-directors of Lyric Fest.

The premiere performances took place in Philadelphia: Saturday, October 8th, 2016 at 7:30 at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church, and Sunday, October 9th, 2016 at 3:00 at The Academy of Vocal Arts. The song is a little over three minutes long.

There is no great and no small
To the Soul that maketh all:
And where it cometh, all things are;
And it cometh everywhere.

I am owner of the sphere,
Of the seven stars and the solar year,
Of Cæsar’s hand, and Plato’s brain,
Of Lord Christ’s heart, and Shakespeare’s strain.

I read somewhere that the elemental vibration of the universe is a B-flat. I have no idea what that means, or even how such a thing is calculated, but it’s something that gets your attention. These words connected me to that concept, so the song is in B-flat, but the small/great dichotomy suggested a twist. So instead of a big, fat B-flat major or a dark minor, I twisted it into one of my favorite modes, the lydian. I hope you like the entrance of the first E as much as I do. There is a simplistic, almost silly spinning of 8th-notes, which work into a two-part counterpoint of different small phrases. These I repeat at different scale degrees and in different orders, and that is a fair description of what goes on in the song. The words, as the words always will do, tell me where to stretch, to lay back, and to land.

I Hear America Singing featured an all-American program of Stephen Foster, George Crumb, Elliot Carter, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and along with There Is No Great and No Small there was a commissioned new arrangement by John Conahan and a premiere finale by Daron Hagen.


Three More Things I Learn from Bach

Bach480[First published 27 September 2016 in the Broad Street Review. Edited and reprinted here by permission.]

A while back I considered three things I learned from Bach. I’ve wanted to add to them ever since, partly because there are more, and partly because I just saw a Brandenburg concerto concert—five of the six were performed—and it felt good to hear the best music in the world again.

Yes, I’m calling Bach the best in the world, and if you don’t agree, well, you could do worse. What about Beethoven, you ask? Or Mozart or Monteverdi or Machaut? Or how dare I lift up classical Western tonality when there’s Tibetan throat singing or West African griot chanting or Japanese gagaku or Bulgarian women’s choirs or Kind of Blue?, and I get it, I really do, but still I will point to Bach, the sum of everything before him and the fulcrum of everything after.

Out of all of Bach I’ll point to those six Brandenburgs, and of them, to the fifth, to its first movement, and two-thirds of the way through, to the harpsichord solo. It lasts three minutes, and it’s the best music in the world. What I learn—what I would like to learn—are three things.

1. Compose something that isn’t there

It’s called a triple concerto, meaning there’s an orchestra with three soloists: flute, violin, harpsichord. Which sounds unexceptional, until you learn that nobody had ever thought of making the harpsichord a soloist before, not like this. Before Bach there were no keyboard concertos. He invented them. He wrote concertos for single and multiple harpsichords later, and other composers went on to do the same for piano, but Brandenburg No. 5 is the very first piece of its kind in the world.

2. Compose as if the audience isn’t there

Can you imagine what the audience in Bach’s time thought when they heard this? Well, probably nobody did. We know Bach gave these six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, and that’s about all we know. He probably wrote them a few years earlier, but no one knows for sure if he ever played them. The Margrave probably never heard them. The clean, unmarked manuscripts were discovered in a pile of music 99 years after Bach died.

Remember that Bach wasn’t in some garret, whining that he didn’t have an audience because he was a misunderstood genius. He was successful; he cared about listeners; he wanted to lift them up. He just, it seems, didn’t need them. He wrote these astounding pieces, gave them away, and went on from there.

3. There is no there, there

We’ve seen that it’s a triple concerto; it’s also a concerto grosso, meaning it pits a smaller group (the soloists) against a larger group (the orchestra). Brandenburg Five is both of these. It is also none of these.

Yes, the flute, violin, and harpsichord have solos throughout, and they act as a group throughout, but in this first movement it’s often hard to figure out where one group ends and the other one begins. For one thing, the violinist often plays with the “orchestra,” here, a string orchestra. Even more baffling, the strings have only one violin part instead of the usual two, so, many times we’re not sure if the soloist is a soloist or is in the first violin section. And since the orchestra in the original score has only four string parts, it simply looks and sounds like the entire group on stage is one orchestra.

And then there’s that harpsichord. It not only solos but plays along with the string orchestra most of the time just like any Baroque continuo player. It’s soloist and accompanist. If you’re confused, don’t worry, so are the scholars.

But when the harpsichord starts its real solo, after a number of teasing flourishes, the confusion multiplies. Bach chucks proportion out the window. (Here is an older performance with modern and multiple instruments, but Karl Richter’s harpsichord playing is relentless and almost brutishly powerful.)

The solo begins as noodling as the other instruments just kind of give up. It continues as it had been, as if it doesn’t realize it’s the only thing playing. Then, little by little, it stretches out. From parlor-room propriety it wriggles into the hardest harpsichord music written up to that time.

You’re already feeling unsettled, when out of the wings darts a dervishing torrent of notes in a wild leap. Now you’re feeling something you’ve never felt in a concert before, a little scared. Then you know why: Thrusting around a bend, the music runs off the road. Notes, which in polite Baroque company should be kept at far ends of the room, slam together in giddying, frightening abandon. Harmonies careen and envelop and explode in a rolling boil. You are locked in a slow-motion car wreck but instead of tightening your neck and pushing back you’re leaning forward, and instead of screeching brakes you hear the gas pedal floored and as you leave the road and vault the embankment and crash through the fence, you’re in a dream, a dream of a fall off a cliff, your arms wide, and you are flying, or the world is flying away, and you are in no exact place, there is no there, here there is just here, everything is here, and you spin in a space with your eyes opened wide, and the tears welling up come from depths that are filled with a wonder and an awe and a joy you never knew were there, like a kiss, like a sudden and unexpected kiss, and now no longer scared you cannot believe anything could be this beautiful, this wildly, embracingly, shudderingly beautiful, but you do believe it, now, because now you know, now you are hearing what the best is.

And then the orchestra enters, you had forgotten about the orchestra. And then it is over.

Maybe something else is the best, but I’ll tell you, you could do worse.

Setting the Stage with Richard Wagner

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday October 1st,  5–6 pm on WRTI:

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Die Meistersinger, Procession of the Masters (1862-67)
Wagner: Das Liebesverbot, Overture (1835)
Wagner: Symphony in C (1832)

richardwagnerparis1861Looking over the landscape of American orchestral music covering the 19th and into the 20th centuries as we have been, we see two names—not American—looming large. One is Beethoven, the other, Wagner. They are still huge now; imagine them in the eyes of American musicians then.

We’ve already considered Beethoven’s influence in the past few months, so we’ll pause here for an appreciation of Wagner. As with Beethoven, it’s hard to overstate his influence. While 19th-century symphonic music and beyond cannot be conceived of without Beethoven, 20th-century music would not have begun or developed as it did without the vision of Richard Wagner.

This isn’t just the opinion of those of us living one hundred and more years later. It was the conviction of the composers of the time. Debussy, Strauss, and Schoenberg are just the largest of the names of those who heard Wagner’s siren voice and steered toward it. Many also turned away from it, or so they thought, as time went on. Later generations acted similarly; Hindemith and Boulez both became who they were, in one way or another, because of their reaction to Wagner and Wagner’s one-time disciples.

And what was his voice? What was the magnetic draw of Wagner? Perhaps it can be described like this: He took the tonal language that had been growing in Europe for centuries and stretched it to its breaking point. Tonality had developed a system of shifting between keys or tonal centers (what musicians call modulation) to the point that the shifts could jump quicker and farther than ever before. Because of that heightened activity, music became festooned with chromatics, those note-altering flats and sharps.

Wagner pushed music, many believed, as far as it could go in that direction. He devised swaths of music in which one chord would lead not where you thought it was going, but in any direction. One key could jump to any other key at any time. Rare for any composer, he wrote his own opera librettos, of overreaching pride and forbidden love, and set them in a seething miasma of unsettled and heightened emotional states, bathing them in a dizzying, barely tonal realm. Listeners wondered where they were. Most loved it; a few despised it.

He did not find that language all at once, of course. A lifetime of operatic toil allowed Richard Wagner to develop his voice, heard most universally appealingly (perhaps because it’s a comedy) in Die Meistersinger. It’s a rollicking tale of love, community, and lifted steins, a world away from Tristan, the Ring cycle, and Parsifal. It hearkens back to his early comic opera, Das Liebesverbot, or The Novice of Palermo, based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Even earlier than that, when he was 19, Wagner wrote a Symphony in C. Wagner was not always the operatic composer we know him as now, but had wanted to be a symphonist. Music in America, struggling to make its voice heard against those of Wagner and Beethoven, would need to accept this truth: You have to start somewhere.

The 15th Anniversary of 9/11: Wings of the Morning

worldtradecenterNow Is the Time, Saturday, September 10th, 9 to 10 pm. On this eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, we remember the lives lost to terror, and vow to live on. Aquilo is the Latin word for the wind that comes from the northeast; Arlene Sierra evokes that, air, and fire in this orchestral work.

Andy Teirstein’s What Is Left of Us sets poetry of Mahmoud Darwish in this ballet, ingeniously scored for solo voice with a three-voice choir, viola, and cello. The novel about 1922 Berlin is behind City of Shadows, where Scott Wheeler also salutes Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and Copland’s Quiet City.

The Life Sketches of Nils Vigeland, for solo piano, wends its way from Wild Hopes to a Barcarolle, with Trumpets and dances along the way. Vigeland wrote this in 1994 in memory of the composer/pianist Yvar Mikhashoff.

Ron Nelson is a composer and jazz pianist who not only studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Stefan Wolpe, but has also performed with Pat Martino. Wings of the Morning references Psalm 139: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit?… If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.”

Arlene Sierra: Aquilo
Andy Teirstein: What Is Left of Us
Scott Wheeler: City of Shadows
Nils Vigeland: Life Sketches
Ron Thomas: Wings of the Morning

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at and on HD-2. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Enrique Granados Had Just Conquered America

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday September 10th, 5 to 6 pm.


Enrique Granados (1867–1916): Intermezzo from Goyescas (1914)
Granados: Spanish Dances, Nos. 1–10

Last month we left the Hungarian conductor Anton Seidl in late 19th-century New York City, where he led, at one time or another, the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Not too long after, the Spanish composer and pianist Enrique Granados was there, basking in a successful premiere at that same Met. The year was 1916—100 years ago.

It seems odd to devote an entire program of orchestral music to a composer who wrote mostly for piano. But what beguiling music it is. Others couldn’t leave his music alone, wanting to transcribe it for other instruments and larger venues. The Spanish conductor Rafael Ferrer is one; the Fleisher Collection has some of his orchestrations of the Spanish Dances. In their original form they present a challenge for pianists. The brilliant keyboard writing demands not only great power but great control.

Granados did compose a few works involving orchestra, including two operas. He based the second, Goyescas, on his earlier piano pieces inspired by Francisco Goya paintings. Granados and a librettist created a story, and because much of the music was already written, they often worked backward, fitting the words into the music. This Intermezzo from Goyescas is one of his most-performed works, and the opera, the first Spanish-language opera on the Metropolitan stage, did well at the premiere.

He and his wife finally left the United States on a later ship, which went to England rather than Spain, as they had first planned. Granados would have returned to Spain immediately, but a piano-roll company wanted to record him on its new machine, and then he was engaged to play a recital for none other than President Woodrow Wilson at the White House.

He and his wife finally left the United States on a later ship, which went to England rather than Spain, as they had first planned. But then, heading to the Continent from England, their ferry was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Granados saw his wife in the water and jumped in to save her. They both drowned. To add to the tragedy, the part of the ship they were in did not sink; everyone else in that part survived. Amparo and Enrique Granados left behind six children.

Goyescas and Granados were twice ill-fated by this First World War, for at the 1916 premiere the opera was already two years old. Paris was to have had the premiere in 1914, but that was canceled when war broke out.

Anton Seidl died in 1898 at age 47, after a tremendous New York career. Granados, living to 48, conquered the city in his one visit. His music has attracted performers, orchestrators, and listeners ever since.

Three Things I Learned from Gregg Smith

Blues on Now Is the Time

KucharzIt’s blue and it’s the blues on Now Is the Time, Saturday, August 20th at 9 pm, We pick a Blueberry Rag-A-Muffin to begin the program, one of Linda Robbins Coleman’s many delightful piano rags, and then turn to the second movement of David Amram’s Violin Concerto, called Blues, which also includes an extended saxophone solo.

Larry Kucharz is represented by two of his ambient electronic works, Blue Drawing No. 02 and 03, while Mason Bates juggles blues fragments in his piano homage to Alan Lomax, White Lies for Lomax. John King puts the string quartet Ethel through its blues paces in ’Round Sunrise, and with Symphony in Blue for solo piano, Kamran Ince interprets a painting of the same name.

Linda Robbins Coleman: Blueberry Rag-A-Muffin
David Amram: Blues, from Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Larry Kucharz: Blue Drawing No. 02
Mason Bates: White Lies for Lomax
John King: ’Round Sunrise
Larry Kucharz: Blue Drawing No. 03
Kamran Ince: Symphony in Blue

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at and on HD-2. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI!