Two Composers Defining America

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday 3 Dec 2016,  5–6 pm on WRTI:

conversebuschFrederick Shepherd Converse (1871-1940): Serenade (c.1903)
Converse: The Mystic Trumpeter (1904)
Carl Busch (1862-1943): Omaha Indian Love Song; Chippewa Lullaby, from Four North American Legends (1918)
Busch: Elegie (1899)
Converse: Flivver Ten Million (1926)

In January we began a survey of the history of American orchestral music with George Bristow, born in 1825. Now in December we end 2016 with two composers who lived into the 1940s, wrapping up an American century with Frederick Shepherd Converse and Carl Busch, representing American music as well as any other two.

New Englander Converse could be a model for the American composer at that time. The son of a wealthy businessman, his musical gifts overrode his father’s desire for him to join the business. He studied composition with John Knowles Paine and George W. Chadwick, then went to Munich and studied with Chadwick’s teacher Joseph Rheinberger. Returning to the States, he taught at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music (Chadwick having in the meantime become its director), then at Harvard. But after only eight years total of teaching, Converse left academia to compose full-time.

He wrote choral, orchestral works, and operas. The Irish-themed The Pipe of Desire was the first opera by a native-born American to see the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The small Serenade for strings was followed by his grand tone poem based on Walt Whitman, The Mystic Trumpeter, premiered by the young Philadelphia Orchestra in 1904.

That and his much later Flivver Ten Million have become his most-played orchestral works. Flivver humorously celebrates the ten-millionth Ford Model T to roll off the conveyor belt. Converse said he wondered “what Mark Twain would have done with such a theme if he had been a musician.”

The Danish composer and violinist Carl Busch studied in Brussels and Paris, and at 25 was invited to Kansas City, Missouri by the Danish consulate there. He formed a string quartet, came to America, and stayed. He became the leading musician in Kansas City, directing the Philharmonic Choral Society and the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra.

Busch fell in love with American Western and Native American cultures. Many of his works use home-grown melodies, including, in his Four North American Legends, Chippewa tunes. The so-called Indianist Movement in music, though a short-lived phase, grew out of the urge to find unique American folk elements from which to craft an American classical music. The irony that Americans were partly spurred on in this quest by foreigners has not been lost. Antonin Dvorak famously wrote the very thing in the 1890s while here, and the Danish-American Carl Busch was one of those who led the way.

An All-Philadelphia Now Is the Time

boathouserowdayNow Is the Time jumps into the Giving Thanks for Philadelphia weekend on WRTI Saturday, November 19th at 9 pm. All the composers and many of the performers live in and around Philadelphia, or studied here. Retired Haverford College professor Harold Boatrite’s music is always smart and tuneful, and his Sonata for Flute and Piano is no exception. Daniel Kellogg and Zhou Tian both went through Curtis, and both have their works played here by Mimi Stillman, from her CD Odyssey.

David Bennett Thomas teaches at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and is here represented by Sketches for Flute and Guitar. Vistas is by Ingrid Arauco, one of Boatrite’s successors at Haverford, and David Laganella (from Penn a while back), leaves us with a luscious Sundarananda, celebrating the woodworked sculpture of another Philadelphia-area artist, George Nakashima.

from Zhou Tian: Duet for Flute and Piano 

PROGRAM:
Harold Boatrite: Sonata for Flute and Piano
Daniel Kellogg: Five Sketches for Solo Flute
Zhou Tian: Duet for Flute and Piano
David Bennett Thomas: Sketches for Flute and Guitar
Ingrid Arauco: Vistas
David Laganella: Sundarananda

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

The Music of Presidents (A Century Ago)

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, November 5th, 5-6 pm:

The Star-Spangled Banner: Music (c.1773) by John Stafford Smith (1750-1836); words by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843)
Percy Grainger (1882-1961): Spoon River (1919)
Grainger: Mock Morris (1910)
Grainger: Youthful Rapture (1901)
Grainger: Irish Tune from County Derry (1902)
Grainger: Molly on the Shore (1907)
Grainger: Shepherd’s Hey (1908)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): La bohème, Mi chiamano Mimi … O soave fanciulla
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Cello Concerto No. 2 in D, 2. Adagio, 3. Rondo (Allegro)

casals1917

Pablo Casals, 1917

Presidents, like everyone else, bring music into their lives according to their individual tastes, and the White House has witnessed the growing appropriation of music for home life and official functions. George Washington danced a minuet at his 1789 inaugural ball, and in 1801 the United States Marine Band played at the first public reception at the White House, for John Adams.

Thomas Jefferson heard the Marine Band play the popular tune “To Anacreon in Heaven” in 1806. That song would soon be fitted with new words by Francis Scott Key, inspired by an image from the War of 1812. The new song, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was immediately popular, and was made official by the United States Navy in 1889. President Woodrow Wilson authorized its use for military occasions in 1916, and it finally became the national anthem in 1931, during the Hoover administration.

Wilson’s oldest daughter, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, was an accomplished soprano, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a San Francisco world’s fair in 1915. She was First Lady of the White House after her mother died and before Wilson remarried in 1915. It was a family that loved music. We’ve already seen that the president asked Enrique Granados to play at the White House, and Percy Grainger also played a piano recital there in 1916.

The new technology of gramophone recordings had already by then entered the presidential quarters. In 1909, William Howard Taft was listening to records of Enrico Caruso on the brand-new Victrola he had installed in the Blue Room. For composers, his tastes ran from Wagner to Puccini, with La bohème becoming a particular favorite.

Working back to his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909, we see an appearance by one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, Pablo Casals. He played for T.R. in 1904, and then 57 years later, for J.F.K. in 1961.

Standing for the national anthem

[First published 24 October 2016 in the Broad Street Review. Edited and reprinted here by permission.]

philliesstadiumThere’s controversy around the national anthem, but all I’m thinking about is my low E-flat. Our ad hoc men’s choir is about to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the Phillies. There aren’t that many of us second basses, so that E-flat, the lowest note in the arrangement, is foremost on my mind as I stand in the chute leading onto the field.

Finding the right note

I’ve had that E-flat and lower, sort of, since high school, but the older I get, the more solid those notes are, especially in the morning. That’s in my favor.

But this is early afternoon. It’s outside and a little cold; my low notes evaporate if I’ve been talking a lot. And (I should’ve mentioned this first), since I’m not a trained singer, I have little technique. To keep warm, I have a heavy white undershirt under my heaviest white dress shirt (with black pants and shoes, our uniform), and I haven’t talked much all day.

It’s October first, the last Saturday of the regular season, Phillies vs. the Mets, and it’s German-American Day at the stadium. We cobbled the choir together from the German men’s and the ecumenical choirs I sing with, plus more guys who wanted in. We’re led by my wife Jackie; she’s also the director of both choirs.

Inside baseball

Nearby, Temple is playing football, and the Police and Fire Department Thrill Show is raising college tuition for children of parents killed in the line of duty. We plan plenty of time to get to the stadium, and arrive two hours early. Congregating near the right-field gate, we see lots of Mets fans enter. The Mets were fighting for a playoff spot; the Phils were never in the race. Ryan Howard, the slugging first baseman well past his most-feared hitting days, is playing his last weekend as a Phillie.

A guard leads us down the entrance ramp. Below the stadium we walk, past forklifts, water and electrical conduits, locker rooms, and skids of grass seed. Staff members glance at us. The Phanatic sashays up to us, rubs a bald guy’s head, gives us two thumbs up.

In a large, carpeted locker room where we can keep our things, Jackie reminds us of the two places we are not to breathe: After “what so proudly we hailed,” and after “bombs bursting in air.” We run the music a few times, softly.

We head to the staging area at field level, and hear the crowd and the echoing stadium announcements. Through the chute we see players warming up on the field. “This is where the Mets will celebrate, today or tomorrow” our guard says confidently. “Gonna be champagne all over, we cover everything in plastic.”

Onto the field

We get into singing formation. I’m in the second of two rows, on the end, so it turns out I will lead us in. We line up in the chute. I quietly test my E-flat, seeing how it feels. Then I tell myself to knock it off.

We wait. The Phillies honor four or five different groups. Somebody hands somebody else a large posterboard check. A little kid is dressed as the Phanatic. A tech guy sets up our microphones. The Phanatic goofs around. Somebody throws a ceremonial first pitch. In front of me another tech guy, talking on his headset, looks over to me and says, “Okay, now.”

I walk up a few steps and onto the field. We’re on the third-base line, next to the Mets dugout. The dirt crunches under my black dress shoes. The grass, as beautiful up close as it is from the stands, is a lively green and feels strong. Taking my place, I look at my black shoes against the green grass. I look at the guys and I look at Jackie. I look into the stands in front of me and see nothing but blue shirts. They’re all Mets fans.

They’re standing and they’re silent and they’re looking at us.

Jackie sings our first three notes, and we launch into it at a good clip, in unison, “Oh, say, can you see….” We were warned about the echoes. They are loud and will throw you off. Following the conductor is always recommended; here, it is essential.

Can you see?

This is the only national anthem that’s a question. Will the flag still be there? That’s it. That flag we saw yesterday, before the night and the bombs fell, in this land of the free and the brave, is it still there?

We break into four parts at “proudly we hailed,” and it is an exciting moment but I do not breathe. We carry over into “at the twilight’s last gleaming.”

Do we see the flag?: That’s the anthem and that’s the controversy. Maybe some see only the American flag and not American imperfections, and maybe some see only the imperfections and not the flag. But don’t most of us realize that it’s both? Hasn’t it always been both? Haven’t we always imperfectly lived out the idea of America? Isn’t America, above all, an idea? Haven’t we always been a question, just like our anthem?

So I sing, and so I stand. Knowing the imperfections, I stand for the idea. With my imperfect voice I stand for all who made the idea possible, and for all who still make it possible, for Jackie, for my family, for the Thrill Show and their families, for the guys I’m singing with, for the kid in the Phanatic costume, for the Phillies, for the Mets fans, for everyone standing, for protestors taking a knee, for all. I stand and sing for America.

We finish big and the crowd roars. Mets fans in front of us pump fists into the air. As we file out, high-fiving them on the way into the chute, some lean over the railing and say, “Thank you.”

Ryan Howard hits a home run later, but the Mets win, 5–3. I have no idea how my E-flat went. It comes near the end, on the word “free.”

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.

thereisnogreatp1

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.