Category Archives: American music

The Stealth Populism of William Schuman and Jaromir Weinberger

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.

Ives 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.

Prague-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 Czecho-slovakia, then fled the Nazis after they started banning his music. He came back to the U.S. and received American 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 that they were here to produce all they did. Be glad then, America.

PROGRAM:

William Schuman (1910–1992). New England Triptych: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings (1956)

Schuman. Symphony No. 7 (1960)

Jaromir Weinberger (1896–1967). Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper (1926)

 

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.

Bubbling Up on Now Is the Time

from the CD cover, Juri Seo: Mostly Piano

It’s the spirit of jazz on Now Is the Time, Saturday, May 6th at 9 pm on WRTI.org and WRTI-HD2. We wanted to call #three “Pound Three” but our (increasingly numerous, as the years go by) younger colleagues said, “Hashtag. Duh.” Unperturbed, we contacted the composer Juri Seo (younger than some of our young colleagues), who assured us that saying “Three” was just fine. So there, colleagues. Tune in to see if we pronounced it correctly, but in any case, #three is a rollicking bit of jazz-lick-inspired fun, with riffs tumbling awry among the piano, bass, and percussion.

Allen Shawn performs his own Four Jazz Preludes, which are at the same time lyrical, entertaining, and dearly felt. Philip Thompson brings a big-band feel to a small ensemble in the propulsive yet haunting Separate Self, inspired by fabric sculptures. “Ragtime is in my blood,” says Judith Zaimont, and her Bubble-Up Rag—here, arranged for flute and piano—is a juicy example of her concert rag repertoire. All fun, thoughtful, and brilliant pieces on Now Is the Time!

PROGRAM:
Juri Seo: #three
Allen Shawn: Four Jazz Preludes
Philip Thompson: Separate Self
Judith Lang Zaimont: Bubble-Up Rag

Well, what would you call a piece for wah-wah tubes? Wah by Juri Seo:

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! 

Lounge Lizards on Now Is the Time

from the CD

All varieties of vernacular show up this week on Now Is the Time, Saturday, April 29th at 9 pm on WRTI.org and WRTI-HD2. With movements like Sip ’N Stir (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) and Ramada Inn (Exit 1, New Jersey Turnpike), it sure sounds like Michael Daugherty, and those are two of the movements from his Lounge Lizards for two pianos and two percussion. Jeremy Haladyna dips into Mayan myth for Only Armadillos They Danced, and accompanies a string quartet with scratch turntable. In her Mosquito for piano, Jing Jin Luo follows the insect closely, ending with quite a kerfuffle.

Nickitas Demos brings together clarinets and saxophones, but only two players, in Citizens of Nowhere, and David Rakowski has one player perform on both piano and toy piano—sometimes simultaneously—in his 88th Etude for piano, subtitled Toyed Together. Kamran Ince’s Two-Step Passion is an elemental romp in this arrangement for chamber orchestra, and the always entertaining Eric Moe somehow suggests a mackerel, a catfish, and Catch and Release as Three Ways to Relieve Tension.

PROGRAM:
Michael Daugherty: Lounge Lizards
Jeremy Haladyna: Only Armadillos They Danced
Jing Jing Luo: Mosquito
Nickitas Demos: Citizens of Nowhere
David Rakowski: Etude No. 88, Toyed Together
Kamran Ince: Two-Step Passion
Eric Moe: Three Ways to Relieve Tension

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! 

Easter Weekend on Now Is the Time

Gravestone detail from Evan Chambers CD, The Old Burying Ground

Life awaits its birth this Saturday before Easter on Now Is the Time, Saturday, April 15th at 9 pm on WRTI.org and WRTI-HD2. Evan Chambers walks through a graveyard and is inspired by inscriptions and poetry in the Introduction to The Old Burying Ground and its last section, Paths of Peace. Then, an empty building in a Memphis night wonders if the sun will ever return, in Abandoned, a monodrama by Kamran Ince.

“Will There Really Be a Morning?” is the first of Four Dickinson Songs by Lori Laitman, and Bora Yoon goes to the chant of Hildegard of Bingen for the Hymn to the Virgin O viridissima virga, “O branch of freshest green.” Justin Rubin turns to Native American flute, modern flute, viola, and cello for Breath of Life. Its three sections are The Yellow Light of Dawn, Beautiful Clouds Arising, and Incantation.

PROGRAM:
Evan Chambers: The Old Burying Ground, excerpts
Kamran Ince: Abandoned
Lori Laitman: Four Dickinson Songs
Bora Yoon: O viridissima virga
Justin Rubin: Breath of Life

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! 

From Pi to Prime on Now Is the Time

Another Pi Day, 3/14, just slipped by, so let’s hear the magic of numbers on Now Is the Time on WRTI this Saturday, March 18th at 9 pm. Reginald Bain based his Pi Day on… well, you’ll hear as much of the 3.1415926… sequence that can fit into four minutes and 50 seconds, read aloud over his inventively pulsing music. You can check here to see if he got it right.

From a number the end of which is unattainable we then go to Unattainable Spaces by David Laganella, abstract music based on an abstract painting. We see a recognizable number in Daniel Schnyder’s The Iron Tetrapod, but have no idea what a Quiptych is, until we enjoy a piece with that title by David Evan Thomas, performed by Zeitgeist.

For pianist Jerome Lowenthal, Ned Rorem wrote 75 Notes for Jerry, and for the Baroque/new music ensemble Mélomanie, composer and lutenist Mark Rimple composed Partita 622. Mark Zuckerman’s Proverbs for Four at Fifty sets Hebrew scriptures to celebrate the jubilee of 50th birthdays. Then our numbers program, which started with pi, closes by circling back to Reginald Bain and his entertaining piece The Music of the Primes.

PROGRAM:
Reginald Bain: Pi Day
David Laganella: Unattainable Spaces
Daniel Schnyder: The Iron Tetrapod
David Evan Thomas: Quiptych
Ned Rorem: 75 Notes for Jerry
Mark Rimple: Partita 622
Mark Zuckerman: Proverbs for Four at Fifty
Reginald Bain: The Music of the Primes

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! 

Overtures, Fanfares, and Brass on Now Is the Time

whitacre

Eric Whitacre

On Saturday, February 18th at 9 pm, Now Is the Time presents a taste of the upcoming Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia “Sounds of America” concert. We hope you can join us for a different look at some of the composers who will be represented on those February 26th and 27th concerts.

On Silver Wings for band is by Kenneth Fuchs; so is the overture for orchestra Discover the Wild. Eric Whitacre’s Her Sacred Spirit Soars finds a place here, as do three short works by John Corigliano for brass quintet, Antiphon, Fanfares to Music, and the Overture from his Gazebo Dances. All these come from a brand-new CD by the Gaudete Brass, celebrating Corigliano’s 75th birthday a few years ago.

Daron Hagen’s Concerto for Brass Quintet centers the program, and is a tour de force. In five movements for brass quintet alone—Sennets, Melodia, Invention, Romance, Tuckets—it’s a brilliant, strong work.

PROGRAM:
Kenneth Fuchs: On Silver Wings
John Corigliano: Gazebo Dances, Overture
Daron Hagen: Concerto for Brass Quintet
John Corigliano: Antiphon
Eric Whitacre: Her Sacred Spirit Soars
Kenneth Fuchs: Discover the Wild
John Corigliano: Fanfares to Music

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!