Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue

Classics 1 – October 14 & 15, 2016

John Stafford Smith 1750-1836

John Stafford Smith

John Stafford Smith
The Star Spangled Banner

English composer, organist and musicologist John Stafford Smith was one of the first serious collectors of the manuscripts of Johann Sebastian Bach. He established a reputation as a composer of glees, publishing over 60 glees and part songs, over 20 anthems and many songs. The glee was a type of unaccompanied English part song, usually for male voices, that flourished from about 1750 until World War I. The word is derived from the Old English gleo, meaning “mirth” or “entertainment.”

Smith is remembered today primarily as the composer of the tune that became The Star Spangled Banner. It began life as a song, To Anacreon in Heaven*, composed for his drinking and singing club. He later harmonized and published it in 1799. 

In 1814 Francis Scott Key fashioned his text to fit Smith’s somewhat modified tune, which was popular at the time, but it became the official national anthem of the United States only in 1931. In 1941, Eugene Ormandy, long-time conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, arranged it for symphony orchestra.

* Anacreon was a sixth century Greek poet noted for his poems in praise of wine women and song.

Aaron Copland 1900-1990

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland
”Hoe-Down” From Rodeo

During his long career, Aaron Copland composed in many diverse styles: scores for films (The Red Pony, Our Town, The Heiress); works incorporating jazz (Piano Concerto, Music for the Theater); and the serial (12-tone) technique (Piano Quartet, Piano Fantasy). But the works by which he is best known are his three American ballets: Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1943).

In his early works from the 1920s, such as his Piano Concerto of 1926, Copland used a jazzy, hard-edged musical language, culminating in his highly dissonant Variations for Piano of 1930. The public refused to accept these works, especially the Piano Concerto: not since the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913 has a premiere garnered as much controversy, not to mention invective, as its premiere in January 1927 in Boston, under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky. 

By the mid-1930s Copland was beginning to feel “an increasing dissatisfaction with the relation of the music-loving public and the living composer.” In order to reach a wider audience he began to gradually simplify his style, and making it more accessible but without sacrificing artistic value. The first work in this more popular vein was El Salón Mexico (1936). He composed Rodeo for the dancer Agnes de Mille, who also wrote the scenario. She prefaced it with: “This is the story of The Taming of the Shrew – cowboy style.” Rodeo opened in October of that year and was a smashing success, garnering 79 performances by the end of the following year. 

In Rodeo, Copland uses authentic folk tunes and dance rhythms, although with modifications, evoking the scenes and sounds of the old West. 

Rodeo is the story of a cowgirl who has her eye on the head wrangler but is too much of a tomboy to attract him. The Orchestral Suite of four dance episodes, including all but five minutes of the original ballet, followed a year later. As he did with his other ballets, Copland enhanced the orchestration for the suite. 

In the finale, “Hoe-Down,” The cowgirl reappears suddenly in a party dress, at last drawing the cowboys’ attention. Both the Wrangler and the Roper claim her, but in the end she decides that a plain bird in her arms is worth more than a fancy bird in someone else’s. While she would have preferred the Wrangler, she settles for the Roper. The two square dance tunes are a few measures of "McLoed's Reel" played in folk fiddle style" and Bonyparte's Retreat."

Aaron Copland
Billy the Kid, Suite from the Ballet

In 1938 Lincoln Kirstein, director of the American Ballet Caravan, became fascinated by a biography of the outlaw known as Billy the Kid (real name William Bonney), and approached Copland with the idea for a ballet. Copland, who admitted that he frankly disliked cowboy songs, agreed to try when he learned that Billy the Kid was originally from New York City. Incongruously, Copland spent the summer in Paris with a package of Western folk songs, working on the Western ballet. He finished it in September at the MacDowell colony in New Hampshire. It was premiered in Chicago in October of that year but accompanied by two pianos only. The Ballet with full orchestra finally premiered in New York in May 1939. It was a smashing success and has remained an audience favorite ever since.

In the summer of 1939 Copland compiled an orchestral suite from the ballet in which he used about two-thirds of the original music. Among the noteworthy features of Copland's orchestration is his use of the upper winds and muted trumpet in imitation of the harmonica. The six connected movements of the suite, which match the action sequence of the ballet, are:

“The Open Prairie:” Copland's characteristic open fifths, which have come to symbolize the open spaces of the American West, depict the land as yet undisturbed by the violence of man.

“Street in a Frontier Town:” Copland captures the bustle and energy of the town in a medley of cowboy songs. The first one, played by solo piccolo, is based on the tune "Great Granddad." It is followed by a lively original melody. A theme on muted trumpets playing a semitone apart represents a fight between two drunks in the ballet. The Mexican dance is probably the most famous of the Billy the Kid themes. Copland's source was "Come Wrangle yer Bronco." The final tune, based on "Git along Little Dogies," concludes the scene.

“Card Game at Night:” This gentle nocturne belies the conflict one would expect at a card game, but it sets up the audience for the shock of the gun battle. It is based on "Oh Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie."

”Gun Battle:” A volley of timpani, bass trombone and snare drum gunshots ring out over a brief melodic motive for muted trumpet. As the movement closes, they become slower and fade into the distance. 

“Celebration after Billy’s Capture:” The celebration is hardly an orchestral extravaganza, rather a folksy dance in which the instruments play the tune in two different keys a semitone apart.

“Billy’s Demise:” This gentle melody is almost nostalgic, as the outlaw's death fixes him in legend. The Open Prairie theme returns, the seemingly endless expanse once again undisturbed and unchanging.

Conspicuously absent, however, is "Home on the Range." “I had to draw the line somewhere,” Copland remarked.

George Gershwin 1898-1937

George Gershwin

George Gershwin
Rhapsody in Blue

The musical idiom of jazz evolved in New Orleans in the early part of this century from ragtime and the blues. The origin of the term jazz is obscure, but it first appeared in print in 1913 in a San Francisco newspaper, in reference to enthusiasm at a baseball game. The application of the term to the specific kind of music occurred during World War I. 

It was in Europe, however, where American dance bands were popular, that classical composers first incorporated the new idiom into their compositions: Claude Debussy in Golliwog's Cakewalk (1908); Igor Stravinsky in Ragtime (1918); and especially Darius Milhaud in the ballet La création du monde (1923).

George Gershwin was the first American composer to make jazz acceptable to the classical music audience. The son of poor Jewish immigrants in lower Manhattan, he was a natural-born pianist and left school at 16 to become a pianist with a Tin-Pan Alley firm, plugging their new songs. He soon commenced writing songs himself, eventually teaming up with his brother Ira as lyricist to become one of the most successful teams of song and musical comedy writers on Broadway. They created a string of immensely successful musicals from Lady be Good in December 1924 to Let ‘em Eat Cake in October 1933. The opening night of a George Gershwin musical comedy was a social and media event with Gershwin himself usually leading the orchestra.

In 1923 Gershwin received the commission for an extended jazz composition from a conductor of popular music, Paul Whiteman, who promoted concerts of jazz music in New York’s Aeolian Hall. Whiteman was the self-styled “King of Jazz” who attempted to make jazz more symphonic and more respectable. He tried to adapt it from dance music to concert music. Whiteman’s commission followed an Aeolian Hall concert in the fall of 1923, at which Gershwin had played piano arrangements of a few of his songs. 

Gershwin composed the Rhapsody in a mere three weeks early in 1924, in a two-piano version. Lacking the skills to orchestrate the work, he turned it over for piano and jazz orchestration to Ferde Grofé, a popular composer, pianist and arranger, who served as Whiteman’s factotum. Grofé practically lived in Gershwin’s house, orchestrating the work page-by-page as it came from the composer’s pen. He also rescored the Rhapsody two years later for full symphony orchestra. 

The premiere, on February 12 1924, was a smashing success. Although the critics – true to form – mostly panned it, the audience loved it. Virtually overnight, jazz became respectable. Gershwin himself played the piano part, becoming an instant celebrity. Significant credit for the success must go to Grofé’s imaginative orchestration, which has ended up as his most enduring musical contribution, along with his Grand Canyon Suite.

It is useful to be aware that the rhapsody and fantasia of the classical tradition were the genres most related to jazz in that they embodied both freedom of form and improvisation or improvisatory writing. Gershwin's – and Grofé's – take on the form transfers the jazz idiom into a work Liszt would have been proud to have written. 

The Rhapsody opens with probably the most famous clarinet riff in music history. It is answered by the horns with the principal counter-theme. Nearly three quarters of the way through the piece, the tempo slows and the Rhapsody's next "big theme" is introduced.

Aaron Copland
Fanfare for the Common Man

During World War II, many conductors and music presenters commissioned composers to write works reflecting the spirit of the times and of a nation at war. In 1942 Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Orchestra, commissioned several American composers to write fanfares to commemorate various aspects of the nation at war. Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, was scored for brass and percussion; the composer wrote: “[It]...honors the man who did no deeds of heroism on the battlefield, but shared the labors, sorrows and hopes of those who strove for victory.” The work premiered in March 1943 and is the only one of the commissioned fanfares that has remained in the repertoire. It has seen duty at everything from national conventions to TV commercials, although without the funereal opening bass drum and timpani solos. The juxtaposition of open intervals in the trumpet theme is one of Copland’s – and his imitators’ – hallmarks.

Not wanting a good tune go to waste, Copland reused the Fanfare theme to great effect as the introduction to the finale of his Symphony No. 3.

Franz Liszt 1811-1886

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt
Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes

Until the first decade of the twentieth century, when Béla Bartók made field recordings of true Hungarian folk music, most composers confused the Romany (Gypsy) melodies played in the streets of Budapest for authentic Hungarian folk tunes. Although some of these melodies were authentic, many were just popular melodies of the time, composed by amateur composers. Even Brahms, with all his thoroughness, fell into this trap.

Franz Liszt was born in Hungary, but to a family that tried to be as Western European as possible. Liszt himself always remained cosmopolitan at heart, never even learning Hungarian. This fact, however, did not prevent him from becoming an outspoken nationalist in his youth – although it is difficult to be an authentic nationalist when you do not speak your own native tongue. As a result he also fell into the Romany music trap with his “Hungarian” compositions, such as the Hungarian Rhapsodies for the piano. 

Underlying most of Liszt’s Hungarian compositions is the rhythm of the Verbunkos, the recruiting dance of the Austrian Imperial Army in the eighteenth century. Soldiers in elaborate uniforms, with full regalia, used to “perform” in public, in order to attract recruits. This dance always had an alternating slow-fast structure, called respectively lassu and friss, which the Romany musicians appropriated into their own popular music. Liszt adopted this structure but modified it to fit his musical ideas. If nothing else, he shared with the Roma a love of bravura and showmanship.

The Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes, composed in 1849-52, probably originated from Liszt’s publisher nagging him for a bravura orchestral piece. It shares material with the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14, which probably preceded it by a year or two. 

The Fantasy is a perfect example of Liszt’s reputation for pianistic glitz as well as of his technique of thematic transformation. Unlike the classic theme and variations genre, thematic transformation is much more free without formal repeat patterns. A good percentage of the work is the kind of virtuosic decoration that sent women into swoons.

After opening with ominous low rumblings on the piano, Liszt transforms the somber melody for nearly half of the Fantasy, passing through many florid iterations for the soloist in the major mode – but never altering the tempo. About halfway through the piece, he introduces a new melody, and embarks on a new set of transformations until recalling a triumphant reprise of the main theme and more variations. Finally, the soloist breaks into the fast section of the Fantasy. The brassy orchestral response conforms to what many people think of as quintessential “Gypsy” music. The Fantasy concludes with a coda recalling the two principal melodies.

David Diamond 1915-2005

David Diamond

David Diamond
From Rounds for String Orchestra

Movement I: Allegro molto vivace

A native of Rochester, NY, and a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, David Diamond polished his compositional skills in Fontainebleau near Paris, studying with famed teacher of a whole generation of American composers, Nadia Boulanger. Throughout his professional career he has devoted his time nearly exclusively to composition but has also taught at SUNY Buffalo, the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard. His large output includes works in nearly every genre, including 11 symphonies.

Diamond shied away from serial and electronic music, mostly maintaining a tonal language throughout his career. This caused his music to fall into disfavor during the mid-century dominance of atonality and serialism. Recently, his music has regained its place in the repertoire.

Rounds for String Orchestra was composed in 1944, in the midst of WW II, on commission from conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, who challenged the composer: “Write me a happy work. These are distressing times…Make me happy.” Diamond, a romantic at heart, said about the work: “The tunes are original…(but) sound like American folk tunes,” a style he must have absorbed “by osmosis.” He succeeded admirably in fulfilling the conductor’s directive, and Rounds, which premiered in November 1944, has remained ever since Diamond’s most popular work.

The work opens with a sing-song theme, mimicking the chanting of a children’s game. It is the simplest kind of round, started in the violins then taken up by the cellos. In a whirl of new motivic material, the “children’s theme” becomes the musical glue that ties the entire piece together

Benjamin Britten 1913-1976

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten
(Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell)
Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34

Benjamin Britten was one of the musical giants of the last century. While still a toddler, he showed exceptional musical promise, starting to compose and improvise at the piano at a very early age. By age 12 he had already composed six string quartets, ten piano sonatas, numerous suites of piano pieces and many songs. Although his dentist father was not enthusiastic about his son’s passion for a field that might not yield a decent living, his mother was Benjamin’s emotional lodestar. So convinced was she of her son’s talents that she openly expected his name to join the musical trinity, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, as the fourth B.

While Britten did not quite fulfill his mother’s fantasy, he is unquestionably the single most important British composer of the twentieth century. His output included over a dozen each of operas, cantatas and song cycles, most of which were written with specific performers, venues or occasions in mind. His muse, for whom he composed much of his vocal music, was his life-long partner, tenor Peter Pears. Britten’s initial ambivalence and final acceptance of his own nature now seem dated. Also controversial was his pacifism at a time when his country stood poised on the brink of war. By the spring of 1939 his life had become so complicated and stultifying that he and Pears took the opportunity to travel to Canada to escape the pressure. With the outbreak of the war in September, they decided not to return to England and spent three years in the United States. In 1942, however, Britten returned home to do his share for the country’s morale, composing scores for concerts, radio dramatizations and films. 

In 1946 Britten was asked to supply music for an educational film Instruments of the Orchestra. Given his admiration for the music of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era as well as one of the greatest English composers ever, Britten chose a stirring hornpipe from the incidental music to Abdelazar, or, the Moor’s Revenge. 

After introducing the theme with the full orchestra, the four orchestral families – woodwinds, brass, strings and harp, and percussion – are introduced, each with a full variation on Purcell’s theme. There follow individual “portraits” of each instrument that captures the essence of its orchestral personality with very free variations on the theme. The cleverest and stunningly creative aspect of this piece is Britten’s enormous flexibility in the way he handles the old-fashioned variation idea. The piece concludes with a brilliant 14-voice orchestral fugue on the theme beginning with the piccolo, followed by each instrument or instrumental group in the order of their original solos. The fugue builds to a massive crescendo, at which point the original theme emerges, heralded by the horns and trombones. 

The variations are extremely diverse but each one retains a recognizable feature of the theme without becoming boring. The percussion section solo, for example, retains only the rhythm of the theme. The solo for the flutes and piccolo (with harp accompaniment), use only the first three notes of the theme. In other solos, like the flashy waltz for the violins, Britten completely changes the harmonic structure so that the theme is barely recognizable. Even the fugue subject bears only a remote – but still recognizable – relationship to the theme. Identifying how each variation works is certainly not child’s play.

Originally presented with a narrator explaining the proceedings, the Guide is now frequently presented without narrator as a concerto for orchestra. In the 1950s, George Balanchine choreographed it for the New York City Ballet under the title Fanfare; each dancer represented an instrument indicated by a large appliqué on his or her costume.

Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn