Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1932)

By Rae Linda Brown

Written for the concert Common Ground performed on April 15, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In 1935 the African-American writer and composer Shirley Graham could boast of the accomplishments of America’s first African-American symphonists: William Grant Still, Florence B. Price and William Dawson. “Spirituals to Symphonies in less than fifty years! How could they even attempt it?” she asked in an article in which she recounts the development of African-American art music from the triumphs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their concert spiritual arrangements in 1871 to the critical acclaim of Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, premiered by the Philadelphia Symphony under Leopold Stokowski in 1934. William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony was premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931 and Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor was premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933.

What was the impetus behind the creation of the first symphonies by African-American composers? The spiritual inspiration came from the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an Anglo-African composer and concert violinist who visited this country three times between 1904 and 1910 and who had won fame as a conductor and composer in England. Keenly interested in African-American folk music, Coleridge-Taylor wrote several compositions based loosely or directly on this source material including the well-known Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, Transcribed for the Piano (1905) and Symphonic Variations on an African Air (1906, based on the spiritual “I’m troubled in mind”).

A more subtle but equally profound influence on African-American composers came from the “American” works of the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorák who came to this country in 1892 to teach composition and to head the National Conservatory of Music in New York. During his three-year tenure here, the composer publicly advocated the use of African-American and Native-American folk music in composition to create a national American style. Dvorák heard African-American spirituals sung to him by his student Harry T. Burleigh, who would become one of America’s most celebrated baritone soloists and composers. Dvorák ’s “American” works–the String Quartet, op. 96 and Quintet, Op. 97 and particularly the Symphony No. 9 From the New World, premiered by the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall on December 15, 1893 –provided inspiration for a generation of American composers.

Thus, two internationally respected composers (and not coincidentally, both European) validated, for both black and white American composers, the beauty of African-American folk music and led the way for its use in instrumental forms.

Nationalism was the backdrop from which African-American composers in the 1920s and early 1930s adapted old artistic forms into self-consciously racial idioms. The affirmation of the values of the black cultural heritage had a decisive impact on Still, Price, and Dawson, who had as their primary goal the incorporation of Negro folk idioms, that is, spirituals, blues, and characteristic dance music in symphonic forms. In the orchestral music of these composers, the African-American nationalist elements are integral to the style. The deceptively simple musical structure of their orchestral music is inherently bound to the folk tradition in which they are rooted.

Florence Beatrice Smith Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas on April 9,1887. After receiving her early music training from her mother, she attended the New England Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1906 after three years of study, with a Soloist’s diploma in organ and a Teacher’s diploma in piano. There she studied composition with Wallace Goodrich and Frederick Converse and she studied privately with the eminent composer George W. Chadwick, the Director of the Conservatory.

After completing her degree, Price returned south to teach music at the Cotton Plant-Arkadelphia Academy in Cotton Plant, Arkansas (1906); Shorter College in North Little Rock, Arkansas (1907-1910); and Clark University in Atlanta (1910-1912). In 1927, now married and with two children, Florence Price and her family moved to Chicago to escape the racial tension in the south which, by the late 1920s, had become intolerable. Here Price established herself as a concert pianist, organist, teacher and composer.

Price’s Symphony in E minor was written in 1931. In a letter to a friend she wrote, “I found it possible to snatch a few precious days in the month of January in which to write undisturbed. But, oh dear me, when shall I ever be so fortunate again as to break a foot!” The Symphony won the Rodman Wanamaker Prize in 1932, a national competition which brought her music to the attention of Frederick Stock, who conducted the Chicago Symphony in the world premiere performance of the work in June 15, 1933 at the Auditorium Theater. The Symphony won critical acclaim and marked the first symphony by an African-American woman composer to be played by a major American orchestra.

Price based the first movement of her Symphony on two freely composed melodies reminiscent of the African-American spiritual. The influence of Dvorák in the second theme is most evident. The second movement is based on a hymn-like melody and texture no doubt inspired by Price’s interest in church music. This such melody is played by a ten-part brass choir. The jovial third movement, entitled “Juba Dance,” is based on characteristic African-American ante-bellum dance rhythms. For Price, the rhythmic element in African-American music was of utmost importance. Referring to her Third Symphony (1940) which uses the Juba as the basis for a movement, she wrote “it seems to me to be no more impossible to conceive “of Negroid music devoid of the spiritualistic theme on the one hand than strongly syncopated rhythms of the juba on the other.” The Symphony closes with a tour de force presto movement based on an ascending and descending scale figure.

Price died in 1953 after receiving many accolades during her career. She wrote over 300 compositions, including 20 orchestral works and over 100 art songs. Her music was in the repertoire of many important ensembles. In addition to the Chicago Symphony, these include the Michigan W. P. A. Symphony Orchestra, the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, the U.S. Marine Band, and several chamber groups. Still widely performed, Price’s songs were sung by many of the most renowned singers of her day including Marian Anderson for whom she wrote many of her art songs and spiritual arrangements, Ellabelle David, Etta Moten, Todd Duncan, and Blanche Thebom.

Florence B. Price is the first African-American woman composer to earn national recognition. A pioneer among women, she was much celebrated for her achievements in her time. With the resurgence of interest in her music, she is taking her place among those important composers of the 1930s and 1940s who helped to define America’s voice in music. Price’s music reflects the romantic nationalist style of the period but also the influence of her cultural heritage. Her music demonstrates that an African-American composer could transform received musical forms, yet articulate a unique American and artistic self.

A Short Overture (1946)

By Carol J. Oja, Brooklyn College

Written for the concert Common Ground performed on April 15, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Ulysses Kay has ancestral ties to jazz through his maternal uncle, Joseph “King” Oliver, the legendary New Orleans trumpeter of the 1920s. Yet his compositions only occasionally reveal that heritage. Rather, they fit firmly into an equally strong –although far less widely celebrated –African-American tradition: that of the concert hall. Kay’s musical language is fundamentally conservative, growing out of the work of William Grant Still (with whom Kay was friends, beginning in the mid-1930s) and standing alongside that of a broad-based group of his American contemporaries, including figures such as Morton Gould, Howard Hanson, Elie Siegmeister, and George Walker. Together, their music consistently has represented a solid phalanx against experimental trends. Kay’s A Short Overture of 1946 won the George Gershwin Memorial Award the next year. True to its title, it is a brief piece, defined by two main thematic areas. The first, heard after opening chordal punctuations (which recur), appears in the violin. Dance-like and saucily disjunctive, it becomes progressively more dissonant, both rhythmically and harmonically, before being repeated in several incarnations. A new texture announces the transition to the second thematic area, as the fast-moving lines of the opening give way to equally fast but spare chords. Beneath them, the cello delivers a soaring line–a lyrical thematic contrast to the propulsive opening. Throughout the remainder of the work, these two ideas define the musical environment– sometimes combined, sometimes alternated, continually transformed. All in all, they add up to a solid work of mainstream sensibility.

Harlem Rhapsody, Op. 62 (1963)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Common Ground performed on April 15, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It is astonishing that the music of such a good and historically significant American composer as Louis Gruenberg (1884-1964) has drifted into obscurity. Credit must be given to Gunther Schuller and Gruenberg’s daughter Joan Cominos who have worked to revive interest in Gruenberg’s work. They were both enormously helpful to the American Symphony Orchestra in the process of realizing the project to complete the orchestral of Harlem Rhapsody.

The facts of Gruenberg’s life and career include a brilliant early phase as a pianist, including a tour accompanying Enrico Caruso and performances under Arnold Schoenberg’s direction. Gruenberg was a protégé of Ferrucio Busoni, with whom Gruenberg studied and collaborated on a variety of projects. Gruenberg’s opera The Emperor Jones starred Lawrence Tibbett and ran successfully at the Metropolitan Opera for more than one season. It can be considered one of the landmarks of American twentieth-century opera repertoire. It even made the cover of Time Magazine. Gruenberg wrote a number of acclaimed film scores (several of which received Academy Award nominations) and a violin concerto for Jascha Heifetz. As David Noble has written recently, perhaps “a generation now making its own quest for musical romanticism” will rediscover Gruenberg’s music.

Gruenberg was born in Russia. His father became a musician in the Yiddish Theatre in New York. Gruenberg’s family was beset by poverty. Gruenberg supported his family by playing in hotel orchestras before he went to Europe to study with Busoni. Apart from Busoni, as Noble has correctly pointed out, it was the example of Dvorák that most influenced Gruenberg. The main tenet of Dvorák ’s approach to music in American was the advocacy of the use of African-American and Native American musical materials. This was the authentic route to a truly American music; one that would be more than a pale imitation of European models.

Most of Gruenberg’s most acclaimed compositions utilized African-American materials. His setting of James Welles Johnson’s sermon God’s Trombones, and his Creation, Jazz Suite, and The Emperor Jones from the 1920s and 1930s all testify to this fact. Harlem Rhapsody was written in 1953, relatively late in Gruenberg’s career. He realized that his work had already fallen out of favor with critics. He refused to bow to fashion and returned to his aesthetic and political commitments from earlier decades. In 1924 Gruenberg, in an almost exact echo of sentiments written by Dvorák thirty years earlier, wrote, “It becomes my firm conviction that the American composer can only achieve individual expression by developing his own resources…these resources are vital and manifold, for we have at least three veins indigenous to America alone: jazz, Negro spirituals, and Indian themes.”

Thirty years later, with Harlem Rhapsody, brilliantly orchestrated by the distinguished American musician Jonathan Tunick, Gruenberg made this point once again. The score was complete in a piano reduction with specific but incomprehensible indications of the intended instrumentation.

The central dimension of Gruenberg’s politics with respect to art and culture was faith and the idea of America as a nation which could create a shared identity out of the many streams of cultures which made up its history. The domination, either subtle or overt, of one stream was not at issue. Crucial to Gruenberg was a fierce commitment to social justice and a respect for the African-American tradition without condescension or exploitative instinct. At the end of his life Gruenberg wrote, “Since the blood lines of all nations have created this nation, I still visualize the day that this stream will eventually crystallize in an American expression of all the arts…”

Gruenberg shed the Yiddish and Jewish cultural heritage not out of any sense of shame but rather on account of an enthusiasm for the possibilities of creating something new and particularly American. Faith in the future as opposed to an allegiance to a romanticized past governed Gruenberg’s aesthetic quest. He grew up within a poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto. From the perspective of his politics, African Americans were allies whose experience most nearly resembled the European context from which his parents had fled.

As Harlem Rhapsody makes plain, Gruenberg’s affinity, respect, and creative embrace (within the context of European and American concert music strategies of the twentieth century) of the music of the African-American community of his day were singular expressions of solidarity and homage.

Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra (1941)

By Richard E. Rodda

Written for the concert Common Ground performed on April 15, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Morton Gould, composer, conductor, pianist, arranger and administrator, was born on December 10, 1913 in New York City. By the age of four, he was playing the piano and composing; at six, he had one of his first compositions published (a waltz called, appropriately, Just Six); and by the time he was eight, he had played piano on broadcasts of WOR Radio in New York. In 1932, when he was nineteen, he became staff pianist at Radio City Music Hall. After a brief stint with NBC, he was engaged as composer, arranger and conductor by WOR, where he did a weekly broadcast; from 1942 to 1945, he performed the same duties for the Cresta Blanca Carnival and Chrysler Hour programs on CBS. It was for those broadcasts that he composed his popular American Concertette (which was choreographed by Jerome Robbins as Interplay) and the Latin-American Symphonette.

In addition to his light compositions for radio, Gould has written for film (Windjammer), television (the World War I series, Holocaust and Celebration), ballet (Fall River Legend), Broadway (Billion dollar Baby and Arms and the Girl), symphonic band, chamber ensembles and chorus, and has also produced some fifty works for orchestra, including American Salute, Spirituals, Vivaldi Gallery, Apple Waltzes, Burch field Gallery, Lincoln Legend and Symphony of Spirituals. He is also widely known as a conductor, having won a Grammy Award for his recording of the music of Charles Ives with the Chicago Symphony. His other honors include twelve Grammy nominations, the 1983 Gold Baton Award from the American Symphony Orchestra League, the 1985 Medal of Honor for Music from the National Arts Club, membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Music Council’s Golden Eagle Award. In addition, Morton Gould is president of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).

Gould’s Spirituals, the work which established his reputation as a concert composer, was introduced under the composer’s direction at the WNYC Festival of American Music in New York on February 9, 1941. Soon after Spirituals was premiered, Gould said of it:

I have tried to write music the way one speaks. I tried to make it as direct and simple as possible. Part of the “Jubilee” section, for example, is in boogie-woogie pattern. Of course, many contemporary jazz effects coincide with certain rhythmic patterns in our spirituals. What I tried to do was to synthesize some of these features. My starting premise was that our spirituals develop a wide gamut of emotions, musically. These emotions are specifically American. The songs range from strictly spiritual ones that are escapist in feeling, or light and gay, to those having tremendous depth and tragic impact. My idea was to get five moods, widely contrasted in feeling. Although most of the work is original as far as thematic material goes, I have used fragments of folk tunes here and there. The first movement (“Proclamation”) has a dramatic religious intensity. The second movement (“Sermon”) is a simple narrative – a sort of lyrical folk tale. The third movement (“A Little Bit of Sin”) is humorous and good-natured. The fourth movement (“Protest”) is bitter, grim and crying-out. The last movement (“Jubilee”) is a festive and dance-like piece.

“I Got Rhythm” Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1934)

By Richard E. Rodda

Written for the concert Common Ground performed on April 15, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The famous stage Director Rouben Mamoulian once said of George Gershwin:

I’ve heard many pianists and composers play for informal gatherings, but I know of not one who did it with such genuine delight and verve. George at the piano was George happy. He would draw a lovely melody out of the key-board like a golden thread, then he would play with it and juggle it, twist it and toss it around mischievously, weave it into unexpected, intricate patterns, tie it in knots and untie it and knit it into a cascade of ever-changing rhythms and counter-points…He could play ‘I Got Rhythm’ for the thousandth time, yet do it with such freshness and exuberance as if he had written it the night before.

It was for a concert tour in 1934 that Gershwin immortalized some of his informal extemporizations as the Variations on “I Got Rhythm”, the hit song from his 1930 Broadway show Girl Crazy. The tour was a series of one-night stands with the thirty- piece Leo Reisman Orchestra, conducted by Charles Previn, that began at Boston’s Symphony Hall on January 14, wound through Toronto, Omaha, Richmond and two-dozen other cities, and ended, after 12,000 miles, at Brooklyn’s Academy of Music on February 10th. On each concert, Gershwin conducted An American in Paris, was soloist in the Concerto in F and the Rhapsody in Blue, and accompanied tenor James Melton in a selection of his songs. The “I Got Rhythm” Variations, written expressly for the tour, gives some indication of the breadth and imagination that Gershwin must have displayed in his improvisations – hot jazz, mock Orientalism, coy waltz, virtuoso bravura and grand symphonism all find a place here. Most of the composition was done in December 1933 in Palm Beach; the orchestration, which Gershwin did himself, as he bragged to his friends, was completed on January 6, 1934 in New York. The “I Got Rhythm” Variations was the last concert work that he wrote.

“Night Creature” for Jazz Band and Orchestra (1956)

By Duke Ellington

Written for the concert Common Ground performed on April 15, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Night for most of us means a time to rest, reflect, and recharge batteries for the next day’s adventures. For Duke Ellington it was the opposite: a period of intense activity and work, almost always including performances with his orchestra, interchange with friends and fellow musicians, travel to the next engagement, and most important, composing music. Ellington knew the night well–its people, moods, thrills, and dangers. In his memoirs, Music is My Mistress, he painted a glamorous portrait of the evening hours: “Night life is cut out of a very luxurious, royal-blue bolt of velvet. It sparkles with jewels, and it sparkles in tingling and tinkling tones.”

Ellington’s romantic nocturnal vision took musical form in Night Creature, commissioned in 1955 by Don Gillis and the Symphony of the Air and given its premiere that year in Carnegie Hall. Scored for a large ensemble made up of both jazz and symphonic players, Night Creature became a piece –like Harlem and New World A-Commin’–that Ellington and his orchestra featured on “pops” concerts and symphony programs. Perhaps because of its hefty performing forces,Night Creature was not recorded by Ellington until 1963, when it was issued on the album, The Symphonic Ellington. Later the work became one of the Ellington staples in the repertory of the Alvin Ailey American dance Theater.

Ellington’s goal in composing Night Creature, he wrote in 1962, was “to try to make the symphony swing.” Although the piece “could have been developed into something far more complex and elaborate,” he continued, instead it “tried to tell a rather simple story in fairly simple language.” The defensive tone reflects Ellington’s generally uneasy relationship with the world of symphony orchestras and his ambivalence about comparisons drawn by critics between his own works and that of European art-music composers (dating to the early 1930s, when Percy Grainger pronounced Ellington one of the world’s three greatest composers, sharing honors with J.S. Bach and Frederick Delius!) Perhaps Ellington realized that Night Creature, for all its “tingling and tinkling” atmosphere and symphonic swing, showed a strained quality rarely present in works conceived solely for his own orchestra. It would remain for other composers – among them Gunther Schuller, George Russell, and John Lewis – to exploit contrasts and conflicts between the jazz and art-music traditions, rather than seeking, as Ellington seems to be doing in Night Creature, to gloss over their differences.

While hardly representative of Ellington’s best work, Night Creature holds interest as one of many experiments undertaken by American composers to bring spunky, homegrown musical idioms into the sanctified space of the concert hall. Its three movements (whimsically subtitled “Blind Bug,” “Stalking Monster,” and “Dazzling Creature”) abound in the sounds and rhythms Ellington knew best–the infectious riffs, pungent harmonies, compulsive swing, and unchecked exuberance of America relaxing after dark, back when night. Time really was the right time and tomorrow just another day.

Common Ground: African-American & Jewish-American Composers, 1930-1955

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Common Ground performed on April 15, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In our day and age it is rare that any single “classical music” concert event can find itself caught in the web of a contemporary cultural and political crisis. We have come to regard concert life and the music of the concert hall as essentially matters of entertainment and aesthetic taste, entirely divorced from the nasty world of politics and social conflict. Even though there are some who welcome this sort of distance in terms of history, this has not always been the case. Musical life has been a significant part of political life. Chopin, Verdi, and Wagner are perhaps the most obvious examples of composers who regarded their work as vital to a community defined precisely in terms of its politics.

This concert was planned in the knowledge that over the past quarter-century a painful strain in the relations between Jewish Americans and African Americans has developed. However, the extent of the hate and deception exhibited in recent months was not anticipated.

It is hoped that this concert can contribute to the current political debate by presenting a moment of history when matters were different. Not nostalgia, but rather the exploration of different models from which to draw inspiration for the present and future is at issue here.

The composers on this program born into Jewish families who integrated African-American materials in their work–Gershwin, Gruenberg and Gould–did so in ways which earned the respect and admiration of their African-American contemporaries and colleagues. The composers of African-American descent–Price, Ellington and Kay–who integrated European traditions with African-American traditions, did so in ways which earned the respect and admiration of their non-African-American contemporaries and colleagues. There is perhaps no better indication of these reciprocal relationships than the use made by Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and others, of Gershwin’s theme, “I Got Rhythm.”

At mid-century, Jewish Americans tended to regard their African-American contemporaries as allies. Both communities experienced in recent and distant history oppression, discrimination, prejudice and the brutality of violence. The African-American community did not regard the Jew as the quintessential example of the American white oppressor. The facts of slavery and the disappointments stemming from the era of reconstruction were more recent than they are today. The idea that the poor and disenfranchised immigrant Jewish population that fled to America at the turn of the century and their descendants were at the root of white racism in America, was decidedly implausible.

The fact that European Jews were white enabled them to assimilate–to escape poverty and the ghetto and experience a security and prosperity without parallel in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. This has made the adoption within segments of the African-American community of the distorted rhetoric and lies of European anti-Semitism, seem reasonable today. Old fashioned anti-Semitism might serve as an easy way to explain to new generations the inexplicable and inexcusable: the failure of American society in the second half of this century to bring social and economic equality and justice to the African-American community.

The credo shared by all the composers on this program included: 1) faith in the social and economic potential of democracy and 2) the hope that neither a distinct white nor black identity would emerge, but instead a unique amalgam. More to the point, the Jewish-American composers represented here rejected the idea that they were prisoners of a heritage of something that was truly “Jewish.” In fact, they turned to the music of the African-American experience because it seemed to be at the heart of what they dreamed they would be part of: an America in which they could feel comfortable and celebrate. They had less interest in the New England cultural tradition with which Charles Ives was obsessed.

Furthermore, the notion that ethnic identity can be essentialized –defined as this or that in some seemingly authentic manner – and its ownership restricted to a single group, was foreign. A universalism, perhaps naive from our point of view (but blissfully so), prevailed. Jews did not resent the fact that Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre, played on the eve of Yom Kippur in many Reform synagogues, was written by a German-Christian. George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was not regarded as somehow invalid – as an example of humiliating exploitation. Florence Price’s overt adoption of the example of Dvorák’s New World Symphony was not seen as a betrayal of her identity as an African-American. Neither was Ellington’s music for the screen and concert stage seen as a concession to a dominant “white” culture. In this sense it is a poignant matter of irony that Ulysses Kay’s piece on this program won the Gershwin prize.

The works by Gruenberg, Gershwin and Gould reflect their conviction that the African-American experience was at the root of American cultural identity. There was no separate “white” alternative; no shred of white supremacist ideology can be found. Florence Price believed that the European symphonic tradition needed, for its own sake, the materials of the African-American experience. What is now sometimes belittled as a “male dominated” purely “European” expressive art was seen as a vehicle for the powerful expression of the ideas and sentiments of an African-American woman composer. Duke Ellington, one of the greatest composers of this century, sought to reach the concert hall public with his music without thinking that the concert hall was “Eurocentric” and thus subject to avoidance because it was not multi-cultural.

We need to be reminded that in our current way of thinking about these issues we have stripped both the past and the present of individuality and diversity. Just as there is no single definition of the “Jewish” neither is there of the “African-American.” There never has been. We have obliterated the true details of the past and turned the past into a self-serving caricature by which we measure the present falsely in the name of history.

It is hoped that in the encounter with the wonderful and partly unfamiliar music on this program we can be reminded of how things might be different. The idea of cultural diversity based on discrete units which are somehow ethnically “authentic” and unsullied by “the other” is a fraud. We are each predictable and unpredictable amalgams of many diverse influences. The seemingly scholarly claims on behalf of preserving one or another tradition are invalid because the traditions to which they refer are our own constructions.

If the art of music can play, as it has, a salutatory role in politics then let us acknowledge that it constitutes a creative common ground which mirrors the essential equality of each individual creator, player and listener; an arena where affection and respect (as evident in each piece of music on this program) can be achieved so that it can be broadened beyond the reach of notes played and heard.

Affection, honesty, curiosity and respect –reflected in the composer’s conceit that everything is at the disposal of the creator, and that nothing is off limits –are shown amply by two living composers who are deans of our concert hall tradition: Morton Gould and Ulysses Kay; two less well known composers from the past: Florence Price and Louis Gruenberg; and two of the greatest figures of our art: Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. May their music drown out the hate and violence with which we live and inspire us to create a new common American ground of our own making.

On behalf of all the musicians, staff and supporters of the ASO, may I express the hope that this will be more than “just” a concert; but an inspiration to all of how we might better deal and communicate with one another to make this city and our nation as truly human as the music heard tonight makes us realize is possible.

Common Ground

04/15/1994 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

    Concert Notes