Celebrating New York

By Nicholas Stevens

Aaron Copland 
Born November 14, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York
Died December 2, 1990, in North Tarrytown, New York

Quiet City
Composed 1939-1941
Orchestra version premiered on January 28, 1941 in New YORK, Conducted by Daniel Saidenberg
Performance Time: Approximately 10 minutes

“My career in the theatre has been a flop,” wrote Aaron Copland to his friend and fellow composer-critic Virgil Thomson in 1939. Copland meant live spoken theatre rather than the stage and screen in general, but in hindsight, the finality of the remark seems comically premature. (In the same letter, he questioned the comeback potential of Orson Welles, then already at work on Citizen Kane.) Over the ensuing decades, Copland would become the best-known and -loved of American ballet composers through his work with modern-dance icon Martha Graham, penning music that both suited and transcended her stages. His film scores would help Hollywood delight moviegoers, providing a fresh alternative to the swashbuckling throwback style then prevalent. Spring had sprung around him that early May as he wrote from his apartment in an upper west side hotel. He had no idea how riotously his theatrical career would bloom soon, even if his ties to New York’s Group Theatre company never led to the live-drama successes he craved.

Many a writer has noted the apparent ironies of Aaron Copland, American Icon: a lifelong New Yorker who conjured lush and dusty rural landscapes in plush auditoriums; a target of McCarthyism whose art reliably unites listeners of all stripes each July; a symphonist, trained in neoclassicism, who lived long enough to hear jazz, rock, and hip hop when each was new. Yet surely, as stereotypes and categories of yore fall away, twenty-first century listeners will cease to find such combinations surprising. The man, like his city and all of us, contained multitudes. His music, just as expansive, ranges from spiky to velvety, from grandly sweeping to finely etched. Take, for example, Quiet City, which appears on this program in its second version, a glowing expanse that resembles the original only in flashes.

Copland’s remark about flopping in the theatre contained a caveat – the failures had not been his own – and pertained to the recent cancellation of The Quiet City, a play set in a city of dreamers, strivers, and those who shuttle between the two: New York. Playwright Irwin Shaw would later command respect, like the composer and director he worked with on this early effort: Copland and Elia Kazan, respectively. Yet The Quiet City, which foregrounded the sort of family drama and class resentment that would later animate Shaw’s successes, ran for just two nights. A manuscript score of Copland’s original theatrical music surfaced in 2011, full of stolid cycles for piano and wistful meandering for clarinet and saxophone. Piercing Shaw’s cityscape, however, were the trumpet melodies that electrify Copland’s subsequent orchestral piece, which debuted in 1941 under the play’s title.

New York sounds heavenly, or at least haven-like, in Copland’s work for trumpet, English horn, and strings. This testifies to his versatility and love of the town; in the original version, the place sounds more purgatorial. Shaw’s play cast its spotlight on a protagonist who abandons his identity and integrity to become a success by society’s definition. The sound of the trumpet reminds him of the more authentic life he could have led, for his brother, who pursues a humbler yet happier course, plays the instrument. Copland could have transcribed the piano part for strings and the woodwind parts for English horn, then copied over the trumpet solos and called it a day. Instead, he brightened the mood, tightened the structure, and rendered everything more dynamic and fluid. The changes suit concert music, in which the drama must arise from the music rather than vice versa.

Copland sheared Quiet City of its narrative roots and regrew it as “absolute music,” free of any specific plot or characters. However, in instrumentation alone, it suggests drama. As the trumpet’s sparks of inspiration, the English horn’s reflections, and the strings’ assertions and atmospheres alternate and overlap, consider how these entities echo the events of life and fiction. What sorts of figures might the soloists represent? Do the strings feel more like an actor or a backdrop? And in a city as influential on its residents and the world as New York, does such a distinction between setting and character matter? Thanks in part to Copland and company’s “flop,” the choices belong to listeners. 


William Grant Still
Born May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi
Died December 3, 1978, in Los Angeles, California

Darker America
Composed 1924
Premiered November 22, 1926, conducted by Eugene Goossens
Performance time: Approximately 13 minutes

Viewed from a distance, the course of William Grant Still’s early years looks downright modern: determined to make his first great passion into his career, he trod many paths but made his way toward New York. From childhood homes in the South to points incrementally north and east, he pursued an unshakeable ambition to become a professional composer through multiple higher-education institutions and temporary jobs. The best-paying opportunities often lay along parallel routes. Still reached adulthood just in time for Mamie Smith’s single “Crazy Blues” to make recorded African American music not just commercially viable, but the defining sound of the decade to come. He worked in blues bands, record labels, and musical-theatre pits through these days of striving, also participating in the bloom of scholarly and literary activity that we now call the Harlem Renaissance. However, he remained undeterred in seeking a place among the nation’s great classical musicians. By the time he wrote the work Darker America in 1924, he had more fuel for this inner flame than ever before.

On closer inspection, Still’s journey included more hurdles than anyone should ever have to clear. He arrived in Harlem after serving in World War I, a young and gifted Black man in a segregated nation convulsed by worsening racist massacres. He sought opportunities in a mostly live form of music as a pandemic swept the world, closing venues. Despite all this, plus having to work hard outside classical music to fund his education, he added new allies to his expanding circle: established concert-hall composers. In quick succession, he took lessons with George Whitefield Chadwick, an eminence two generations his elder, and Edgard Varèse, a rising French émigré busy escalating his musical experimentalism with each new piece. Still emerged as a composer in the mid-1920s, formed by contradictions that he would resolve musically.

In her indispensable history The Music of Black Americans, the late musicologist Eileen Southern describes the sort of concertgoing opportunity that makes one wish for a time machine: on the same weekend in 1926, the world premieres of composer James Weldon Johnson’s The Creation and Still’s Darker America took place in New York. Still had, by this point, become a regular at concerts held by Varèse’s International Composers’ Guild. Johnson’s work appeared under the auspices of the rival League of Composers, whose bright young things included Aaron Copland, Still’s junior by five years. Prejudice and frustration had divided a once-unified scene. Despite playing for opposing teams, Copland and Still shared the experience of struggling to find personal voices amidst a glut of options. “Modernism” could involve heavy borrowing from jazz, or none; melody, or the modular clots of anti-expressive sound that Varèse championed. At the time, reasonable listeners could disagree as to whether Darker America represented Still’s first success at distilling an individual style from this murky brew of influences. Today’s listeners cannot; its immediate predecessor, a more radical work for voice and ensemble called Levee Land (1924), remains unpublished and unrecorded.

Nearly twenty years would pass before Duke Ellington, almost Still’s contemporary, would perform a suite titled Black, Brown and Beige to a more-than-sold-out Carnegie Hall. Yet amid the Harlem Renaissance’s attempt to retrieve and retell Black History, Still became one of the first composers to attempt a symphonic essay on the subject. He outlined the intended music-to-history correspondences in marvelous detail. “At the beginning,” he writes, “the theme of the American Negro is announced by the strings in unison. Following a short development of this, the English horn announces the sorrow theme which is followed immediately by the theme of hope, given to muted brass accompanied by strings and woodwind. The sorrow theme returns treated differently, indicative of more intense sorrow as contrasted to passive sorrow indicated at the initial appearance of the theme. Again hope appears and the people seem about to rise above their troubles. But sorrow triumphs. Then the prayer is heard (given to oboe); the prayer of numbed rather than anguished souls. Strongly contrasted moods follow, leading up to the triumph of the people near the end, at which point the three principal themes are combined.” Young though he was, Still had already become expert at reconciliation. 


Louise Talma
Born October 31, 1906, in Arcachon, France
Died August 13, 1996, in Saratoga Springs, New York

Full Circle
Composed 1985
Premiered on October 7, 1986 in New York, conducted by Robert Black
Performance Time: Approximately 13 minutes

In April 1925, The New York Times announced the debut of an exceptional young pianist named Louise Talma. In an interview, the Columbia University student explained how courses and extracurriculars alike served her pianism: fencing and swimming to strengthen the muscles, debate classes to steel the mind. The venue of that first recital still stands mere steps from Bryant Park, at 50 East 41st Street (inscription: “Chemists’ Club”). Trips overseas and upstate aside, she remained a New Yorker – complete with the characteristic grit and tenacity – for the rest of her life. To hear Talma’s music in Manhattan is to encounter it in its natural habitat; to move through Bryant Park is to follow in her footsteps. Full Circle, the composition on this program, seems to conjure her presence, a palpable yet phantasmic brilliance.

A contemporary of Copland, Talma studied with the same composition teacher in Paris at the same institute, later becoming its first faculty member from the U.S. Talma achieved similar “firsts” on a routine basis, an American woman composing modern music in an era warming to gender equality, modernism, and non-European composers all at once, if in fits and starts. Talma had little patience for self-promotion and even less for compromising her vision, which made the sort of household-name status that Copland achieved – after a willed effort to reach the masses through stylistic shifts and film scoring – out of the question. Instead, Talma earned her keep as a professor, despite a long-held belief that only musical fundamentals, not the creative act of composition, could be taught. As her biographer Kendra Preston Leonard reports, Talma would rather have had time to compose. Many of her auspicious “firsts” involved fellowships, grants, and residencies that afforded her just that. As sports and classes had served her piano-playing, now the keyboard, like most elements of her adult life, served composing.

In the classical music world, artist bios can sometimes resemble mere lists of prestigious institutions. One could easily render Talma’s life this way given her fate as an oft-recognized, if reluctant, creature of the academy. However, the stigmatizing label “academic composer” fits her poorly. Works such as Full Circle sublimate her knowledge of musical technique and tradition into sensuous successions of ideas that wear their interconnectedness lightly, referencing the feel of familiar classics without devolving into games of name-that-tune. A reviewer who attended this piece’s premiere in 1986 noted that its opening strains return in reverse at the end, the sort of clever move that many twentieth-century composers cherished – but added that this music, contrary to stereotypes of modernist composition, “made quick sense to the naked ear.”

If this performance seems haunted by Talma’s spirit due to the location alone, wait until the pianist comes in, answering a fragment of gloomy melody with an upward-surging flourish. Over the course of Full Circle, clouds gather and the pace slows several times, but the piano part often returns to restore infectious energy. The nineteen-year-old Talma of 1925 summarized all her pursuits as extensions of her piano practice. Sixty years later, in Full Circle, her instrument still seems in charge, to the point that it is tempting to imagine her at the keyboard. She nods to the music of such elders as Igor Stravinsky, only recently deceased by then, without wallowing in pastness or flaunting quotations. Her own mortality had occurred to her by this time: consider the biographical significance of the title, and the fact that Full Circle represents a fluid transition between the end of her orchestral composition career and a late-in-life immersion in chamber music.

Talma avoided earning a PhD, seeing it as a distraction from composing, yet she ended up with a terminal degree regardless: an honorary doctorate conferred by Bard College in 1984, just before she composed Full Circle. At the commencement ceremony, the college President offered a customary exhortation to excellence, praising those who continue to create and aspire despite life’s imposition of dull practicalities. “The real challenge is to keep that inner flame alive,” remarked Leon Botstein at the climax of his address, perhaps drawing a smile from the composer behind him on the podium.


Jacob Druckman
Born June 26, 1928, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died May 24, 1996, in New Haven, Connecticut

Nor Spell Nor Charm
Composed in 1989-90
Premiered on March 2, 1990 in Los Angeles, conducted by the composer
Performance Time: Approximately 15 minutes

Months after Aaron Copland’s death in 1990, the fund for contemporary American music that still bears his name sought a President who would tend the flame (in Copland’s honor) while pushing the art form forward (in his spirit). Jacob Druckman must have seemed the obvious, if not the only, choice. A student of Copland who went on to study and teach at seemingly every top-tier music school in the New York metropolitan area, Druckman hardly remained confined to the Ivory Tower or its prevailing tendencies. A decade after winning a Pulitzer Prize for his first orchestral work, he took up a residency with the New York Philharmonic, planning festivals that upended listener expectations of what newly composed music could sound like – in a good way. Druckman helped usher in a “New Romanticism” in which sounds, and sometimes subject matter, reminiscent of the 19th century emerged recharged in the final decades of the 20th.

Two riddles: how did Shakespeare meet the synthesizer, and how did a never-sung song become an enchanted forest made of sound? The answer to both is Druckman’s Nor Spell Nor Charm, in which digital technology facilitates both personal and literary tributes. In the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595 or ’96), William Shakespeare conjured a world of humans, fairies, and magically transformed beings who become entangled in one another’s affairs only to resolve things, customarily, with weddings and reconciliations between reunited couples. First, however, come the ever-so-Shakespearean hijinks, including moments of dramatic irony. At the start of Act II, Scene 2, the fairy-queen Titania asks her attendants for a lullaby. The loyal creatures sing:

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.
Philomel, with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Never harm,
Nor spell nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So, good night, with lullaby.

The audience, having just watched the fairy-king Oberon conspire against his wife, know already that this song will do nothing to shield Titania from harm and charm. She will recover from the love potion that makes her pine for a donkey-headed bystander, but the menace-tinged humor of the scene arises from attendees’ foreknowledge that the protective incantation will not work. Druckman would eventually find a tragic aspect to this instance of comedy. What happens when all the spells and charms in the book fail to save someone, and we know it in advance?

The mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, hailed as “the finest song recitalist that the United States has ever produced” and the “Queen of the Avant-garde” in a New York Times obituary, had worked with Druckman many times, singing such substantial vocal works as Dark Upon the Harp, his cycle of psalm settings. Druckman traces the ideas behind Nor Spell Nor Charm back to a song he wrote for DeGaetani as she lay dying of cancer. She never had a chance to sing it, so he expanded its music into the instrumental piece on this program in grief. In drawing inspiration from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and writing this song without words (so to speak), Druckman echoes the German composer Felix Mendelssohn, who set this very fairy song in his own music to accompany Shakespeare’s play. New Romanticism, meet the old Romanticism.

Unlike any composer of the 1800s, Druckman, who once wrote that orchestral color was “intrinsic and structural” to his compositional practices, had access to the Yamaha DX7, the first commercially successful digital synthesizer. By the time Druckman programmed custom sounds into the instrument for Nor Spell Nor Charm, its bank of preset tones had defined much of 1980s pop music, dominating songs by Phil Collins, Tina Turner, and many others. Druckman uses the digital device for splashes of color that surprise and delight. Another layer of irony: listeners may know that these sounds come from an electronic instrument, but as it chimes, warbles, and pings between the acoustic instruments’ Puckish scampering, perhaps one wants, just for a moment, to believe in magic. 


Gustav Mahler
Born July 7, 1860, in Kalischt, Bohemia (present-day Kaliště, Czech Republic)
Died May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria

Suite from the Orchestral Works of Johann Sebastian Bach
Arranged 1909, composed by Bach in the 1720s-1730s
Premiered November 10, 1909, conducted by the composer
Performance time: Approximately 20 minutes

In 1909, the Steinway Company sent a piano full of metal tacks to Grand Central on a sled. As music historian Mary H. Wagner explains, this made perfect sense in context: the tacks made the modern baby grand sound more like a harpsichord, the instrument from whose family tree the piano had long since branched. Piano-moving remained a makeshift operation in an era when auspicious groups such as the New York Philharmonic toured via train. And the still-new conductor of that orchestra, Gustav Mahler, needed that piano with the (approximate) sound of a harpsichord to make the history of Germanic orchestral music come alive in New York and well beyond. 

Many accounts of Mahler’s life treat his years as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic as a blip, a passing final pursuit before his passing. However, he first conducted in the Met’s original house, an industrial-looking building on Broadway, in 1907, before some of his best-loved compositions came to exist. He came back each year for the rest of his life. As Leon Botstein has written, New York proved exceedingly welcoming: it had the third-largest population of German-speakers in the world after Berlin and Vienna, and many of its classical musicians and patrons were first- or second-generation immigrants from central Europe. Some found New York more welcoming than their homelands. Mahler stepped away from Vienna amid mounting anti-Semitism that rendered critics, elected officials, and audiences hostile. As with Felix Mendelssohn, then viewed with suspicion due to his ancestors’ faith, slurs suggesting infidelity to German culture should, in a healthier political climate, have been laughable. Few composers had as much evangelizing zeal for their forebears – Bach and Beethoven above all – as had first Mendelssohn and, decades later, Mahler.

Throughout this program, keyboard instruments have played integral roles in orchestral music – a rare situation in core repertoire, but an assumed default before the 1790s and a distinct trend of the 20th century. Copland wrote himself into the original, piano-heavy music for Quiet City; Talma and Still included it in Full Circle and Darker America; and Druckman’s DX7 pulls the orchestral keyboard into the digital age in Nor Spell Nor Charm. Mahler had written for the celesta (picture a small upright piano playing Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy”) in symphonic music before 1909, but the modified Steinway that he had dragged along (semi-literally) on his Philharmonic tour represented not innovation in orchestral color so much as an attempt at greater fidelity to the past.

In a touring program that ranged across nearly two centuries, Mahler stood and conducted as usual for most of an evening. Building on recent experiments with the hacked Steinway at the Met, however, Mahler plunged into the orchestral suites of Johann Sebastian Bach hands-first, leading a self-assembled and -arranged patchwork of movements from the keyboard. Today, hundreds of ensembles perform pre-1800 music on meticulously reconstructed early instruments, led by musicians in their midst, as was standard in Bach’s lifetime. Mahler’s insistence on including both that prepared piano and an organ in his Bach Suite seemed remarkably idiosyncratic to critics at the time. Now, it feels prophetic.

As Bostein notes, the grand piano as we know it today, an almost car-sized beast with a metal frame and overlapping courses of strings, emerged largely from the work of a New Yorker who had arrived from Germany, Henry Steinway. People of all origins and backgrounds have brought musical ideas to this area, and music has emerged from the encounter transformed. The musician Karl Kroeger once noted that the only person in North America who would have had reason to know of J.S. Bach’s existence by 1750 was an organist named Charles Theodore Pachelbel, who happened to play some tavern concerts in New York before settling in Charleston. (Almost everyone who has attended weddings has heard music by that organist’s father, a friend of the Bach family named Johann Pachelbel.) By the time Mahler realized how much artistic freedom the city had gratefully given him, times had changed and esteem for Bach had soared, but that boundless possibility had been in place since the arrival of the Lenape. As a singer murmurs to close one of Mahler’s last works, “Ewig…ewig:” eternal, eternal.

Written by Musicologist, Nicholas Stevens

Written for

Celebrating New York