SYMPHONY OF THE AMERICAS
By Lawrence Budmen
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
The legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini once said that the symphonic scores of George Gershwin were “the only real American music.” Whatever hyperbole that comment entails, there is no doubt that Gershwin was an American original. He synthesized jazz and ragtime into a musical form that was infinitely more sophisticated. Best known for his Broadway and, later, Hollywood musicals, his excursions into the classical realm were never less than ambitious. All were marked by his singular creative style and drive – the voice of genius. Beginning with Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Gershwin turned out a series of works that continue to astonish by their sheer invention and musical imagination – i.e. the Piano Concerto in F Major, Second Rhapsody, the tone poem An American in Paris, and the opera Porgy and Bess, perhaps the greatest American work in that genre. A series of smaller scale works have proved equally enduring.
In 1932 Gershwin vacationed in Havana, Cuba. The ever inquisitive composer was fascinated by the sounds of a 16 member rumba band that he encountered at one of the numerous island festivals. Gershwin was particularly attracted to the indigenous instruments – bongos, maracas, calabashes. He took some of these instruments home to New York with him. Gershwin began writing a Rumba for piano and orchestra that featured many of these colorful percussive instruments. He decided to remove the prominent solo piano part. As a full fledged orchestral score (in many ways a mini-tone poem), the piece was premiered by the New York Philharmonic on August 16, 1932 at the Lewisohn Stadium. (Many former New Yorkers will remember the summer concerts at the now demolished stadium, run by the indefatigable Minnie Guggenheim.) Three monthes later Gershwin renamed the score Cuban Overture. That more classical title seemed appropriate for the score’s second performance at a Sunday evening concert at the old Metropolitan Opera House with Gershwin conducting. The entire score abounds in irresistible Latin rhythms mixed with Gershwin’s signature orchestral sophistication.
El Salon Mexico
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Aaron Copland was renowned as a purveyor of Americana, a composer with a decisively nationalistic style. Yet the young Copland, fresh from composition studies in Paris with the formidable Nadia Boulanger, was an avantgardist; a composer who experimented with dissonance, polyrhythms, and even atonality during the 1920’s and early 30’s in such scores as Music for the Theater, Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, Piano Variations, and Statements for Orchestra. By the mid-thirties (with the nation engulfed in the Great Depression), the composer concluded that a more accessible, populist style was appropriate. His Fantasia Mexicana, El Salon Mexico, was the first of a series of works that fused vernacular elements with classical traditions.
In the fall of 1932 Copland visited Mexico at the behest of his friend Carlos Chavez, the country’s most distinguished composer, conductor, and music educator. Copland lived for two monthes in the village of Tlaxcala where he was entranced with the local culture. The following year he began writing El Salon Mexico, a snappy score based on popular Mexican themes. Copland noted “From the beginning it was associated in my mind with a dance hall in Mexico City called Salon Mexico, a real ‘hot spot’ where one somehow felt a close contact with the Mexican people…Bands played a kind of music that was harsh, flavorsome, screechy and potentially violent. El Salon Mexico is, I suppose, a sort of musical souvenir.”
Copland completed a two piano version of the score in 1934 and orchestrated it in 1936. The piece received its first performance on August 27, 1937 by (quite appropriately) the Orquestra Sinfonica de Mexico under the direction of Carlos Chavez. The score has proven to be one of Copland’s most frequently played works.
Piano Concerto in F Major, Op.102
Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Few composers have lived through such tempestuous personal and artistic eras as Dimitri Shostakovich. A prodigiously gifted pupil of the conservative Alexander Glazunov, Shostakovich became one of the burgeoning avant garde of the new Soviet Union (after the 1917 revolution). Indeed Shostakovich’s friend, the late Russian cellist and conductor Mistislav Rostropovich once declared, “Shostakovich was a man of the Revolution…His entire artistic career would have been impossible without the Revolution.” But in the 1930’s and 40’s, Shostakovich ran afoul of Stalin’s cultural police. His works were condemned as decadent, formalist attempts to emulate Western models, lacking the uplifting spirit of the “new Soviet realism.” For the remainder of his life, Shostakovich would navigate a treacherous path between his boldly original creative sensibilities and Soviet cultural orthodoxy. His often tortured spirit (amidst a society that increasingly suppressed creative freedom) can be heard in the pathos of his last three string quartets, the bold setting of Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar in his 13th Symphony, the defiant death songs of the 14th Symphony, and the bleak aura of the Viola Sonata (1975), Shostakovich’s final work. These masterpieces confirm Shostakovich’s status as one of the most original creative voices of the 20th century.
There was another side to this iconic Russian master. Many of Shostakovich’s film scores, ballet suites, and piano vignettes reveal a populist sensibility. His ability to write light, high spirited melodic pieces also revealed another facet of his genius. Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2 in F Major belongs to a distinctly Russian genre known as the “youth concerto” – scores written specifically to display the talents of students and young musicians. (Dimitri Kabalevsky practically achieved a second career by writing dozens of these pieces.) This work was composed for Shostakovich’s son Maxim who was completing his pre-conservatory studies at Moscow’s famous Central Music School. Maxim Shostakovich gave the first performance on May 10, 1957, his nineteenth birthday. (Maxim would eventually achieve fame as a conductor, particularly as an insightful interpreter of his father’s works.) The American premiere of the concerto in Los Angeles in 1958 would mark the final concert appearance of the eccentric piano virtuoso and movie personality Oscar Levant (with Hollywood icon Franz Waxman on the podium).
In February, 1957, one week after completing the concerto, Shostakovich wrote Edison Denisov (one of Russia’s most stylistically modernist composers) that the score had “no redeeming artistic merits.” One must not take this comment at face value. As ever, trying to find a middle ground between the avant garde and official cultural conservatism, the composer may have been trying to preempt criticism from the artistic community. This score is one of his most appealing creations. The opening Allegro introduces a martial theme, followed by a contrasting, more introspective motif from the solo piano. A massive climax leads to the bravura cadenza and coda. The Andante commences with a soft figure on strings (resembling a Sarabande). A dreamy piano theme in the mode of the rhapsodic romanticism of Sergei Rachmaninoff takes center stage. Without pause, this nocturnal interlude leads to the Allegro finale. In classical rondo form, a circus polka theme is succeeded by another that seems curiously off balance in rhythmic terms. A plethora of virtuoso pyrotechnics for the soloist brings the concerto to an energetic, high spirited conclusion. This score abounds in typically Russian fireworks and melodic invention.
Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894)
Emmanuel Alexis Chabrier was prodigiously gifted. Despite his provincial roots, Chabrier impressed such elite Parisian musicians as the composer Henri Duparc with his natural talent and artistic flexibility. Trained as an attorney, Chabrier served in a mid-level position at the French Ministry of the Interior from 1861-1880.
After a vacation in Spain, he wrote the rhapsody Espana, expanding his original piano sketch into an orchestral showpiece. Duparc remarked that his gift for orchestration was miraculous. After the success of that singular work, Chabrier devoted himself totally to composition. Chabrier would have less than two decades before he would be overtaken by mental illness.
Opera was a major part of Chabrier’s output. The composer and critic Vincent d’Indy remarked that Chabrier did not know a bad libretto from a good one. Contemporary performance history has tended to prove that verdict incorrect. Gwendoline was successfully revived at the San Diego Opera (with a starry cast featuring Rosalind Plowright and Sherrill Milnes). The Glimmerglass Opera and New York City Opera recently collaborated on a hugely successful production of L’etoile. Chabrier’s most ambitious opera Le Roi Malgre was enthusiastically greeted in a 2001 presentation by the Julliard Opera Center. Perhaps Chabrier’s operatic time has come.
Le Roi Malgre was first produced at the Paris Opera Comique on May 18, 1887 with little success. The playwright and impresario Albert Carre revised the original libretto in 1929, producing a revival at the Opera Comique that was a triumphant success and a recent recording (conducted by the eminent Charles Dutoit) has won new converts to the score.
The opera is set in Poland. An elaborate costume drama, Le Roi Malgre prominently features vernacular elements. In keeping with the 19th century Parisian tradition that a ballet sequence be prominently featured in every new operatic work, the party scene spotlights an elaborate polonaise. In its original form, the Fete Polonaise is scored for chorus and orchestra. Ever the artistic pragmatist, Chabrier turned the dance sequence into a glittering orchestral vignette. Unlike the dreamy or virile polonaises of Frederic Chopin, Chabrier paints the uniquely Polish dance in bright Gallic colors. This rousing piece is an irresistible display of Chabrier’s melodic and instrumental virtuosity.
Overture, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
If Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the most gifted prodigy in the history of music, Felix Mendelssohn was a close second. Mendelssohn’s genius would leave a lasting imprint on the music world through his work as a conductor and champion of neglected masters. Highly prized in his day, Mendelssohn’s compositions have been under valued in our time, too often exiled to drive time programs on classical radio stations.
Mendelssohn was a classicist in a romantic era. While his contemporaries Schumann and Chopin penned works that were white hot with emotional intensity, Mendelssohn conceived an endless web of inspired melodies amidst a strong sense of formal rigor. Coming from a distinguished German family, he studied with the greatest teachers – philosophy with Hegel, letters with Goethe (as well as his grandfather-philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), piano with Ludwig Berger, music theory and composition with Carl Friedrich Zeller. While still a teenager, he completed an astonishing set of 12 string symphonies – music of incredible beauty and instrumental complexity. Yet, for Mendelssohn, composing was almost an avocation.
A pianist of considerable talent, Mendelssohn left his most lasting mark as conductor and educator. At age 26 he became conductor of the fabled Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig and founded the Leipzig Conservatory eight years later. His guest conducting appearances in Berlin and London were highly prized. In Leipzig he eagerly promoted Beethoven’s music and gave the first performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The audience enthusiasm that event engendered led to a reappraisal of Bach’s output and publication of his major works (which had been neglected for a century). In 1839 Mendelssohn conducted the posthumous premiere of Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony (No.9). All of these historic performances tended to obscure Mendelssohn’s own compositions. His five symphonies, concertos for piano and violin (solo and together), chamber music, solo piano pieces, and oratorios are the work of a master craftsman, a genius whose melodic creation seemed to glide on wings of song.
The Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, written when Mendelssohn was 17 years old, could only be the work of a young, incredibly gifted genius. Although not originally conceived as a curtain raiser to the play, this enchanting score perfectly captures Shakespeare’s world of fairies, spirits, and elves. The lightness and graceful elegance of this work place Mendelssohn on the exalted terrain of Mozart. After its premiere in Stettin, Germany in 1827, the piece was widely performed throughout Europe. At its London premiere in 1829, the critic and educator Sir Julius Benedict proclaimed “The effect of the first performance of this overture was electrical. All at once, and perhaps when least expected, the great gap left by the death of Beethoven seemed likely to be filled.”
Four chords (played by the woodwinds) open the overture. Immediately, a high spirited theme seems to dance off the bows of the strings. A vigorous subject (suggesting the court of Oberon) is followed by a more romantic melody – a reference to the entangled lovers of Shakespeare’s magical comedy. Finally a buffoonish theme suggests Bottom (with his donkey’s head). Mendelssohn develops these entwined melodies with feathery lightness and orchestration of immense delicacy. At the conclusion, the courtiers’ theme returns but transformed into a gentle reverie, followed by a final repetition of the four opening chords.
Seventeen years later Mendelssohn returned to Shakespeare’s play when he was commissioned in 1839 to write incidental music for a production in Potsdam. He managed to conjure up the same vivacious aura in the score and utilized the overture as a full fledged prelude to the staged performance. When Hollywood filmed Shakespeare’s comedy in 1938 (via an elaborate adaptation by Max Reinhardt), Erich Wolfgang Korngold adapted Mendelssohn’s score. Ballet versions choreographed by George Balanchine and Sir Frederick Ashton likewise were set to this music. The work of a 17 year old genius remains the definitive musical evocation of the subject.
Violin Concerto No.2 in D minor, Op.22
Henri Wieniawski (1835-1880)
The Polish violinist Henri Wieniawski was already performing concerts in Warsaw when he was only 8 years old. He was a student at the Paris Conservatoire before he was in his teens. In 1851 he became a traveling virtuoso, touring throughout Europe and Russia where he finally settled in 1860 at the behest of the pianist-composer-conductor Anton Rubinstein, the influential mentor of Tchaikovsky. Rubinstein described Wieniawski as “without doubt the greatest violinist of his time.”
When Rubinstein founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, Wieniawski became chief professor of violin. He would also become one of the tsar’s official court musicians. With Rubinstein as his accompanist, he toured Europe and America in the early 1870’s. Eventually Wieniawski succeeded Vieuxtempts as professor at the Brussels Conservatoire from 1875 until 1877. Despite ill health, he continued an active concert career. His death occurred in Moscow in 1880 during a concert tour. Throughout his busy performing and teaching activities, Wieniawski composed numerous violin works marked by a font of melodic beauty and fiendishly difficult pyrotechnics.
His two concertos for violin and orchestra are his most ambitious works. The 2nd Concerto in D minor was premiered by the composer on November 27, 1862 in St. Petersburg with Rubinstein conducting. Throughout the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the concerto was immensely popular with violinists and audiences alike. Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern were among its most fervent advocates. In recent decades, this work has figured much less frequently in concert programming. The score has the melodic appeal of the best Russian and French concertos and nearly matches Paganini’s works in that genre for sheer technical wizardry. This bravura piece deserves renewed exposure so that its many felicities can once again beguile listeners.
The initial Allegro moderato opens with an orchestral tutti that states the movement’s two principal themes: the first agitated and impassioned; the second an expansive, lyrical melody that will act as the concerto’s unifying thread. The solo violin restates and develops these subjects. A vibrant second movement – Romance - follows without pause. Here is one of Wieniawski’s most beautiful melodies. This rhapsodic movement seems to flow with a sense of inevitability (through a series of graceful exchanges between violin and orchestra). After some dramatic pronouncements by the orchestra, a brilliant solo cadenza introduces the Rondo finale – a dazzling violin showpiece of Hungarian gypsy cast. A final repetition of the first movement’s lyrical pendant leads to a fiery conclusion.
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Hailed as a genius in 1853 by the redoubtable Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms first attracted attention with his chamber music scores. Filled with instrumental invention, melodic richness, and impassioned romanticism, Brahms’ early works seemed to cry out for the colors and heft of a symphony orchestra. The composer, however, was cautious in attempting symphonic form. “Since Haydn, the symphony is no longer a simple pastime, but rather a matter of life and death,” he wrote. It was really the long shadow of Ludwig van Beethoven that made Brahms doubtful about attempting a full scale symphony. After the monumental power and eloquence of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, was it possible to make a vital artistic contribution to the genre?
In 1857 Brahms completed his two Serenades for orchestra. In many ways these scores were mini-symphonies, an expansion of the orchestral divertissement to large scale proportions. Two years later the first performances of the composer’s Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor were met with hostility. Brahms began sketches for his 1st Symphony around this time. In 1862 he sent Clara Schumann an early draft of the first movement. The intervening years brought orchestral success with the German Requiem (1869) and Haydn Variations (1873). With new confidence, Brahms forged ahead on the composition of the symphony. In 1868 he sent Clara, his unrequited love, the noble horn melody from the introduction to the work’s final movement as a birthday greeting. Between 1874 and 1876 he revised the first movement and composed the three remaining movements. In 1876, at the age of 43, Brahms was finally ready to present his first symphonic essay to the world. Nearly two decades of work finally came full circle.
The work’s premiere took place on November 4, 1876 at Karlsruhe with Otto Dessoff conducting. That performance (and the one that followed in Mannheim five days later) was given by an orchestra of only 40-45 players. While modern day performances frequently feature ensembles of up to 100 musicians, the premieres of each of Brahms’ four symphonies were given by much smaller forces. The Symphony of the Americas’ performance will thus be much closer to the size of the ensembles the composer originally envisioned for these works.
With the critical and public success of his magisterial C minor Symphony, Brahms would give new prominence to his orchestral output. The decade following the symphony’s initial performance would see the creation of three more symphonies, the boldly passionate 2nd Piano Concerto, and the brilliant Violin Concerto. In 1879 Brahms received an Honorary Doctorate from Breslau University. His place in the musical pantheon was firmly established.
The Symphony No.1 in C minor opens with stern chords punctuated by timpani. The opening – Un poco sostenuto – is not a mere quiet introduction, as in a Haydn symphony, but an imposing statement that reveals elements of the first movement’s principal thematic material. A driving, pensive theme introduces the Allegro with a secondary theme that is closely related. The development section is characterized by musical struggle and confrontation while the recapitulation leads to a quiet conclusion.
The Andantino sostenuto is one of Brahms’ richest, most inspired melodic outpourings. A dark, deep well of tone from the lower strings that is quintessentially Brahmsian introduces a melody of great romantic ardor. Answered by the solo violin with a second melodic fragment, the material is developed in rhapsodic, long limbed melodic arcs. The solo violin provides commentary on the glorious outbursts from winds and strings.
The third movement – Un poco allegretto e grazioso – springs from a bucolic pastorale theme. A contrasting trio section is more agitated. The beautiful wind writing in this movement is marked by a fusion of elegance and melancholy subtext.
The finale is Brahms’ grandest orchestral construction. First a pensive, chromatic introduction is followed by a series of pizzicatos on strings, at first softly but increasingly louder. A noble horn melody (which is repeated by the flute and winds) launches the Piu andante, followed by a solemn chorale from the trombones, perhaps a reverential reference to Bach. The Allegro ma non troppo’s stately main theme is reminiscent of the Ode to Joy melody in the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, a fact that Brahms openly acknowledged. A contrasting motif is introduced by the strings. Both thematic threads are subjected to dramatic, intense development. At the movement’s conclusion, the trombone chorale is triumphantly restated by the entire orchestra, followed by one of the most exhilarating codas in the symphonic literature.
Piano Concerto in F Major
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
One of the truly historic events in America’s musical history occurred on February 12, 1924 at Aeolian Hall in New York City. A lengthy concert lavishly titled An Experiment in Modern Music featured the bandleader Paul Whiteman and his musicians with an additional string contingent. Known as “The King of Jazz” Whiteman aimed at a grandiose fusion of jazz and classical elements to form a new brand of American concert music. In addition to excerpts from his big band repertoire, Whiteman offered new scores by Victor Herbert, Ferde Grofe, and, most significantly, George Gershwin. A distinguished audience that included Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski gathered for this watershed event. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was the evening’s major success. The composer’s presence at the keyboard only added to the event’s resonance.
Gershwin’s score has proven a bona fide American classic and it did create a new American sound. For much of the late 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, a group of talented American musicians copied European models and musical styles. Such esteemed New England composers as George Whitefield Chadwick (founder of Boston’s New England Conservatory) and John Knowles Paine followed the German symphonic tradition of Brahms and Schumann in a series of well crafted scores. John Alden Carpenter turned to French genres for his stylistic inspiration. Only the iconoclast Charles Ives struck out in a bold new direction (predating Schoenberg and Stravinsky in sheer modernity). But Ives was a wealthy New England insurance executive who took little interest in getting his music performed. In terms of publication and dissemination of American classical scores, Gershwin broke new ground. Already one of the most successful tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley with a long stream of hits on Broadway, Gershwin endeavored to fuse jazz (America’s most singular musical creation) with the harmonic language of such (then contemporary) classicists as Ravel and Stravinsky.
The conductor Walter Damrosch was one of the musical celebrities in attendance at the premier of Rhapsody in Blue. (Now largely forgotten, Damrosch was a formidable conductor and a powerful advocate for American composers and music education). The day after the Whiteman concert, Damrosch commissioned Gershwin to write a full scale piano concerto for his New York Symphony Orchestra. Ferde Grofe, Whiteman’s staff arranger, had done the original 1924 orchestration of the Rhapsody. Faced with this more ambitious assignment, Gershwin (who lacked formal training) absorbed textbooks on music theory, concerto structure, and orchestration. He composed most of the Concerto in F Major during the summer of 1925 in a cabin at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. This score marked the first time Gershwin orchestrated one of his own works. (Eventually, Gershwin studied orchestration and theory with the iconoclastic American composers Henry Cowell and Wallingford Riegger and the European master Arnold Schoenberg.) Gershwin hired an orchestra for a workshop performance in the fall. He later revised the score on the advice of Damrosch.
Gershwin was the piano soloist at the concerto’s premiere on December 25, 1925 at Carnegie Hall with Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony before an enthusiastic audience. Igor Stravinsky thought the concerto was a work of genius. British composer William Walton adored Gershwin’s orchestration. (Three years later, Damrosch’s ensemble would merge with the Philharmonic Symphony Society to form the New York Philharmonic. One of the new group’s first commissions was Gershwin’s tone poem An American in Paris. Appropriately, the 1928 premiere was conducted by Damrosch, one of the composer’s most fervent champions.) Not to be outdone, Paul Whiteman commissioned a special orchestration of the Concerto in F for his band’s performances at Carnegie Hall and on tour. (The Grofe-Whiteman version has been recorded by pianist Russell Sherman and conductor Gunther Schuller. It provides a stimulating footnote to one of Gershwin’s most audacious scores.)
Emphatic rounds of tympani launch the first movement Allegro. After a brief orchestral rhythmic figure, the solo piano enters and states the principal theme which is eventually carried by the orchestra. A bravura cadenza leads to cascading chords from the piano and a brilliant conclusion. The second movement opens with an Adagio (Blues) – a muted trumpet followed by a soulful piano dirge. Later in the movement, a contrasting second theme appears, only to be subdued by a repeat of the opening material. The Allegro agitato opens with a vigorous, jazzy subject at pianistic lightning speed. A reprise of the principal theme of the first movement at a faster tempo precedes more keyboard fireworks before a razzle dazzle coda.
With the Concerto in F Major, George Gershwin contributed a distinctively American work to the repertoire of virtuoso showpieces. (The score’s formidable difficulties suggest that the composer must have been a brilliant pianist in his own right.) The piece remains a remarkable demonstration of the expanding horizons of a tragically short lived musical genius.
Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
During the 1940’s and early 1950’s Aaron Copland became the quintessential American composer, crafting a style that seemed to flow from the American heartland, at once gentle and flamboyantly patriotic. The composer produced numerous works in this genre – three ballets (Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Appalachian Spring), an opera (The Tender Land), film scores (Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, The Heiress), the stirring Lincoln Portrait, the monumental Third Symphony (which incorporated the wartime Fanfare for the Common Man), and numerous short works. The Clarinet Concerto (along with the Symphony No.3) is an example of an abstract score from Copland’s Americana phase.
The jazz clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman was a pivotal figure in 20th century American music. Popularly known as “The King of Swing,” Goodman was a formidable musician with an awesome technique and brilliant command of his instrument. He was equally at home playing Mozart and Weber concertos or chamber music or big band jazz standards. In his classical mode, Goodman worked with the greatest conductors of his day (Toscanini, Munch, Ormandy, Bernstein) as well as the legendary Budapest String Quartet. Some of the most important composers of the 20th century composed original works for Goodman – including Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith, Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould, and Copland.
Goodman commissioned Copland to write the concerto in 1947. While on tour in South America, Copland worked on a detailed first draft of the score. By late 1948 he had completed and orchestrated the concerto. Goodman hesitated in scheduling the premiere, concerned that his instrumental technique was not up to the virtuosic demands of Copland’s piece. After some small revisions (mainly in the second movement) Goodman gave the first performance on November 6, 1950 in a national radio broadcast with the NBC Symphony conducted by the formidable Fritz Reiner. The first public performance was given on November 28, 1950 by Ralph McLane with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. The renowned choreographer Jerome Robbins used the score for his 1951 ballet The Pied Piper (produced by the New York City Ballet with Goodman on stage as part of the choreographic scenario, Leon Barzin conducting from the orchestra pit).
The score is in two movements that are connected by a lengthy cadenza. The first is marked “slowly and expressively” – a gentle pastorale that recalls the serene, contemplative mood of the Grover’s Corners theme from Copland’s score for the film version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Strings and harp are the instrumental complement. This quiet rumination leads to a flashy cadenza – a supreme test of the solo instrumentalist’s dexterity – which launches the rondo-finale. Copland freely channels jazz and Latin American pop elements in this rhythmically vital, complex web of thematic strands. Since he was scoring this work for chamber orchestra, Copland achieves a percussive effect by having the bass players slap their instruments. The score concludes with a striking clarinet glissando. This “jazzy smear” (in the language of jazz instrumentalists) is a brilliant exclamation point on Copland’s synthesis of classical and vernacular elements.
Grand Canyon Suite
Ferde Grofe (1892-1972)
Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofe was born in New York City. His mother was a cellist and music teacher; his father was a baritone. Julius Bierlich, Grofe’s uncle, was concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. After joining his mother in Germany where she studied at the Leipzig Conservatory for three years, Grofe began an itinerant career as a pianist and arranger in California. In 1909 he joined the viola section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic where he remained for ten years. After hearing him play piano at an after hours club, Paul Whiteman invited Grofe to join his innovative band. For fourteen years he worked with Whiteman as pianist, arranger, assistant conductor and, occasionally, composer. After the huge success of his original 1924 orchestration of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Grofe composed his Mississippi Suite in 1926 for Whiteman’s group (now greatly expanded with a prominent string section). The central section of that score’s last movement Mardi Graz was made into a popular song -Daybreak.
Grofe’s greatest success as a composer was the Grand Canyon Suite, a pictorial evocation in sound of one of America’s great natural wonders. Whiteman gave the score its first performance on November 22, 1931 in Chicago. It was quickly taken up by such distinguished conductors as Arturo Toscanini, Eugene Ormandy, Andre Kostelanetz, and Arthur Fiedler. This work is a brilliant showcase for Grofe’s gifts as a melodist and orchestrator.
The score’s first movement Sunrise is a brilliant tone painting of dawn over the dessert. After initial rolls of kettledrums, the trumpet introduces a soaring melody which is eventually given kaleidoscopic treatment by the full orchestra.
On the Trail, the work’s most famous movement depicts a braying mule riding down the canyon walls. After a loud orchestral hee-haw (depicting the burro) and a bluesy cadenza for solo violin, the principal theme (with a definite western jauntiness) is heard over a jogging rhythm. In many ways this familiar theme prefigures Hollywood’s wide screen western epics. On the Trail is the thematic predecessor of such musical Technicolor manifestations as The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein) and The Big Country (Jerome Moross). Grofe depicts Sunset, then a storm, before a quasi-Wagnerian finale evokes the gleaming dessert after the storm. The Grand Canyon Suite has proven to be Grofe’s most durable score and a true American classic.
When asked about Leroy Anderson, the Oscar winning composer and Boston Pops’ laureate conductor John Williams said “Anderson is one of the great American masters of light orchestral music.” Like his contemporaries Raymond Scott (The Toy Trumpet, In An 18th Century Drawing Room) and England’s Eric Coates (By the Sleepy Lagoon, London Suite), Anderson combined elegant, sophisticated orchestral writing with melodies that had instant appeal.
Anderson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He began studying music with his mother, a church organist. Later he studied piano with Henry Gideon at the New England Conservatory and double bass with Gaston Dufresne, one of Boston’s best known freelance musicians. He entered Harvard in 1926 where he music studies with pedagogical heavyweights: theory with Walter Spalding, orchestration with Edward Ballantine, harmony with renowned Romanian composer and violinist Georges Enescu, and composition with Walter Piston (composer of The Incredible Flutist). Anderson graduated magna cum laude (with a Master’s) degree in 1930.
He taught at Radcliffe College and, in 1931, become principal conductor and arranger of the Harvard University Band. Anderson was simultaneously active as a freelance musician in the Boston area. He played organ, double bass, and tuba in various ensembles and did some conducting as well. After Arthur Fiedler heard an arrangement of traditional Harvard songs that Anderson concocted in 1936, the Boston Pops conductor hired him as staff arranger and composer. Anderson’s first original piece for the Pops was Jazz Pizzicato in 1938, followed by Jazz Legato the following year.
For the next quarter century Anderson adorned the Boston ensemble’s programs with lively symphonic arrangements of Broadway and Hollywood hits and a delightful series of original compositions. The orchestra’s recording of Anderson’s arrangement of Jacob Gade’s tango Jalousie became the first classical recording to sell a million copies. In 1951 Fiedler and the Boston Pops received a second Gold Record for Anderson’s vibrantly irresistible Blue Tango (which reached number 11 on the Billboard charts). In the intervening years, Anderson penned such beguiling vignettes as Belle of the Ball, Fiddle Faddle, the Syncopated Clock, Trumpeters’ Lullaby, Buglers’ Holiday, and Sleigh Ride. His inventive creation of catchy themes bathed in vibrant orchestral garb has enchanted audiences for over half a century. (Many of his pieces were used as theme music for television and radio programs.) Anderson’s ingenuous Irish Suite brought modern symphonic flair to such traditional standards as The Last Rose of Summer. In the 1970’s Montovani’s orchestral recording of Anderson’s early piano piece Forgotten Dreams became an international hit.
Anderson continued to be active as a conductor until his death in 1975. For his contribution to American popular culture and the recording industry, Anderson received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
Although his fame rested on his delightful musical miniatures, Anderson also composed more ambitious works. In 1953 he wrote a Piano Concerto in C Major. Composed in the romantic virtuoso idiom and replete with lovely Anderson melodies, the piece received its premiere on July 18, 1953 in Chicago with Eugene List as soloist and the composer conducting the Grant Park Symphony. List and Anderson performed the work again in Cleveland the following year. The composer was dissatisfied with the piece and withdrew it from performance. Although he often discussed revising the work, it remained untouched at the time of his death. The Anderson Estate has allowed the work to once again be performed. The concerto was reintroduced in November 1989 by the Toronto Symphony under the direction of Erich Kunzel with William Tritt as piano soloist. Kunzel eventually recorded the work in Cincinnati with pianist Stewart Goodyear. The concerto has also been recorded by the Australian pianist Simon Tedeschi.
The concerto is in three movements: Allegro moderato; a rhapsodic Andante; and a bravura Allegro vivo. Anderson’s work tests the technical facility and sheer virtuosity of the piano soloist.
In 1958 Anderson turned to Broadway, writing the score for the musical Goldilocks, a parody of the silent film era. With a book by Jean and Walter Kerr and lyrics by the Kerrs and Joan Ford, the show opened at the Lunt-Fontaine Theater on October 11, 1958. Walter Kerr was also the director; the great Agnes DeMille did the choreography. The cast featured Elaine Stritch (still a star nearly five decades later), Don Ameche, Russell Nype, Margaret Hamilton (the witch in The Wizard of Oz), Pat Stanley, and Patricia Burch (now one of Broadway and Hollywood’s most sought after choreographers).
Goldilocks had a respectable run of 161 performances and won two Tony Awards. Although the New York drama critics had reservations about the show, they were unanimous in praise of Anderson’s imaginative score. The overture that will be played at tonight’s concert is drawn from that score – Anderson’s only theatrical work.
Leroy Anderson was one of America’s true musical icons. His endless gift for crafting memorable themes and aplomb at creating plush orchestral settings gave him a unique niche in the musical pantheon. His music continues to delight new generations of audiences. There is no better way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Anderson’s birth than to salute the brilliant creativity of this American master!