© Copyright Steven Ledbetter
FLORENCE PRICE (1883-1952)
Andante moderato, from String Quartet No. 1
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, of mixed-race parents, Florence Price (born Florence Beatrice Smith) grew up in the home of professional African Americans and benefited from a thorough education there. Beginning early piano lessons with her piano-teacher mother, she showed immediate talent on the piano and the church organ. From 1902 to 1906, she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, where, in addition to taking degrees in organ and piano teaching, she pursued studies on composition, a subject denied to most women at the time. But the director of the Conservatory, George W. Chadwick, one of Boston’s leading composers, opened the program to talented women and minorities. At the commencement concert when she graduated in 1906, her performance closed the program, automatically identifying her as the top student in the graduating class.
While teaching as a black college in Atlanta in 1910, she married a lawyer, Thomas J. Price. They moved back to Little Rock, where he established a practice. The racial situation in the city had deteriorated, and she could not find work except as a private piano teacher. In 1927 the family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration. Financial difficulties and abuse by her husband led Price to divorce him, remaining alone with their two daughters, in 1931.
The beginning of her reputation came when she submitted two scores to a competition by the Wanamaker Foundation; her Symphony in E minor won the first prize, and her piano sonata the third. The following year her symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Century of Progress World’s Fair, making it the first symphony by an African-American woman to receive a performance by a major symphony orchestra.
Her fame grew considerably, though racism still prevented a general recognition of her work. Ill health made the last years difficult, and when she died in 1952, she was, to a large degree, forgotten. Two happy discoveries brought Price back to public attention and re-established her as a significant American composer. First, a young African-American musicologist, Rae-Linda Brown, was cataloging music by composers of the Harlem Renaissance in the Yale University library when she discovered the manuscript of Price’s Symphony in E minor mixed in with the materials. This led to the research for her 1987 doctoral dissertation on the composer and the publication of the first book about the composer, Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price. The second stage of the Price revival came in 2009, when a voluminous collection of manuscripts was discovered in the attic of an empty house neat Chicago that Price had used as a summer residence years before. It included among other things, two violin concertos and her Fourth Symphony.
In the last fifteen years, Price’s music has come to be widely performed and recorded. The Andante Moderato to be performed here is a movement from her String Quartet No. 1, in G, composed in 1929. Though created primarily for four instruments, many orchestras have chosen to perform it with their string section.
The melodic character of the lyrical music that begins and ends the movement comes from the world of the spiritual. However, this is entirely original with Price, who knew many spirituals and made arrangements of them for voice or piano. But here she creates her own expression of their soulful character. In the middle section, pizzicatos create a lively rhythmic background to playful themes.
LEE HOIBY (1926-2011)
I Have a Dream
Born into a musical family in Wisconsin, Lee Hoiby was able to take advantage of the
strong music department—many of whose members were self-exiled from Europe during the years before and during World War II—at the University of Wisconsin. These included the pianist Gunnar Johansen, who developed his pianistic abilities early on before passing the boy to his own teacher, Egon Petri. He also got to know Rudolph Kolisch, the son-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg and the first violinist of the Pro Arte Quartet, which introduced him to the highest levels of musicianship. However, he firmly rejected the musical style of Schoenberg and his followers.
Planning to become a piano virtuoso, he had written a few small pieces for enjoyment, but without intending to compose. These were sent without his knowledge to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, with the result that he was offered a full scholarship to study composition with Gian Carlo Menotti. Hoiby began his active composing life at a time when academic serialism was becoming virtually the only style acceptable in American academic circles, and the more conservative romanticism of Menotti or his partner and colleague Samuel Barber tended to be belittled by intellectual critics and avant-garde composers. But it was more or less in that style that Hoiby proceeded, with strong emphasis on vocal and operatic music (including the operas Natalia Petrovna [after Turgenev], Summer and Smoke [Tennessee Williams], and The Tempest [Shakespeare]).
In addition to his operas, Hoiby wrote many songs and extended vocal works for solo voice with piano or orchestra. As is immediately evident from the title, I Have a Dream takes its text from one of the most famous speeches in American history, that by Dr. Martin Luther King given in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the climax of the great gathering of African-Americans in August 1963 to call for civil rights. The repeated phrase “I have a dream” functions like a refrain, which lends itself to the musical setting.
AARON COPLAND (1900-1990)
Old American Songs, Set No. 1
One of the ways that Aaron Copland sought to create music that was recognizably “American” to the average listener was to investigate the wealth of folk music produced in this country. There is a certain irony here, in that an urban composer, trained in Europe and long resident in New York, should choose to set many songs that he had surely never heard in their original “folk” context. Yet the musical language that he had evolved in composing his popular ballets was so appropriate that his Old American Songs were quickly recognized as masterful artistic interpretations of American folk material (much like the work that Vaughan Williams, Holst, and later Britten accomplished with their own folksong traditions in England). The two sets of Old American Songs, each consisting of five songs, were composed in 1950 and 1952. The songs range from folk ballads, lullabies, revivalist hymns, and numbers from the popular theater. Copland found the original music, in most cases, in the extraordinary Harris Collection at Brown University.
The Boatmen’s Dance is a minstrel show tune that was published in Boston in 1843 by Daniel D. Emmett (best known as the composer of “Dixie”), one of the founders of the minstrel-show tradition, the most popular form of musical entertainment in mid-nineteenth century America.
The Dodger was a political campaign song of the 1880s, apparently sung during the Cleveland-Blaine campaign. John and Alan Lomax collected it in the 1930s from an Arkansas woman, who had learned it as a child.
Long Time Ago was published in 1837 with words adapted by George Pope Morris and music arranged by Charles Edward Horn from a then-popular minstrel-show tune.
Simple Gifts is a Shaker hymn tune from the period 1837‑1847; it has has become the best‑known of all such tunes from Copland’s use of it in Appalachian Spring.
I Bought Me a Cat is a children’s nonsense song that Copland learned from the playwright Lynn Riggs (whose play Green Grow the Lilacs was turned into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!), who learned it as a child in Oklahoma.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 3 in E‑flat, Opus 55, Eroica
Around 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte dominated European politics as have few men in all of history. Like many others, Beethoven was fascinated by this man of power and charisma. While writing his third symphony in 1803, he conceived the idea of dedicating it to Napoleon. In May 1804, after the symphony had been composed and the title page of the manuscript headed with Napoleon’s name, Beethoven learned that Napoleon had declared himself emperor and cried out, “Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant!” Then he reportedly grabbed the symphony and tore the title page in two. The only surviving manuscript (a copy) has a title page in Beethoven’s hand with the name “Bonaparte” scratched out so violently that there are holes in the paper. Still, Beethoven apparently had second thoughts even then, because he later added the words “Written on Bonaparte” in pencil! When published, the symphony became known with the more general—yet fully suitable—nickname Sinfonia eroica (“Heroic symphony”).
It was one of the truly epoch-making scores in the history of music, inaugurating what is often called Beethoven’s “middle period,” a breakthrough for Beethoven in shaping the creative forces that were virtually exploding within him. His new‑found ability to balance tension and release in a complex, sustained way makes possible the expressive power of the Eroica from the gigantic, nervous first movement, the heart-catching silences of the funeral march in the second, and the scherzo’s whirlwind of energy, to the jubilant closing outburst at the end of the finale’s set of variations. The closing pages release a kinetic energy previously unknown in the symphonic literature. No wonder that the Eroica remained Beethoven’s favorite symphony, for it was there that he truly became Beethoven.
Early listeners were astonished by the symphony’s unusual length, almost twice as long as any written to that date. We may wonder how it manages to hang together. The answer lies basically in the concentration of the musical ideas and their harmonic implications. The first movement of the Eroica has not a single theme that stands complete in and of itself, no melody that runs its course and comes to a full stop. Things begin in a straightforward way but shade off immediately into doubt and ambiguity. The very first theme is Mozartean for its just eight notes (indeed, Mozart used the same idea in the overture to his youthful opera Bastien und Bastienne). But Beethoven’s theme continues–and gets “caught” on its tenth note, a C‑sharp not part of the home key. Left dangling uncomfortably and unexplained at the end of the phrase, this C-sharp generates an unusually lengthy musical discourse to explain its meaning. The troublesome note appears in every conceivable context, as if Beethoven is trying to suggest each time, “Perhaps this is its true meaning.” Only at the very end of the movement, do we hear the opening musical theme presented four successive times (with orchestral excitement building throughout) as a complete melody without that troubling C-sharp. Of course, a great deal happens in that monumental first movement, which remains one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in the history of music.
Each of the other movements is justly famous in its own right. The Adagio assai generated heated discussion as to the appropriateness of including a funeral march in a symphony. No attentive listener can fail to be moved by the shattering final measures in which the dark march theme returns for the last time, truncated, broken into fragments in a dying strain: a convincing demonstration of the power inherent in the music of silence. The scherzo’s whirlwind of activity scarcely ceases for a moment. All suggestion of the traditional third-movement menuetto of vanishes before a torrent of rushing notes and irregular phrases. The last movement builds a set of variations from a tune taken from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. Beethoven sometimes used the theme’s bass line, sometimes its melody in variations full of witty and felicitous touches. A fugal section in the center of the movement gives it some density, and the conclusion, with virtuosic outbursts in the horns and energetic fanfares for the full orchestra loses nothing in the way of rousing excitement, no matter how many times we hear it.
© Copyright Steven Ledbetter