Program Notes: Concert 2

American Voices

The evolution of a native-born American Art Music is as broad and varied as the landscape of this country.  The Native American populations which inhabit the entire continent have centuries-old music traditions unique to each tribe.  European settlers of the original American colonies brought their music with them as aural folk traditions and composed multi-part songs for religious services.  The Spanish colonizers of the west coast likewise brought their traditional folk music and written music in the form of Spanish Renaissance hymns used in church.  Slaves transported from distant lands brought their musical traditions and developed spiritual songs to inspire hope as they toiled. The first known published music in America, The Bay Psalm Book, appeared in New England in 1640.

In late 18th Century New England, a movement of composition started to form that did not use refined European masterworks as a model.  A type of hymn singing (English country psalmody) popular in English parish churches was the inspiration for a group of largely self-taught composers who came to be known as The First New England School.  Their vocal works, which featured a dense texture of close-position chords unknown in any European tradition, are regarded as the first uniquely American musical creations.  Some of these hymns are still heard as part of a thriving shape note singing tradition.

Immigrant musicians arriving in the young United States began imparting their knowledge and training to budding American musicians.  By the mid-19th Century, we had native born and well-trained instrumentalists and composers establishing homegrown musical traditions in the US.   A hot bed was New England where a number of talents were being nurtured.  Six musicians in particular were identified by music historians as central to the creation of a uniquely American style.  These were John Knowles Paine (1839–1906), Arthur Foote (1853–1937), George Chadwick (1854–1931), Amy Beach (1867–1944), Edward MacDowell (1861–1908), and Horatio Parker (1863–1919).  Collectively they were labelled The Second New England School. Paine is (unofficially) regarded as the leader of this movement because of the courses he designed in music appreciation and theory at Harvard that became national education models.  Chamber music by these composers is considered the first successful body of American repertoire.

All this brings us to the music we are hearing tonight: a set of Parlor Songs and Art Songs written between 1854 and 1912.

Art Songs began to be written in America during the Colonial and Federal periods.  The person considered to be the first important American song composer, Francis Hopkinson, was a signer of the Declaration of independence! In the early 19th century, composers were writing songs specifically for amateur musicians to sing at home (parlor songs). These songs were similar in melody and harmony to Art Songs but generally shorter, simpler in structure, and not as demanding to perform.  By the end of the century, Art songs were being written by Americans who had studied in Europe, had thoroughly absorbed the Romantic style, and understood German lieder.  Their technical skills began to inform a new tradition of American Art Song in the early 20th century which has continued to evolve and thrive.

Stephen Foster was a self taught musician with a genius for melody, congenial lyrics, and catchy rhythms.   His songs were the first to be uniquely American in theme.  His lyrics speak of love of home, river life and work, politics, slavery, battlefields, plantation life, and an American point of view.  He is widely regarded as one of the first to make professional songwriting profitable.   He wrote over two hundred eighty-six songs and instrumental works in a twenty year span before dying penniless and alone in New York City at the age of thirty-seven.  The two songs we offer tonight, Linger in Blissful Repose and Hard Times Come Again No More, are both from the 1850s when he was the most prolific and professionally successful.

John Alden Carpenter was born in Park Ridge, Illinois and educated at Harvard University, where he was a student of John Knowles Paine.  In 1909, after postgraduate travel to Europe to study with Edward Elgar, he settled in Chicago and a vice-presidency in the family shipping  supply company.  Carpenter’s compositional style has been described as “mildly modernistic and impressionistic”.  Much of his music expresses an American spirit and patriotism.   Several of his pieces are jazz-inspired.  Looking-Glass River is from 1912 and is a setting of an excerpt from Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem of the same name from his collection A Child’s Garden of Verses.

Carrie Jacobs-Bond was born in 1862 in Janesville, Wisconsin.  She was a gifted child and could plunk out melodies on the piano by ear at age four.  At age nine she learned Franz Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody entirely by ear.  She was able to get good piano instruction locally and played regularly at social events in town.  She married at eighteen and found herself widowed with a child at thirty-two.  She then moved to Chicago and supported her son and herself by running a rooming house.  Jacobs-Bond had been writing songs since the early 1890s.  In Chicago she began to play and sing her songs at parties and concerts.  Despite her popularity she was unable to interest a publisher in her material.   Her solution was to found her own publishing firm, releasing her first volume, Seven Songs as Unpretentious as the Wild Rose, in 1901.  Some estimates put her earnings from royalties at more than $1 million before the end of 1910. She remains one of very few women in the industry to own every note and word of every song she ever wrote. All of the twelve songs which make up her 1911 publication Half Minute Songs are settings of witty texts by Carrie Jacobs-Bond herself.

Arthur Foote was born in 1853 in Salem and raised in Boston, MA.  He started his music studies at age twelve.  He entered Harvard University in 1870 where he studied counterpoint and fugue with John Knowles Paine.  He graduated from Harvard with a Masters of Arts degree in music, the first ever awarded by an American university.  Foote spent 30 years as the organist of the First Unitarian Church in Boston.  After retiring from that position he focused on teaching, serving as a guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkley in 1911 and teaching piano at the New England Conservatory from 1921-1937.  He co-authored a music theory text in 1905 that was reprinted as recently as 1978.  His output of vocal works includes one hundred fifty songs, fifty-two two-part songs, and thirty-five anthems.  For his 1895 piece Song of the Forge Foote used a poem from Canadian author Gilbert Parker’s novel When Valmond Came to Pontiac which was published that same year.

Charles Ives was actually one of those composers credited with evolving the American Art Song.  In 1922 he published his 114 Songs.  The volume includes songs he wrote as a teenager, mature art songs, and some experiments in atonality.

Ives was certainly not afraid to experiment.  His father, George, had been an army band leader during the Civil War.  Post war, he directed bands, choirs, orchestras, taught music theory, and gave lessons on a number of instruments in Danbury, Connecticut.  George was a fearless experimenter and was building odd instruments to produce weird microtones as early as the 1870’s. Charles was just like him and absorbed his father’s lessons in both the conventional and unconventional theories of music.  Those lessons covered plenty of Bach but also included making Charles sing a popular song in one key while accompanying him in another. “You won’t get a heroic ride to Heaven on pretty little sounds,” George was known to have advised.  Charles had just enrolled at Yale when his father passed away in 1894.

Upon graduating in 1898, Ives took a job with Mutual Life Insurance company of New York.   In1907, he and his friend Julian Myrick formed their own insurance agency, Ives & Co.   This other life as an insurance executive didn’t slow his compositional output until he suffered the first of a series of heart attacks in 1918.  His health declined from that point on.  He finally stopped composing altogether in 1927 and retired from the insurance business in 1930.

Most of Ives’ music was not published during his lifetime.  Some pieces began to be played publicly in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Leonard Bernstein championed his music beginning in the 1950’s.  The Juilliard String Quartet recorded his two quartets in the 1960’s.  Each subsequent decade found new generations of musicians discovering the still very modern Charles Ives.  In 2004, The Juilliard School commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of his death by performing his music over a six-day period.

The Violin Sonata no. 3 was actually reassembled from several pieces Ives had composed between 1901 and 1904. At around thirty minutes, it is the longest of his four violin sonatas. Ives gleaned the music for the first movement from two lost organ works, “Preludes” and “Pieces for Voices and Organ.” The second movement has material from a lost “Organ Toccata.” The third movement makes use of another of Ives’ last organ works, “Prelude [III].”

The first movement borrows tunes from “Sweet Beulah Land” and “Need.” The second movement quotes “Beautiful River” and “There’ll Be No Dark Valley.” Ives again quotes “Need” in the last movement.

Samuel Barber was born in Westchester, PA.  His mother was a pianist. Barber showed exceptional musical talent and strongly resisted efforts by his parents to get him to participate in sports in favor of composing.  He attempted his first opera at age ten, served as a church organist at age twelve, and was enrolled in the Curtis Institute of music at age fourteen.

Beginning in his early twenties Barber produced a string of very successful scores that garnered a lot of praise.  His first orchestral work, The School for Scandal, was composed in 1931 and premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra two years later.  Numerous commissions and premieres featuring major artists followed.  His catalog of works includes an enormous number of songs, choral music, chamber music, concerti, various orchestral pieces, and three operas composed during a nearly fifty-year career.  Awards included the American Prix de Rome, two Pulitzer Prizes, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Edward MacDowell Medal.

Dover Beach was also written in 1931.  Barber himself sang the baritone part for the first recording of the work with the Curtis Quartet in 1937. As he got older, Barber was known for being extremely critical of his early work but not so with Dover Beach.  Speaking of the piece in 1979, Barber remarked that it was a very difficult piece because “nobody is boss, so to speak – not the singer nor the string quartet.  It’s chamber music.” He proudly shared an exchange with Ralph Vaughn Williams.  After hearing the work in 1932, the older composer expressed his admiration for the music and admitted that he had attempted to set the poem to music several times and failed.

The music begins with an aural depiction of surging tide from the strings in a dark d minor key.  Denser, clashing harmonies build tensions that seem like they are going to release but, somehow, never fully do even when shifting into a brighter D Major.  The sonority of the string quartet fuels the intensely plaintive emotional effect of the vocal line throughout.

Florence Price was born in 1887 into a racially integrated neighborhood in Little Rock AK.  She was a precocious child with a great musical gift.  She gave her first piano recital at age four, wrote her first composition at age eleven, and graduated from her high school as Valedictorian at age fourteen.

In 1904 she left Little Rock for Boston where she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music.  Her mother was concerned about the possibility of her daughter suffering from discrimination so advised her to tell people she was of Mexican descent.  Florence proceeded to pursue a double major in organ and piano and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Music in 1906.  She returned home and taught at two colleges in Arkansas before taking a position at Clark University in Atlanta, GA where she taught from 1910-1912.

When she returned to Little Rock in 1912, segregation had become law and racial tensions were mounting in the city.  Florence could only work in segregated black schools.  As tensions worsened there was a lynching.  This spurred her to move, with her husband and two daughters, to Chicago in 1927.  She flourished in the new city and by 1928 had songs, piano pieces, and piano methods being published by G. Schirmer.  She won the 1932 Wanamaker competition with her 1st Symphony, for which the prize was a performance by the Chicago Symphony.   Her symphony was the first composition by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra.

Florence formed a lasting friendship with Marian Anderson, who programed Price’s original songs and arrangements of spirituals in concerts all over the world.  Price died suddenly of a stroke in 1953 while preparing for a European tour.

The recent discovery of several previously unpublished major works by Florence Price has renewed interest in her.  Scores were found in a dilapidated house in St. Anne, Illinois where she had spent her summers. New owners discovered the manuscripts and sent them to the University of Arkansas which already had a few of her works in manuscript in its collection. The Five Folk Songs in Counterpoint were among those reclaimed.

This quartet features popular songs and African-American spirituals played in contrapuntal textures.  Each song is given a slightly different treatment, with some in a hymn-like style and others performed in a lively fashion.

The most contrapuntal of the treatments is the first movement, Calvary. Volatile surges keep cycling back to the melody’s opening notes. Clementine starts out cheerfully but also gains intensity before the initial  “oh, my darling“ melody ends the movement.  Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes begins like a hymn but moves into variations that have a flavor of French Impressionism.  Shortnin’ Bread is the most up-tempo and syncopated with just a hint of ragtime.  Swing Low Sweet Chariot begins with the full melody sung by the cello and then passed through each instrument.  Price writes intricate counterpoint leading to stronger and stronger repetitions of the theme before a final Coda which ends with a flourish.