Category Archives: Copland

Pioneer Spirit of America

“Look Away over Yandro¹”: Voices from the American Past | Program Notes by Loann Scarpato

Music on this “Pioneer Spirit” program arose in response to some of the harshest experiences in our nation’s history: Wars of revolution and rebellion. Enslavement. The Great Depression. The McCarthy era. The loneliness of the frontier. Death far from home and family. Yet the music also speaks with energy and purpose, indomitability, and a kind of rugged beauty. Every composition in this program is historically informed, drawing upon traditional American musical genres: hymns, folksongs, spirituals, dance tunes, and old popular songs.

¹”Yandro” is the old name of a remote North Carolina mountain. Its exact location is no longer known.

Roy Harris (1898-1979): Symphony No. 4: Folksong Symphony

Throughout my lifework, my purpose has been to affirm tradition as our greatest resource, rather than to avoid it as our greatest threat. R.H.

Roy Harris at the piano with George Lynn in 1965, Princeton Junction.

Roy Harris at the piano with George Lynn in 1965, Princeton Junction

Roy Harris was born in a log cabin on Feb. 12 (Lincoln’s birthday), 1898, in Oklahoma Territory on acreage claimed by his father in one of the last Oklahoma land rushes. One of his grandfathers had ridden for the Pony Express; the other was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher.

Among Harris’s very early memories was one of his father whistling “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” in a lively, energetic way as he went out to work in his potato fields in the morning and then hearing the same tune rendered in slow, weary fashion as he returned at night. This old Civil War song is the basis of the last movement of the Folksong Symphony.

I was brought up with simple folk attitudes by my pioneer parents. Folk music was as natural to our way of life as corn bread and sweet milk. My mother played the guitar and we hummed along with her after supper on the front porch or in the kitchen….When I began to study music, I decided that composers were folk singers who had learned to write down the songs that took their fancy; and that therefore folk songs could be recast to suit a composer’s purpose, and that they could be legitimately used to generate symphonic forms. R.H.

Sheet music cover for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”

Sheet music cover for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”

Harris added to his first-hand knowledge by intensive research in the collections of printed and recorded folk music in the Library of Congress. He was in contact with scholars and performers in the field, like John and Alan Lomax and Burl Ives. Harris was already known as an “Americanist” composer when in 1940 his colleague Howard Hanson, director of the Eastman School of Music, commissioned a work for chorus and orchestra. This became Harris’s fourth symphony. Its main documentary sources were two important musical anthologies: Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, collected by John and Alan Lomax, and The American Songbag, compiled by Carl Sandburg.

The Folksong Symphony is less like the familiar Classical or Romantic four-movement symphonies of the European tradition than it is a sequence of inter-related tone poems, with texts supplying a narrative arc of departure, loneliness, and possible return. There are seven short movements, symmetrically arranged. The first and last are fast, aggressive, and boisterous. The second and sixth are slow and regional in character. The third and fifth are lively instrumental interludes. The central fourth movement is another slow one.

The first movement is about striking out westward, with a fond look back over the shoulder at “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” The second, “Western Cowboy,” combines two songs about death in the wide-open spaces: “Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” and “As I Walked Out in the Streets of Laredo.” The third movement, for strings and percussion, uses an original theme imitating hoedown fiddling along with snatches of “The Irish Washerwoman,” a traditional Irish jig. Movement IV, “Mountaineer Love Song,” is a poignant setting of “He’s Gone Away,” with alternating male and female voices lamenting their separation. The yearning phrase “Look away over Yandro” comes from this movement. The fifth movement, another dance but this time for full orchestra, combines “The Birds’ Courting Song” and “Jump Up, My Lady” and subjects both tunes to increasingly complex variations. Movement VI, “The Trumpet Sounds in My Soul,” is based on a fragment from “Steal Away to Jesus.” This is one of the few African-American spirituals that can be traced to its originator, a former slave named Wallace Willis. It speaks of deliverance by either escape or death. A long orchestral introduction suggests fear and the brutal oppression of enslavement, with occasional rays of hope voiced by a trumpet playing a major triad in a different key. The last movement, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” is about returning from war. Its minor key tinges the prospect of reunion with uncertainty.

Harris went on to write many other compositions using folk materials, but this symphony is the most vivid illustration of his conviction that “folk songs were like the Good Earth, to be cultivated by musicians according to their tastes and skills.”

David J. Westfall (b. 1941): Ode to the American Spirit (World Premiere)

David Westfall

David Westfall is currently at work on a full-scale opera called The Patriot, about the life and times of George Washington. His interest in the early history and literature of the United States (his father was an American history teacher) led to a desire to portray personalities, events, and values of those times in musical form. Westfall wrote Ode to the American Spirit, along with three other overtures, as a way of mapping out some of his ideas before beginning work on the opera itself, which is now well under way. Like the other compositions on this program, the Ode reaches back to music from an earlier period, in this case “America” (“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”). This patriotic hymn served as an unofficial national anthem for nearly 100 years until “The Star-Spangled Banner” was formally adopted as such in 1931.

The last eight measures (“Land where my fathers died,” etc.) are quoted very prominently near the end of the Ode, and there are also certain intervals in the writing for cellos and basses and a horn motif at the beginning of the piece that are related to the “America” theme. The Ode begins in a minor key and changes to an exuberant C-major by the end. A choral excerpt added especially for this performance is taken directly from a wedding celebration scene in the first act of the opera. A group of townspeople have come by to congratulate a pair of newlyweds, and the hostess invites them to the wedding banquet, provided they sing first. “Hail to the Land of the Free” is the song they sing for their supper. See more about David Westfall’s life and multi-faceted musical career.

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989): Suite from “The Plow That Broke the Plains”
For a brief while in the 1930s, to propagate its domestic programs, the Roosevelt administration went into the movie business. The film The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) tells a grim saga of overgrazing and over-farming in the Great Plains and makes the case for New Deal programs aimed at aiding refugee families devastated by droughts and dust storms. Virgil Thomson’s original score was a crucial element. Because sound technology was relatively new, it would have been almost impossible to lug recording equipment into the field to capture voices and ambient sounds on location. Besides, the budget from the Farm Services Administration (a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) was minuscule. So the documentary was conceived as a silent film, with grandly poetic voiceover narration and a near-continuous musical score.

Virgil Thomson

Virgil Thomson

Director Pare Lorentz commissioned the score from Thomson after first considering Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. Thomson was willing to do the job for $500, which was as far as Lorentz’s budget would stretch, and both director and composer agreed on the idea of “rendering the landscape through the music of its people.” While the film was being cut, Thomson pored over collections of cowboy songs and settler folklore, gathering tunes and ideas. The completed film needed twenty-five minutes of music, and it was needed in a week for the recording session. Thomson demanded two weeks. With the help of an assistant to fill in orchestration, the work was done, with instrumental parts extracted and copied, on time. Lorentz, who Thomson said was “musically sensitive to the last degree,” re-cut his film so that “photography, words, and music…seem…to be telling, all at the same time, the same story.” The film was a critical and popular success and played as a 30-minute short alongside feature films all across the U.S.

The score uses familiar tunes like “The Streets of Laredo” and “Git Along Little Dogies,” sometimes straightforwardly and at other times as themes for contrapuntal development. The sound track is a patchwork of dances, hymns, neo-medieval counterpoint, and, to evoke the Great Plains, chorale-like passages with widely spaced harmonies (a style that would soon influence Copland). In 1942, Thomson condensed the soundtrack into an independent orchestral suite, which is only about half as long as the film music. It consists of six segments, played almost without pause: “Prelude,” “Pastorale (Grass),” “Cattle,” “Blues (Speculation),” “Drought,” and “Devastation.” Oddly, the final segment, which shows displaced farm families streaming westward out of the Dust Bowl, is accompanied by a sad habañera. Perhaps the fact that so many were headed to Southern California, with its Spanish-inflected culture, explains this poignant choice.

A recording of the Suite accompanied by exemplary stills from the movie:

Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Two Songs from “The Tender Land”

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland always regretted that he never composed a grand opera. He did, however, write what might be called a chamber opera, The Tender Land, a small-scale work intended either for television or for collegiate opera workshops.

Allie Mae Burroughs, the sharecropper’s wife

Allie Mae Burroughs, the sharecropper’s wife

 

 

Copland was born in Brooklyn, trained in Paris, a resident of Manhattan, and a world traveler. His biographers have not fully explored how someone so urbane came to display such an affinity in his music for the agrarian American past. But we know from Copland’s autobiography that the immediate inspiration for The Tender Land was a book by James Agee. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is about the lives of impoverished Alabama tenant farmers, with riveting photographs by Walker Evans. Two portraits in particular, one of a grim-faced sharecropper’s wife and another of her young, still hopeful-looking daughter, came to life as characters in the opera. Its plot portrays a close-knit, bucolic rural community unraveling amid suspicion and enmity toward outsiders.

Lucille Burroughs, daughter of Allie Mae Burroughs

Lucille Burroughs, daughter of Allie Mae Burroughs

In 1953 Copland himself had been the target of such xenophobia. He was called before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and questioned about his musical activities abroad on behalf of the U.S. State Department. The implication was that he must have been one of a multitude of “subversives” said to be using official activities as a cover for plotting with foreigners to undermine the U.S. government. It is true that, in common with many artists and intellectuals back in the 1930s, Copland had been leftist in his sympathies, but he had never joined any political party. The experience of being interrogated and accused without evidence was fresh in his mind as Copland completed The Tender Land, and the libretto bears the marks of it.

Senator McCarthy in 1954

Senator McCarthy in 1954

 

The two songs featured on this program contain no hint of the opera’s unhappy ending, however. “Stomp Your Foot” is a high-stepping hoedown song, used for a party scene in the opera. Copland said he adapted “Ching-a-Ring Chaw,” an old minstrel tune, for this number.

 

 

“Stomp Your Foot” scene from the opera:

“The Promise of Living,” the first-act finale, expresses Copland’s ideals of communal solidarity. For one of its themes, he used a 19th-century revivalist hymn tune, “Zion’s Walls.” It recurs several times, first sung by basses (“For many a year we’ve known these fields”) and tenors (“We plant each row with seeds of grain”), then by altos (“Give thanks there was sunshine”), and in the final passage it is played by the orchestra. The slower-moving “The promise of living” theme started out as Copland’s own counter-melody to the hymn tune and then, as he tells it, proceeded to take over. The Tender Land opera exists in several different versions, and so do these two songs. They are most often performed with four-handed piano accompaniment. The fully orchestrated version that we are using is rarely heard.

Days, Nights, Seasons

MARCH 1, 2015 — Days, Nights, Seasons / Loann Scarpato

March concert snowed out – but was repeated on May 21, 2016

Like scenes in a drama, each of the compositions of this program is set in a particular time and place – but not always in this world!

We begin at dawn on a summer day in the Swiss Alps, with Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale d’été (“Summer Pastorale”). We hear impressions of rosy clouds above the Alps, glacier breezes swaying the fir trees, birdsong, and a village awakening. Honegger wrote this short symphonic poem while vacationing in Wengen, at the foot of the Jungfrau, in 1920. (Take a look at this postcard view of Wengen in 1905.) It won, by a huge majority, an “audience favorite” prize at its first performance and has been popular ever since. In the lively middle section, listen for a clarinet melody that sounds like an echo from the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. It is repeated by the flute and later by the strings. There are some ambiguous chords here and there – it wouldn’t be Honegger without them – but overall this music is gentle, melodic, and happy.

Now we travel about 600 miles westward and find ourselves in Brittany, the northwestern corner of France. Look at this painting of a Breton landscape. Henk Bädings, an immensely prolific Dutch composer very well known in his day, wrote the Trois Chansons Bretonnes (“Three Songs of Brittany”) in 1946. At the time Bädings was under censure by the postwar Dutch government for having accepted an important post from the Nazi-controlled authorities during the German occupation. (He had replaced a Jewish incumbent as director of the Royal Conservatory of the Hague.) The Trois Chansons are settings for chorus and piano of three poems by Théodore Botrel, a native Breton singer, songwriter, and poet of the previous generation. Bädings’ musical language at this time was Romantic, expressive, light, and brilliant, with some resemblances to Debussy. Later he ventured into microtonality and electronic music.

In the first song, La nuit en mer (“At Night on the Sea”), fishermen spending the night offshore, alone on the immense ocean with only the “sad reflection” of a lighthouse to remind them of land, plan to sleep on deck under the stars and dream of their loved ones. In the morning at high tide they will return triumphant with a fine catch! Men’s and women’s voices alternate; rocking figures in the piano accompaniment and rising and falling whole-tone scales, in thirds, in the women’s parts suggest the ocean swells.

Now comes an extreme change of scene, to an autumn evening in Purgatory. La complainte des âmes (“Complaint of the Souls”) is a six-part a cappella prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary. The “souls of those who no longer exist” are languishing in Purgatory, “fire above, fire beneath,” because their friends and relatives on earth have not prayed sufficiently to release them. There are sighs, pleadings, cries of despair, and dark mutterings about “ungrateful children.”

The last song returns to a much happier place, a rustic landscape in summer at sunset. In Soir d’été (“Summer Night”), a romantic young man woos his girlfriend Lison by describing to her, in extravagantly sensuous language, the beauty that surrounds them. At this magical hour, he claims, “even the Evil One tires of blasphemy and becomes a little nicer.” The choral writing consists of patterns of alternating eighth- and sixteenth-notes in tempos from fast to slow, creating moods that range from dance-like and eager to dreamy and swooning. The piano accompaniment is light and sparkling, full of arpeggios, grace notes, and trills.

A particular challenge for the chorus is that each song is in a different key, and the opening pitches of the second and third songs are uncued. Since the second song is unaccompanied, if pitch is not established and maintained exactly throughout, by the time the piano enters in the third song, inadvertent bi-tonality could result! The piano parts are demanding, wide-ranging, and seem to have been conceived for very large hands.

Flying across the Atlantic and inland, we come to an American scene, one which involves a bit of mistaken identity. Aaron Copland was always amused when people claimed they could hear “the coming of spring” or “the voice of Appalachia” in his famous ballet score, for he had neither a region nor a season in mind when he composed Appalachian Spring. His own title for the work had been Ballet for Martha; the choreographer Martha Graham named it Appalachian Spring right before its premiere in 1944. She claimed the title had nothing in particular to do with the ballet. She had simply liked the sound of the phrase when she encountered it in a poem. (In the poem, The Dance by Hart Crane, “spring” refers not to a season but a source of water.) However, the picture of time and place conjured by the title is strongly supported by both music and staging, so we find ourselves on an isolated homestead in the hills of western Pennsylvania, early on a spring morning in the first half of the 19th century. What will be performed at this concert is the third iteration of the work. The original ballet score for thirteen instruments was so well received (it won a Pulitzer Prize) that Copland arranged it into a concert suite for full orchestra, altering some portions of the original that he thought were “more interesting choreographically than musically.” Later still, he reduced the scoring of the suite, retaining its altered musical structure, back down to the original thirteen instruments. He divided the suite into eight large sections, describing their relationships to the scenes of the ballet as follows:

  1. Introduction, very slowly: The eight characters (a Pioneering Woman, a Husbandman, his Bride, a Revivalist preacher, and his coterie of four female Followers) come onstage one by one.
  2. Quickly: A sudden burst of A-major arpeggios in unison strings starts the action. Quick figurations convey a mood of elation. Bell-like chiming notes on the piano introduce a slower-moving, hymnlike theme in the strings beneath the surface bustle.
  3. Moderately: Duet for the Bride and the Husbandman, a scene of tenderness and passion. (Graham herself danced the role of the Bride. In many ways, the ballet is a love letter to Erick Hawkins, a much younger dancer who originated the role of the Husbandman. He was Graham’s lover and later her husband.)
  4. Fast: A folksy dance for the Revivalist and his flock, suggesting square dances and country fiddlers.
  5. Suddenly quick: A solo dance for the Bride, in which she imagines her future, including motherhood, with emotions of joy, fear, and wonder.
  6. As at first (slowly): A transitional passage using themes from the introduction.
  7. In double time: Another dance for the Husbandman and the Bride, to variations on the Shaker hymn tune Simple Gifts. (Copland was either unaware or unconcerned that he was using Shaker music most inauthentically! The Shakers were a strictly celibate group, among whom marriage and most all other forms of contact between the sexes were forbidden. Copland wanted to use the flowing melody, which had been composed to accompany dance in Shaker worship, to convey the plain, God-fearing virtues of the American frontier. The hymn does date from about the same period in which the ballet is set.)
  8. Moderately (like a prayer): The Bride takes her place among her neighbors, and at the end the couple are alone, quiet and strong, in their new home with their future before them.

It’s fascinating to watch films of the ballet to see how the spare, open esthetic of music, choreography, and set (by sculptor Isamu Noguchi) complement each other, giving a sense of great space and firm purpose. (Again, be aware while watching that the ballet score and the suite differ in some respects.) The two videos on YouTube are black-and-white, so lighting changes are not readily apparent, but some sources say that the action takes place over the course of a whole day.

Film of the ballet Appalachian Spring with the original cast:

Click here for the: Cover art from the piano/vocal score of Serenade to Music.

Back across the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, and back 350 years, the last act of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice takes place on a still, moonlit night on the grounds of a fine estate on the Italian mainland not far from Venice. The heavy action of the play is over; only a few loose ends remain. Portia, the mistress of the estate and the play’s heroine, is expected momentarily. Offstage, music is playing to welcome her home. As they await her return, the characters onstage discourse on music. Their talk ranges from “the music of the spheres” (the Pythagorean notion that the motions of heavenly bodies produce an ideal harmony that imperfect humans cannot perceive) to the effect of music – or its lack – on human character: “The man that hath no music in himself…is fit for treasons….Let no such man be trusted!”) They note how the stillness of the night intensifies the effect of the music: “Soft stillness and the night become [i.e., enhance] the touches of sweet harmony.” A moment of gentle comedy occurs when Portia approaches, hears the music, learns that it is coming from her house, and immediately silences it! (Perhaps it was too loud, or not so skillfully played?) She softens her command with a graceful allusion to the Greek myth of Endymion, the handsome shepherd beloved by the moon goddess: “Peace, ho! The moon sleeps with Endymion and would not be awaked.”

The eminent British conductor Sir Henry J. Wood commissioned Ralph Vaughan Williams to write a piece for Wood’s Jubilee celebration, marking his 50th year on the podium, in 1938. Wood asked for a composition for orchestra and sixteen particular singers with whom he had worked closely over the years. Vaughan Williams chose the text (apparently the passage had long been known as Shakespeare’s Serenade to Music), gave it that same title, and divided it into short solos for each of the sixteen singers, alternating with tutti passages. This is “bespoke” music to such an extent that the singers’ initials appear in the score, indicating not only which solos but which of the eight or twelve choral lines they are to sing. Each solo was written to fit (to “become,” in Shakespeare’s usage) the character of each voice. For instance, the first and last soprano solos, on the text “of sweet harmony,” ascend in pianissimo slowly up an octave to a lingering high A. High pianissimo, clear but not large tone, and great breath control were hallmarks of Isobel Baillie, for whom these exposed, unaccompanied passages were written. She was a trouper, with over a thousand Messiahs to her credit, but she confessed to having “lost a deal of weight worrying about those three bars.” In our concert the solos will in some cases be divided differently from the way the composer did, but with the same concern for vocal color. Listen, for example, for the menacing rumble of a bass solo and how its low register “becomes” the text: “The motions of his spirit are dull as night, and his affections dark as Erebus.” One soaring passage, originally designated a solo, will be sung by all of the soprano voices. It ascends the same octave as before to high A, but over eight measures rather than three. The text, spoken in the play by Portia, could plausibly be taken as the key to the entire drama: “How many things by season seasoned are to their right praise and true perfection!” In his play on multiple meanings of the word “season,” Shakespeare tells us that circumstances color our perceptions, judgments, and actions – or should do, if they are to be “becoming.”

Pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff was present at the first performance of the Serenade to Music. Eyewitnesses reported that this famously severe man was moved to tears by hearing it.