“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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.