Music Inspires

Program Notes for May 5, 2018 Performance by Loann Scarpato

Johannes Brahms (1832-1897), Hungarian Dances, nos. 17, 20, 19

The melodies that Brahms arranged into his Hungarian Dances were the music of a displaced people. Thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Hungary ended up in Brahms’s home city of Hamburg and in the German countryside. Among them were many Romani (“gypsies”), with their distinctive songs and dances. Passed down through the improvisatory tradition of itinerant musicians, these melodies may have disappeared if Brahms and others had not brought them out of ethnic cafes and crossroads encampments into drawing rooms and concert halls. They survive as “art music” even though the “authentic” styles of their original performers are largely unrecoverable.

A modern performance of one of the songs from Hungarian Dance no. 19:
Solti Károly – Kis szekeres, nagy szekeres.wmv – YouTube

“Ride On, King Jesus”, Traditional spiritual

Jubilee Singers
The original Fisk Jubilee Singers

Similarly, the spirituals sung by enslaved African-Americans may have faded away with the deaths of their originators and the dispersal of their descendants. But, beginning in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed concert versions of this music in the North and in Europe, and it has become a gift to the world.  In “Ride On,” the image of Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem is taken from the New Testament Passion narrative. The spiritual expresses the jubilant expectation of following a heavenly king to freedom and glory, a goal which “no man can hinder.”

“It Is Well with My Soul”, Late 19th-century hymn

Horatio Spafford

Horatio Spafford, a once-wealthy Chicago lawyer, wrote the words to this hymn after being buffeted by a succession of personal tragedies. First he lost his only son, and then the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 ruined him financially. Finally, his wife and four daughters were shipwrecked in the Atlantic; only his wife survived. En route to join her in England, Spafford wrote these words as his ship passed over the spot where his daughters had perished.

Richard Smallwood (1948-), “Total Praise”

Gospel singer/songwriter Smallwood calls the composition of this song “a teaching moment from God.” At a dark time in his life, he sat down at the piano for a few hours and “Total Praise” is what emerged. Smallwood calls this a song of “valley praise” (as opposed to “mountaintop praise”), expressing the conviction of the faithful that God is to be praised at all times and seasons, in trouble as well as in triumph.

A performance with the composer at the piano:
Total Praise – Richard Smallwood – YouTube

“My Lord, What a Mornin’”, Traditional spiritual

The Day of Judgment, as foretold in the Christian New Testament, is when heaven and earth will be shaken and trumpets will sound to summon the dead to rise and the righteous to sit at God’s right hand. To enslaved African-Americans, the Judgment Day represented deliverance and vindication and hope.

A performance by Marian Anderson:
Marian Anderson – My Lord, What A Morning (Spiritual) – YouTube

“Hold On!”, Traditional spiritual

The agrarian image of guiding a plow to make the furrow straight is a metaphor for perseverance on the straight-and-narrow path of faith and encouragement on the journey toward freedom. An altered version using the words “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” became one of the anthems of the American Civil Rights Movement.

A performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock, with photos from protest marches:
Sweet Honey In The Rock – Eye On The Prize – YouTube

“We Shall Overcome”, Traditional spiritual/Protest song

This mighty river of a freedom anthem, which the Library of Congress calls “the most powerful song of the 20th century,” has many tributaries. Its headwaters flow from the antebellum spiritual “No More Auction Block” through a late 19th-century black Southern hymn “I’ll Be All Right” and another called “I’ll Overcome Some Day.” Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Southern labor activists, both black and white, sang a version called “We Will Overcome Some Day.” It became the marching and solidarity song of civil rights movements in the U.S. and around the world.

A performance by Odetta of the root spiritual, “No More Auction Block”:
Odetta – No More Auction Block For Me – YouTube

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), Legends, nos. 1-5

Originally composed as a set of ten piano duets, the Legends were so popular that the publisher requested orchestrated versions. Dvořák never explained the meaning of the title. One biographer suggested that the devout composer might have been inspired by legends of various saints. Lyrical in mood and quite short, they are steeped in the spirit of Dvořák’s native Bohemia.

A performance of Legends, no. 1 in the original version for piano, four hands:
Antonín Dvořák: Legendy (Legends) op.59, N°1.Allegro non troppo …

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), “Hallelujah” from Christ on the Mount of Olives, Opus 85

A painting of Christ on the Mount of Olives

Beethoven’s only oratorio (an unstaged dramatic work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra) is rarely performed today. It depicts Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion as he struggles to accept his agonizing fate. The final chorus is an anthem of praise that has achieved an independent life in religious services and concert programs.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), “Sanctus” from Requiem, Opus 48

Portrait of the composer

For much of his life Fauré was a church organist and therefore called upon to accompany innumerable burial services. His Requiem departs from long tradition in its emphasis on prayers of comfort and blessing rather than fear of divine judgment. In response to critics he wrote, “Someone has called it a lullaby of death. But altogether my Requiem is as gentle as I am myself.” Fauré laid the foundations of what we call “impressionism” in music. The “Sanctus” is a good example: over an ethereal, undulating orchestral accompaniment (newly expanded by Michael Kemp) and a soaring solo violin, two blocks of choral voices (cherubim and seraphim?) call to each other across the heavenly kingdom.

“In Bright Mansions Above”, Traditional spiritual

To enslaved people, whose families were so often torn apart, reunion with loved ones in one’s lifetime or after death must have been a fervent, anguished hope. Many spirituals, like this one, incorporate Biblical images and phrases. Roland Carter’s arrangement closes with a chant on the Gospel text, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.”

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”, Early 20th-century song

James Weldon Johnson

Calling it “The Negro National Anthem,” the NAACP adopted this as its official song in 1919. It began as a poem written by James Weldon Johnson, the principal of a segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida. Five hundred schoolchildren recited it at an assembly on Feb. 12, 1900 (Lincoln’s Birthday), at which Booker T. Washington was the honored guest speaker. Principal Johnson’s brother and musical collaborator, John Rosamund Johnson, composed the music soon after.

“Amazing Grace”, 18th-century hymn

“Amazing Grace” in an 18th-century hymnbook

The text is a poem written by the Anglican curate John Newton, who in his youth had been the blasphemous, profane captain of a slave ship. He was converted after a seemingly miraculous deliverance from shipwreck. The hymn as we know it is set to the traditional folk tune “New Britain.” It’s estimated that it is played or sung ten million times each year. So as we sing it together tonight, imagine the 27,396 other performances taking place around the world today!