The DNA of American Classical Music

While driving to Target to buy a new vacuum on Black Friday (oh, the glamorous life of an adjunct!), I turned on the radio to the classical station, which was in the middle of this piece, in a new arrangement for piano quintet (piano, two violins, viola, and cello).

At first I thought it was a chamber piece by Antonin Dvorak. In fact, especially arranged as a piano quintet, it was chock-full of Dvorakian devices: long-breathed modal melodic themes that sounded derived from American folk spirituals; a slow, wide-open kind of harmonic progression; the chiming, bell-like sound of the piano being played in octaves. By the time the one-movement piece evolved into a cakewalk, though, I knew it was by Florence Price.

Florence Price was one of the greatest composers of her generation, but was neglected in her own lifetime, and essentially forgotten until ten years ago, when a couple renovating an old house — Price’s, as it turns out, in the Chicago suburbs — found boxes of her compositions in manuscript.

As Price herself wrote in a letter to conductor Serge Koussevitsky:

Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.

Conductor Jordan Randall Smith has collected many sources for research on Florence Price on a wonderful web page called “The Price is Right” (get it?). The site includes an excerpt from a recent documentary about her life, The Caged Bird, as well as a Spotify list and many links. It should be your first stop for any project on Florence Price’s life or work.

http://www.jordanrsmith.com/blog/2018/5/25/the-price-is-right

So why did I think, at first, that I was hearing Dvorak?

In 1891, Dvorak was invited to travel from his native Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) to lead the new (and short-lived) National Conservatory of Music in New York. The conservatory, it was hoped, would train American-born musicians and composers to create a national style of American classical music. Shortly after arriving in New York, Dvorak gave a famous interview to the New York Herald, in which he asserted that all that American musicians and composers needed to create an American style of classical music was to look to African-American folk music:

In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.

This statement caused controversy on both sides of the Atlantic (read more about the controversy here). Dvorak wrote his 9th symphony in America, subtitled “From the New World,” and the second movement was explicitly influenced by African-American folk spirituals:

So much so that, in a reverse process, it became a kind of spiritual itself:

And it wasn’t long before other composers, inspired by Dvorak, who was inspired by African-American folk music, began writing their own folk-spiritual-inspired concert music, including great African-American composers like William Dawson:

And William Grant Still, whose opening theme echoes Dawson’s:

And white composers jumped on the bandwagon too:

Including John Powell, an avowed white supremacist (for more on Powell and his music, go here):

Note that, in the concert program for the premiere of Florence Price’s Symphony no. 1 by the Chicago Symphony (at the top of this post), a piece by John Powell opens the show.

The piece’s title, “In Old Virginia,” certainly evokes the idea of the antebellum South under slavery. But starting around 4:00, you can hear a deliberate evocation of African-American folk spirituals in the clarinet solo.

In spite of Powell’s noxious racial views, we can assume that the entire program was meant to reflect black contributions to the American classical sound, either through the work of black composers or through the implicit inspiration of black American sounds. Roland Hayes, the program’s tenor soloist, was a famous concert singer who had great success in Europe:

In the United States, however, he was the victim of an incident of racial violence that inspired Langston Hughes’s poem “Warning” (originally titled “Roland Hayes Beaten”):

Negroes,
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!
Wind
In the cotton fields,
Gentle Breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!

And Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer of African ancestry, who nevertheless drew on Native American legend for his overture Hiawatha — an opera about the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, who lived in the 16th century — from which Hayes performed the tenor aria “On-away, Awake, Beloved”:

So it seems, in a sense, that the American classical sound is like the serpent biting its own tail, moving in an endless loop from African-American folk spirituals, to Dvorak, and back again to America.


American music is so largely African-American music, and this is true also of American classical music.

Composing Irony

“How the animals laid the hunter to rest” (woodcut, Moritz von Schwind)

The round tune “Frère Jacques” (Brother John) is known across cultures and languages in Europe. In German, it’s called “Bruder Martin” or “Bruder Jakob.”

In the third movement of his Symphony no. 1 in D minor, Gustav Mahler presents us with a sardonic, funeral-march like version of the song in minor. He was inspired by a work of visual art, the woodcut “The Hunter’s Funeral,” by Moritz von Schwind (above), an illustration of an ironic Austrian folktale about the burial of a hunter by the animals he would, in life, have preyed upon. In von Geschwind’s image, the animals at the rear of the procession are weeping dramatically into large handkerchief’s while the ones in the lead appear to be celebrating with music and banners.

How is this image an expression of irony?

In the middle of Mahler’s sonic funeral march, however, a village band, sounding very much like klezmerim — musicians hired for Jewish weddings in Mahler’s Bohemian hometown — breaks in, almost giving the effect of life interrupting death.

What does Mahler mean by this? Is his music also an illustration of irony?

Mahler himself wrote, in 1901, that this movement “is heart-rending, tragic irony and is to be understood as exposition and preparation for the sudden outburst in the final movement of despair of a deeply wounded and broken heart.”

In the first and second movements of the symphony, Mahler quotes from an earlier work of his own, the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Mahler wrote his own texts for this piece, and they expand greatly upon the Romantic themes of nature, wandering, loss, nostalgia, and grief familiar to us from the works of Schubert and others.

In fact, the song “Die zwei blauen Augen,” which Mahler reuses in Symphony no. 1, alludes to Schubert’s song “Der Lindenbaum,” from his own song cycle Die Winterreise, which is similarly about a man wandering on foot through nature away from his rejected love. Here is our old friend Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it.

Note that the term “lime tree” is the British term for what we, in North America, call the linden or basswood tree; it’s a tree that has long had significance in Germanic folklore as an emblem both of love and death.

Linden or lime tree (tilia cordata)

Why do you think Mahler re-used this music? What meaning does it have in its new context?

The Valkyries

The stirring “Ride of the Valykyries” opens Act III of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. Eight of the nine Valkyries, the warrior daughters of Wotan, ride their horses onto the battlefield to gather up the dead heroes and take them to Valhalla, the home of the gods. They await their sister Brünnhilde, who arrives with Sieglinde on her horse.

Read a synopsis of the rest of the plot here:

https://www.metopera.org/user-information/synopses-archive/die-walkure

The earliest-known use of the music in a film.

Some later examples.

An excerpt that begins as diegetic but becomes something else:

Wagner goes back to Vietnam:

Both diegetic and self-referential: “The Ride of the Valkyries” as a meta-narrative:

Ironic Wagner: In Fellini’s 1963 film 8 1/2, Marcello Mastroianni is a film director suffering from creative block. He visits a spa for treatment, where he is recognized by the other patients.

And then there’s this:

Illustration of Brünnhilde (Act III) in Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Heinrich Lefler. Austrian (1863 – 1919)

Some Motor City History

Detroit Industry (Diego Rivera, 1932-33)

Blind Blake (1896-1938) recorded “Detroit Bound Blues” for Paramount in 1928. It’s a kind of miniature record of at least some of the impetus behind the Great Migration.

I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job
I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job
Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob

I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place
I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place
Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face

When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around
When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around
‘Cause I don’t want her now, Lord. I’m Detroit bound

Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see
Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see
Wild women and bad whisky would make a fool out of me

But working on an assembly line could be soul-crushing. As Joe L. Carter sang, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.”

Motown operated a sub-label called Black Forum, which was dedicated to recording spoken word, poetry, and black thought for posterity. Here are some recordings from its archives.

The last recording released by Black Forum was an album of consciousness-raising songs composed and performed by Black Panther leader Elaine Brown (who was a fantastic singer as well):

Documentary footage from Detroit’s five days of civic upheaval in July 1967:

While the rioting was still underway, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to study the problem. The commission concluded:

Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . .What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.

You can view and read the report here.

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/8073NCJRS.pdf

A brief history of the rise and fall of the auto industry in Detroit.

Large swathes of Detroit, abandoned for years, have been reclaimed by nature, which has led to an urban agriculture movement.

“Ode to Joy” Re/Mix

Some resources for your final project.

The text of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”:

“An die Freude”“Ode to Joy”
Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt*;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder*
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Wem der große Wurf gelungen
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein;
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!
Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!

Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur;
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod;
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben
und der Cherub steht vor Gott.

Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum siegen.

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt
Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.
Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity [or: of gods],
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly One, thy sanctuary!
Your magic binds again
What custom strictly divided;*
All people become brothers,*
Where your gentle wing abides.

Who has succeeded in the great attempt,
To be a friend’s friend,
Whoever has won a lovely woman,
Add his to the jubilation!
Indeed, who even just has one soul
To call his own in this world!
And who never managed it should slink 
Weeping from this union!

All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s breasts.
All the Just, all the Evil
Follow her trail of roses.
Kisses she gave us and grapevines,
A friend, proven in death.
Salaciousness was given to the worm 
And the cherub stands before God.

Gladly, as His suns fly
through the heavens’ grand plan 
Go on, brothers, your way,
Joyful, like a hero to victory.

Be embraced, Millions!
This kiss to all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Are you collapsing, millions?
Do you sense the creator, world?
Seek him above the starry canopy!
Above stars must He dwell.

Its most famous setting:

This video shows some of the text and translation, along with the vocal passages to which each textual phrase is set.

The great African-American bass-baritone Paul Robeson (1898-1976) sings it in English translation in the 1930s (it’s worth noting that Robeson was an outspoken supporter of communism and the Soviet Union).

If you look on Youtube, you will find numerous versions of Beethoven’s setting, including many updating it to contemporary genres. Here’s a performance on Coke bottles:

Schubert’s setting of “Ode to Joy,” from 1815 (nine years before Beethoven’s):

The earliest known setting is by the dedicatee of Schiller’s poem, Christian Gottfried Körner, from 1786. You can hear Körner’s complete list on the playlist “An die Freude” on NAXOS.

An 1800 collection of fourteen settings of Schiller’s ode by the important Austrian and German composers of the day. The volume was published by Jacob Böhme of Hamburg, who would become one of the most important music publishers of the nineteenth century. Most of these are as yet unrecorded.

A simplified and transposed version of the first “Anonymous” setting.

From Sister Act 2:

Affrilachian Banjo and Pre-Blues Traditions

West African griot (nomadic musician) with a lute.
Gambian musician Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta with an ankonting.

Dink Roberts (1894-1989).

John Snipes (1899-1983).

Elizabeth Cotten (1893-1987), who was left-handed, adapted both banjo and guitar by simply turning them upside-down.

Odell Thompson (1911-1994), with his cousin, fiddler Joe Thompson (1918-2012).

For more, browse here:

https://affrilachianmusic.weebly.com/stylistic-and-instrumental-origins.html

Black Woodstock and the Opposite of Woodstock

New York City Mayor John Lindsay, the “blue-eyed soul brother,” arriving at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) for a July 13, 1969 concert, escorted by Black Panthers.

As the media is flooded with reminiscences about Woodstock, the New York Times remembers “Black Woodstock,” 1969’s rolling Harlem block party.

The video for Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop” alludes to that time and place.

And Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is in some ways an attempt to recreate it.

Do you believe that it’s possible to re-create a moment of unprecedented community engagement like Black Woodstock?

“White” Woodstock, in the meantime, was perhaps the last gasp of optimism of the 1960s counterculture. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy had both been assassinated the previous year. Five hundred thousand U.S. troops were in Vietnam. Nixon was in the White House and had begun secretly bombing Cambodia.

Just a few months later, another massive music festival would try — and fail catastrophically — to carry on the spirit of Woodstock.

At the Altamont Speedway in northern California, the Hell’s Angels were contracted to provide security for $500 worth of beer (more than $3000 worth in today’s money). As the crowd got restless and the Angels got drunk, they began beating concertgoers with pool cues and motorcycle chains, and kicked and stabbed an eighteen-year-old black audience member, Meredith Hunter, to death during the Rolling Stones’ set.

As rock critic Greil Marcus, who was at the festival, succinctly put it:

A young black man [was] murdered in the midst of a white crowd by white thugs as white men played their version of black music.”

The murder was caught live on camera and included in the documentary Gimme Shelter as the Stones performed “Under My Thumb” (warning: this footage contains the actual murder of Meredith Hunter — watch at your own risk).

As gospel singer Merry Clayton famously sang on the studio version of “Gimme Shelter”: “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.”

Clara at 200

A clever student-created animated bio, “The Wild Life of Clara Schumann.”

Clara’s beautiful Lied “Beim Abschied.”

The poem, by Friederike Serre, translated by Richard Stokes.

On departing

A purple glow shines from afar,
Golden now the bright day sinks,
One by one the silver stars
Awaken in the skies.
And the Queen of the Day
Bows her head and goes to sleep;
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

Shadows cover the broad earth,
Night lies on the meadows.
Pray be still now, poor heart,
That the day has wearied so!
O appear, gently, mildly,
Sweet image in my dreams.
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

Ah, hot tears run down my cheeks;
Now a feeling of bliss,
Now a painful, fearful longing
Is set to break my heart.
Only dreams can restore
That happiness too quickly vanished.
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

When I gaze into the dusk,
And the sun sets,
I think of all the pain
That I have endured.
Ah, perhaps the morrow
Will banish all cares.
So be of good cheer! Goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

What Romantic themes can you identify in the text and in the music?

Pianist Jonathan Biss attempts to decode the Schumanns’ relationship.

The wonderful scene where Brahms shows up at the Schumanns’ door in the 1947 film Song of Love.

To the Distant Beloved

Title page of An die ferne Geliebte, with dedication to Prince Lobkowitz.

Read the score here:

Translations are here.

The cycle performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore.

Read the texts and see facsimiles of the “Immortal Beloved” letters here.

Canadian composer James K. Wright composed a cycle of three songs based on the letters for voice and piano trio. The piece, Briefe an die unsterbliche Geliebte (Letters to the Immortal Beloved), was premiered in 2012, two hundred years after the date on Beethoven’s letters. Read Wright’s discussion of the background and process of his piece here.

Listen to it here.

Wright argues for the identity of Josephine von Daym as the Immortal Beloved (you will be familiar with her from the BBC Eroica film). What do you think? Other possibilities are listed here.

The 1994 film Immortal Beloved relied on a theory advanced in a 1957 book called Beethoven and His Nephew: A Psychoanalytic Study of their Relationship, by Editha and Richard Sterba.

The film makes Beethoven out to be more of a player than he really was.