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?

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:

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.

Black Country

This seems to be the summer that country trap reached the mainstream.

Where does country trap come from?

Maybe we should be asking why we think of country music as a white genre in the first place.

A diagram of the main themes of country music.

One of the reasons that we think of country as a white genre is that country music has connotations of Southern rural life, wide open spaces, and farming.

Southern rural life was decimated by the Great Migration, and wide open spaces have not always been safe for black people. What is not widely known is that, before the Great Migration, blacks were also disproportionately represented among American farmers. Not only during slave days, but also up until the early years of the twentieth century, black people were the farmers, at least in the South.

There’s a movement to revive black farming. Here Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, near Albany, explains her mission.

Penniman is also featured in this documentary by Binghamton-native musician Taína Asili:

Watch a documentary about efforts to reclaim the urban decay of Detroit and repurpose it as farmland:

More on the history of black farming:

And the history of black landowners being dispossessed of their land: “The lost property isn’t just money; it’s also identity.”

Appendix 1: Zydeco is a Louisiana-based subgenre that mixes country, folk, and cajun music.

Appendix 2: Watch the 1960 documentary “Harvest of Shame,” narrated by the famous journalist Edward R. Murrow, about migrant farm workers, both black and white southerners dispossessed of their land:

Back (and Forth) to Africa

A 1736 map of what would become Liberia a hundred years later.

As Michael Rosenwald observes in the Washington Post, the recent eruption of the disquieting chant “Send her back!” has a long history.

Read the article and all the links.

In 1972, singer-songwriter Randy Newman wrote an ironic song from the perspective of an eighteenth-century slave merchant trying to convince a little boy on the west coast of Africa to “sail away” with him to Charleston, South Carolina — the American center of the transatlantic slave trade.

In America you get food to eat
Won’t have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It’s great to be an American

Ain’t no lion or tiger, ain’t no mamba snake
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Everybody is as happy as a man can be
Climb aboard, little wog,* sail away with m
e

*Old-fashioned British racist term for people of African origin.

The song was covered by several prominent black artists, including Ray Charles:

Etta James:

Bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:

As well as some white artists, like Linda Ronstadt:

Harry Nilsson:

The Punch Brothers — in a nice touch, performing live in Charleston:

Do you think the sense of irony is present in each of these performances?

Do you hear more or less of it in the black or white performances?

What do you think each of these artists intended to convey?

What about this performance? Bobby Darin changes “little wog” to “little one.” How do you think this choice affects the meaning of the song?

It’s interesting, too, that Darin is the only one of the white artists who uses “blackvoice.”

X, UnNaming, and the Cowboy Blues

This song dropped just as school was ending last semester.

Of course, I loved it. But, because I’m old and grumpy, I started thinking about and analyzing the nom de rap chosen by Montero Lamar Hill.

“Lil” like Lil Wayne, or like so many other rap artists?

“Nas” like . . . Nas?

“X” like DMX?

Or even Malcolm X?

Apparently not.

Again, because I’m old and grumpy, I started grumbling (in my mind, anyway) about how Words (and especially Names) Mean Things.

Here, Malcolm X — the unintended namesake of Lil Nas X — explains the meaning of his adopted last name.

In other words, Malcolm Little chose “X” as a symbol of the unnaming of his ancestors, who were stolen into slavery. If words have meaning, letters do as well, and X, used in this context, is particularly powerful. So powerful, in fact, that even such luminaries as Spike Lee have attempted to profit from that letter of the alphabet.

As Larry Depte, the spokesman for the (short-lived) X-brand Potato Chips, explained in 1992:

“X is a concept.” On each bag of the chips is printed the legend: “X stands for the unknown. The unknown language, religion, ancestors and cultures of the African American. X is a replacement for the last name given to the slaves by the slave master. We dedicate this product to the concept of X.”

“We’re not trying to market anybody’s name or likeness,” Mr. Depte said. “Ninety-five percent of African-Americans don’t know their original names and cultures. Most people don’t know this. X remains unknown, even though it stands for the unknown.”

Indeed, Lee even sought to trademark the letter “X” (read the linked article, “Who Owns X?” for more).

I looked hard for a photo of those potato chips but couldn’t find one. They existed before smart phones. But this will give you some idea of what was going down back in the day.

In the meantime, on a summer road trip, my children and I listened to an audiobook of A Wind in the Door, the second book in the fantasy/scifi YA series by Madeleine L’Engle known as the “Time Quartet” (the first is A Wrinkle in Time). The theme of Naming is prominent in the book: The human protagonists are assisted by an angel, who is also responsible for naming all the stars in the universe. The bad guys in the novel are known as Echthroi, the plural of the Greek echthros, meaning “The Enemy” (Ἐχθρός). The Echthroi’s destructive power comes from unNaming — Xing out their victims, turning them into nothing.

Names have power, in other words.

Azie and Evelyn of Say It Loud delve into the fascinating history of “black-sounding” names.

In “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X also draws on the symbolism of the black cowboy. It’s a little-known fact that roughly one out of every four cowboys in the late nineteenth century was black. As Irwin Silber notes, “Many an emancipated Negro decided to try his luck in the west.”

The music of the African-American cowboys had a lasting influence on cowboy ballads in general; in fact, “Home on the Range” was collected by John Lomax from a black trail cook.

Read “Cowboy Blues: Early Black Music in the West.”

Don Flemons, one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, sings “Home on the Range” and other black cowboy songs on a recording he made in 2018 for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

In John Lomax’s article “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro,” in your course reading packet, the folklorist mentions collecting some “cowboy songs” from black informants in a South Carolina prison, including “Streets of Laredo”:

And “The Old Chisolm Trail”:

As sung by Don Flemons:

No to Joy

The fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy,” was adopted as the anthem of the European Union in 1985, no doubt as much for the utopian vision of universal brotherhood presented in the text of the poem by Friedrich Schiller as for its rousing tune:

Joy, beautiful spark of God,
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, fire-drunk,
Heavenly, your holy sanctuary.
Your magics bind again
What custom has strictly parted.
All men become brothers
Where your tender wing lingers.

Nevertheless, at the opening of the EU Parliament in July 2019, the Brexit contingent from Great Britain turned their backs when it was played:

Brexiteer Nigel Farage defended the actions of his bloc against charges of “un-English” behavior. Do you think his justification is convincing? Why or why not?

Perhaps when he hears “Ode to Joy,” Farage is really hearing this version, sung by English comedian Rowan Atkinson.

This was hardly the first time Beethoven’s music has been harnessed in the cause of politics. In 1989, just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted a massive performance of the Ninth with musicians from both East and West Germany; the chorus changed the word “Freude” — Joy — to “Freiheit” — Freedom.

Hitler was a great fan of the Ninth Symphony; here is the great and controversial German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler leading the end of the Ninth Symphony in a stunning performance celebrating Hitler’s birthday in 1942 (starting at 1:59, following remarks by Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of the Third Reich):

What in this music would have appealed, do you think, to Nazi ideology?

It was also adapted by the brutal British colonial governor, Ian Smith, as the national anthem of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe):

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has also been invested with meaning in other, less-political realms. Alex, the sociopathic antihero of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, has a particular fondness for Beethoven, whom he calls “the lovely Ludwig van.” In his 1971 film adaptation of the novel, Stanley Kubrick uses the Ninth Symphony as a soundtrack for the “ultraviolence” committed by Alex and his crew (WARNING: disturbing imagery):

The piece is also associated with the on-screen appearances of bad guy Hans Gruber (played by the late, lamented Alan Rickman) in Die Hard:

In 2000, the Ninth Symphony was performed at the site of Mathausen, an Austrian concentration camp where more than 100,000 Jews, gays, and Communists were put to death during World War II. The concert caused some controversy, because it was performed by the great Vienna Philharmonic, which had dismissed all its Jewish musicians in 1938; by the end of the war, half of the orchestra’s players were members of the Nazi party. The organizers, however, believed that the Ninth paid tribute to the musicians who had been victims of the Nazi regime. As one of them explained:

We wished to think of those members of the [Vienna] Philharmonic who were victims of the Nazis . . . They were our predecessors, royal and imperial court musicians, highly decorated professors and teachers at the academy, highly respected artists who were humiliated, driven to death or murdered. We want to pay our respects to them by performing a work that they often performed under the leading conductors of their times.

What is it about Beethoven’s work that makes it so appealing to proponents of such diverse viewpoints?

Put another way: What does Beethoven’s music mean?

Do you think that this meaning is intrinsic to the piece itself, or is it extrinsic, something with which various individuals and movements have chosen to invest it? What use would you use this music for?