January 30, 2004 - Town Hall Seattle
January 31, 2004 - Rialto Theater Tacoma
Ellington: Sophisticated Lady, Solitude
Copland: Music for the Theater
Program Notes by Ron Drummond
The single most famous orchestral work of the 20th Century is almost
certainly the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-1981).
Even the film-scores of John Williams have likely not reached the
level of cultural saturation achieved by the Adagio. Long
before the Barber score started appearing in dozens of movies and
television commercials, its fame had been secured.
By the time he was 26, Barber was widely considered to be the finest
young composer in America. He'd won numerous awards for his music,
starting with Columbia University's Bearns Award for the violin
sonata he wrote at age 18. Pulitzer Travelling Scholarships allowed
him to travel in Europe in 1935 and again in 1936, the year he won
the coveted Prix de Rome. During his residency at the American Academy
in Rome, Barber wrote the String Quartet, Opus 11, which includes
the original version of the Adagio. Lovers of the work who
have not heard the quartet as a whole are urged to seek it out -
the framing movements are aggressive, thorny, highly rhythmic, often
dissonant, and serve to intensify the endless flowing beauties of
the Adagio, an effect worthy of the late Beethoven quartets that
Barber pays homage to.
Two years after the quartet's Roman premiere, back in the States
Barber decided to arrange the slow movement for string orchestra,
not suspecting the result. Arturo Toscanini first performed the
Adagio for Strings with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on 5 November
1938, in a radio broadcast that reached millions of people all across
America. A recording soon followed (the movement's ten-minute duration
was ideal for one side of a 78 r.p.m. record), and Toscanini made
the work a staple of his repertoire, performing it at festivals
and concerts throughout America and Europe. It became and remained
Barber's most popular piece. Just how popular is shown by the fact
that it was played at the funeral of Franklin D. Roosevelt - and,
almost twenty years later, at the funeral of JFK. Since then, it
has appeared on the soundtracks of films like El Norte, The
Elephant Man, and Platoon, not to mention countless TV
shows and commercials. Yet, unlike most music we hear too much,
it never quite seems to grow old. There's something inexhaustible
about that sinuously unfolding melody, so like a river, a river
that carries our soulful valedictions home.
* * *
"Did you play anything as a kid?" an interviewer once
asked George Gershwin (1898-1937), the composer of Rhapsody in
Blue and An American in Paris. "Only hooky,"
Growing up in Brooklyn, the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants,
George was into rollerskating and street sports, not music. Then
one day when he was 11, he heard the sounds of Schumann's Humoresque
wafting from the school auditorium; enchanted, he followed the music
to its source, and met Max Rosen, a boy his own age who later became
famous as a violinist. Their friendship fueled George's new-found
love for music, so much so that when his parents bought a stand-up
piano the following year, ostensibly for his older brother Ira,
it was George who sat down and wowed them by playing the latest
popular song from memory. He'd learned it by making a game out of
chasing the rippling keys on a friend's player piano with his fingers!
From his teens on, Gershwin was a veritable fountain of melody.
He dropped out of high school in 1914 to go to work in Tin Pan Alley
(the business district in Manhattan that was the center of the popular
songwriting and music publishing industry), first as a "piano
pounder" - a demonstrator of the music in a publisher's catalog
- and eventually as a staff songwriter at various firms. On the
road to fame and fortune, 1919, the year he turned 21, was a watershed:
he wrote his first musical, La La Lucille, and "Swanee",
the song Al Jolson made famous and Gershwin's first big success.
It was also the year he wrote "Lullaby".
Originally written for piano, Gershwin transcribed "Lullaby"
for string quartet as an exercise for his orchestration teacher.
Handwritten copies made the rounds of musician friends and became
popular at quartet-reading parties for a season, and Gershwin later
reused the melody in his one-act opera, Blue Monday. The
quartet version was only published in 1968. Though the basic melody
is simple, Gershwin wraps it in a lush blanket of strings, accents
it with ethereal harmonics, and carries it on a walking pizzicato
bass line. The melody's every repetition features a different setting.
Finally, a lovely cello solo interlude leads back to the full group,
which plays this Jazz Age lullaby one last time before allowing
it to evaporate into string harmonics and fade away.
* * *
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) was without
a doubt the greatest jazz composer of the first half of the 20th
Century, and quite possibly of the century as a whole. As composer,
pianist, arranger, and band leader, he had an uncanny knack for
combining instrumental sonorities and timbres to often startling,
and startlingly apt, effect; for widely varying those combinations;
for creating superb accompaniments for improvisation and for integrating
solos so that they fit smoothly into the larger structure of a work
while contributing to the development of that structure; and most
importantly for bringing out the very best in his players. During
a fifty-year career, Ellington may have written as many as 6,000
compositions, ranging from three-minute instrumentals and popular
songs to large-scale suites, incidental music for plays, musical
comedies, over 50 film scores, sacred choral works, a ballet, and
even an opera.
"Sophisticated Lady" (1932) was written at the end of
Ellington's five-year stand at the Cotton Club in Harlem, and he
soon took her, and his now-famous band, on the road, performing
in various American cities and touring Europe to boot. Along with
"Solitude" (1934), "Sophisticated Lady" remains
among the Duke's most popular works, recorded countless times in
dozens of arrangements, including the orchestral arrangements we
proudly present tonight.
* * *
Best known for perennial favorites like Fanfare for the Common
Man and Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
is quite possibly the quintessentially American composer.
Yet in order to find his uniquely American voice, Copland had to
live and study in Paris for several years.
Like Gershwin, Copland was born and raised in Brooklyn of Russian-Jewish
immigrant parents. Though he studied piano from his early teens,
it was his attendance at New York Symphony concerts, where he saw
performances by Paderewski and Cyril Scott, and the Diaghilev Ballet
in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Debussy's L'après-midi
d'un faune, that inspired Copland to become a composer. In his
late teens he studied harmony and counterpoint with composer Karl
Goldmark, whose conservatism served to sharpen Copland's love for
modern composers like Mussorgsky, Ravel, and Scriabin.
Having scrimped enough from allowances and summer jobs, Copland
sailed for Paris in the summer of 1921, where he became the first
American to be accepted as a composition student by Nadia Boulanger,
the most famous music teacher in Europe. Copland studied with her
for three years; during that time he wrote his first large-scale
work, Grohg - music for an imaginary ballet. He met Roussel,
Milhaud, and Prokofiev, and attended important premieres. Summers
in Vienna, Berlin, and Salzburg brought him in touch with the music
of Webern, Bartok, and Hindemith, among many others. During these
years American jazz was becoming hugely popular throughout Europe,
and for the first time Copland took a serious interest in it. This,
together with his growing love for the music of Mussorgsky and Stravinsky,
which was so thoroughly Russian in character, made him keen to develop
a style that was uniquely American.
Soon after returning to the United States, Copland decided to try
his hand at creating his own brand of symphonic jazz. One result
was Music for the Theater (1925), a suite in five parts for
small orchestra, which makes use of syncopated and polymetric rhythms,
and "blue" intervals. Copland had no particular play in
mind for his work; rather, his music was intended to evoke the variety
of moods found in many plays of the day, the romantic or contemplative
interlude, the dance-like burst of excited activity, even a parody
of burlesque. Brightened with trumpets, trombone, and clarinet,
the music evokes jazz and popular song while remaining distinctively
Copland's: listen for the sudden changes in metre, the irregular
time signatures, the way the spaces inside the music can fill up
or empty out in a heartbeat. And the relaxed lyricism of the Prologue,
Interlude, and Epilogue is already uniquely his own; what's more,
it's uniquely American. Not bad for a 24-year-old.