Thursday, 29 May 2014

May 31 - June1

CB America - programme one 
(rpt from 2013)

Intro:  Fanfare For The Common Man: Copeland   
Hello.  This is Classical Break, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme, researched and written by Mike Burrows, is a tribute to the music that established the United States as a pioneer-nation in the mainstream of cosmopolitan art-music.

Aaron Copeland
We have just heard the Fanfare For The Common Man by Aaron Copland.  Written after the United States had entered the Second World War, to a commission awarded by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, this is a crucial work in the history of North American music, and must have seemed so from its first play-through.  At a time when the world seemed nightmarishly split along racial lines, a New York Jew had written music for a great nation of races, seeming to express the idealism and determination of this nation’s response to Pearl Harbour.  In gong- and timpani-strokes, massed trumpets, more throaty horns and trombones, fourths, fifths and triads of purity and brazen clashes, the stride and power of the titan is evoked with permutations of a phrase and answer:  but in deliberate white-note music, this is American humanity on the march. Copland said that he had written as he imagined others were feeling.  The Sleeping Giant has been awoken.  The brash circus-world of Sousa marches or music-theatre jazz is a world away.

We think of this music as ‘American’.  Actually, its jagged aesthetic owes greatly to Stravinsky, Janacek and Les Six as well as to what might be characterized as a settler-rhetoric.  Copland, like most of his American contemporaries, studied in Paris.  
John Williams

Our next piece was written in a similar style: some fifty years on.  Saving Private Ryan, a Spielberg portrayal of the Omaha landing on D-Day and a small force’s attempt to return a Mother’s last surviving son home, suffers from histrionics and cynically manipulative scenes of mayhem, but no such faults mar John Williams’ music, the piece Hymn For The Fallen, in particular.  True, Bach’s Air On A G-string turns up, along with a less noticeable echo of Delius’ Song Of Summer, but for the rest, the side-drum, stoical, close-harmony theme, Coplandesque brass, not to mention the triangle or glockenspiel and busy string-figuration at the climax, are both emotionally true-sounding and affecting.  There is a power in the deliberately limited melody grouped about a modal clash between major and minor, between home-spun harmonies and the tritone.  This is like a marching song for ghosts or for those who knew them.  It is a fine piece and may cause one to forget how the Copland ‘Common Man’ style has been hijacked for just about any feature-film that aimed for pathos, patriotic or spiritual uplift, in the past thirty years.

Track 2:  Saving Private Ryan, Hymn To The Fallen: John Williams

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme looks at American music. 

A Hymn To The Fallen from the 1990s reminds us that America has always had a strong tradition of non-conformist psalm-singing, from the early years of European settlement until the period of 19th Century religious revivals, the days of the ‘camp-meetings’.  Our concept of hymn-singing dates back to the days of Methodism and the Wesley brothers - and the Church of England had no official hymnal until the 1860s or so.             

In the main, at first the music was rudimentary and in unison, and trained singers led a congregation with greater or lesser accuracy.
John Antes
By the 18th Century, Tune-books were in use.  Here is a hymn by John Antes, a Pennsylvanian of this period, How Beautiful Upon The Mountains, in a comparatively ‘classical’ contemporary arrangement for singers, chorus and orchestra.

Track 3:  How Beautiful Upon The Mountains: John Antes

A hymn like Simple Gifts, we owe to the American Shaker sect, of course.  The much later Episcopalian setting of Nearer My God to Thee by Lowell Mason resounds from its use in films on the Titanic disaster.  From numerous westerns and small-town films, besides the dances at hoe-downs or balls, hymns such as The Shining River have been a valuable scene-setter.

One of the stranger and stronger figures in United States music was the recluse Charles Ives, born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874.  The son of a Civil War bandsman, town bandsman and banker, he was taught music by his father, who, fascinated by resonance, free tonality and chance musical happenings, encouraged his children to sing in one key whilst accompanying themselves on the piano in another.

Charles Ives

Ives grew up to be a fine organist and pianist, playing in his local church, encountered academic music at Yale and, after a spell as organist and choirmaster at a New York church, went into insurance and continued to compose in his own manner.  A fervent transcendentalist to whom everything sang, between boyhood and his late thirties, he created a huge quantity of music that anticipated every development in modernism by twenty years.  At the same time, hymns or popular tunes such as Hail Columbia, Dixie and Turkey In The Straw – or, indeed, ragtime - provided this intensely patriotic liberal Democrat with raw material, sentimental value, for reworking in context.  Here is one of his eerier works, Hanover Street North, the third and final piece from his Orchestral Set No 2.  It is a description of coming into New York as a commuter the morning the news broke of the sinking of the Lusitania:  he remembered that an organ-grinder began to play the gospel hymn In The Sweet Bye and Bye - and one by one, the passengers joined in - their efforts uninterrupted even though a train came into the station.  By its dying fall, this work has liberated the ear from fixed notions of rhythm or harmony in a piano-concertante texture (Ives was a formidable pianist) that shows all things in an almost filmic equality of significance, with broken and ultimately baleful brass - listen for the crowd’s voice raised full-throatedly in its hymn – hymns were another of Ives’ New England inheritance - and treble register ‘atmosphere’.  The close is as quiet as the opening, but one has experienced an event in human experience, an epiphany of New York America.
Track 4:  Hanover St North: Charles Ives
Before pioneers such as Ives, popular music, with its intermixed roots in the world of slave-trade, settlers, labourers, the Civil War, Indian Wars and industrialization might have seemed to be staring the hi-falutin in the face as a potential source of inspiration in the 19th Century.  The folksongs of many European nations, negro spirituals and work-songs, revivalist and episcopal hymns, Indian chants, military marches, parlour- and theatre-songs and dance-sets, South American ‘latino’ rhythms and jazz were not only mixed from the roots but cross-fertilizing apace in the incredibly varied climate, topography and demography of he fifty States.  With the growth of the railways from Atlantic to Pacific and North to South, mass-ducation and mass publication-methods, the musical establishment remained an establishment by the skin of its teeth.

The open fourths-fifths and pentatonic style that most think of as American is present in most countries’ folk-music, owing to systems of tuning:  the chromatic accompaniment of such music is artistic licence or literally accidental.  Like rubato, it permits variety of emotional nuance, usually on a descending scale - a flatward tendency in harmony.  Certainly, it is a demonstration of skill to find the unovbvious right wrong note.  Jazz - the word originally denoted sexual excitement - is founded on such tricks; spontaneous improvization was the origin of all folk-music.  The Land of The Free was built on conquest and oppression:  folk-music, to an extent - was a reaction to rural and urban oppression of ‘labor’ and crash social and economic change.
Let’s hear the famous folk-tune, Ashoken Farewell.  Justly famous, easily as fine a tune as Shenandoah, it has come down to us in many variations and arrangements.  This one is played on instruments that would have been available to country people and ordinary urban folk alike.  It leaves the darkie-songs and parlour muse of composers of the Mid- 19th Century, such as Stephen Foster, for dead.

Track 5:  Ashoken Farewell: Trad.

The transformation from a land whose academies had grown modern by recognizing the genius of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak rather than Liszt and Wagner, took the better part of a quarter of a century everywhere but in the minds of Charles Ives and Charles T Griffes, a man whose world was of dreams and such visions as Xanadu, and whose music was influenced by the whole-tone experiments of Debussy and Scriabin.  

Charles T Griffes
 He did not represent a nationalist’s dream of American music, but his success was possibly to build on the aesthetic change discernible in the Grieg--influenced music of another, earlier ‘modernist’, Edward Macdowell, and cause comparisons between the music of an American and that of the impressionist musicians of France and Spain, and the mystical tendency, such as it was, in Russia.  Here is the second of his Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes for String Quartet, Allegro Giocoso.

Track 6:  No 2 of Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes: Charles T Griffes

Next, let’s hear a piece by another maverick, Henry Cowell (1897-1965). 
Henry Cowell
 This was a man who wrote several symphonies and other large-scale works in an idiom not far removed from that of Ives.  He could be inspired by a good old Fuguing Tune, but in many of his pieces, instruments were played in novel ways; he specialized in tone-clusters, microtones and many other innovations, directing a pianist, for example, to play with his fist, or pluck and play glissandi on the strings as if on a zither.  Here is his magical miniature, the third piece of his three movement Irish Suite for String Piano and Small Orchestra:  Fairy Bells.

Track 7:  Fairy Bells: Henry Cowell 
The works of the urban negro composer, Scott Joplin, born three years after the end of the Civil War and famous for his rag-time, less so for an opera about plantation-life, Tremonisha, took up an uneasy position between Art-music and popular songs and dances and the world of the bar-room, bordello and musical theatre.  
Scott Joplin
He made a name for himself in spite of his colour, his uncertain education and poor health, working himself hard as a performer and arranger as well as composer, but died before he could realize his ambitions as a serious artist - Tremonisha’s trials proved fatal to him.  George Gershwin and others were to fare better in this direction later on, with hits like Porgy and Bess and Show-boat.  Of course, working within the idiom of cakewalks and other such black institutions, an idiom whose holiday strut or weary worksong bluesiness captivated whites, he was a useful composer, a money-spinner for others.  The pathos and efficient melodic and rhythmical resource of his rags have conquered the world since his death, the film Sting - which plugged The Entertainer - provoking a new wave of sympathetic attentions from musicians, musicologists and Civil Rights supporters.  As a kid, I recall, there were two pieces the unmusical pianist was certain to know how to murder, The Moonlight Sonata - the opening few bars, that is - and The Entertainer.   Let’s hear the Maple Leaf Rag.

Track 8:  Maple Leaf Rag: Joplin 

Another black musician:  the violinist, composer and arranger of Negro music, HT Burleigh, was taught composition by Dvorak at the New York Conservatory, during the great composer’s brief reign of terror as a professor.  Much-respected - and liked - by his students, Dvorak was known behind his back as Borax, owing to his blunt but abrasive reactions to their exercises.  Dvorak’s views on black music were remarked on; he believed that an American music of the future might well be built on the traits of negro themes and harmonies.  In his American music -  the Cello Concerto, the Nigger Quartet - as it was once known - an American Suite, The American Flag and the New World Symphony, he does seem to have taken his own advice!  

Harry T Burleigh
Harry Burleigh admired the dour Czech greatly; and Dvorak’s respect for folk-song certainly left its mark on his pupils.  Of peasant-stock himself, Dvorak had not impressed the great musical and other thinkers at Cambridge when there to receive an honorary doctorate:  “Did you try him on pigs?” one of these characters had asked a colleague who had tried to get a word out of the man.  But Dvorak was an inspired composer, if not the world’s greatest theoretician, and his good-hearted belief in and practising of true art electrified his students.  It may not be too much to say that Dvorak was a founding father of the new American music - Nadia Boulanger of 1920s Paris later to become a founding mother.  Let’s hear a spiritual arranged by Burleigh, who himself became an academic,  My Lord, What A Morning.

Track 9:  My Lord, what a Morning: Arr. HT Burleigh

And that’s it for our programme of American music - except...  Bernard Herrmann (1911-75) wrote music for a film, The Devil And Daniel Webster, a fable set in New England, in which a farmer is led to a hoard of War of Independence gold by Scratch, the devil, and proceeds to sell his soul for wealth and an easy life as the rest of the local tenant farmers live and suffer hard times, and he grows rich at their expense.
Bernard Herrmann

Here is an evocative cue from the film:  Swing Your Partners.  In this barn-dance sequence, Scratch strikes up with a fiddle in Mephisto-New England-style!

This is Classical Break, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s script was written and researched by Mike Burrows.  We hope you have enjoyed our survey of American music and will join us again, soon.  Swing Your Partners!

Track 12:  Swing Your Partners, The Devil and Daniel Webster: Herrmann