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Price, Schwantner, Gershwin, Ellington

Symphony No. 3 in C Minor: Third and Fourth Movements
Florence Price
b. Little Rock, Arkansas, USA / April 9, 1887; d. Chicago, Illinois, USA / June 3, 1953

The first female African-American composer to earn a national reputation, and to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra (No. 1 in E Minor, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1933), Florence Price enjoyed considerable renown during her lifetime, and in recent years has come to be recognized as a significant American composer of the 1930s and 1940s. Selections from her 300 compositions have been performed by such front-rank musicians as soprano Leontyne Price and contralto Marian Anderson.

Florence Price graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1906. By then she had already been composing for several years. The eminent composer George Whitefield Chadwick recognized her talent and took her on as a pupil. She spent her immediate postgraduate years performing and teaching in the southern states, then relocated to Chicago in 1927. Despite considerable hardships, she established herself there as a respected pianist, organist, teacher and composer.

Here is how she described Symphony No. 3.

“It was composed in the late summer of 1938, laid aside for a year and then revised. It is intended to be Negroid in character and expression. In it no attempt, however, has been made to project Negro music solely in the traditional manner. None of the themes are adaptations or derivations of folk songs. The intention behind the writing of this work was a not too deliberate attempt to picture a cross-section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled, or influenced by concepts of the present day.”

The symphony was premiered in 1940 by the Michigan WPA Symphony Orchestra with Valter Poole conducting. It is a colorful and melodically appealing work. The third movement, Juba, recreates a type of joyous African-American plantation dance. The middle section is slower and bluesy. The finale presses ahead with vigor and determination, leading to a grand, triumphant conclusion.

 

New Morning for the World (Daybreak of Freedom) for narrator and orchestra
Joseph Schwantner
b. Chicago, Illinois, USA / March 22, 1943

While developing a profile as a leading American composer, Schwantner also served on the faculties of the Juilliard School of Music, Eastman School of Music (1970-2001), and the Yale School of Music. His music is noted for its deft implementation of luminous color and fluctuating rhythms in a dramatic and unique style. It has been championed by such conductors as Leonard Slatkin and Marin Alsop, and artists including Dame Evelyn Glennie and Sharon Isbin among many others. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for Aftertones of Infinity. Recent commissioners include the National Symphony Orchestra, eighth blackbird, and the Indianapolis Symphony.

New Morning for the World (Daybreak of Freedom) was commissioned by AT&T for the Eastman Philharmonia Orchestra. David Ephron conducted the premiere on January 15, 1983, in Washington, D.C. That was the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a most appropriate occasion because he is the subject of the music, and from whose speeches Schwantner drew the text. The composer has written of him as “a man of great dignity and courage whom I have long admired.”

The music opens with a violent episode evoking Dr. King’s tragic death, followed by a peaceful passage paying tribute to his noble ambitions. As the piece unfolds, music of eloquent lyricism and quiet determination represents the strength of his convictions and his peaceful methods of instituting them. Following the speech that includes the words “We’re on the move now,” the music offers a jubilant prediction of a more just society ahead. The piece ends in peaceful serenity with words from Dr. King’s most famous speech, and members of the orchestra humming quietly.

 

Piano Concerto in F Major
George Gershwin
b. Brooklyn, New York, USA / September 26, 1898
d. Hollywood, California, USA / July 11, 1937

Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, was in the audience when Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue made its debut in 1924. Impressed by its unprecedented amalgamation of popular and classical styles, he commissioned Gershwin to compose a full-scale piano concerto.

The first performance took place in Carnegie Hall on December 3, 1925. The audience acclaimed the concerto and its composer/performer, but the critics were more reserved in their judgment. They found the concerto less convincing than the rhapsody on several fronts, including novelty and length. Listeners have never stopped caring for it, however, making it the most frequently played concerto by any American composer.

For the premiere, Gershwin wrote the following description: “The first movement employs the Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life. It begins with a rhythmic motive given out by the kettledrums, supported by the other percussion instruments, and with a Charleston motive introduced by bassoons, horns, clarinets and violas. The principal theme is announced by the bassoon. Later, a second theme is introduced by the piano. The second movement has a poetic, nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues, but in a purer form than that in which they are usually treated. The final movement reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping the same pace throughout.”

 

Harlem
Edward “Duke” Ellington
b. Washington, D. C., USA / April 29, 1899
d. New York, New York, USA / May 24, 1974

One of the all-time greats of jazz, Ellington toured with his band for decades, and composed countless songs and instrumental pieces that have strongly maintained their popularity. He regularly created more ambitious works: musicals (Jump for Joy); film scores (Anatomy of a Murder); incidental music for plays (Timon of Athens); a ballet (The River); sacred music (In the Beginning, God); and numerous extended instrumental suites (Black, Brown and Beige, Three Black Kings, Liberian Suite).

According to Ellington’s autobiography, Harlem was commissioned in 1950 for the NBC Symphony Orchestra and its celebrated conductor, Arturo Toscanini, as part of a multi-composer suite entitled Portraits of New York. Those artists never performed it, but Ellington and his jazz band did. Later, he engaged other musicians (their names vary from one account to another) to prepare the commonly heard version which combines the jazz ensemble with a symphony orchestra.

Here’s how Ellington described the contents of the piece: “We would like now to take you on a tour of this place called Harlem. It has always had more churches than cabarets. It is Sunday morning. We are strolling from 110th Street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighbourhood toward the 125th Street business area. Everybody is nicely dressed, and on their way to or from church. Everybody is in a friendly mood. Greetings are polite and pleasant, and on the opposite side of the street, standing under a street lamp, is a real hip chick. She, too, is in a friendly mood. You may hear a parade go by, or a funeral, or you may recognize the passage of those who are making civil rights demands.”

© 2013 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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