Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Inspiration Behind Rhapsody in Blue

George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was a huge success following its premiere in 1924. With only three weeks to compose the work before its first performance at Aeolian Hall with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, Gershwin had to find fast inspiration.

The “jazz concerto” as advertised in the Herald Tribune, had distinctive qualities of Americanism from the beginning, the five main themes based on the blues scale and the use of blues notes throughout. Gershwin decided to call it a rhapsody rather than a concerto. Though the work uses a solo piano alternating with an ensemble like that of a concerto, Rhapsody in Blue also has the features of a rhapsody with its one-movement, free-form construction.

During the work’s composition period, Gershwin found inspiration from two different sources. The first occurred to him while traveling via train to Boston. The rhythm and sound of the train as it swiftly moved along the tracks inspired several themes from the beginning of his piece. He later said “I heard it [the train] as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our incomparable national pep, our blues, our metropolitan madness.”

Gershwin’s second moment of inspiration came at a friend’s party while he played around on the piano. Though not thinking of his Rhapsody at the time, Gershwin claims that he subconsciously composed the climax to the work. He didn’t realize at first how perfectly what he improvised on the piano fit into the piece until his brother, Ira, insisted that he incorporate it into his composition. Ira, his closest advocate and partner in music, also contributed the title Rhapsody in Blue.

The famous, opening clarinet solo of Rhapsody in Blue was inspired by clarinetist Ross Gorman, who played in Whiteman’s orchestra. Gershwin had always been impressed by Gorman’s ability to play a two-octave glissando on his instrument and used the clarinetist’s skill to begin his new work.

Here is a performance of Rhapsody in Blue by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Columbia Jazz Band using a 1925 George Gershwin piano roll. What do you think of this version using Gershwin as the pianist? It is a bit faster than I am used to hearing in concert halls but an excellent performance nonetheless!

Monday, July 28, 2014

George Gershwin's American Sound

As we wrap up our American music month, the discussion would not be complete without mentioning the infamous George Gershwin. Because there is quite a bit to say about Gershwin’s profound output during his tragically short life, I will keep our discussion for this week focused on the popular Rhapsody in Blue, leaving many of his other works for one of our later monthly topics.

Gershwin wrote the famous Rhapsody in Blue at the young age of 25 after unexpectedly receiving a commission from Paul Whiteman and the Palais Royale Orchestra. Though Whiteman had mentioned that he hoped one day Gershwin would write a composition for his ensemble, the composer had no idea how serious Whiteman was until he saw the advertisement in the newspaper for an upcoming concert featuring Gershwin’s yet-to-be-composed piece. The young composer had three weeks to pull something together for the performance. 

Paul Whiteman's Orchestra
Courtesy of 

 Because he was so pressed for time, Gershwin added several piano solos that he could improvise throughout the piece. This left several blank pages in Whiteman’s score with the indication to “wait for nod” from George so that Whiteman could then cue the orchestra following the solos.

The ensemble score to Rhapsody in Blue was originally written as a second piano part with certain instrumental figures indicated throughout. The piece was then handed to Paul Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé. You may know some of Grofé’s own works that we often times play on WGUC including his Grand Canyon Suite and Mississippi Suite. Grofé later re-orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue for an orchestra. This version is what most people are familiar with today.

The premiere of Rhapsody in Blue was a raging success. Though it sat as the final piece on a program containing 24 selections, people were elated with Gershwin’s “jazz concerto.” Many important musicians of the time even showed up to hear this new American sensation including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Fritz Kreisler, Leopold Stokowski, and John Philip Sousa.

Join me Wednesday as I delve into the style and structure of Rhapsody in Blue!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Aaron Copland and Appalachian Spring

This week we are looking at the works of American composer Aaron Copland and examining his approach to creating an “American sound.” Today, let’s look at one of his most famous works, Appalachian Spring (1943–1944), that won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Appalachian Spring was originally written as a ballet for dancer/choreographer Martha Graham. The ensemble consisted of only thirteen musicians. It wasn’t until later on that he arranged the piece into the orchestral suite most people are familiar with today.

One famous medley in Appalachian Spring is taken from the Shaker hymn ‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple. Copland then varies this theme throughout the work. In an attempt to evoke images of rural, American life, Copland uses wide sonorities and open fifths and octaves, a trait commonly used to express American ideas in music.

Here is a performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring by the Ulster Orchestra.

Also check out this great arrangement by John Williams that was performed at the 2008 Presidential Inauguration.

Do you think Copland was successful in creating the “American sound” in his music?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Aaron Copland and the American Sound

Continuing on with our “American music” theme this month, let’s look at Aaron Copland and how he contributed to creating this “American sound.” Though born in New York, Copland received much of his music education in Europe, studying under the infamous Nadia Boulanger.

Copland made it his goal to write in an Americanist style, hoping to peak the American public’s interest in classical music. He also worked to promote the compositions of other American composers, both those before his time and contemporaries.

Early in his career, Copland sought to use what he considered the first American musical movement in his Americanist pieces: jazz. An example of this is his Music for Theatre (1925). By using jazz elements within a symphonic style, Copland hoped to create an “American sound” apart from the European tradition.

During the 1930s, Copland began pulling from popular and folk music of other countries and using the material in his work. The use of Mexican folk elements in his El Salón México (1932–1936) and cowboy songs in Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942) were additional attempts to expand the American audience for classical music by creating sounds that may sound comfortable or familiar. Copland also used his skill in film scores for movies such as Of Mice and Men (1939) and Our Town (1940).

On Thursday we will take a look at one of Copland’s most popular works, Appalachian Spring. What is your favorite?

El Salón México

Billy the Kid


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Transcendentalists and the Concord Sonata

One of my favorite Ives compositions is his “Concord Sonata.” In addition to the various compositional approaches mentioned earlier this week, Ives was also influenced by the Transcendentalist thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. In his “Concord Sonata,” Ives names each movement after a Transcendentalist. Listen here as Jeremy Denk performs “The Alcotts” from this sonata:  

This piece was later orchestrated by Henry Brant and recorded in 2011 by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. You can hear “The Alcotts” performed in the orchestrated version on July 18 at 8:33am on 90.9 WGUC.

Do you hear any musical quotations from other famous works in this movement? 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Musical Quotation: Ives' Second Symphony

How does Ives incorporate elements from the musical world around him into his own compositions? Looking at his second symphony, we can see that he uses the influence of European classical music in his work. First, this symphony uses the cyclic form famously used in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Cyclic form occurs when a later movement contains thematic material that appeared in an earlier movement. Ives also tended to borrow transitional passages from Brahms’s symphonies as well as from the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  Borrowed episodes from Bach fugues can also be found in his music.

 Do you find it interesting that Ives attempted to base his compositions in European tradition despite his American roots?

Ives felt that it was important to hold onto traits that characterize both European and American traditional music by paraphrasing the American tunes using European forms. One of his distinguishing compositional techniques is the quotation of American popular songs and hymns. The method by which Ives went about quoting these American pop songs and hymns involved the creation of thematic material that paraphrased an American tune followed by reconstructing them into a theme that was more symphonic in nature. By doing this, Ives was making the national material of America follow a more international style. Though the original American tunes were all decent, they needed to be re-worked in order to be considered appropriate symphonic themes.

An example of this re-working of themes can be found in the opening of the second movement in Ives’ second symphony. Here, Ives re-constructs Henry Clay’s Civil War song, “Wake Nicodemus,” into a more symphonic theme. Despite his alterations, Ives is still successful in preserving the character that made the tune distinctively American, thus preserving the American sound. Other examples of musical quotation in his Symphony No. 2 include “O Columbia Gem of the Ocean,” “America the Beautiful,” music similar to the organ and choir music found in the Long Green Organ Book, and others. Though Ives frequently uses musical quotations, he never sounded the original tune in its entirety.  Rather, he allowed the melody line to lead to a new point that was not found in the original.        

What are your thoughts on Ives’ compositional approach? Do you think the use of musical quotation conjures up nationalist sentiments when listening to his music?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Charles Ives and the American Sound

Last week we discussed Antonín Dvořák and his approach to creating an “American” sound in music. This week we will look at an American-born composer who used a different approach to create his American compositions: Charles Ives.

Ives was first exposed to music by his father, George E. Ives, whose performance, teaching, direction of various musical ensembles, and involvement with traveling shows left a lasting impression on the burgeoning composer.  From a young age, Ives was surrounded by European classical music, Protestant church music, and American vernacular music, saturating his musical world with a cultural vocabulary to incorporate in his later “American” works.

How does European classical music, Protestant church music, and American vernacular music find their way into Ives’ compositions? Ives is known for his musical borrowing and quotation. In his compositions, he often borrowed from the European classical music with which he was quite familiar with while also quoting from American vernacular songs and hymns. On Wednesday we will look at how Ives does this in one of his symphonies.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dvorak: What's your favorite?

In light of our discussion this week regarding Dvořák and the “American” sound, here is a listening list of some of his other American works. What is your favorite and why?

New World Symphony
Cello Concerto in B
String Quartet No. 12 in F “American”
String Quintet in E-flat
American Suite

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

American Music: The New World Symphony

What makes a piece sound “American”? Dvořák thought that incorporating elements of plantation songs and Native American tunes would give American music a nationalistic identity.

Dvořák first came in contact with plantation songs through his friendship with musical copyist Harry T. Burleigh. His grandfather a former slave, Burleigh grew up hearing plantation songs. Burleigh would often sing these old plantation songs to Dvořák in his home, inspiring the composer to use these sounds in his own compositions. One example of a work influenced by these plantation songs is his New World Symphony. Although he never actually quotes material from these songs, Dvořák allowed the pentatonicism prevalent in these pieces to carry over into his own work. A pentatonic scale consists of five notes rather than the usual seven and is the prominent scale used in folk music.

Before he had even come to America, Dvořák was inspired by the prairies found in Longfellow’s poem, The Song of Hiawatha.  It was not until he saw first-hand the expanse of the American prairie that he felt a need to create an American pastoral. Characteristics of this American pastoral that relate to this idea of the wide open space of the prairie can be seen in the drones, simplicity, and wide intervals also found in his New World Symphony and other works.

Listen to the New World Symphony here. After listening to this piece, let me know your thoughts on whether or not it sounds “American”.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Antonin Dvorak and the American Sound

This week, let’s take a look at Antonín Dvořák. You may wonder why I selected a Czech composer to include in our discussion of American music. Dvořák is actually known for creating some of the earliest “American” sounds in music. As a composer who sought to compose nationalist idioms in his music using folk and regional styles, Dvořák was called upon in 1892 to make the journey across the Atlantic to New York where he would become the director of the National Conservatory of Music. After his arrival, he realized that, on top of his directorship, he was expected to create an “American” idiom as he had done with the Bohemian sounds in his homeland.

After becoming immersed in the folk songs of this new land, Dvořák encouraged the young American composers at the National Conservatory to seek their vision through the music enjoyed by the people groups that surrounded them:  African Americans and Native Americans.

Do you find it interesting that Dvořák chose these people groups as his basis for the “American” sound when the Caucasian population was the dominant ethnicity in their society?

Join me Wednesday as I continue to talk about what elements Dvořák pulled from these African American and Native American influences.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy July 4th and Happy Birthday Stephen Foster!

Happy Fourth of July and Happy Birthday Stephen Foster! Let’s wrap up our discussion of Foster and nostalgia today by looking at the reflective nostalgia found in his music.

Professor Boym of Harvard University says that reflective nostalgia “delays homecoming” having more to do with the state of longing. Stephen Foster maintained a sense of nostalgia in his own life at a time when nostalgic sentiments longing for an idealized past resonated throughout many facets of American culture. Rather than longing to restore the reality of his past, however, Foster spent his life longing for a home he barely knew.

From age four, Foster moved between boarding houses, never establishing a permanent home. Songs such as “Farewell! Old Cottage,” “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight!,” and “A Thousand Miles from Home” relay sentiments for a lost home; a home he never actually experienced.

Just as Foster longed for a place to call home yet never experienced the comforts provided by a homestead, he also longed for love, a love he evidently never fully felt or received from his wife, Jane. Their relationship marked by instability, the Fosters spent four years separated during an era when that was looked down upon. Jane never supported her husband’s musical endeavors and their unhappy marriage was obvious to their family.

Despite the less-than-ideal marriage, Foster’s song written about Jane depicts her in a positive light:

I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Borne, like a vapor, on the summer air;
I see her tripping where the bright streams play,
Happy as the daisies that dance on her way.

Rather than writing a song depicting the Jane he married, Foster creates an image of the wife he longed to have. Stephen’s sisters Henrietta and Ann Eliza commented that the Jeanie in his poetry did not correspond to the real “Jeanie.” “My Wife Is a Most Knowing Woman,” composed in 1863 with lyrics by his friend George Cooper, more closely relates the reality of their marriage:

My wife is a most knowing woman,
She always is finding me out,
She never will hear explanations
But instantly puts me to rout,
There’s no use to try to deceive her,
If out with my friends, night or day,
In the most inconceivable manner
She tells where I’ve been right away,
She says that I’m “mean” and “inhuman”
Oh! my wife is a most knowing woman.

“Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” provides an example of reflective nostalgia in Foster’s songs, evoking nostalgia textually through words and phrases such as “dream,” “floating like a vapor,” “I long,” “vanished,” and “gone.” Composed to depict a fanciful state, the narrator “dreams” and “sighs” over an image of a woman that he fails to describe in actual memories. His descriptions of Jeanie “floating like a vapor” as “daises dance” creates a sweet fantasy in which he dwells while “her light form that strayed” gives the depiction of a blurry dream rather than an undeniable reality. The song fails to mention any experience shared between Jeanie and the narrator, which lends the air of a dream for an idealized past rather than the reality of either her existence or the truthfulness of her character.

In honor of Stephen Foster’s birthday, will you be listening to any of his songs today? Which one is your favorite?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Longing for Days Gone By: Stephen Foster and Restorative Nostalgia

On Monday I presented two types of nostalgia defined by Harvard professor Svetlana Boym. Today, let’s focus on restorative nostalgia and look at how Stephen Foster uses this type of sentiment in his music.

Professor Boym defines restorative nostalgia as “attempt[ing] a trans-historical reconstruction of the lost home.” Foster lived during a time marked by restorative nostalgia as America underwent a period of transition and experienced a series of changes brought on by the move to large industrial cities, leaving the rural farmland behind. Though excitement existed for the burgeoning urban centers, some Americans longed for the simple past: a past that in their minds, could be connected with their idealized lives in rural environments.
Of Foster’s forty-two nostalgic songs, restorative nostalgia or referencing past events, people, and places, characterizes thirty-seven of them. Though fictional, these songs reflect the past as relayed by the narrator’s experiences. The nostalgic narrator clearly speaks of a person, a home, or a time they once experienced. Those who endure this type of nostalgia spend their time attempting to restore the object for which they long. This restoration may be through memory or by physically bringing something of the past into their present situation.
The example I want to show you today is nostalgia resulting from the loss of a loved one. The nostalgic narrator of the song longs for a deceased person. Songs of this category contain reflections on a past experienced with the deceased individual, demonstrating that the narrator had some type of relationship with the deceased. Though actual physical restoration of the object of nostalgia is impossible, the narrator attempts to restore them through memories that in turn will help to heal the pain.

Stephen Foster’s “Gentle Annie” (1856), a parlor ballad, exemplifies restorative nostalgia: 

In the lyrics of “Gentle Annie,” phrases such as “Thou wilt come no more,” “thy spirit did depart,” “never more behold thee,” and “thy tomb” clarify to the performer and listener that the object of nostalgia has passed away. The narrator’s reflection on past experiences with the deceased individual shows his attempt to restore her to memory. Phrases such as “never hear thy winning voice again” and “the streams and meadows where we strayed” suggest that the narrator has heard Annie’s voice and walked with her through a meadow at some point in the past.

Stephen Foster’s ability to write songs characterized by restorative nostalgia led to his overwhelming popularity among 19th-century Americans. Despite his ability to create music defining the sentiments of the world around him, Foster’s personal life was characterized by reflective nostalgia. On Friday, we will look at an example of reflective nostalgia in Foster’s music.

Interested in Stephen Foster and his music? Then don’t forget to tune in to 90.9 WGUC July 3 at 8:00pm for a Stephen Foster special hosted by Naomi Lewin!