The Peninsula Music Festival - 60th Season 2012 - Program Notes
Program 3 - Saturday, August 11, 2012 - Rhapsody in Blue
An American in Paris
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Composed in 1928.
Premiered on December 13, 1928 in New York, conducted by Walter Damrosch.
In 1928, George Gershwin was not only the toast of Broadway, but of all America, Britain and many spots in Europe, as well: he had produced a string of successful shows (Rosalie and Funny Face were both running on Broadway that spring), composed two of the most popular concert pieces in recent memory (Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto in F), and was leading a life that would have made the most glamorous socialite jealous. The pace-setting Rhapsody in Blue of 1924 had shown a way to bridge the worlds of jazz and serious music, a direction Gershwin followed further in the exuberant yet haunting Concerto in F the following year. He was eager to move further into the concert world, and during a side trip in March 1926 to Paris from London, where he was preparing the English premiere of Lady Be Good, he hit upon an idea, a “walking theme” he called it, that seemed to capture the impression of an American visitor to the city “as he strolls about, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.” He worried that “this melody is so complete in itself, I don’t know where to go next,” but the purchase of four Parisian taxi horns on the Avenue de la Grande Armée inspired a second theme for the piece. Late in 1927, a commission for a new orchestral composition from Walter Damrosch, music director of the New York Symphony and conductor of the sensational premiere of the Concerto in F, caused Gershwin to gather up his Parisian sketches, and by January 1928, he was at work on the score: An American in Paris. From March to June, Gershwin was in Europe, renewing acquaintances in London, hobnobbing with Milhaud, Prokofiev, Poulenc, Ibert, Ravel and Boulanger in Paris (Ravel turned down Gershwin’s request for some composition lessons, telling him that anybody making as much money as he did hardly needed instruction), meeting Berg, Lehár and Kálmán in Vienna, and working on An American in Paris as time allowed. He returned to New York in late June to discover that the New York Symphony had announced the premiere for the upcoming season. The two-piano sketch was finished by August 1st, and the orchestration completed only a month before the premiere, on December 13, 1928. An American in Paris, though met with a mixed critical reception, proved a great success with the public, and it quickly became clear that Gershwin had scored yet another hit.
For the premiere, Deems Taylor collaborated with the composer to produce the following insouciant description of An American in Paris:
“You are to imagine an American visiting Paris, swinging down the Champs-Elysées on a mild, sunny morning in May or June. Being what he is, he starts without preliminaries and is off at full speed at once to the tune of The First Walking Theme, a straightforward diatonic air designed to convey the impression of Gallic freedom and gaiety. Our American’s ears being open, as well as his eyes, he notes with pleasure the sounds of the city. French taxicabs seem to amuse him particularly, a fact that the orchestra points out in brief episodes introducing four real Paris taxi horns.
“Having safely eluded the taxis, our American apparently passes the open door of a café where, if one is to believe the trombone, La Maxixe is still popular. Exhilarated by this reminder of the gay 1900s, he resumes his stroll through the medium of The Second Walking Theme, which is announced by the clarinet in French with a strong American accent. Both themes are now discussed at some length by the instruments, until our tourist happens to pass a church, or perhaps the Grand Palais — where the Salon holds forth. At all events, our hero does not go in.
“At this point, the American’s itinerary becomes somewhat obscured. It may that he continues down the Champs-Elysées, and that when The Third Walking Theme makes its eventual appearance our American has crossed the Seine and is somewhere on the Left Bank. Certainly it is distinctly less Gallic than its predecessors, speaking American with a French intonation as befits that region of the city where so many Americans foregather. ‘Walking’ may be a misnomer for despite its vitality, the theme is slightly sedentary in character and becomes progressively more so. Indeed, the end of this section of the work is couched in terms so unmistakably, albeit, pleasantly blurred as to suggest that the American is on a terrasse of a café exploring the mysteries of Anise de Lozo.
“And now the orchestra introduces an unhallowed episode. Suffice it to say that a solo violin approaches our hero (in the soprano register) and addresses him in the most charming broken English; and his response being inaudible — or at least unintelligible — repeats the remark. This one-sided conversation continues for some little time. Of course, one hastens to add, it is possible that the whole episode is simply a musical transition. This may well be true, for otherwise it is difficult to believe what ensues: our hero becomes homesick. He has the blues; and if the behavior of the solo trumpet be any criterion, he has them very thoroughly. He realizes suddenly, overwhelmingly, that he does not belong to this place, that he is that most wretched creature in all the world, a foreigner.
“However, nostalgia is not a fatal disease — nor, in this instance, of over-long duration. Just in the nick of time the compassionate orchestra rushes another theme to the rescue, two trumpets performing the ceremony of introduction. It is apparent that our hero must have met a compatriot; for this last theme is a noisy, cheerful, self-confident Charleston, without a drop of Gallic blood in its veins. For the moment, Paris is no more; and a voluble, gusty, wise-cracking orchestra proceeds to demonstrate at some length that it’s always fair weather when two Americans get together, no matter where. Walking Theme Number Two enters soon thereafter, enthusiastically abetted by Number Three. Paris isn’t such a bad place after all: as a matter of fact, it’s a grand place! Nice weather, nothing to do until tomorrow, nice girls. The blues return but mitigated by the Second Walking Theme — a happy reminiscence rather than a homesick yearning — and the orchestra, in a riotous finale, decides to make a night of it. It will be great to get home; but meanwhile, this is Paris!”
Rhapsody in Blue for Piano and Orchestra
Orchestrated by Ferde Grofé (1892-1972)
Composed in 1924.
Premiered on February 12, 1924 in New York, conducted by Paul Whiteman, with the composer as piano soloist.
For George White’s Scandals of 1922, the 24-year-old George Gershwin provided something a little bit different — an opera, a brief, somber one-acter called Blue Monday (later retitled 135th Street) incorporating some jazz elements that White cut after only one performance on the grounds that it was too gloomy. Blue Monday, however, impressed the show’s conductor, Paul Whiteman, then gaining a national reputation as the self-styled “King of Jazz” for his adventurous explorations of the new popular music styles with his Palais Royal Orchestra. A year later, Whiteman told Gershwin about his plans for a special program the following February in which he hoped to show some of the ways traditional concert music could be enriched by jazz, and suggested that the young composer provide a piece for piano and jazz orchestra. Gershwin, who was then busy with the final preparations for the upcoming Boston tryout of Sweet Little Devil and somewhat unsure about barging into the world of classical music, did not pay much attention to the request until he read in The New York Times on New Year’s Day that he was writing a new “symphony” for Whiteman’s program. After a few frantic phone calls, Whiteman finally convinced Gershwin to undertake the project, a work for piano solo (to be played by the composer) and Whiteman’s 22-piece orchestra — and then told him that it had to be finished in less than a month. George thought that he could complete the short score in time, but, since he was unfamiliar with the techniques of writing for instrumental ensemble, he asked that Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé (whose greatest fame came as composer of the 1931 Grand Canyon Suite), do the orchestration.
Themes and ideas for the new piece immediately began to tumble through Gershwin’s head, but it seems that the vision of the work’s finished form did not appear until he was on a train to Boston for the tryouts of Sweet Little Devil: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer.... I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise. And there I suddenly heard — and even saw on paper — the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America — of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston, I had a definite plot for the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.” Late in January, only three weeks after it was begun, Gershwin completed the Rhapsody in Blue, except for some solo piano figurations. “I was so pressed for time,” he wrote, “that I left them to be improvised at the first concert. I could do that as I was to be the pianist.” Grofé completed the orchestration on February 7th.
The premiere of the Rhapsody in Blue — New York, Aeolian Hall, February 12, 1924 — was one of the great nights in American music. With this concert, billed as an “Experiment in Modern Music,” Whiteman wanted to demonstrate both the historical development of jazz as a particularly American phenomenon and the manner in which the jazz style might be utilized in modern concert compositions. The program included piano solos by Zez Confrey (notably his deathless Kitten on the Keys), arrangements for the full orchestra of such pop tunes as Alexander’s Ragtime Band and Limehouse Blues, examples of various jazz treatments of well-known songs, a Suite of Serenades by Victor Herbert, and, as the center piece for the evening, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Many of the era’s most illustrious musicians attended: Mischa Elman, Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Moriz Rosenthal, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Walter Damrosch, Leopold Stokowski, Willem Mengelberg. Critics from far and near assembled to pass judgment; the glitterati of society and culture graced the event. Gershwin fought down his apprehension over his joint debuts as serious composer and concert pianist, and he and his music had a brilliant success. “A new talent finding its voice,” wrote Olin Downes, music critic for The New York Times. Downes’ predecessor at the Times, Carl Van Vechten, wrote to Gershwin, “You crowned the concert with what I am forced to regard as the foremost serious effort by an American composer.” Conductor Walter Damrosch told Gershwin that he had “made a lady out of jazz,” and then commissioned him to write the Concerto in F. There was critical carping about laxity in the structure of the Rhapsody in Blue, but there were none about its vibrant, quintessentially American character or its melodic inspiration, and it became an immediate hit, attaining (and maintaining) a position of popularity almost unmatched by any other work of a native composer.
Suite from Appalachian Spring
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Composed for chamber orchestra in 1943-1944; revised as a suite for full orchestra in 1945.
Ballet premiered on October 30, 1944 in Washington; suite premiered on October 4, 1945 in New York, conducted by Artur Rodzinski.
In 1942, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, one of America’s greatest patrons of the arts, went to see a dance recital by Martha Graham. So taken with the genius of the dancer-choreographer was Mrs. Coolidge that she offered to commission three ballets specially for her, and Graham chose as composers of the music Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith and an American whose work she had admired for over a decade — Aaron Copland. In 1931, Graham had staged Copland’s Piano Variations as the ballet Dithyramb, and she was eager to have another dance piece from him, especially in view of his recent successes with Billy the Kid and Rodeo. She devised a scenario based on memories of her grandmother’s farm in turn-of-the-20th-century Pennsylvania, and it proved to be a perfect match for the direct, quintessentially American style that Copland espoused in those years.
The premiere was set for October 1944 (in honor of Mrs. Coolidge’s 80th birthday) in the auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the limited space in the theater allowed Copland to use a chamber orchestra of only thirteen instruments (flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano and nine strings). He began work on the score in June 1943 in Hollywood while writing the music for the movie North Star and finished it a year later in Cambridge, where he was delivering the Horatio Appleton Lamb Lectures at Harvard. The plot, the music and most of the choreography were completed before a title for the piece was selected. Graham was taken at just that time with the name of a poem by Hart Crane — Appalachian Spring — and she adopted it for her new ballet, though the content of the poem has no relation with the stage work.
Appalachian Spring was unveiled in Washington on October 30, 1944, and repeated in New York in May to great acclaim, garnering the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the New York Music Critics Circle Award as the outstanding theatrical work of the 1944-1945 season. Soon after its New York premiere, Copland revised the score as a suite of eight continuous sections for full orchestra by eliminating about eight minutes of music in which, he said, “the interest is primarily choreographic.” On October 4, 1945, Artur Rodzinski led the New York Philharmonic in the premiere of this version, which has become one the best-loved works of 20th-century American music.
Edwin Denby’s description of the ballet’s action from his review of the New York premiere in May 1945 was reprinted in the published score: “[The ballet concerns] a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the 19th century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end, the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.”
Copland wrote, “The suite arranged from the ballet contains the following sections, played without interruption:
“1. Very Slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light.
“2. Fast. Sudden burst of unison strings in A-major arpeggios starts the action. A sentiment both elated and religious gives the keynote to this scene.
“3. Moderato. Duo for the Bride and her Intended — scene of tenderness and passion.
“4. Quite fast. The Revivalist and his flock. Folksy feelings — suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers.
“5. Still faster. Solo dance of the Bride — presentiment of motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder.
“6. Very slowly (as at first). Transition scene to music reminiscent of the introduction.
“7. Calm and flowing. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer-husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme. The theme, sung by a solo clarinet, was taken from a collection of Shaker melodies compiled by Edward D. Andrews, and published under the title The Gift To Be Simple. The melody I borrowed and used almost literally, is called ‘Simple Gifts.’ It has this text:
’Tis the gift to be simple,
’Tis the gift to be free,
’Tis the gift to come down
Where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves
In the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley
Of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
’Til by turning, turning we come round right.
“8. Moderate. Coda. The Bride takes her place among her neighbors. At the end the couple are left ‘quiet and strong in their new house.’ Muted strings intone a hushed, prayer-like passage. The close is reminiscent of the opening music.”
Lincoln Portrait for Speaker and Orchestra
Composed in 1942.
Premiered in Cincinnati on May 14, 1942, conducted by André Kostelanetz; Carl Sandburg was the speaker.
Soon after the United States entered World War II, André Kostelanetz asked three American composers to write works that would convey “the magnificent spirit of our country.” He felt that “the greatness of a nation is expressed through its people, and those people who have achieved greatness are the logical subjects for a series of musical portraits. The qualities of courage, dignity, strength, simplicity and humor which are so characteristic of the American people are well represented in [our leaders].” Following Kostelanetz’s request, Virgil Thomson composed the Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia Waltzes and Jerome Kern the Portrait for Orchestra of Mark Twain. Aaron Copland was the third composer approached by Kostelanetz, and he provided the following information about the composition and nature of the Lincoln Portrait:
“It was in January 1942 that André Kostelanetz suggested the idea of my writing a musical portrait of a great American. He put teeth into the proposal by offering to commission such a piece and to play it extensively. My first thought was to do a portrait of Walt Whitman, the patron poet of all American composers. But when Mr. Kostelanetz explained that the series of portraits already included a literary figure, I was persuaded to change to a statesman. From that moment on the choice of Lincoln as my subject seemed inevitable.
“On discussing my choice with Virgil Thomson, he amiably pointed out that no composer could possibly hope to match in musical terms the stature of so eminent a figure as that of Lincoln. Of course, he was quite right. But the sitter himself might speak. With the voice of Lincoln to help me I was ready to risk the impossible.
“The letters and speeches of Lincoln supplied the text. It was a comparatively simple matter to choose a few excerpts that seemed particularly apposite to our [wartime] situation. I avoided the temptation to use only well-known passages, permitting myself the luxury of quoting only once from a world-famous speech. The order and arrangement of the selections are my own.
“The first sketches were made in February and the portrait finished on April 16, 1942. The orchestration was completed a few weeks later. I worked with musical materials of my own, with the exception of two songs of the period: the famous Camptown Races and a ballad that was first published in 1840 under the title of The Pesky Sarpent, but is better known today as Springfield Mountain. In neither case is the treatment a literal one. The tunes are used freely in the manner of my use of cowboy songs in Billy the Kid.
“The composition is roughly divided into three main sections. In the opening section, I wanted to suggest something of the mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln’s personality. Also, near the end of that section, something of his greatness and simplicity of spirit. [Springfield Mountain is the thematic basis of this portion.] The quick middle section briefly sketches in the background of the times during which he lived. [Fragments of Stephen Foster’s Camptown Races figure prominently in this passage.] This merges into the concluding section, where my sole purpose was to draw a simple but impressive frame around the words of Lincoln.”
©2012 Dr. Richard E. Rodda