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July 05 - Rhythm and Blues - Spirituals to Stravinsky
Music from the New World
Elizabeth de Lacey - Conductor
Spirituals for Soprano Solo and Chorus
Sarah Blood - Soprano
Dvorak - American Quartet 2nd Mvt
Morton Gould - Spirituals for Strings
Copland - Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra
Tom Whitestone - Clarinet
Stravinsky - Concerto in D for String Orchestra
Barber - Adagio for Strings
Programme Notes
The influence of Negro spirituals in the history of the music of the United States has been enormous and wide reaching, both in the music of serious American composers and in the world of jazz.
These familiar songs, which brim over with passion, despair, hope, and courage, have been handed down over the centuries, and are an extraordinary testament to the spirit of the African men and women who were taken to America by force to work as slaves. Forced also to adopt Christianity, the slaves became familiar with stories from the Bible, perhaps finding some kind of solace in their message of forgiveness and promise of salvation.
No less important, however, was the common practice of using biblical references metaphorically when in the presence of their owners and when planning escape routes to the north and to Canada. Thus the River Jordan signified the Ohio River, beyond which sanctuary might be found, and campground symbolised Canada.
The words to the song Deep River are a poignant illustration of this practice:
    Deep River, my home is over Jordan.
    Deep River, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
    Oh, don't you want to go to that Gospel Feast
    That Promised Land, where all is peace.
Virtually every possible human emotion is found in these songs, though seldom anger, bitterness or resentment. The song Lord, how come me here is a rare example of a naked outpouring of resentment against a cruel master.
The spiritual melodies are generally very simple, based, as is much world music on pentatonic scales, such as can be found by playing the black notes on a piano in succession. The practice of sliding from one note to another led to the blue note characteristic of blues. The songs were harmonised using the simple harmonies of Christian hymn tunes. Often songs would be created over an existing harmonic progression, which makes it possible (and fun!) to sing two or more spirituals at one and the same time.
Morton Gould uses exactly that device in his Spirituals for Strings . Gould (1913 - 1996) was a child prodigy who earned his living during the Depression by providing piano accompaniment in movie theatres. He was a brilliant improviser, arranger and orchestrater, but never truly succeeded in being accepted as a serious composer. As well as film scores, Gould composed six symphonies, concertos for piano, violin, and flute, and even a concerto for tap dancer and orchestra! In his own words, he had always been stimulated by the vernacular, by spirituals, jazz etc. His music was championed by the Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos in the mid fifties, but has been somewhat neglected since that time.
When the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904) was invited to become Director of the National Conservatory in New York in 1892, he tried to promote the idea that a national musical style could and should be evolved out of the spiritual melodies. His American Quartet and New World Symphony both borrow themes from spirituals, the American Quartet using the same melody which we have already heard in Lord, how come me here.
Interestingly, one of Dvorak's pupils, Rubin Goldmark, later became composition teacher to the American composer Aaron Copland (1900 - 1990). Copland always acknowledged the debt which he and others owed to folk music and especially to jazz ; the rhythmic life of the music of American composers is indubitably linked to Negroid sources of rhythm and a jazz element permeates almost everything he wrote. Copland also had a wonderful feeling for the great outdoors and his music often conjures up the wide-open spaces of America. His Clarinet Concerto was written for the jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman in 1948 and has only two movements linked by a cadenza. The first movement is one of the most romantic pieces Copland ever wrote, the theme originally having been conceived for a danced pas de deux.
The Russian born composer Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971) who was resident in the United States from his early thirties, singled Copland out from his generation of composers and especially praised the Clarinet Concerto for being distinctly American and having a very lovely pastoral lyricism. The Concerto in D for String Orchestra was Stravinsky's first composition after becoming a naturalised American citizen, though it was actually commissioned by the Basle Chamber Orchestra in Switzerland. It was written one year after his Ebony Concerto, composed for Woody Herman and his jazz band, and the entire work plays with the dissonance created when the major and minor third of a scale vie for position. It is of course this same use of both the major and minor third which contributes to the blues feel found in jazz.
Barber's Adagio for Strings scarcely needs an introduction; it is so well known. Samuel Barber (1910 - 1981) began composing at the age of seven. His twin passions were music and poetry. He tended towards a melancholy disposition. After winning the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1935, Barber extended his stay in Europe, renting a cottage in woods near Salzburg, where he wrote his String Quartet op 11. The slow movement, the Adagio, became so popular that the conductor Toscanini asked Barber to arrange it for string orchestra. It consists of a single, repeated, chant like theme, which rises and falls in an almost seamless flow, coming to a climax of huge intensity before being stated one last time, very simply but finally. This piece was the first by an American composer ever to be broadcast on NBC, and was played at the funerals of both President Roosevelt and President Kennedy. Barber demonstrated great courage in his efforts to launch the careers of the black singers Leontyne Price and Martina Arroyo, at a time when America was still segregated.
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