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Program Notes for Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Classics #03 - Gershwin/American Classics - November 2013
By Laurie Shulman ©2013
First North American Serial Rights Only
American classical music, like the United States itself, is comparatively young. After all,
the European western musical tradition extends back a thousand years to Gregorian chant.
Renaissance polyphony, the Baroque invention of opera and cantata, and the rise of the classical
symphony and concerto all preceded our Declaration of Independence.
Beginning with Dvořák’s New World Symphony and ‘American’ String Quartet,
indigenous American music influenced European masters, instead of the influence flowing in the
other direction. Eventually spirituals, minstrel music, and especially early jazz had a significant
impact on composers on both sides of the Atlantic. Our nation’s music began to assert some
individuality in the 19th century, then came into its own in the 20th century.
This weekend we celebrate music by four 20th-century American masters, each with his
own distinctive voice. Samuel Barber represents the strongest link to the European tradition,
with a concert overture and a modern-day descendant of the tone poem.
Conductor Benjamin Rous opens with Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal,
which was the composer’s graduation piece from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and his
first orchestral composition.
It takes its title from a comic masterpiece by the Irish-born
playwright Robert Brinsley Sheridan. Barber’s overture was not intended as incidental music, but
rather as an evocation of the play’s satirical spirit. From its shimmering opening chords, this
piece surges with energy, wit, and splendid orchestral color.
Barber’s growing mastery of the orchestra is apparent in the Second Essay for
Orchestra, a 1942 work that closes the first half of this program. Barber was well-read, welleducated, and well-traveled. His adoption of the unusual term “essay” for three of his orchestral
works offers insight into his thinking and his literary taste: he enjoyed reading the great 18thcentury essayists Michel de Montaigne and Alexander Pope well as contemporary authors such
as Aldous Huxley and E.B. White. The Second Essay is a well organized ternary structure
comprising an introduction, a fugue, and a chorale.
Keeping company with Barber on the first half are two short works by Charles Ives, an
American original who both embraced and bucked tradition. Though he was the son of a bandmaster and played the organ and piano himself, Ives went into the insurance business. He
became quite wealthy and pursued composition as a dilettante. His music confounded listeners
because of his wild experiments. These included polytonality, unorthodox scales and harmonies,
chord clusters, and distribution of performing forces throughout an auditorium rather than on a
The two Ives works we hear are representative of his adventuresome thinking. Country
Band March (ca.1902-03) is an affectionate send-up of the amateur bands Ives heard his father
conduct. A mish-mosh of Civil War anthems, popular tunes, and a Sousa march, it delivers four
minutes of raucous, good-natured chaos with intentional wrong notes and false entrances.
The Unanswered Question shows Ives in a more serious, contemplative mood. He also
attended revival meetings as a boy and had a thorough grounding in mysticism and the writings
of New England’s transcendentalist authors. Ives composed it as one of two Contemplations,
probably in 1906. It consists of layers of sound that appear to be unrelated: serene strings, a
quartet of flutes, and a lone trumpet placed either in the balcony or at the rear of the auditorium.
The spatial separation of the instrumental forces underscores the universal mystery that Ives is
pondering. The incongruous
dialogue intensifies as the woodwinds attempt to answer the
question, with increasing agitation.
Following intermission, we turn to two Americans who bridged the gap between popular
and classical more than anyone: Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin. Both of them wrote
successfully for Broadway, film, opera, and the concert hall – although Bernstein had extensive
formal classical training, while Gershwin started in Tin Pan Alley. Ultimately Bernstein had the
more global and diverse career; however, he lived into his seventies, whereas Gershwin’s life
was cut short by a brain tumor at 38.
Mr. Rous opens the second half with Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from On the
Town (1944) a musical with origins in the ballet score Fancy Free. Bernstein’s original score,
for the brilliant choreographer Jerome Robbins, dealt with three sailors on leave in wartime
Manhattan. The musical On the Town added lyrics and expanded the music to full-fledged
Broadway length. Bernstein’s fusion of jazz, dance numbers, popular song style, and symphonic
color is quite brilliant. Clearly he learned from Stravinsky, Copland, Gershwin, and others, but
in the final analysis these three episodes are pure Bernstein. And just try to resist tapping your
feet to “New York, New York,
it’s a helluva town”!
The program concludes with George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major, featuring
guest pianist Micah McLaurin. Gershwin is best known for Rhapsody in Blue, but many of his
other compositions have become American classics: An American in Paris, Porgy and Bess,
Cuban Overture, and plenty of immortal songs: “Embraceable You,” “The Man I Love,” “They
Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “I Got Rhythm” – the list is long.
The German conductor Walter Damrosch heard the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in
1924 and immediately arranged for the New York Symphony Society to commission a solo
concerto from Gershwin. His instinctive flair for jazz courses through this concerto. Although on
one level it conforms to the traditional three movements arranged fast-slow-fast, Gershwin was
thinking more along the lines of rhythm, blues, and more rhythm. His incorporation of the
Charleston contributes to the piece’s wonderful sense of time and place. With the Concerto in F,
Walter Damrosch observed, Gershwin “made a lady out of jazz.”
More extended notes by Laurie Shulman are available at
Overture to The School for Scandal
Samuel Barber
Born 9 March, 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania
Died 23 January, 1981 in New York City
Approximate duration 8 minutes
Barber is best known for the emotional and popular Adagio for Strings, which is actually
an arrangement of the slow movement to his string quartet. He has had a far greater impact on
American music, however, writing two important operas (including the Pulitzer Prize winning
Vanessa, 1958) and a large quantity of vocal music. Barber was a brilliant young talent who
proved his mastery of the orchestra early. In fact, the overture that opens this program was
composed when he was barely 22, as a graduation exercise from the Curtis Institute of Music in
Philadelphia. The Overture to The School for Scandal was also his first composition to be
performed by a major American orchestra: it was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra on 30
August, 1933.
The School for Scandal is a satire by Robert Brinsley Sheridan, an 18th-century Irish
playwright. Barber was among the most literate of composers, and a number of his instrumental
works reflect his interest in literature. In addition to this overture, his Opus 7 (1935) is Music for
a Scene from Shelley; and there are three Essays for Orchestra.
Most of Barber's music is conservative. This Overture is zesty and animated, with the kind
of orchestral brilliance that characterizes Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide. The music
has three principal ideas, two of which are rhythmically vibrant. The middle one is a lovely oboe
solo; this is the melody that most of us will remember when we leave this auditorium. All told, the
overture makes an impression of American verve and energy successfully combined with
European romanticism and tradition.
The score calls for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass
clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum,
cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, harp, celesta, and strings.
Country Band March
Charles Ives
Born 20 October 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut
Died 19 May 1954 in New York City
Approximate duration 4 minutes
One of America's first great composers, Charles Ives bucked society and its conventions
from his earliest years. Although he exhibited considerable musical talent as a boy, he
eventually pursued a career in insurance. He was a dilettante composer, thus economics played
virtually no factor in his musical activities. That choice was probably a wise one, for Ives's
unorthodox and daring music found little understanding and less success among contemporary
audiences. Ives lived into his late 70s, but he ceased composing after about 1930.
Ives’s father George was a trumpeter and bandmaster. Young Charlie grew up in rural
southwest Connecticut, surrounded by music. He heard dozens of amateur bands in rehearsal and
concert, and attended outdoor religious festivals called camp meetings with his family. He also
worked as a church organist from age 14, thereby thoroughly absorbing the Protestant hymn
repertoire. These diverse sources all found their way into his music.
After his graduation from Yale in 1898, Ives worked as a church organist for four years.
In 1902 he relinquished the church position in order to devote more time to composition. Those
four years from 1902 to 1906 (when he founded his insurance firm) were a period of
experimentation, during which he composed both the works on this weekend’s program.
Country Band March satirizes the pickup volunteer bands Ives heard as a boy. Ives knew
from experience that these rural ensembles didn’t always play with total accuracy; the important
thing was that everyone was having a good time. Thus we hear intentional ‘wrong’ entrances
with faulty rhythms, multiple tunes in the wrong key, even a saxophone adding two beats after
the rest of the orchestra has stopped.
The material is a mélange of college songs, band pieces, minstrel tunes, and excerpts
from theatre revues. Virtually everyone will recognize something in this march; astute listeners
will hear quotations from the Civil War anthems “Marching through Georgia” by Henry Clay
Work and “Battle Cry of Freedom” by George Frederick Root, as well as Stephen Foster’s
“Massa’s in de cold, cold ground” and John Philip Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” march. Ives
superimposes the tunes with comic intent; the effect is raucous and a little unhinged, as if all the
players were either beginners or a bit tipsy – or both.
Ives borrowed from Country Band March in three subsequent works: the ‘Putnam’s
Camp’ movement of Three Places in New England, the ‘Hawthorne’ movement of his Concord
Sonata for piano, and the second movement of his Symphony No.4.
The score calls for a theater-size orchestra comprising one flute (doubling piccolo), one
clarinet, one cornet, two trombones, saxophone, trap set, bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, piano,
and strings without violas.
The Unanswered Question
Charles Ives
Have you ever attended a dinner party where several conversations were going on at once
but no one seems to be listening to anyone else? The scenario for The Unanswered Question is
analogous. Charles Ives’s musical dialogue unfolds among three disparate groups: string
orchestra, solo trumpet, and a quartet of flutes.
The strings establish a serene mood, moving slowly and deliberately, unruffled by
interruptions. Trumpet asks the enigmatic question – seven times total, seeking a reply. The
flutes comment, starting out timid, then increasingly agitated and dissonant with each response.
Clearly their attempts to answer are unsatisfactory. At the end, trumpet asks once again, but now
there is no answer other than the strings, who have ignored the debate altogether.
The Unanswered Question is one of two Contemplations that Ives drafted, probably in
1906, as companion pieces of opposite character; the other developed into Central Park in the
Dark. Ives’s original title for this one was “A Contemplation of a Serious Matter, or The
Unanswered Perennial Question.” He also referred to the piece as ‘A Cosmic Sometime
Landscape’ and a ‘cosmic drama.’
This work was bold and revolutionary in its conception, with layers of seemingly
unrelated sound. Ives’s music is a bit like a mobile – three groups suspended in midair, not really
interacting, except that they do interact. Ives was interested in the spatial effects of instruments
placed either offstage or in the auditorium. He considered using two conductors.
When he revised The Unanswered Question in the 1930s, Ives added detailed
performance instructions. He referred to the string music as ‘the Silences of the Druids – who
Know, See and Hear Nothing.” Their timeless, static music, which opens and closes the work,
suggests eternity and the unanswerable mysteries of the universe.
The score calls for four flutes, one trumpet and strings. Many conductors substitute an
oboe and a clarinet for two of the flutes, for additional woodwind color.
Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17
Samuel Barber
The essay is a flexible literary term with origins in the Renaissance. It can be a critical
discussion, as in John Dryden's "Essay of Dramatic Poesy" (1668) or a philosophical treatise, as
John Locke's "An Essay Concernng Human Understanding," (1690), which posits the empirical
origin of ideas. Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man" (1734) is his best known poem, and the
great French moralist Michel de Montaigne's two volumes of Essais (1580 and 1588) ramble
across various topics affecting humans and human nature. Closer to our own time, Ralph Waldo
Emerson published two series of essays in 1841 and 1844, touching on history, love, manners,
politics and nature. We read brief essays almost daily on the editorial page of our newspapers,
and virtually all of us penned a few essays in English classes.
Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature defines an essay as:
An analytic, interpretative, or critical literary composition usually much shorter
and less systematic and formal than a dissertation or thesis and usually dealing
with its subject from a limited and often personal point of view.
By adopting this title for three of his musical compositions, the American composer Samuel
Barber seems to have indicated something about his principles of organization. His Essays for
orchestra (1937, 1942, and 1978) are tightly woven, with each successive musical idea growing
organically out of one that preceded it.
If we think of a symphony as a dissertation, a musical essay is more concise, offering a
range of ideas -- themes, rhythmic patterns, moods, orchestral textures -- in less time. The
analogy is not at all far-fetched. Barber was a highly literate composer whose interest in the
written word ranged from ancient Greek drama to poets of his own age. He was an avid and
intellectual reader who enjoyed the writings of 18th-century essayists as well as contemporary
authors such as Aldous Huxley and E.B. White. The powerful presence of literature in many of
his other compositions is consistent with his adaptation of the essay form for music.
Barber composed his Second Essay in 1942 at the request of Bruno Walter, who wanted a
new work for the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York. His first sketches date back
several years, however, and are contemporary with those for the Violin Concerto (1939). In fact,
those who know Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal (1933) may recognize similarities
of style and even some melodic resemblances to themes in the Second Essay. America had just
gone to war at the time Barber worked on this piece. He was keenly aware that he could be
called up for military service at any time. Years later, he said of the Second Essay, "Although it
has no program, one perhaps hears that it was written in war-time."
The piece divides into three principal sections.
It opens with a wistful series of
woodwind solos marked Andante, un poco mosso: first flute, then bass clarinet, English horn,
and oboe. Gradually the balance of the orchestra joins their dialogue, and Barber awards a richly
lyrical second theme to the violas. As the texture thickens, the tension rises. Barber's handling
of the orchestra is masterful, with wide leaps, unexpected accents and irregular rhythms taking
full advantage of the coloristic potential in his large orchestra. The second section, Molto
allegro ed energico is a fugue in 12/8 whose, chirping, chatterboxy subject is clearly derived
from the Second Essay's opening theme. Virtually every instrument in the orchestra, including
trumpets and timpani, has a solo opportunity. The final section, a chorale marked Piu tranquillo,
ma sempre muovendo, provides a noble and dignified close to the Second Essay.
The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets (second
doubling bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani,
cymbals, side drum, bass drum, tam-tam, and strings.
Three Dance Episodes from On the Town
Leonard Bernstein
Born 25 August, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts
Died 14 October, 1990 in New York City
Approximate duration 11 minutes
For those of us who grew up on the familiar tunes of West Side Story, it is difficult to
imagine a world in which Leonard Bernstein is not a household name. In the early 1940s,
however, he was not yet world famous. Bernstein enjoyed a reputation as a talented young
pianist and composer whose interests were leaning more and more toward conducting. Still, his
career showed tremendous promise: at age 25 he was assistant conductor of the New York
Philharmonic, and the exciting young choreographer Jerome Robbins had asked him to
collaborate on a wartime ballet entitled Fancy Free.
The ballet's plot concerns three sailors on shore leave in pursuit of the perfect girl -- in
this case, most likely, the first available attractive female. Bernstein's sophisticated, jazzy dance
score was a big success at its 1944 premiere. Oliver Smith, the set designer, recognized its
potential for the more commercial venue of Broadway. Bernstein worked with Smith, George
Abbott, Betty Comden and Adolph Green to develop the ballet into a full-fledged musical called
On the Town that opened in December 1944 and ran for nearly 500 performances. Purely escape
theatre, the upbeat, fun show was a natural for a nation weary of war and hungry for lighthearted
On the Town's music is more sophisticated than most other contemporary musicals. As
John Briggs has written:
Bernstein's lively, unself-consciously jazzy score was attuned to the rhythm and
tempo of the times. . . . The man who could employ jazz idioms for abstract
musical purposes could also use the devices of symphonic rhetoric to make a
theatrical point.
Nowhere is this gift more evident than in the three dance episodes from On the Town, where
Bernstein's instrumental gift has free rein. The city's vibrant pulse courses through this music,
bringing to life its diversity and humanity through three vignettes: The Great Lover, Lonely
Town: Pas de Deux, and Times Square, 1944. The last of the three was the finale of the
musical's first act.
The score calls for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), two clarinets
(one doubling E-flat clarinet; one doubling bass clarinet), two horns, three trumpets, three
trombones; alto saxophone, timpani, suspended cymbal, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, traps,
wood block and xylophone; piano and strings.
Piano Concerto in F
George Gershwin
Born 26 September, 1898 in Brooklyn, New York
Died 11 July, 1937 in Beverly Hills, California
Approximate duration 31 minutes
When Paul Whiteman’s band premiered George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1924,
the 26-year-old composer became an overnight sensation. Gershwin was already well known on
Tin Pan Alley and on Broadway. The Rhapsody expanded his musical empire to the concert hall,
and increased Gershwin’s fame and popularity.
The German conductor Walter Damrosch heard the premiere and was very impressed.
He was shrewd and farsighted, perceiving that Gershwin had something to offer to the classical,
long-hair world: a powerful draw at the box office. Damrosch had conducted the New York
Symphony Society since 1903. He approached its president, Harry Harkness Flagler, about
commissioning Gershwin to compose an orchestral work, convincing Flagler that the timing was
right to take full advantage of Gershwin’s surging popularity.
Gershwin accepted the commission, despite the fact that he lacked any experience writing
for symphony orchestra. He decided to cast himself as piano soloist, as he had in the Rhapsody.
He signed a contract with the New York Symphony in April 1925, agreeing to deliver the score
and parts one week before rehearsals started in December, and to perform seven concerts with
Damrosch’s orchestra.
In his first sketches, the work bore the title “New York Concerto,” but Gershwin had
changed to the more sedate “Concerto in F” by mid-July. The music was shaping up to be
anything but sedate. Gershwin’s basic layout conformed with a traditional concerto: three
movements in the order fast, slow, and faster.
The atmosphere, however, was not at all
traditional. Gershwin’s initial thoughts ran along the lines of : Part one, rhythm. Part two, blues.
Part three, more rhythm. With his instinctive flair for jazz and his thorough understanding of
popular culture, he caught the energy and optimism of the era, incorporating Charleston dance
rhythms and the blues of muted trumpet. He finished composing by September, and worked on
the orchestration — a more difficult task for him — throughout October and into November. The
score is dated November 10, 1925. The premiere took place on December 3, 1925 at New
York’s venerable Carnegie Hall.
The week before the first performance, Gershwin published an article about his new
concerto in the New York Herald - New York Tribune on November 25, 1925. He described it
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 motif given out by the kettledrums, supported by other percussion
instruments, and with a Charleston motif introduced by 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 to the same pace throughout.
Walter Damrosch liked to say that Gershwin had `made a lady out of jazz’ with this work. With
its syncopated rhythms and sensual melodies colored by blue notes, the concerto has clear links
to jazz. Gershwin bristled when it was labeled a “jazz concerto,” however. He was proud of his
orchestration, a newly-acquired skill for him, and of the links he made among the three
movements. The Concerto has remained an audience favorite for three quarters of a century.
With one foot in the classical camp and the other in the jazz halls of Harlem, this Gershwin
masterpiece is unique in the literature.
Gershwin scored his Piano Concerto for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes
(third doubling English horn, three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four
horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion battery, solo piano, and strings.