Sunday, November 14, 2021

Homecoming, Part 2: Two Bs – The Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio & Old Brahms

As our 40th Season continues, this Wednesday's 7:30 concert marks our Return to Market Square Church, following the long-delayed renovations (another casualty of the Pandemic). You can read the first of two posts about the program here.

While Wednesday's program with the Trio of clarinetist David Shifrin, cellist Peter Wiley, and pianist Anna Polonsky, opens with two sonatas by Johannes Brahms and concludes with Beethoven's Septet on the second half, I wanted to do them in reverse order here on the blog, starting in the previous post with a youthful work by Beethoven at the beginning of his career (though 29 might seem a bit of a late-bloomer by Mozartean standards) and, in this post, going behind the scenes with two works from the last years of Brahms' career (though his “retirement” from composing at the age of 57 may seem premature to us today), the 2nd Cello Sonata of 1886 and the 2nd Clarinet Sonata of 1894.

Brahms in 1890
Some of us might wonder “How old is Brahms” when we look at those photographs with that massive beard and consider his general curmudgeonly reputation. To answer the question, however, in 1890 Brahms was 57. Now, how many of you want to call him “Old Brahms”?  

But age is as much a state of mind and body as it is of chronology, and especially for a creative mind which, after years of hard work, may find the slightest doubts and insecurities catastrophic, the dreaded Writer's Block or a series of failures which undermine the once youthful confidence.

When we hear the Beethoven Septet, we are at the beginning of this spectrum: it is a long and difficult (and often heartbreaking) road between Beethoven's Op. 20 hit and the Late Quartets of only twenty-five years later. 

For Brahms, these two Clarinet Sonatas, written when he was 61, come 41 years after an exuberant young man with his long blonde hair and deep blue eyes, full of confidence and hope, first landed on the Schumanns' doorstep, a folder full of piano sonatas and string quartets under his arm. Schumann would call them "veiled symphonies" and crown him the Heir to Beethoven. Thus his confidence practically evaporated and for the rest of his life he was beset by doubts about ever being good enough to be Beethoven's heir.

In reading about Brahms' life, we don't have to wait long before we run across the word “autumnal” regarding the works of his last years. There's a certain wistfulness if not outright sadness, the sense of genius spent, about much of this music, or at least a movement within a larger work. Those “intermezzos,” which were never really scherzos before, now take on a more nostalgic shade and the emotion of his slow movements or of certain turns of phrase might bring to mind a sense of a looking back or summing up. 

By comparison, some of this "late" music may strike you at times as “less energetic” (but never “less vital”). It's not a weakening of the creative flow – though that is how many of his closest friends viewed some of these pieces (especially the 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto) – but is it the same kind of awareness, given the once vigorous and vibrant young man striding across the finale of his 1st Symphony, of a body now slowing down, more “moseying” than striding, a mind taking stock of itself?

It's difficult to listen to the opening of his Op.111 String Quintet (written in 1890) and think this man is old. Yet, when he sent it off to his publisher, he wrote, “With this letter you can bid farewell to my music, because it is certainly time to leave off...”

One can imagine what the cellist in that first performance must have thought, having to face this wall of sound from the other four string players. His name was Robert Hausmann and this was not his first encounter premiering a piece of Brahms'. As the cellist in Josef Joachim's famed quartet, based in Berlin, he was quite familiar with Brahms' chamber music. And when Joachim and Brahms, friends from their 20s, had finally reconciled after a bitter estrangement, Brahms composed not another violin concerto for his oldest friend, but a new kind of work in 1887, the Double Concerto with Hausmann's cello as equal partner to Joachim's violin.

Even before that, Brahms had been attracted by Hausmann's “sound.” In 1886, he'd written a new cello sonata for the man who was such an outspoken champion of his often neglected E Minor Cello Sonata from the mid-1860s. Not only would he be chosen for the Double Concerto's premiere, he was also involved in other new works from these years, most notably the Op. 111 String Quintet (1890) and the Clarinet Trio and then the Clarinet Quintet, both from 1891.

Robert Hausmann, Brahms, & Marie Fellinger (c.1889)

Marie Fellinger was a close friend of Brahms and an avid fan of photography. Among Frau Fellinger's photographs are some taken in the family music room with Brahms and the cellist Robert Hausmann. It was here they "tried out" the new 2nd Cello Sonata for some friends and quite likely where they read through Antonín Dvořák's recently completed Cello Concerto shortly after the composer returned from New York City in 1895. While the photograph is quite dark – the heavy draperies, the wallpaper, Frau Fellinger's dress, the ebony Streicher piano, even Hausmann's cello – you can make out the portrait on the prominently-placed easel. It was common to represent someone who couldn't be present or who had "recently departed" by placing their portrait within the frame. In this case, the absent friend is Clara Schumann, her portrait based on a London photograph taken in March, 1887.

Here is Brahms' pre-retirement Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op.99, in an exuberant performance with Jacqueline du Pre and Daniel Barenboim (as much as I would've loved to include the live performance video, the sound quality was poor, so in this case, we at least have the score...)

After the first run-through of the Double Concerto with the composer at the piano, playing it with Joachim and Hausmann for Clara Schumann, Brahms remarked “Now I know what has been missing from my life these past few years: the sound of Joachim's violin.”

With that sound back in his ear, Brahms began sketching a new violin concerto, but the public reaction to both the 4th Symphony and now the Double Concerto stifled him and so he destroyed it, along with sketches for not one but TWO additional symphonies, even a second Double Concerto – all consigned to the flames because of his insecurities. (The Op.111 Quintet, incidentally, is assumed to be created out of the ashes of one of those Fifth Symphonies.)

Even Clara Schumann, Brahms most loyal critic, didn't think the Double Concerto had much of a future. His good friend of thirty years, Theodor Billroth, a famous surgeon, had called it “sterile.” Brahms, feeling terribly old-fashioned, was beginning to think perhaps he'd written himself out.

After he had decided to retire from composing at the age of 57, Brahms was coaxed back to writing again by the sound of another musician who had captured his imagination: clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld for whom he wrote a trio and a quintet, both in 1891, and a few years later, created two clarinet sonatas for him as well.

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So, how did Brahms meet Mühlfeld?

In 1894, front row: Brahms (2nd from right) & Mühlfeld (far right); Hausmann (behind Brahms)

In March of 1891, Brahms was a few months shy of 58, and he'd gone to Meinigen in Germany where the local count had maintained a fine orchestra, one Brahms often used for “trying out” his new symphonies before taking them to the Viennese public. It was meant to be a good time, a holiday – honorary dinners with Brahms decked out in formal attire wearing all his medals and listening to the orchestra play his recent 4th Symphony, played so well, he asked them to play it again.

He also heard their principal clarinetist, a fellow named Richard Mühlfeld who arrived in Meinigen almost 20 years earlier as a violinist and for some reason, learned to play the clarinet, succeeding in three years’ time to become the orchestra’s principal clarinetist in addition to being the orchestra’s assistant conductor. In the 1880s, he also became the principal clarinetist at Wagner’s opera house in Bayreuth but remained for the duration of his playing career in Meinigen.

Now, Brahms listened to him play the quintet by Mozart and concertos by Weber and Spohr. They quickly became friends and Brahms sat around listening to him play for hours at a time. This wasn’t just a sense of discovering a talented musician – something that had drawn him to his life-long friend and collaborator Joachim or, more recently, to Hausmann. With Mühlfeld, it was the epiphany of also discovering an instrument.

He had not seriously considered the clarinet before, outside of its role in the orchestra. Suddenly hearing how Mühlfeld handled the instrument’s three different layers of sound, the registers that can sometimes be problematic in less proficient hands, he delighted in the nuances of sound Mühlfeld made, showing Brahms the clarinet could sing like a fine mezzo (and Brahms always enjoyed a fine singer’s voice) or how it could be shaded like an exceptionally played viola. He dubbed Mühlfeld “Fräulein Klarinette” for having seduced him with this mellifluous voice (as there had been so many fräuleins in Brahms' life before). 

The net result of this initial flirtation was the Trio in A Minor, written that summer for clarinet, cello and piano while Brahms was vacationing at Bad Ischl, a fashionable spa-town east of Salzburg popular with the Austrian Imperial Court.

Some reacted to this new trio which, by comparison to the Op.111 Quintet, sounds like a more austere affair, calling it a cello sonata with clarinet obbligato: perhaps, since he was just trying his fling with Fräulein Klarinette, he was still more aware of Herr Hausmann’s cello. This changed, however, with the work he immediately wrote next, finishing up this fruitful summer of his so-called retirement with the Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings which is all about the clarinet and makes one wish he had gone on to write a concerto for the instrument.

Brahms wrote to his old friend Clara Schumann, racked with pain and at times barely able to walk, inviting her to come to Berlin to hear the first public performances of both the Trio and the Quintet:

"To listen to the clarinet player would mark a red-letter day in your life. ...You would revel, and I hope that my music would not interfere with your pleasure."

Unfortunately, Clara was unable to make the performance, but it would seem to have been a suitable rounding-out any artist interested in the on-going breath of one's artistic existence would have basked in, nostalgic for the past but pleasant in the presence of friends.

The sonatas, then, were both composed in 1894, premiered in Vienna the following January by Mühlfeld and Brahms, and then published in June.

The opening of this second of the clarinet sonatas may certainly sound “autumnal,” but perhaps, given the circumstances, it's more of an Indian Summer? And what can be more wistful than this final set of variations (one of Brahms' most beloved forms) with which to say, again, farewell? At least, right up to the very end with its final, joyful, valedictory wave? There would be only two more pieces – the Four Serious Songs (Op.121) and a set of chorale preludes for the organ (Op.122) but these, yes, would be his last works.

In this performance, it's Karl Leister and David Levine.

As with Beethoven's Septet and the Trio arrangement, Brahms arranged these clarinet sonatas for viola and piano because, simply put, there weren't that many clarinetists out there to buy the scores, so violists everywhere have been eternally grateful to have something dropped in their laps out of an economic necessity. While they happen to sound as natural for the viola as they do for the clarinet, people can surmise they were originally for the viola, but that's historically not the case (nice try, though).

If you want to hear our guests performing Brahms' Clarinet Trio in A Minor from this collection of masterpieces inspired by Mühlfeld's sound, here they are in a performance recorded in 2019.

Brahms in 1897
One more image of Brahms, taken from a private read-through of these sonatas at the home of Clara Schumann before the premiere in 1895.

Clara's teenaged grandson Ferdinand was in awe of finally meeting the famous family friend. He thought Brahms was shorter and stouter than his photos – Brahms had just sent one to Clara taken with Johann Strauss the previous September, Strauss looking youthful and chipper beside Brahms looking considerably older though he was actually eight years younger than the Waltz King. Ferdinand was also fascinated by Brahms' mustache, gray on one side “and fiery red on the other.” 

Daughter Eugenie was astonished how “full of life the house seemed as soon as Brahms set foot in it,” no doubt recalling the Old Days when the 20-something Brahms had been a daily part of their family life. He regaled them with jokes and stories about an operation that Billroth had described to him, or telling them about Dvořák's new pieces, or how Joachim, who'd sleep like a log when they were touring together, was a terrible card player. They read through the clarinet sonatas with Mühlfeld, Clara turning pages, smiling. 

But one day, during this visit, he angrily complained “I have no friends! If anyone tells you he is my friend, don't believe him!” “But,” Eugenie countered, “friends are the best gift in the world. Why should you resent them?” 

He only stared back at her “with wide haunted eyes and said nothing.”

– Dick Strawser


Homecoming, Part 1: Two Bs – The Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio & Young Beethoven

The Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio

Another milestone for our 40th Anniversary Season: we're back home at Market Square Church (for newcomers, that's the big red-brick Presbyterian Church on Market Square in downtown Harrisburg) where the much-awaited and Covid-delayed renovation, another victim of the Pandemic, has been completed. Get ready to check out new pews, new floors, a lot of new stuff you won't immediately see, and the acoustics which you'll certainly be able to hear.

It's a program with music by Young Beethoven and Old Brahms – starting with two sonatas from the Twilight Years of Johannes Brahms, but ending with Beethoven's breakout hit, his youthful Septet (slightly reimagined). This post will give you some insights behind the Beethoven; behind Brahms and music inspired by two specific performers, read Part Two.

Our performers call themselves the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio, bringing together David Shifrin, one of our most acclaimed clarinetists and a former director of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center, Peter Wiley, a former cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio and the Guarneri Quartet, and pianist Anna Polonsky who has performed with major orchestras and ensembles around the world.

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With Beethoven's 251st Birthday still – officially – 30 days after our November concert, we can still claim this program with Beethoven's first Big Hit as part of a Beethoven 250th Anniversary Celebration.

Ludwig van Beethoven, arguably the best-known if not the greatest composer of classical music, was born – or at least baptized – on Dec. 16th, 1770, but somehow most of the world planned on celebrating that anniversary starting in January of 2020, just weeks after his 249th birthday (so much for being a purist...) until the Pandemic came along and pretty much changed everybody's plans, regardless of timing, about everything.

(For people who like to plan Big Anniversary Festivals, take heart: the 200th Anniversary of Beethoven's Death is only seven years away! And while “deathdays” don't seem as happy an occasion for celebration as a birthday, they offer us as much an opportunity for retrospective as a birthday anniversary. My suggestion has been, rather than performing even more Beethoven than usual (he is already the most performed composer in the world's entire repertoire), to include commissioning lots of new works by living composers, both aspiring and established, to celebrate the influence and inspiration of Beethoven and his legacy to move that celebration from retrospective into the future, but I digress...)

Last month, we heard the Arianna Quartet play Beethoven's very first completed string quartet which became the third of the set of six completed in 1800 as Op.18. He would turn 30 that next birthday (he was still 29 for most of that year!)

This concert, then, the Polonsky-Shifrin-Wiley Trio performs his Septet in E-flat, Op.20, a work published in 1802 but written between 1799 and 1800, and given its first performance in April of 1800.

So, astute reader, you're probably wondering how three people perform a work written for seven – and why?

Most of it has to do with economics and marketing – not that our performers didn't feel like hiring an addition five players and leaving Ms. Polonsky sitting in the wings (there's no piano part in the original Septet). And those economics and marketing are not ours but Beethoven's.

Scored originally for violin, viola, cello, and bass, plus horn, clarinet and bassoon, the work consists of six movements rather than the usual four we're used to with symphonies, string quartets, and most sonatas. In that sense, it's more of an old-fashioned Serenade. And it's a lot of music, some forty-plus minutes' worth of music, in all. The first movement, with its slow introduction (still standard in the very-late-1700s), is a substantial opening sonata-allegro movement, followed by a beautiful and equally substantial adagio. Then along comes this slight little minuet – and so far, isn't it really like a symphony's first three movements, and about twenty-one minutes or so. In the 1790s, Haydn's half-hour-long symphonies for London were considered rather long for the audience's attention-span, so the idea of a dance and then a lively finale helped offset the longer, more complex opening two movements.

So here, all Beethoven would have to do is add a finale, and there you'd have something symphony-like – a multi-movement, large scale work for a “chamber orchestra of strings and winds” (basically, given the mindset toward what was then considered “orchestral” music before these gigantic orchestras filling these gigantic concert halls with 75-100 musicians we're used to today).

But no, Beethoven adds another slow-ish movement, a set of variations in a “walking” tempo (andante), a second dance-movement (a scherzo, livelier than a minuet), and then, after another slow-ish introduction (marked alla marcia or “march-like”) with a Mozart-infused Presto complete with a violin cadenza (like a concerto). And, voilá, you have a forty-some minute piece.

Its performance was well received – Beethoven, quite pleased, proudly exclaimed, according to a friend who was there, “that is my own creation,” as if he couldn't believe he'd written it (or he'd written that much music, or that it was that well received). During his lifetime, it would become his most frequently performed piece. But there was one movement that caught the popular fantasy even more keenly. If you've never heard the entire Septet before or even heard of it, you'd probably smile in recognition when you hear this:

Perhaps not as famous as Beethoven's immortal, belovéd Minuet in G that would haunt him the rest of his life, but still so prevalent as to be annoying when, after all, he did write other things...

So, as you listen to this voluminous work, remember you're listening to Beethoven, recently a student of the great Franz Josef Haydn, always a fan of the late Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who was really his primary model), and not yet the great titan of his 5th and 9th Symphonies, or the esoteric tortured soul who produced those Late Quartets never equaled by anyone since.

When the Young Beethoven was working on this, a piece geared for popular appeal, he was also writing his first String Quartets (Op.18) and a few piano sonatas (the famous Pathetique was written the year before and the more famous Moonlight, the year after).

And remember what I'd said about audience attention spans and Haydn symphonies?

The premiere of the Septet on April 2nd, 1800, was part of that first major concert Beethoven, recently acclaimed as a major piano virtuoso, gave in Vienna to prove himself now as a composer and the program, not terribly specific by modern standards, included, along with a “grand symphony by the late Kapellmeister Mozart,” some arias from Haydn's recently premiered oratorio, The Creation, one of Beethoven's first two piano concertos (probably the C Major) and, before his “new Grand Symphony” (that would be No. 1 in C Major) fresh off the rack, Beethoven improvised at the piano (in those days, pianists who could successfully improvise were considered greater than a pianist who merely performed a printed work).

If that wasn't long enough already, in the middle of all this was this new Septet of his – a forty-minute work in between two symphonies and a piano concerto, not to mention an improvisation which could easily have gone on for quite some time itself. Attention spans may have been one thing but it gives rise to the thought perhaps “Binge-Watching” TV shows is not a recent phenomenon.

Alas, the one printed review spent more time talking about (as they still do today) the performance (not the best) than the music (the symphony made too much use of the winds) with only passing praise for the concerto and the septet. However, the audience response was very keen and the Septet went on to become Beethoven's most frequently performed work during his lifetime. In fact, the Minuet became so popular, Beethoven later regarded the Septet with annoyance: like many young composers, as Jan Swafford points out in his epic biography from 2014, Beethoven – Anguish and Triumph, Beethoven had to suffer when compared to great masters like Haydn and Mozart; in his later years, his newest, more mature and far more challenging works “had to endure unfavorable comparisons to his younger self.”

The Septet was not meant to challenge. Geared to be readily accessible to both audiences and performers alike, particularly accessible to talented amateurs which were a composer's bread-and-butter, the sale of scores-and-parts to be used in household performances. Circulating by hand-copied manuscripts before it was published, once available to the public en masse there were numerous arrangements for other combinations so that other amateurs, those who perhaps could not muster the seven required, might enjoy themselves with this delightful, often toe-tapping music. Before the days of copyright, others made arrangements of the piece (or of movements, especially the Minuet) for piano (both two- and four-hands), for string quartet (many households could support a quartet: even Schubert's family had it's own quartet, where his father played the cello, his two brothers played the violins and he, by default, the viola), even for guitar duet – and especially for those aristocrats who kept a “wind band” (think those arrangements of Mozart's opera tunes for wind octet) so such a long piece of music became more palatable when accompanying a lavish dinner to entertain the guests with something popular, pretty, and practical!

Beethoven (in 1803)
In 1802, there was an exchange about such arrangements between Beethoven, his younger brother Caspar Carl (father of the ill-fated nephew who would also haunt Beethoven's later years) who was at the time acting as the composer's agent with various publishers. Carl had offered one publisher the possibility Beethoven would arrange the entire septet for piano solo which the publisher declined. When Ludwig got wind of this, he wrote to the publisher agreeing with his decision: he complained of this “unnatural rage” for transplanting piano pieces to strings, “instruments so utterly opposite each other,” which “should come to an end,” something that only a Mozart or a Haydn could do with their own music.

Fast forward (slightly) to the following year, and Beethoven published his own arrangement of his own Septet for piano trio, allowing for the option of either a violin or a clarinet to play the “top” part. It was dedicated to his new doctor, Johann Adam Schmidt – by this time, Beethoven was already seeking treatment for his incipient deafness (oh yeah, while the Septet dates from 1800, the heart-rending Heiligenstadt Testament in which he admits to fears he will soon become totally deaf and wonders what will become of a composer, only 31 years old, who cannot hear: that was dated October 6th, 1802!). Dr. Schmidt was also an avid amateur violinist with an amateur pianist for a daughter. What the personal inclusion of the clarinet was here, I'm not sure, except – again, think of Mozart's works for the clarinet written for his friend Anton Stadler, around 1790, the Kegelstatt Trio, the famous quintet, and the great Clarinet Concerto of his last year, 1791 – there were good amateur clarinetists around looking for things to play but not enough to warrant the kind of sales would-be violinists would offer.

Besides, one of the charms of this septet is the way Beethoven plays the clarinet off the violin as an equal. But he didn't just write out the clarinet and cello parts and adapt everything else to the freshly added piano: it's a transcription of the music to suit the instruments involved, which you can tell by comparing two of the videos below complete with scores.

Curiously, later on Beethoven's student, the long-suffering Ferdinand Ries, admitted some of his duties (no doubt proffered as a learning experience) involved arranging some of Beethoven's works for other combinations under the composer's supervision. Beethoven would make revisions as needed, but then these works would be offered to various publishers by Brother Carl as “arrangements by Beethoven.” Perhaps this trio version of the septet was one such project.

Regardless, it was Beethoven's music, he “approved” the transplant, and he profited from its sales. It was often not a creative decision by a musical genius feeling “you know, I think this would make a wonderful piano trio!”, but an economic decision and a way of paying his doctor a compliment.

Whatever its origins, however, what fun to listen to – and no doubt to play! 

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I know listening to three videos of the full Septet is a bit much to expect, so pick which ever you want to view – the trio version, since that's the one you'll be hearing Wednesday night; or a bit of each score version to compare the two; or just the original Septet version in a live performance (with something people who can't read music might find a better experience) and imagine what Beethoven (or Student Ries) could have done with this delightful music to turn it into Music for Three when you attend the concert.

This performance of the original Septet was recorded at a Dutch music festival in 2011 with violinist Janine Jansons and one of the most acclaimed clarinetists in Europe today, Martin Fröst:

This next performance, from 1977 with the Vienna Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, includes the score:  (remember, if you want to read this in a larger screen, there's a “full screen” icon, the little square box, in the video's lower right corner)

Here is the complete Trio (with Clarinet) Version, with score, keeping in mind the top two lines are one part, one for the violin, the second one for the clarinet: The performers are clarinetist Ronald van Spaendonck, cellist Marie Hallynck, and pianist Muhiddin Dürrüoglu.

If you would like to hear our performers for this up-coming concert – and who wouldn't? – play the other Beethoven Clarinet Trio (originally for Clarinet but also available in Violin if you'd prefer), here they are with the earlier Trio, Op.11 from 1798. Several sources indicate this work has “nothing substantial to recommend it” compared to the more technically and intellectually challenging Piano Trios, Op.1, published in 1795. But aside from also being fun to play and listen to, doesn't the fact he wrote it a year before he included a clarinet so prominently in his Septet count for something? If nothing else, here is the future superhero, Beethoven the Titan, practicing his popular appeal, a very important skill for a young composer going up against the likes of the already famous Mozart and Haydn hoping to find some recognition.

And now, on to Brahms!

– Dick Strawser

Friday, October 1, 2021

Back to the Concerts: The Arianna Quartet Begins the New Season

The Arianna Quartet (photo credit: Justin Lee)

Who: The Arianna Quartet

What: Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 18, No. 3; Gabriela Lena Frank's Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout; and Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Minor

When: Wednesday, Oct. 6th, at 7:30

Where: Whitaker Center's Sunoco Performance Theater in downtown Harrisburg.

As we begin Market Square Concerts' 40th Anniversary Season opening with a work celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Beethoven's Birth, let's hear a little bit about the ensemble presenting Wednesday's opening concert at Whitaker Center: the Arianna Quartet.

(As often happens, there has been a personnel change between the appearance of this 2010 video and our 2021 concert.)

Certainly, the list of events, of things, of whatever we might consider normal life that were not affected by the Pandemic is far smaller than the list of what was affected by it. Those of us involved in the Arts, whether performers, concert-goers (and -presenters) as well as music-lovers-in-general, might consider the impact of the virus catastrophic in this one area among so many others affecting us all. 

Which reminds me, as the Pandemic continues to continue, "Mask wearing is required to attend this performance regardless of the vaccination status." Thank you.

But another casualty added to the list would be the celebration (or at least the observation) of the 250th Anniversary of the Birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. While we still have ten weeks until we observe his 251st birthday on December 16th, 2021, let's consider this performance at least a token of that anniversary event, no doubt one of the most influential composers in the history of Classical Music if not one of its greatest and most popular composers. (Incidentally, our November concert will also include Beethoven's own trio arrangement of his break-out hit, theSeptet Op.20, written concurrently with this string quartet.)

I don't think the typical concert-goer needs a lot of background on Beethoven. Yet I feel remiss, in this Anniversary Year (or what's left of it), not to write reams of material even if it's already been pored over so thoroughly in everything from my own past blog posts to the 1,000-page biography Jan Swafford published in 2014 appropriately subtitle “Anguish and Triumph.” 

Beethoven (portrait dated 1801)
You can read about the Young Beethoven in this previous post, how an “emerging composer” arrived in Vienna hoping to have studied with Mozart but, following Mozart's death the year before, was able to study with Haydn instead. It may seem it took him a long time to develop into the composer of the Early Quartets if they weren't ready until 1801, Beethoven just turning thirty. By our usual perceptions, he was a bit of a late-bloomer (Mozart, after all, wrote The Marriage of Figaro at 30, the 492nd work in Köchel's catalogue).

And while there's a lot to cover in the evolution of his style, “early” or not, Beethoven's first six quartets, written as a set, are not “imitations of Haydn.” To a contemporary listener, these would've been a world away from what Haydn had composed (if anything, they grow more out of what Mozart had been writing). It's only in hindsight, after the “Razumovsky” Quartets and especially the Late Quartets of the 1820s, not to mention everything from the Eroica Symphony on, that makes us today consider them “Haydn-like.” Influenced by, certainly; imitations of, no.

Mozart made giant strides in his own approach to the quartet with the six he'd composed in honor of his friend Haydn, and the quartets he wrote after them advance the medium even further. Yes, Beethoven may have inherited much from the hands of Haydn after all, Haydn set the pace for the Classical Style but his tenuous relationship with his teacher aside, most of what we identify as “Beethoven's Voice” probably had been received from the heart of Mozart.

The quartet on this program, the Quartet in D Major, Op. 18 No. 3 – which is actually the first of the six to be composed (he revised the order for publication) and completed when he was 29 – is certainly the most “genial” and lyrical of the set. Two things are important to note with these quartets, however: the awareness of harmony and structure in the long run is more involved that it might be in Haydn (not that Haydn wasn't harmonically imaginative!); and already, Beethoven is beginning to shift the “center of gravity” toward the end of a work, something Mozart had already been doing in his last two symphonies and which Beethoven would certainly have achieved with the finales of his 3rd, 5th, and 9th Symphonies.

Here is a recording with the Endellion Quartet playing the D Major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 3, complete with score. It's in the usual four movements: after the contemplative, even leisurely opening, the slow movement, with its hymn-like simplicity that in a lesser hand could easily have become “pedestrian and commonplace,” begins at 7:27; the third movement, marked neither “minuet” nor the new-fangled “scherzo,” just Allegro, at 14:52; and the finale, which bears influences from Haydn's recent Clock and Military Symphonies, the most “classical” of the quartet, at 17:49.


While we think of these quartets as “Classical School,” in the style of the 18th Century with Haydn and Mozart, we tend to forget piano sonatas like the Pathetique, the Moonlight and the Pastoral sonatas, all sounding essentially Romantic in mood and spirit (setting the tone for 19th Century Romanticism), were composed in 1798 (when he began the quartets) and in 1801 (when he finished the quartets), with the Tempest, the Waldstein, and the Appassionata published between 1802 and 1805. (Keep in mind, while Beethoven implied Shakespeare's Tempest as an inspiration for the first movement of the D Minor Sonata, he didn't give it the subtitle; and Moonlight was supplied five years later by a German critic.) 

It's always difficult to “pigeon-hole” Beethoven as either a Classical or a Romantic composer, as if he couldn't be both (which in fact he most often was): even in these early quartets, one hears the focus on craft (which is Classical logic) and the beginnings of those emotional bounds (perhaps less so in No. 3) he was already exploring in his piano sonatas. As a first quartet in the shadow of Haydn, it shouldn't be surprising to be the most classical of the set, as well. Soon, Beethoven would branch out on a "new path," as he wrote to a friend, and every journey starts somewhere.

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Gabriela Lena Frank
The term “diversity” is bandied about a great deal these days – and justifiably so: the enrichment of our culture, beyond the general society and work-place issues we associate with it, by examining and accepting elements outside our traditional comfort-zones is an on-going, rewarding process. In the past, music-lovers had difficulties with, for one, Dvořák incorporating Bohemian (which to the Viennese was basically the same as “back-woods”) folk-music into his concert works, or for that matter any of the other late-19th Century's “nationalist” identities in Russia, Hungary or Norway, rather than imitating the status-quo of Germanic traditions.

And so, composer Gabriela Lena Frank, born in Berkeley, California, in 1972 at a time when she might have been identified as a “woman composer” (while no one would ever think to call Beethoven a “man composer”), is herself the product of cross-cultural influences, given her father's Lithuanian Jewish roots, born in the Bronx, and her mother, born in Peru of Chinese descent. They met while her father was in the Peace Corps in Peru during the 1960s.

While Frank's best known work might be her “Three Latin American Dances” of 2003 – which the Harrisburg Symphony performs at their opening concert this weekend – the piece we'll hear on the Arianna Quartet's program is called Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, written in 2001 when she was 29, originally for string quartet but also available for string orchestra in an adaptation she made two years later. With such an extensive note from the composer about her piece, why try writing something else about it? So, here is the composer in her own words:

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Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout (2001) mixes elements from the western classical and Andean folk music traditions, drawing inspiration from the idea of mestizaje as envisioned by the Peruvian writer Jose María Arguedas, wherein cultures co-exist without the subjugation of one by the other.

"Toyos" depicts one of the most recognizable instruments of the Andes, the panpipe. The largest kind is the breathy toyo, which requires great stamina and lungpower and is typically played in parallel fourths.

"Tarqueada" is a forceful and fast number suggestive of the tarka, a heavy wooden duct flute that is blown harshly in order to split the tone. Tarka ensembles typically play in casually tuned fourths, fifths, and octaves.

"Himno de Zampoñas" takes its cue from a particular type of panpipe ensemble that divides up melodies through a technique known as hocketing. The characteristic sound of the zampoña panpipe is that of a fundamental tone blown flatly so that overtones ring out on top.

"Chasqui" depicts the chasqui, a legendary runner from the Inca times who sprinted great distances to deliver messages between towns separated from one another by the Andean peaks. The chasqui needed to travel light, so I imagine his choice of instruments to be the charango, a high-pitched cousin of the guitar, and the lightweight bamboo quena flute, both of which influence this movement.

"Canto de Velorio" portrays another well-known Andean personality, a professional crying woman known as llorona. Hired to render funeral rituals (known as velorio) even sadder, the llorona is accompanied here by a second llorona and an additional chorus of mourning women (coro de mujeres). The chant Dies Irae is quoted as a reflection of the llorona's penchant for blending verses from Quechua Indian folklore and western religious rites.

"Coqueteos" is a flirtatious love song sung by men known as romanceros and is direct in its harmonic expression, bold, and festive. The romanceros sang in harmony with one another against a backdrop of guitars, which I think of as a vendaval de guitarras (storm of guitars).”

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As is often the case with on-line videos, the combination of a good performance with a decent recording is often challenging. Unable to find one of the complete string quartet version, here are the last three movements (in separate videos) with a recording by the Del Sol Quartet:

4th movement, “Chasqui” 5th movement, “Canto de Velorio” 6th movement, “Coqueteos”

One could say she came to music late. Her childhood piano teacher often urged her to create little pieces (improvisations, mostly) combining things she was working on with folk music and especially Andean elements courtesy of her mother's background. Interested in pursuing Russian studies in college (growing up during the final years of the Soviet Union), she attended a music camp her senior year in high school which opened up a whole new musical world (especially for a young woman born with profound hearing loss). “I had written my first piece down on paper,” she said, “and heard it come to life at the hands of other kids my age and younger, and I was hooked, instantly. Instantly.”

So instead, she studied composition at Rice University in Houston, then earned her doctorate at the University of Michigan in 2001. She considers herself something of a “musical anthropologist.” In a 2017 interview, she said the Andean influence “changes just because it has to mix and blend with my psyche, which was formed here, was formed in the United States. I’ve spent most of my time here, in my home country. For me, again, I feel like that’s very American. We bring in a lot of cultures, eat it up and make it into something new. We’ve been doing that for centuries.”

In 2017, she founded her own school to promote emerging composers' opportunities to work with established performers. Last year, she received the 25th Annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities for her work “weaving Latin American influences into classical constructs and breaking gender, disability and cultural barriers in classical music composition.”

Last year, the New York Times wrote extensively about her, what it was like when she was first able to hear with the help of hearing aids, and especially about her non-traditional approach to her school in northern California where the schedule might include few musical events but lots of nature hikes and discussions.

“We get rid of the shame of wrong notes,” she said. “We make good food and I say, ‘You get to make mistakes here.’”

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Tchaikovsky (1874)
When Tchaikovsky was an aspiring music student (yet another "emerging composer") in the wilds of remote Russia – remote as far as the cultural capitals of Western Europe were concerned where all the action was in the first half of the 19th Century (Vienna, Paris, perhaps Berlin) – the influence of someone like Beethoven was marginal. A few knew about him, some dilettantes (music-lovers if not musicians themselves) owned scores of a few of his works. The story goes that when Tchaikovsky began his 1st Symphony when he was 26, he not only had never heard a Beethoven Symphony, he didn't even know how many he'd written. After all, the Giant Whose Tread Terrified Johannes Brahms' 1st Symphony had died only 39 years earlier (if this were counted from Today, that would be like 1982: how long ago was that?) and Brahms' symphony wouldn't see the light of day until another 10 years had passed.

The String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Minor, Op.30, written when he was 35, may or may not bear much resemblance to the quartets of Beethoven – curiously, the first three of Beethoven's Late Quartets owe themselves to a commission from a Russian Prince, Nikolai Galitsin (alas, soon to be bankrupt). 

Tchaikovsky's work is in the standard four movements, though between conception and publication, he shifted the order of the two interior movements, placing the intense slow movement third. This is an Andante funebre that, much like the Andante cantabile of the 1st Quartet, became popular (at least momentarily) on its own. Conceived as a tribute to a colleague, the violin teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, Ferdinand Laub, it was played several times independently of the quartet within months of its premiere. 

Given the simplicity of the material at the opening of the finale opening with a burst E-flat Major jubilation, Tchaikovsky wrote to Mme von Meck in July, 1878, about some themes he liked, simple and based on scales, others simply triadic: “could there be anything more banal,” he wrote, “than the following melody?” He then wrote out the opening of the Finale from Beethoven's 7th Symphony. “And yet what splendid musical structures Beethoven... raised on [this] theme!”

Here is a video with a performance by the Borodin Quartet of Tchaikovsky's 3rd, complete with score. The scherzo, a light intermezzo, begins at 15:44; the Andante funebre, the heart of the quartet, at 19:26; and the finale, at 30:26.

When Tchaikovsky got his first job as a music teacher in Moscow, amidst the chaos to finish his schooling before graduation and then moving from the vibrant St. Petersburg, Russia's Imperial capital, to the stolid old capital of Moscow, one of the first works he completed was a string quartet, one in B-flat Major. Part of the chaos he was experiencing not only involved the move, finding a place to live (a place he could afford on his less-than-meager salary), but also adjusting to the idea of being a teacher. When Nikolai Rubinstein decided to open a branch school in Moscow, his first choice for Professor of Theory turned down the offer to move to the more provincial Moscow, so there weren't many others to choose from. In fact, apparently, there was no one. And so Tchaikovsky, with only a few years of musical training and barely one step ahead of his new students, got the job, not the first time someone with no experience started teaching, but one he had only dreamed of a few years earlier when he quit an unpromising career in law to focus on his dream: becoming a composer.

He'd been 19 when he graduated Law School and started life as a low-ranked civil servant at the Ministry of Justice. Two years later, he began attending music theory classes through a Music Society that didn't exist when he'd graduated, but became the foundation for the conservatory Anton Rubinstein (Nikolai's older, more famous brother) opened a year later. Tchaikovsky, ex-civil-servant, graduated with the Class of '65, the first graduating class of any music school in the Russian Empire.

Russia had a long history of just importing “foreign talent” when it needed them: St. Petersburg was designed primarily by Italian architects and with them came musicians who wrote very Italianate music trying to make sense out of what they considered a very crude language. There is nothing Russian about the music these “temporary immigrants” composed for the Russian court. When Catherine the Great decided Russians needed to expand their intellectual horizons, it was her friends Voltaire and Diderot who supplied the sources: by 1812, when Napoleon and the French invaded Russia, very few Russian aristocrats could speak Russian – their first language was French and politically this became a liability.

Music was never anything more than an entertainment and with no professional reason to become a musician, Russia was a nation of dilettantes. Even its first recognized composer, Mikhail Glinka, dubbed the “Father of Russian Music” because somebody had to be first, was primarily an amateur and even studied with a theory teacher in Berlin through a correspondence course (the second recognized composer, the now-forgotten Dargomizhsky, essentially learned composition by borrowing Glinka's notes). Other than private teachers for different instruments, there were no organized schools and no interest in teaching aspiring would-be composers like Tchaikovsky how to compose.

Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky may have taken piano lessons at the age of 5 and may have been considered precocious, but even his piano teacher saw no reason to encourage the 15-year-old boy who showed no signs of brilliance to become a concert pianist much less a composer. But that was his dream. So he went to law school (which is what most young men in Russia – and Europe – who wanted to get ahead in the real world, did): even in those days, it was felt any musician needed a day-job.

With the advent of the more liberal-minded Alexander II, there was finally some interest in the late-1850s to generate “native talent” rather than always relying on “imported talent.” And so, with the help of a music-loving Grand Duchess (who herself, like Catherine the Great, was German-born), Rubinstein's Musical Society came into being. And with that, Tchaikovsky found a foothold to realize his dream. Not that anyone held out much hope for him at the time.

One of the first works he composed after accepting the position in Moscow was this B-flat Major String Quartet. It was performed, then three of its movements disappeared, whether the composer destroyed them or they were just lost (it appears occasionally on lists as “No. 4” but it's really the first one he tried to compose). Shortly after that, Anton Rubinstein commissioned him to write a setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy for the graduation concert which Tchaikovsky, a bundle of nerves, declined to attend. One assumes the cosmopolitan Rubinstein knew Beethoven's setting of it in his 9th Symphony, but did Tchaikovsky? It was around this time a dance of his was performed in a public concert conducted by none other than Johann Strauss II, the world-famous Waltz King. The young man felt it would be a big break. Despite the uncertainty of his future – especially the near-poverty wages he'd be looking at in Moscow – things must've seemed hopeful. His friend and fellow-graduate (and soon to be colleague), Herman Laroche wrote to him as he arrived in Moscow, “in you I see the greatest – or rather the sole – hope of our musical future... not so much for what you've done but what the force and vitality of your genius will one day accomplish.”

Thinking primarily about Tchaikovsky's official three quartets, the first one he completed and published, then, the D Major, Op.11, with its famous Andante cantabile, didn't appear until early 1871. A second quartet, in F Major, came out three years later, his Op.22. He considered it (to date) his finest creation in a letter to his mysterious friend, Nadezhda von Meck – but that story is another novel in itself.

Two years after that, then, he wrote his 3rd Quartet in 1876, the same year Brahms finally completed his first Beethoven-haunted Symphony. Quickly composed in February, it was premiered in early-March; the cellist in the quartet would premiere the Variations on a Rococo Theme the next year. Incidentally, he had finished his 1st Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor the year before the quartet. So certainly, only nine years after his arrival in Moscow, Laroche's words were coming true.

The composer, fresh off the disappointments from his 3rd Symphony, the so-called “Polish” Symphony, wrote to his brother Modeste he had started sketching it in Paris but worked on it more seriously once he returned so he could then focus his attention on a new commission already underway, a ballet called Swan Lake. By the way, when he accepted that Moscow teaching post, his salary was 50 rubles a month (even less than he'd been making as a low-ranked civil servant fresh out of school): the commission for the ballet would pay him 800 rubles.

Tchaikovsky & his wife
Other things going on his life at the time included his disastrous marriage to the much maligned Antonina Miliukhova, a former student who had a crush on him and sent him a love-letter much like the heroine of the opera, Evgenny Onyegin, he was composing at the time. He proposed in June, they were married in July, 1877, and he attempted to commit suicide by drowning himself in the Moscow River not long afterward (sources indicate this may be more myth than fact – he had certainly threatened to do it). Clearly he was in a state of great mental distress. The marriage had been an ill-conceived attempt to squelch rumors of his homosexuality: the personification of his wife, however briefly they were together, as a “reptile” (perhaps more family damage-control) is not entirely fair. Whatever her failings as a wife suitable for an artistic temperament like Tchaikovsky's aside, it wasn't that she was “the wrong woman” for him: marriage, as one writer put it, was the “wrong institution.”

Anyway, that – with the 4th Symphony and the Violin Concerto written shortly afterward – comes later in Tchaikovsky's story, in the immediate aftermath of his 3rd Quartet. He recovered by leaving Russia (and his wife) behind at least for a while, touring through Western Europe, taking his 3rd Symphony and the new quartet with him, various performances adding to his success (he was saddened his Romeo & Juliet Overture was hissed in Vienna and Paris). But it was with the works written in the violent wake of this marriage, shortly after the quartet, that would seal Tchaikovsky's role as an internationally acclaimed Russian composer. 

And so we think back, listening to this piece, to a man in his mid-30s facing middle age, worried he was “writing himself out” after the failure of his 3rd Symphony, who would not long afterward, recalling his friend Laroche's words, finally realize his dream.

Dick Strawser

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Harlem Quartet Comes to Harrisburg with Music by "Composers of Color"

The third and final program of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2021 is Tuesday evening at 7:30, once again at St. Michael Lutheran on the 1st block of State Street. Depending on what downtown traffic has to challenge us with this time, you might consider arriving a little earlier than you'd usually plan. There is parking along State Street and in two small lots behind the church.  

We are committed to the safety of our audience, our musicians and our community, so we will continue to closely monitor CDC guidelines and will adjust our safety protocols in response to any changes. Presently, we respectfully ask those audience members who have not been vaccinated to wear a mask.

The Harlem Quartet, Four on a Couch
The Harlem Quartet began as a group of four promising young musicians chosen by the Sphinx Organization in 2006 and placed into a training program to nurture future string quartets. If you're not aware what the Sphinx Organization does, watch this:

While there have been years of training and “apprenticeship” as a young quartet, complete with growing pains and personnel changes, the Harlem Quartet has always been passionate about the role of education, especially bringing their attention and inspiration to students in underserved communities around the country, because they know great musicians – the future of Classical Music, whether they become performers on the national or local stages, teachers in our communities, or music-lovers in our audiences – have to start somewhere.

Great Music always has something universal to say that transcends traditional ideas of nationality and ethnicity. And just as our performing organizations need to benefit from a greater awareness of diversity, so should our concert programs. The Harlem Quartet regularly performs the standard repertoire, but in this instance offers a program called simply “Composers of Color,” featuring two of the leading African-American composers of the 20th Century, William Grant Still and George Walker, both of whom gathered a lot of “firsts” in the course of their careers; music by jazz greats “Dizzy” Gillespie, Billy Strayhorn and Wynton Marsalis; and two African-American women making names for themselves today, Jessie Montgomery and Tomeka Reid.

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William Grant Still, 1936
Fittingly, the program opens with one of some 200 works by a composer often referred to as “The Dean of African-American Composers,” William Grant Still. He grew up in Little Rock, AK, still a toddler around the time Florence Price, whose 1st String Quartet opened the Jasper Quartet's program last week, had gone to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory. Still's stepfather had taken the boy to see live operettas and bought him several RCA “Red Seal” classical records. His maternal grandmother sang him spirituals as lullabies. Starting violin lessons when he was 15, he also taught himself to play several instruments when he was in college – clarinet, saxophone, oboe, viola, cello, and double bass – while conducting the university's band. He also started to compose and do orchestrations.

Still had started off at Wilberforce, a traditionally Black college in Ohio, to fulfill his mother's dreams of his becoming a doctor; but he dropped out of college and went to the Oberlin School of Music to fulfill his dreams. There, he worked his way through school as an assistant to the janitor. When a professor asked him why he wasn't studying composition, Still admitted he couldn't afford the additional tuition, so the teacher agreed to give him lessons free-of-charge. (Later, he would study privately with the great French composer, Edgar Varese, then living in New York, as well as George Whitefield Chadwick, ironically, who also taught Florence Price.)

After serving in the Navy during World War I, Still settled in Harlem where he became involved with the Harlem Renaissance and played in a number of famous bands, from W.C. Handy's to Paul Whiteman's. Then, in 1930, he composed his Afro-American Symphony writing in his journal as he sketched the work during a three-month period of unemployment, “I seek... to portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears; who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress.”

The work was premiered the following year by the Rochester Philharmonic under composer and teacher (then director of the Eastman School of Music) Howard Hanson, one of many “firsts” for Still: the first time the complete score of a work by an African-American was performed by a major orchestra. Until 1950, it was also the most frequently performed symphony by any American composer.

He moved to Los Angeles, began working in films, and conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program of his works at the Hollywood Bowl, the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra in a performance of his own works.

In 1939 he was commissioned to write “Song of a City” for the New York Worlds Fair where it played continuously at the US Pavilion. However, the only time he could attend without police protection was on “Negro Day. Also in 1939, married his 2nd wife but they had to go to Tijuana for the ceremony because interracial marriage was illegal in California.

Still arranged music for films like “Pennies from Heaven” and “Lost Horizon.” When he was hired to work on the music for “StormyWeather” in 1943, starring Lena Horne & Cab Calloway – much touted as a breakthrough film in featuring African-American actors and musicians – Still resigned from the project because, his granddaughter later related, “20th Century Fox 'degraded colored people'.”

During his time in LA, he met Joachim Chassman, a studio violinist and founding 2nd Violinist of the famed Hollywood String Quartet. The quartet disbanded briefly during the war, the men serving in the military, but afterward, Chassman chose instead to play in various studio orchestras and became a well-known educator in LA and San Francisco.

Which brings us to Still's “Lyric Quartette,” which is usually dated 1960, though, from what I can tell, the piece was never published in Still's lifetime, and one source said it was probably written initially between 1939 and 1945, the period Still met and worked with Chassman, to whom he'd dedicated the piece. Of course, if they maintained their friendship, perhaps Still did write it in 1960 or at least took it up again and revised it.

Curiously, there are two sets of titles & subtitles in the manuscript: the movements are described in one set as “The Sentimental One; The Quiet One (based on an Inca melody); The Jovial One” and, in the second, as Moderately – On a plantation; Moderately slow – In the mountains of Peru; Moderately fast – In a pioneer settlement.” The implication is these are musical portraits of three friends (was Chassman one of them?), but who exactly Still never says.

To continue Still's list of firsts, his 1939 opera, Troubled Island, about the Haitian Revolution and the early days of its independence, was finally produced by the New York City Opera in 1949 – the first opera by an American to be performed by the company and the first opera by an African-American to be performed by a major company. In 1955, Still conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic, the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South. Three years after his death in 1978, his opera, A Bayou Legend was the first opera by an African-American composer to be performed on national television.

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George Walker
Once again, I'm going step outside the program order to continue with another composer who has been considered one of the leading African-American composers of the second half of the 20th Century. Born in Washington DC in 1928 of Jamaican-American heritage, George Walker started studying the piano at 5, gave his first public recital at 14, graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and then attended the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia where he studied piano with Rudolf Serkin and composition with Rosario Scalero who a decade earlier had taught Samuel Barber. Walker became the first Black student to graduate from Curtis and then played Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy, the first Black soloist to perform with the orchestra. In 1950, he became the first Black instrumentalist to be signed by a major Artists Manager, and toured widely, particularly in Europe in 1954. In 1955, he entered the DMA program at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and became the first Black doctoral student to graduate from Eastman.

Perhaps the most significant “first” for George Walker came in 1996 when he became the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music for Lilacs for soprano and orchestra, premiered by the Boston Symphony (a previous work for cello and orchestra, Dialogus, premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra, had been nominated in 1977).

George Walker at 93, Pulitzer Prize Winner 1996
Meanwhile, the slow movement of his 1st String Quartet, composed in 1946, had taken on a life of its own in the concert halls in an arrangement for string orchestra and soon became the most frequently performed work by any living American composer for a number of years.

George Walker's 1st String Quartet was an early composition, written during his student days at Curtis in 1946 when he was primarily a pianist. One can excuse the similarity of its slow movement to the slow movement of Samuel Barber's String Quartet which went on to fame as the Adagio for Strings, written a decade earlier while he was a student at Curtis and also studying with Rosario Scalero. Walker, 24 at the time, had just learned his grandmother had died and he wrote the slow movement as a “Lament” for her, later changing the name to “Lyric for Strings.”

Walker knew his maternal grandmother well, the story how she had escaped from slavery when she and her husband had been separated after he was sold. Walker always referred to this piece as “my grandmother's piece.”

George Walker died in 2018 at the age of 96, one of the most decorated and acclaimed American composers of his generation.

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Tomeka Reid at the German Jazz Festival, 2015
The New York Times has described her as a “New Jazz Power Source,” and cellist and composer Tomeka Reid, her website's bio states, “has emerged as one of the most original, versatile, and curious musicians in Chicago’s bustling jazz and improvised music community over the last decade. Her distinctive melodic sensibility, always rooted in a strong sense of groove, has been featured in many distinguished ensembles over the years.”

Reid grew up outside Washington D.C., pursuing classical training initially but frequently dealt with the high cost of tuition at area music schools (for instance, not being able to afford additional cello lessons until high school). In college, pursuing “classical performance,” she was introduced to jazz improvisation which eventually led to an interest in composition, essentially learning how to compose spontaneously on your instrument, then learning how to write it down on paper (or these days, the equivalent of paper).

After college, she moved to Chicago in 2000 and became more involved in teaching and in the city's vibrant “jazz scene,” then ventually pursued a DMA in Jazz Studies which she completed in 2017. Though we might not initially associate the cello with jazz, Tomeka Reid was named a “Chicago Jazz Hero” in 2017, and in 2019 became the “Darius Milhaud Distinguished Visiting Professor” at Mills College.

Her “Prospective Dwellers” was composed in 2016 for the Spektral Quartet which they premiered at the Ear Taxi Festival. The piece was “inspired by Tomeka's interviews of residents in the Dorchester Projects on Chicago's South Side, who told of a neighborhood that was losing its sense of tight-knit community over time. The music it by turns groovy, nostalgic, and energized.”


Jessie Montgomery says, “Music is my connection to the world. It guides me to understand my place in relation to others and challenges me to make clear the things I do not understand. I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”

Her parents – her father, a musician; her mother, a theater artist and story teller – used to take her to performances, rallies, and parties where friends and fellow artists and activists celebrated different events and movements going on in their neighborhood of Lower East Side, Manhattan.

Jessie Montgomery
After beginning violin lessons at the 3rd Street Music School Settlement and going on to a performance degree at Juilliard, she's been involved with the Sphinx Organization since 1999 and become the Composer-in-Residence for the Sphinx Virtuosi, the organization's flagship touring ensemble. She's received numerous commissions, including “Banner” for the 200th Anniversary of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and she's been chosen by the New York Philharmonic as part of their “Project 19,” celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment's ratification. There's also a cello concerto commissioned jointly by Carnegie Hall, the New World Symphony & Sphinx, plus a new work for the National Symphony.

Strum salutes “American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement,” the title referring to the guitar-like plucking of the strings that plays many roles: “floating hum, earthy groove, rapturous thrum.”

Originally composed for string quintet in 2006, it was arranged for string quartet in 2008 and again in 2012 for string orchestra. “The piece has a kind of narrative that begins with a sense of nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration," she said. “I’ve always been interested in trying to find the intersection between different types of music. I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”

Here is the Jasper Quartet in a performance opening a virtual concert from February 2021 (from 2:13 to 9:43).


Personally, I can't help hearing the reflection, years later, of those early neighborhood parties and celebrations her parents had taken her to as a child, a vibrant take on life and community growing from a kernel of recollection.

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Some Jazz giants to conclude. After all, in 1928, Ravel, a big fan of Gershwin and whose violin sonata contains a “Blues” movement, wrote, “You Americans take jazz too lightly. In my opinion, it is bound to lead to the national music of the United States.”

Ellington & Strayhorn
For Billy Strayhorn, his dream to become a classical composer was “foiled by the harsh reality of a Black man trying to make it in the classical world, which at that time was almost completely white.” At this time, William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony had only recently been premiered but perhaps too late to serve as a role-model for the young Strayhorn growing up in Pittsburgh. He'd spent time with his grandmother in North Carolina, playing hymns on her piano and listening to classical records on her Victrola. As a teenager, he'd already written several songs, even a musical, so when the reality began to sink in, he met Duke Ellington when a tour brought him to Pittsburgh. Five years later, on a subsequent tour, Strayhorn played Ellington some of his arrangements of Duke's own tunes, and soon Ellington made arrangements for him to join the band in New York in early-1939.

Ellington's directions to find his house in upper Manhattan, scribbled down on a piece of paper, began “Take the 'A' Train.”


It soon became the signature tune of the Ellington Orchestra and for the next 25 years, Strayhorn worked with Ellington as his arranger and collaborator. It was not always an easy relationship for Strayhorn who often was not credited for much of his creative work, but Ellington called him “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.”

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It seems “high-falutin'” to call him John Birks Gillespie when everybody knows him as “Dizzy.” As one writer said, “the whole essence of a Gillespie solo was cliff-hanging suspense.”

A trumpet-player and improviser, he added layers of harmonic and rhythmic complexity to jazz that had previously been unheard. He grew up, the son of a local bandleader in South Carolina (and always had instruments around him), starting to play the piano at 4 and taught himself the trumpet by the time he was 14. When he heard Roy Eldridge on the radio, he dreamed of becoming a jazz musician.

He wrote it in 1940 or 1941 when he was playing trumpet in the Benny Carter band and its original title was “Interlude.” Gillespie admitted it wasn't inspired by a visit to the North African country, even though the music did sound quite exotic.

“I never cared what people called it as long as they played it,” Gillespie wrote in his 1979 memoir, To Be, or Not to Bop. “Some genius decided to call it ‘A Night in Tunisia,’ which sounded quite appropriate, and people have been calling it ‘Night in Tunisia’ ever since.”

Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s
Whether this is true or just a great story, Art Blakey once introduced his cover of Gillespie's tune by saying “I feel rather close to this tune because I was right there when he composed it in Texas on the bottom of a garbage can.” (The audience laughed.) “Seriously – the Texas Department of Sanitation can take a low bow.”

Wynton Marsalis said of Dizzy Gillespie, “his playing showcases the importance of intelligence. His rhythmic sophistication was unequaled. He was a master of harmony—and fascinated with studying it. He took in all the music of his youth—from Roy Eldridge to Duke Ellington—and developed a unique style built on complex rhythm and harmony balanced by wit. Gillespie was so quick-minded, he could create an endless flow of ideas at unusually fast tempo. Nobody had ever even considered playing a trumpet that way, let alone had actually tried. All the musicians respected him because, in addition to outplaying everyone, he knew so much and was so generous with that knowledge.”

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“New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz. From West African cross-rhythms, the work songs of slaves, field hollers and spirituals, came ragtime and the blues. This mixed with European-American quadrilles, waltzes, sentimental ballads, brass bands, cigar-box guitars, clarinets, cornets and trombones – and that's how jazz was born.”

When Wynton Marsalis was 6 years old, his father, Ellis, a famed jazz pianist and teacher in his own right, was sitting at a table in their New Orleans home, talking to three great trumpet players, Al Hirt, Miles Davis and Clark Terry, when he said he might as well get Wynton a trumpet. And so Al Hirt gave him one.

Ellis Marsalis & his son, Wynton
While he didn't start practicing on that trumpet seriously until he was 12, Wynton Marsalis soon became one of the bright lights of the classical music world as a brilliant trumpet soloist. But jazz became increasingly more important to him and he “retired” from the classical concert hall and pursued what we might call a second career not only as a jazz performer but also an educator, advocate, curator and composer. As Director of “Jazz at Lincoln Center,” he was commissioned in conjunction with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to create a jazz work for that most classical of ensembles, the string quartet, and the resulting work, “At the Octoroon Balls,” was premiered in 1999. It consists of seven movements, and the Harlem Quartet will play four of them. I'll include their performance of the last of these four a little further on.

One critic described the music as more Ives than Louis Armstrong, but it mixes a great many “Americanisms” from Louis Moreau Gottschalk to Ives on the classical side with all kinds of jazz and folk elements one could hear in and around N'awlins, “fiddle reels, hoe downs, jug stomps, marching bands; the Deep South, New Orleans, the Piedmont East Coast, Sunday morning at church.”

The balls in question were a social convention in Old New Orleans, when Creole gentlemen could choose their “octoroon” mistresses. If you're a little vague on the terminology and wondering what an “octoroon” is (or how it is used), here's some context:

“By 1860, approximately ten percent of enslaved people in the American South had at least one white ancestor, often as a result of forced sexual assault on female slaves by white slave owners. In southern Louisiana, there was also a large population of Creole African-Americans, descended from European colonialists in various areas of the African continent. Consequently, free and enslaved people of color could and did look wildly different from one another. Legal classifications like 'mulatto,' 'quadroon' (one-quarter black) and 'octoroon' (one-eighth) were used to describe people with lighter skin tones, and these labels were often based on appearance rather than lineage.”

Wynton Marsalis's "At the Octoroon Balls" is inspired by the composer's early life in New Orleans. "A ball is a ritual and a dance," Marsalis explains. "Everybody was in their finest clothing. At the Octoroon Balls there was an interesting cross-section of life. People from different stratums of society came together in pursuit of pleasure and fulfillment. The music brought people together."

If you had no idea what this music represented, you'd probably be thinking “What the hell...?” And that's it, precisely: this is a train-ride, quite literally, going straight to Hell (well, maybe not quite straight to Hell, but it'll get there eventually).

Take the 'A' Train, indeed!

Of his earliest influences, particularly in the jazz and classical traditions, Marsalis wrote, "My father helped me understand the joy of seriousness." 

- Dick Strawser