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  


Friday, July 23, 2021

Francisco Fullana's Amazing Journey Through Bach's Long Shadow

Whether it's parodies of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying “I'll be Bach” or the cliché of Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor anytime there's a scary situation in a film or cartoon, even if it's nothing more than being aware of The Three Bs – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms – more people are probably more aware of Bach, wig and all, in today's world than any other composer other than Beethoven.

But what has Bach's influence been on other musicians, as performers and as composers (insert book-length digression, here)?

It is the core of Francisco Fullana's latest recording, released just two months ago, and would seem to be a perfect project for a violinist living in isolation during the Pandemic: music for a single player, inspired by the works Johann Sebastian Bach composed for solo violin.


The second of three Summermusic concerts, Francisco Fullana's program begins at 7:30 Saturday evening at St. Michael Lutheran Church on the 1st block of State Street (between Front & 2nd Streets) in downtown Harrisburg. There is parking along State Street and also some limited space on two small lots behind the church (while there'll be no race to create headaches for us, it is Saturday night, so be prepared). As for Covid19 Protocols, we respectfully request anyone in the audience not already fully vaccinated wear a mask.

So, since the shadow is Bach's and his music is the progenitor of so much more than the music on this program, what else to do but begin with Bach, just as he starts his program for Summermusic on Saturday night.

While I could (and usually do) go on ad infinitem (or depending on your viewpoint, ad nauseam) about Bach and his music, if you're interested in more historic detail about Bach's Sonatas & Partitas, you can check this post from 2017 for an all-Bach program with Kristof Baráti (scroll down to get to the historical background bits).

And instead of examining each work on the program in “concert order,” I've decided to make some different connections, beginning with the most obvious. While Bach's Solo Violin Sonatas & Partitas may stretch across the centuries in this music, here is an example of how the E Major Partita, specifically its Preludio, inspired a great violinist of the early-20th Century, Eugene Ysaÿe:

Two centuries later, in 1920 – in the aftermath of World War I's devastation as Europe tried pulling itself out of the rubble – the Belgian Ysaÿe wrote six sonatas for solo violin of his own and dedicated each of them to a different colleague. The 2nd, sometimes subtitled Obsession, was dedicated to Jacques Thibaud and, not coincidentally, it starts off with more than a nod to Bach's Partita No. 3 in E Major!

The first time I ever heard this, I thought “oh, there's been a change in the program” but then, once the music started stopping and starting again, always in a different place, it reminded me of bad radio reception and I realized it was indeed the obsessive mind of a violinist going back and forth, in and out of a piece he's working on, spending hours practicing it, as it then begins to unfold in new and unexpected ways.

As Ysaÿe explained, "I have played everything from Bach to Debussy” – who'd died in 1918 – “for real art should be international." In these sonatas, Ysaÿe used now familiar fingerprints of early-20th Century style ranging from Debussy's whole-tone scales, dissonances that might be familiar from the earlier works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartók, even “quarter tones” which have to be approached very carefully or a listener may think “but he's playing out-of-tune!” It's not so much up-dating Bach for the 20th Century since Bach doesn't need to be “made relevant,” but reflecting Bach into the 20th Century and adding his style, his fingerprints, to the mix of influences available to a modern-day composer. 

But virtuosity is not just the ability to play fast notes flashily. Ysaÿe employed virtuoso bow as well as left-hand techniques throughout, believing “at the present day the tools of violin mastery, of expression, technique, mechanism, are far more necessary than in days gone by. In fact they are indispensable, if the spirit is to express itself without restraint.” So, just as Bach did so significantly two centuries earlier, Ysaÿe's set of sonatas places high technical demands on its performers. Yet Ysaÿe recurrently warns violinists that they should never forget to play instead of becoming preoccupied with technical elements; a violin master "must be a violinist, a thinker, a poet, a human being, he must have known hope, love, passion and despair, he must have run the gamut of the emotions in order to express them all in his playing."

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Bach composed his Sonatas and Partitas around 1720 – it's impossible to be much more specific – during an age of incredible violinists and composers for the violin like Corelli and Vivaldi. But it was also an age of incredible violin-makers like Antonio Stradivari, perhaps the best-known (he died in 1737), and one of the greatest, Guarneri del Gesù (who died in 1744). 

The violin that Francisco Fullana currently performs on is a 1735 Guarneri del Gesù instrument from 1735 known as the “Mary Portman” (after one of its owners) but which also was one that belonged to the great violinist and composer of the early-20th Century, Fritz Kreisler (sometimes, you'll see the violin referred to as “the Ex-Kreisler,” though he owned several fine violins over the course of his career). So it's fitting that Fullana includes a bit of Kreisler's music on this program, in this case his “Recitative and Scherzo, Op.6” with it's dark introduction with its Bach-like harmonies followed by pyrotechnical yet light-hearted brilliance. Published in 1911, Kreisler dedicated it to his good friend and colleague, Eugene Ysaÿe. (Then, in 1920, Ysaÿe dedicated the 4th of his sonatas to Kreisler.)

Listening to this, the link not only to Bach but also to an earlier century's master is obvious: Nicolò Paganini who was one of the greatest virtuosos in an age of touring virtuosos (indeed, he continued touring even after his death, one of the more gruesome sidebars in music history).

There were rumors he obtained his phenomenal talent by selling his soul to the devil, which, good PR or not, he did little to refute. His collection of 24 caprices for solo violin, written in three sets over the course of his career between 1802 and 1817 (various sources disagree, however). Each one is an etude (or study) focusing on one technical aspect (like double-stopped trills, chordal writing, rapid changes between strings and registers, and different bowing techniques). The most famous of them is the last, a set of variations on a simple theme and rather than focusing on one technical difficulty, seems to be more an “All-of-the-Above” Etude. It is generally regarded as one of the most difficult single pieces for the violin in the repertoire.

In Paganini's day, no one could play like him and he was the equivalent of a rock star, adored by the public (Schubert complained how few people attended his concert because everybody was at Paganini's recital instead). He also carefully guarded his music, never publishing it to make it accessible to anyone else who'd try to play it. It says something for the technical level of today's violinists that conservatory students world-wide routinely study and perform them.

Born into a family of educators, Francisco Fullana graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Madrid, and received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from The Juilliard School following studies in addition to holding an Artist Diploma from the USC Thornton School of Music, where he worked with the renowned violinist Midori.

By the way, she first recorded the complete Paganini Caprices when she was 21.

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Paul Hindemith is a composer less often performed these days but he was once considered one of the most significant voices in modern music. Without getting into the whole history, this Sonata for Solo Violin is a relatively early work and an example of the facility with which he composed – which may have resulted in his “flooding the market” with a lot of music that was soon regarded as “facile.” There was a famous story how, arriving in London to perform a new viola concerto of his, King George V died the night before the concert which was subsequently canceled. However, the conductor wanted to broadcast something with Hindemith's involvement for the broadcast in tribute to the King's death, but they couldn't find anything suitable. So Hindemith offered to compose something especially for the occasion. So, between 11am and 5pm, he composed his “Trauermusik” (Funeral Music) for viola and strings, which was copied, rehearsed and then broadcast live that evening. 

While such duties are part and parcel for a court composer – Bach would've had to write a whole funeral cantata but probably still wouldn't be expected to produce it the next night – it's not the sort of thing most composers could handle in more recent times, especially given the romantic conception of Inspiration and struggling over just the right note (Mozart could compose with little effort; Beethoven would struggle, sometimes for years, over a symphony; Debussy argued that one impresario wanted a piece in a few weeks, I believe it was, but he said “it takes me that long to decide between this chord or that chord!”)

Enter Hindemith's Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 31, No. 2, which was written in a few hours on April 7th, 1924, while riding on the train from Hannover to Frankfort. It was a beautiful day and he jotted down on the first page of the manuscript the words “What lovely weather outside,” which may have inspired the unexpected appearance of Mozart's child-like song, “Come, sweet May” as a theme for the last movement's set of variations. Granted the work is under ten minutes long, but still, as you listen to it, imagine if you could always make such constructive use of your time!

(this performance, with score, uses Frank Peter Zimmermann's recording.)

As for the influence of Bach, Hindemith, even as one of the brasher young composers of the 20th Century, had a firm foundation in his own, easily recognizable harmonic idiom and an overall contrapuntal style firmly rooted in the works of Bach, often by way of the late-Romantic heavily Bach-influenced Max Reger. The complexity of his harmonic language (by way of Bach's more chromatic works, like the famous “Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue”) is one thing that, in this sonata, makes the appearance of Mozart's simplistic theme so striking and, perhaps like the weather on a beautiful day, smile-worthy.

There is little music more complex in Bach's output than “The Musical Offering,” a collection of different types of canons and fugues, including quite a few you need to solve riddles before you can figure out how to play them. The concluding Ricercar in Six Voices is regarded as one of the most complex fugues in captivity.

“Old Bach,” near the end of his life and long after he'd been considered old-fashioned and out of style (composers themselves, even his sons referred to Dad as “The Old Pigtail”), had been invited to visit the Prussian king, Frederick the Great's court in Berlin in 1747. The King was himself a talented flutist and composer, conservative in style (he would soon detest the new-fangled classicism of Haydn) and asked Bach to improvise on various keyboard instruments in the royal collection, including a new invention, the fortepiano (the transition between the harpsichord and the modern piano). As a subject for improvisation, the King handed Bach a theme which he wanted turned into a various fugues in various possible solutions. With its upward minor triad, it's downward leap of a diminished 7th, then a creepy-crawly half-step descent to the rounding-off into the tonic cadence, this became known as “The Royal Theme” – in German, Das königliches Thema – and the resulting work, ending with the Ricercar in 6 Voices (a complex fugue, even by Bach's standards), was dedicated to the king: Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta (“the theme given by the king, with additions, resolved in the canonic style) the first letters of each word spelling out the word RICERCAR, which originally meant “to search.” In addition to other riddles, one of the canons is headed Quaerendo invenietis – “Seek and ye shall find.”

Which brings us to this work by Korean-born composer, Isang Yun, composed directly under the shadow of Bach's Offering, written in 1976 when Yun was living in Berlin (not far from Frederick's palace). He called it “Königliches Thema” and it became a bridge, of sorts, between the cultures of his adopted Germany and his native Korea.


Yun made his home in West Germany since 1964 – except for that period, after having been kidnapped from his Berlin home in 1967 and imprisoned in South Korea, tortured on charges of espionage, and, after attempting suicide, forced to confess, then threatened with a death sentence which was commuted to a life sentence. After a worldwide petition had been signed by 200 artists ranging from Herbert von Karajan to Igor Stravinsky, Yun was released in 1969; he returned to West Berlin, became a German citizen in 1971, and never returned to South Korea.

This work for solo violin was composed in 1976.

From the note supplied by Yun's publisher, Boosey & Hawkes: “Yun took [this] as an opportunity to give Bach's theme a 'walk through the Asiatic tradition' while setting it in twelve-tone sonorities. At the end of the piece Yun returns to the original theme, transposed to a higher octave, which for Yun signifies a higher level, and only slightly but nevertheless decisively modified through typical Korean musical gestures.”

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Last on the blog (though not last on the program) are two pieces by Spanish composers.

In the previous posts for the Jasper Quartet's program, we got into various aspects of the African-American and the Native-American cultural experiences as reflected in the compositions of FlorencePrice and Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate.

With Spanish music, those Americans of the Western European persuasion might first think of pieces like Ravel's Bolero or Debussy's Iberia (works by French composers, by the way, though Ravel was, on his mother's side, Basque), and also authentic Spaniards like Albeniz (especially his Asturias) or Falla (the “Three-Cornered Hat”) and Roderigo's Concierto de Aranjuez and assume that to be Spanish, the music must reflect the rhythms and melodies of the Spanish folk traditions. And while some of this – like Bartók – can be absorbed into a composer's creative style without being overt, there are other influences in the wider world that can play a part without necessarily “sounding” it. And this being a program built on the cornerstone of Bach's enduring influence, these next two works are a musical offering to explain how Bach is reflected in the works of two modern Spanish composers.

The title of Salvador Brotons' Variaciones sobre un tema barroco (Variations on a Baroque Theme) may seem unassuming, a work for solo violin written in 2017. It's not really an original theme in a Baroque style – and it's also not Bach. The theme is taken from a zarzuela (the Spanish equivalent of an operetta or comic opera) based on the classic Greek legend of Acis and Galatea, produced in 1708 by Antonio de Literes. A Mallorcan-born composer, Literes had become the Music Director of the Royal Court in 1697 and died in Madrid in 1747. But the influences of great Italian violinists like Corelli and the solo violin music of Bach are unmistakable.

Brotons, born in Barcelona in 1959, earned his doctorate at Florida State University on a Fulbright Scholarship, then taught and conducted at Portland (OR) State University before returning to Spain. Currently based in Barcelona with an international career as a conductor, Brotons has over 140 works and 16 recordings in his catalog.

In this “audio” from Fullana's previous recording “Through the Lens of Time,” he plays Brotons' gentle tribute to the age of the Spanish Baroque under King Philip V, years before Bach had become Bach.

Francisco Fullana was born on the island of Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands off the Catalan coast. Though following an international career, one of his “gigs” is as the Resident Artist of the Orchestra of the Balearic Islands. When asked “what piece of music “reminds you of Mallorca when you play it?”, he responded that “Maestro Salvador Brotons, who has always had a very special relationship with the island, is writing a piece for the violin for me that will be included in my new CD with the English label Orchid Classics and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It will be a piece that reflects the island, its landscapes and its history, and I really can’t wait for it to be finished in the coming months.”

In one sense, the inspiration for Joan Valent's Chaconne for solo violin, entitled Punta Campanello, goes back even further than 1700. Like Fullana, Valent (Joan is the Catalan form of Juan) was born on Mallorca (or Majorca), he discovered at the age of 11 he wanted to become a composer (he'd already been playing the piano since he was 4). Like Brotons, he studied in Barcelona, then also went on to study in the United States, in his case at UCLA, then lived and worked in California for a number of years. Now based again in Mallorca, he pursues an international career in both concert music and film.

 Valent's latest album, Poetic Logbook, begins with this solo violin piece he calls simply Punta Campanella. This is an actual place on the Amalfi coast, the tip of the peninsula of Sorrento south of Naples as it overlooks the Island of Capri. The first stop of Valent's own geographical and literary journey, the place is long associated with Homer's Odyssey, the presumed location where Ulysses confronted the Sirens.

So, as journeys go, we come back to Bach. Somehow, it seems, it always comes back to Bach.

Dick Strawser

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Jasper Quartet Reveals Jerod Tate's "Pisachi" and Maurice Ravel's String Quartet

The first concert of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2021 with the Jasper Quartet's program called "Reveal" is Wednesday night at 7:30 but it's not at the usual Market Square Church location (due to on-going renovations). Join us at St. Michael Lutheran Church on the first block of State Street between Front & 2nd Streets (parking is available on State Street and on the two small lots behind the church). And yes, this is a Live Concert open to the public: for tickets, see the website (they can also be purchased at the door).

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 previous post was about the first work on the program, the String Quartet in G Major by Florence Price, and you can read about her and her music (and hear a performance by the Jasper Quartet) here. This post is about the quartet Pisachi by Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate and Maurice Ravel's more familiar Quartet in F Major.

Stay tuned (as they say in Radio Speak) for posts about two more Summermusic programs, with violinist Francisco Fullana's "Long Shadow of Bach" on Saturday and the Harlem Quartet's with works ranging from William Grant Still and Jessie Montgomery to Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis next Tuesday (both concerts also at 7:30).

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Though Florence Price's quartet may be an "early work" in terms of her output, despite her earlier education, she wrote it when she was 42 and finally beginning to take a career in composition seriously.

The next work on the Jasper Quartet program was written by a composer who was 45. Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate was born in 1968 – in fact, he will turn 53 on Sunday, July 25th – and is very much alive and active as a composer today. 

If this is the first work of his you are hearing, there are a number of works you can explore to place him in his artistic context. After all, every time you hear a piece by Beethoven, whether you've never heard it before or not, there are several works of his you're likely familiar with to get an idea “who Beethoven is.” Imagine what it must be like to be a listener new to Classical Music who's hearing something for the first time we veterans of concerts might think “oh, that old thing again” (whether it's his 5th Symphony or the 3rd Rasumovsky Quartet) – frankly, as jaded as I can be at times, I admit to never being tired of hearing either. 

So let's reveal the music of Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate: in this case, a piece for string quartet entitled “Pisachi” whose title translates as “Reveal.”

So let's get that out of the way first. Despite my years of being a pronouncer on the radio, my tongue still tends to seize up at the site of names or titles outside my Language Comfort Zone. Perhaps yours does, too.


“It's like a triplet and two eighths,” he explains – IM-pich-cha – CHA-ha. This is his Chickasaw family “house name,” basically the equivalent of a European surname. It basically translates as “his raised corn-crib” and perhaps deriving a family name from it would be comparable to an Englishman in a medieval village being given the name of his profession, like Miller, Baker, or Smith: in a Chickasaw village, perhaps this was the man who built and maintained or tended the important corn-crib (a raised silo) built to protect the village's harvest vegetables from ground dampness and foraging rodents.

Now that we're past The Name, we can get to the core of it: the music that heritage inspired.

Jerod Tate (as he is usually referred to in conversation) was born in Norman, OK, and has earned degrees from Northwestern University in Evanston IL and the Cleveland Institute where he studied with Donald Erb. As a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, one of the indigenous tribes of North America, he has taken the advice handed out by Dvořák initially to his African-American students (and which Chadwick passed on to Florence Price) to explore the music of his ethnic heritage to find inspiration for his own natural musical voice. 

In addition to his own Chickasaw roots, Tate has explored music from, as his website lists, twenty different tribes. Tate “is dedicated to the development of American Indian classical composition” and specifically in Pisachi for string quartet – the word in the Chickasaw language means “reveal” – “to honor his Southwest Indian cousins through classical repertoire” by using dance music from the Hopi and Pueblo tribes.

Here is a performance of Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate's Pisachi by the Jasper Quartet, part of a concert video recorded earlier this year.

(After 16:13, the program continues with Beethoven's C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131.)

As the composer explains in this interview (beginning at 0:58), there is a lot to consider with the question “What is Indian music?” but ultimately, he says, “my goal is a very personal goal... to tell you how I feel about being Indian.”

Listening to this work's six sections (movements, perhaps; he calls them “epitomes,” not to be confused with the standard pronunciation; he rhymes it with “tomes” as in “books”), you, if you're unfamiliar with its sources and initial inspirations, might think of it as a largely abstract work, however atmospheric or vibrant it may be, going beyond the merely picturesque. “You can keep things very very simple and transcription-like,” he explains in that interview, “and then you can make things incredibly abstracted and complex.”

While it may go back to the composer's own “musical roots,” think of it the way Bartók did when he went from transcribing previously overshadowed Hungarian folk songs (not “gypsy” melodies) to eventually crafting original musical material based on those folk songs' different characteristics to create his music, specifically the string quartets, absorbing them into his natural voice.

Originally composed in 2013 for the quartet known as ETHEL, Pisachi was intended to accompany a slide show of Southwestern images by Native-American artists (you can view the slide-show as part of the video recorded by ETHEL, here).

For anyone interested in extra credit, at the end of this post I'll include some “context” to this weaving of Native-American voices into what makes up this fabric of what we call American Music, but let's continue now with the String Quartet of Maurice Ravel.

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By comparison, there's not likely to be many listeners in the audience who aren't familiar with at least some of the music by Maurice Ravel, one of the leading composers of the early-20th Century, even if it's just his Bolero (and speaking of “cultural appropriation,” what does a Spaniard think of that old saying trotted out about “the best Spanish music was written by French composers”??).

Maurice Ravel, around 1901
Completed in 1903 when he was 28, Ravel's only string quartet is essentially the product of his career as a student at the Paris Conservatoire and the result of the intense support given him by his mentor, Gabriel Fauré, the school's director. It's often called a “quintessentially French” work (whatever that means to a listener out of context), but before I get into anything technical about how it's a French work (other than being written by a Frenchman), let's just listen to the piece.

Here's the Jasper Quartet in a concert video recorded earlier this year: while it begins with Jessie Montgomery's “Strum” (we'll come back to this for next week's concert with the Harlem Quartet) and includes Reinaldo Moya's “Chapter One,” which you're certainly welcome to check out, the program concluded with the Ravel Quartet in F Major which is where I've begun the video-link.

As Lucy Miller Murray describes it in her program notes, “The first movement opens with a rich melody shared by the four instruments and then handed to the first violin over rapid figures by the second violin and viola. An exciting tonal effect occurs when the violin and viola play two octaves apart. In the second movement, Ravel’s love of the exotic reveals itself in the suggestion of a Javanese gamelan orchestra. The rhapsodic third movement includes a reference to the opening melody, thus preserving form but always in lustrous and ever-changing colors. Stemming from a five-beat meter, the restlessness of the last movement is ended by a return to the first movement theme. Structure is not all, however, since the ravishing melodies and tonal colors remind us that this work is indeed“emotional first and intellectual second.”

Of course, there are many ways of listening to a piece of music, whether it's new to you or an old friend. One is simply letting it wash over you in pure enjoyment of the moment; another is, after finding out a little bit more about the music and its composer, you let it “wash over you” but with a context in which you can better enjoy it. Or you can listen analytically to the music on a basic level – what instrument is playing in the foreground here; what is that instrument in the background doing; I've heard this theme before but how is it different, now? – or on a more complex level, and that complexity increases with your level of musical background: certainly a music-lover will listen to it differently (with different interests) than a violinist (listening for the interpretive nuances) or the composer (listening for technical details of harmony, structure, use of the instruments). 

And while some technical discussions may cause a music-lover's eyes to glaze over (or their brains to freeze), sometimes simple questions involve complex answers and, as anyone who knows me, one thing leads to another and, though you may “understand” (well, let's say “comprehend”) the music a little better, until you realize there really is, most often, no real answer. On the other hand, that's the great thing about Art: intellectual or emotional, there's always more to come back to.

This program brings to mind the age-old question (and one I've been asked by student composers constantly) about “How a Composer Finds His or Her Voice?” And we find it answered in a more obvious ways through Florence Price being an African-American (her quartet indicates the dichotomy of a Western European Training with the experience of being an African-American) and Jerod Tate absorbing the music and culture of his Native-American heritage.

But how is that question answered by Maurice Ravel? He's French, making him a White European, not that all White Europeans sound alike. What, if anything, makes his music “French”?

So let's consider, “What Makes an American Composer 'American'?” Is it (like Copland) the use of American folk songs (like his Appalachian Spring) or (like Bernstein) in his use of American Jazz? But what about “American Voices” when Copland writes his Symphony No. 3 or Bernstein his “Kaddish Symphony”? Is it “American Music” simply because, well... it's written by a composer who is American-born? Is Elliott Carter, no doubt the Poster Child for Complex Music (insert long digression, here), still an American composer despite not being influenced by folk music or jazz (though, actually, he was)?

Ravel in 1930
In Ravel's case, there's the centuries old dichotomy of “German vs French” in Western European culture, not just music (insert even longer digression, here!). Pardon the analogy, but if you wanted to know the difference between a Victorian steam engine and Japan's “Bullet Train,” you could be handed a pile of engineering texts to explain how they're designed, what kind of technologies go into the engines, and so forth; but perhaps you'll be satisfied with “one goes faster than the other.” It depends on how much you want to know.

Let's skim the surface of just “harmony” alone.

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “a chord is a chord is a chord” until it does something and moves to another chord: then it becomes harmony. A dissonance is more than “an ugly sound” – it's a note added to a chord that doesn't belong to that chord originally but now creates an "active" chord that needs to resolve to another chord. By adding an F to a G Major Chord, you now have what in the German harmonic tradition is a G7 Chord or, in C Major, a Dominant 7th, where that F requires the chord to resolve to an E, and most logically (but not exclusively) to the 3rd of a C Major chord, a V-I progression (read “five-one”), dominant to tonic. This is the whole foundation for what we have for centuries called “Tonality.”

Consequently you can add other tones to that G Chord – for instance, an A, the interval of a 9th above the root G, and it becomes a “9th Chord.” In German (or Germanic) Music, this too would need to resolve. And the whole thrust of Music Theory Training is figuring how to move from one chord to another (why they're called “Harmony Classes,” not “Chord Classes”).

But in France, the French being who they are – and much of that seems to be “to be the opposite of whatever Germans are” – those added notes, the 7th and the 9th, don't need to resolve: they just are. And suddenly you have a whole bunch of chords that can move without specific pitches needing to move to other specific pitches. They're no longer "active chords," just static moments of sound. They can move, for instance, in parallel formation, and it is this which most often is describes as the musical equivalent of a painter's “Impressionism,” that blurring or complete obliteration of the lines that so changed how painters (and those who look at their paintings) can see the world.

Suddenly,  a 9th Chord is not one chord in a specific harmonic progression: it becomes a point of color that sounds more complex than a simple G Major triad with more shades and tints and tones and reverberations than a simple color, the difference between, perhaps, blue and turquoise or aquamarine.

Now, you can listen to this next video before or after you hear Wednesday night's concert, or you may say, “okay, I don't have time for all of this” – if you think my pre-concert talks are convoluted, listen to how Bruce Adolphe gets into it – listen at least to some of the opening. Even the background about Ravel's troubles with the Paris Conservatoire is “worth the listen.”

He may spend the first 40 minutes talking about the first 30 seconds of music, but if you bear with it, you're well on your way to the Bullet Train.

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Jerod Tate is not the first American artist to be inspired by Indian Culture. 

This goes back long before the European concept of “The Noble Savage” inspired Longfellow to write Hiawatha in the 1850s. And while there was a concerted effort to suppress the Native culture officially even before 1776, the viewpoints of the different characters in James Fenimore Cooper's five Leatherstocking Tales, written between 1823 and 1841, often reflect the opposing attitudes of the American public. On the one hand, how do we deal with this cultural oppression at the same time we see, especially in the early-20th Century, an attempt to embrace the culture and make it part of the American fabric, another element of this broad American landscape, from Sea to Shining Sea?

In this interview with Frank Oteri of NewMusic USA, Jerod Tate explains his musical and cultural backgrounds – and I recommend the whole interview if you have the time – but I specifically want to point out this passage in which he talks about his awareness as an Indian and an Indian Composer and his discovering (after he began composing) those earlier composers who were called “Indianist” Composers, and why the distinction is important.

Without getting into the whole “cultural appropriation” rabbit-hole, here, I present this merely for context in talking about the use of “Native-American Music” within a Western Classical tradition.

There was a whole “school” of American composers who became fascinated by the music of the Native-American or Indian cultures. They were called “Indianists” and they were White Men who, in some cases, transcribed Indian melodies and rhythms and at other times used this material as “local color” to create music that sounded Indian.

The difference between what Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate is composing, exploring his own cultural roots to express “what it is to be an Indian,” is different from a White Man dressing up in an Indian-sounding musical style. It is, in one sense, the common perception of those Indian stereotypes of beating tom-toms and simple, single-voiced chants is no different that the way Indian characters in the old TV and movie westerns are portrayed (and usually played by White actors in make-up). It is, in the current sense of “Critical Race Theory,” looking behind taking Native-American children and teaching them “European” ways to obliterate their heritage, their language and culture (much as the English did with Welsh and Irish children). We look on it differently now than our ancestors did, but the scars remain; and the question, what do we do with the art that was created then, is a very real one, whether it involves removing Civil War monuments or showing a program like “The Lone Ranger.”

In that sense, here's a bit of context about Native-American-inspired music from the past century.

Very often, they were ignorant of certain details in terms of this attempted authenticity: let's say a non-European composer writes an opera about Europeans where, though set in, say, Italy, different characters have Polish, Norwegian and Bulgarian names; and that the story mixes up details that are French, Irish, and Russian. Those of us of European heritage would dismiss it as “ridiculous” and “ignorant,” yet that's exactly what many Indianist composers did, mixing elements from different tribes to create a One-Sound-Fits-All musical representation of a generic Indian Culture.

Consider, for instance, Preston Ware Orem, a native Philadelphian. His most famous work is his “American Indian Rhapsody” of 1918 with its Lisztian approach which, to a Native-American, would sound no more like “Indian Folk Music” than Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, based not on folk music but “Gypsy” melodies, would sound like Hungarian folk music to a native-born Hungarian (music the world began to discover through the work of Bartók and Kodály decades later). As someone described it, it has the "costume" of Indian music but its soul.

Arthur Farwell, a Minnesota-born composer, was less interested in “what sounded Indian” than in gathering and transcribing authentic material, like this Navajo War Dance No. 2 (Op. 29) from 1908. There was the argument, when this music was new and fresh, that Americans were finally embracing these repressed cultures even if many more conservative concertgoers rebelled at the idea of listening to music not because it was by White Men inspired by African-American or Native-American dances, but because music of “these races” (so they argued) did not belong in the concert hall. The same thing had been said when Mikhail Glinka quoted some well known Russian folk songs in his opera, A Life for the Tsar in 1836, and several aristocrats in the audience protested, wondering why they were listening to things their coachmen would have danced to rather than those beautiful, refined dances they and their likewise culturally superior compatriots were familiar with?

Rabbit-holes and cans of worms aside, a website I found examined the story of Winona, now considered a “racist opera,” written in the late-1910s by Italian-born conductor, Alberto Bimboni, and eventually premiered in Oregon in 1926, two years later given an epic production in Minnesota. While the composer tried to arrange its premiere, it was championed by no less than President Warren G. Harding. Bimboni, who never wrote much else, was subsequently awarded for his work in promoting American opera, perhaps mostly as a conductor and producer. (As a teacher at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in the '30s, Bimboni may have gained more lasting fame as an influence on a newly arrived young Italian student named Gian-Carlo Menotti.)

“While music of this 'Indianist movement' was very publicly marketed as having Native origins [and to bring awareness of the culture into Mainstream America], it was often presented with little-to-no context about the indigenous societies from which its influences sprang, or about the sacred or secular meaning it might have had for them...

“In modern context, this story’s legacy remains unsettled. Choctaw ethnomusicologist Tara Browner critiques Indianist composers for treating Native culture as a naked raw material, though she says that [Arthur] Farwell was less guilty of this than most. Music critic Joe Horowitz sympathetically branded Farwell 'America's Forbidden Composer' whose genuine musical genius is forever stained by the genre. Cherokee pianist Lisa Cheryl Thomas says she loves performing Indianist work, especially Farwell’s, because it connects her with her ancestors’ music. Perhaps most significantly, some Native communities are using [ethnomusicologist Frances] Densmore’s work [from the early 20th Century which “preserved Native cultural activities that would have otherwise been lost”] to reclaim and relearn their sacred songs and rituals in the 21st Century.” (from the Twin Cities PBS “Originals” website, “Discover the Origins of Minnesota's Own Grand Racist Opera)

Dick Strawser