OCTOBER PROGRAM NOTES (October 20, 22, 24 & 25)

By Andrea Moore

Aaron Copland, Duo for Flute & Piano

Born in 1900 in Brooklyn, Aaron Copland was one of the most significant, and widely performed, American composers of the twentieth century. Some of his earliest works met a somewhat chilly reception, but in the 1930s and 1940s his music began to reach a wider audience. Copland developed a musical style that came to be associated with “America,” and his works from the 1930s and 1940s often took rural settings as their subject, and used folk-like music; he also incorporated folk music material from the Americas more broadly, including music from Mexico, Brazil, and Cuba. His score for Martha Graham’s ballet, Appalachian Spring, became especially popular with audiences, partly through his creation of an orchestral suite, which is frequently performed; the ballet score itself won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1945. Championed by Leonard Bernstein and the conductor of the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky, Copland was himself a champion of new music, active as a critic and concert organizer, and bringing to wider attention older composers like Charles Ives, as well as his own peers, through the New York League of Composers.

This piece, completed in 1971, was commissioned by a group of former flute students of William Kincaid, who was principal flute of the Philadelphia Orchestra for almost forty years. Copland biographer Howard Pollack argues that, while Copland emphasized different aspects of his style at different times, he “explored the vernacular throughout his career” and thus his 12-tone music, his early abstractions, and his Americana should be “thought of as continually building and interlocking phases.” This piece’s first movement, “Flowing,” makes great use of the open fourths and fifths that characterize the Americana sound, and its general mood and tone may evoke some of the more lyric portions of Appalachian Spring. Despite the marking, “Poetic, somewhat mournful,” the second movement is intimate, opening in a state of harmonic ambiguity, and retaining a searching tone throughout, until a last-minute resolution into major. The final movement, “Lively, with bounce” is the most overtly virtuosic of the three. Of this piece, Copland said, “My Duo is a lyrical piece, in a somewhat pastoral style. Almost by definition it would have to be a lyrical piece, for what can you do with a flute in an extended form that would not emphasize its songful nature? Lyricism seems to be built into the flute.”

John Harbison, Songs America Loves to Sing

The American composer John Harbison has an abiding interest in American music of all kinds, including jazz, the Great American Songbook, and hymns. The songs he has rewritten as Songs America Loves to Sing are some of the most familiar in American music, including "Amazing Grace" and a song made famous by the great blues singer, Bessie Smith, "St. Louis Blues." Harbison set these songs for the "Pierrot" ensemble, a now-standard instrumentation—flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, usually with voice—derived from Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire.

The composer writes:

"It is a distant, quaint vision: the family around the piano singing familiar songs, a Currier and Ives print, an album of sepia photographs. But I remember it well (or did I imagine it?). The album which our family sometimes used may have been called “Songs America Loves to Sing.” The present collection of solos and canons on some of these still familiar melodies is dedicated to my sister Meg (of five singers, now only two left). Ideally many of the tunes will still be recognizable. In the chorale preludes of the German baroque common melodies are embedded in the composer's invention (strict against free); if we know the tunes our enjoyment of the pieces is enhanced. It is my hope that choosing well-known musical material will make these settings transparent."

George Crumb, Eleven Echoes of Autumn

As a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, the American composer George Crumb encountered the poetry of Federico García Lorca, whose work inspired nearly a dozen of Crumb’s pieces, including his four books of Madrigals, his Ancient Voices of Children, and this piece, Eleven Echoes of Autumn.  

Eleven Echoes of Autumn was commissioned by Bowdoin College for the Aeolian Chamber Players. The piece is structured as a series of 11 short “Echi,” for different combinations of violin, alto flute, clarinet, and piano, or for one of those alone. Each movement explores the instruments’ timbral possibilities, using or developing extended techniques to produce unconventional sounds. For example, Eco 2, “Languidamente, quasi lontano (hauntingly),” for violin and piano, offers some explicit instructions to the pianist for producing the desired sound: “draw a piece of rather hard rubber very slowly along the indicated strings…the [resulting] whistle tones will fortify the harmonic and give the illusion of a continuous sound.” In Eco 3, the violinist is instructed to “hold the violin like a mandolin,” and so on. The piece is textural and full of fleeting gestures, but there are some figures that recur and help shape the overall experience. The opening figure, a set of five notes played by the piano, is a primary motive and recurs throughout the piece. 

In Echi 5-7, a phrase from a Lorca poem—y los arcos rotos donde sufre el tiempo, and the broken arches where time suffers—is spoken at the beginning of each, followed by an elaborate accompanied cadenza, first for flute, then violin, then clarinet. The five-note motive from the beginning punctuates, even haunts, these sections. In the final Eco, “Adagio (like a prayer),” the violin and piano gradually fade out over the course of repeated gestures. The piano in particular “echoes” the beginning of the piece, and each repetition of the five-note gesture grows softer and softer, with more and more time (notated in the score) between the final gestures. It is worth seeing Crumb’s scores: they are replicated from his hand-drawn originals, intricate and ornate, with unusual techniques and effects indicated throughout, and very beautiful to look at.

William Bolcom, 2nd Sonata for Violin & Piano

The American composer William Bolcom is also a pianist, known for his performances of ragtime and for writing original rags. He has embraced countless styles and genres over the course of his career, and with his wife, the mezzo Joan Morris, he has also been active as a performer and proponent of American popular song. Although he began his composing life influenced by serialism, his interest in popular idioms has come through in much of his work. One scholar points out that in Bolcom’s work, “An intensely dramatic atonality may contrast with song styles of World War I, ragtime, old popular tunes, or a waltz.” This is exemplified in the opening movement of this Sonata, where the piano plays a bluesy bass line, while the violinist plays atonal passages above.

Of this piece, the composer writes:

“Coming 22 years after the first, the Second Sonata results in part from the violinist Sergiu Luca’s association with the great jazz fiddler Joe Venuti. Luca was one of the first classically-trained violinists of the late 1970s to begin showing interest in jazz styles, and Venuti, the living legend in his eighties, still had perfect intonation, dazzling technique, and dozens of fresh musical ideas. One unforgettable evening in April 1978, at Michael’s Pub in New York, Joe invited first Sergiu, then my wife Joan Morris and me, to play sets with him, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Bobby Rosengarden. (I do not remember what or how we did, as my head was buzzing with excitement at sitting in with the Master.)

Sergiu had secured a commission from the McKim Fund of the Library of Congress for a new piece for us to play; that summer, as Composer in Residence at the Aspen Music Festival, I began work on the sonata, incorporating in it many of Joe’s stylistic tricks, alternate left- and right-hand pizzicato, double-stop slides, his encyclopedia of nuances. One day in August 1978 Sergiu phoned me at Aspen; Joe had died, and the Second Sonata became his memorial.

The first movement, Summer Dreams, is a modified blues with a contrasting middle section. Brutal, fast is a furious improvisation on a small interval, containing one of the toughest passages for the piano I have ever written. The Adagio which follows is a rhapsodic arioso leading to a closing, hymn-like tune. The final In Memory of Joe Venuti, a sort of Venutian salsa, recalls much of his style.”