Ethiopia's Shadow in America
Florence Price (1887-1953)
The Arrival of the Negro in America when first brought here as a slave – (Introduction and Allegretto)
His Resignation and Faith – (Andante)
His Adaptation – (Allegro) – A fusion of his native and acquired impulses”
Florence Price, born in 1887, was widely recognised as the first African-American female symphonic composer, and was active in her adopted home of Chigaco between 1927 until her death in 1953. She had moved there amongst rising racial tensions in her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, and having gone through a divorce not long after the move, played organ for silent films to support herself whilst focussing fully on her compositional career.
She was prolific, writing over 300 works, including four symphonies. Many of her works, including this one, were presumed lost; it wasn't until 2009 that a huge amount of previously undisturbed manuscripts were discovered in a dilapidated house in Illinois, previously used as a holiday home by Price. Indeed, the first recording of any of her works wasn't made until 100 years after her birth in 1987.
Her training at the New England Conservatory of Music was largely in the European style, but nevertheless Price's compositional approach centres around the use of vernacular American song and her Southern American roots, taking influence from spirituals, incorporating a goodly amount of syncopation and gospel harmony.
[Notes by Chris Noble]
Willian Grant Still (1895-1978)
Lento, con risoluzione
William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi in May 1895. He was born into a family of Negro, Spanish, Irish and Scotch inheritance. He had his first musical experiences whilst learning to play the violin but was encouraged by his mother to pursue medicine rather than his musical ambitions. The pull of music however, proved too great and Still dropped his studies to return to
work as a musician. He commenced work on his first symphony, also known as the Afro-American symphony in 1924.
Considered to be the first symphony written by an African American composer, since it’s completion in 1930 and publication, in 1935, it has become, not only one of his most famous works, but also one of the most popular American symphonies of all time. Despite having
learned his craft under French modernist composers, the symphony has clear links with Still’s ethnic origin, is scattered with blues-inspired melodies, and offers rich melodic colouring.
The symphony is based on quotes from the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar which Still used as epitaphs for each of the movements.
The first movement is written, loosely, in sonata form. Two melodies, the first, introduced by a muted trumpet has a recognisable 12 bar blues progression, the second, heard initially in the oboe part has clear renderings of Black spirituals. The melodies are introduced and developed throughout the course of the movement. The movement moves from major to minor and in doing so has a sense of longing, but this doesn’t last long as the movement returns to the initial theme before moving on. As with later movements the influences of Dvorak’s New World Symphony can be felt in the nostalgic soloes throughout the movement.
The second movement offers more from the spiritual style, it is more chromatic and strays further from conventional, tonal chord progressions underpinned by an epigraph for the movement that clearly reflects its spiritual underpinnings.
It's moughty tiahsome layin' 'roun'
Dis sorer-laden erfly groun',
An' oftentimes I thinks, thinks I,
'T would be a sweet t'ing des to die,
An go 'long home.
The third movement has a more animated feel to it which encompasses ragtime and jazz and distinctive syncopated cross-rhythms. Inclusion of the banjo in this movement adds to the sense of local colour and festive atmosphere. It has two major themes, each with two prevailing variations of
each. There are echoes of Gershwin’s I got Rhythm in the second theme which is introduced by the horns, flute, and oboe early in the movement.
The fourth movement has a strong hymnal feel in the first instance, but grows throughout to an upbeat finale. It revisits and unites the style of previous movements and in so doing demonstrates a distinctive American voice in music that is intrinsically tied to the culture and music of African-Americans.
Despite its clear popularity, Still revised the score for his first symphony numerous times, but ultimately decided to withdraw the work and died leaving it unpublished.
[Notes by Charlotte Kenyon]
Suite for Variety Orchestra
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
The Suite for Variety Orchestra #1 was assembled by Shostakovich at some point in the uncertain years following the Death of Stalin in 1953. It takes pieces written by Shostakovich in the previous 20 years and assembles them into the loose suite we hear today. The 30s and 40s for Shostakovich were at times extremely dark and troubling, he was singled out personally by Stalin for writing ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ and was advised personally that he was playing a game “...that may end very badly” (several of Shostakovich’s colleagues who tried to publicly defend him were murdered in the purges - the threats to him were very real). The Soviet state called on composers like Shostakovich to create “good instrumental works” using “simple and popular musical language accessible to all” - something which any vivacious composer in the 20s and 30s would have railed against; especially a composer who was aware of the musical revolutions happening in western Europe.
Shostakovich’s creative life in Soviet Russia was a balancing act then, struggling to express himself in his symphonies and quartets, whilst making a living (and seeking to remain living) by writing more popular music. The younger Shostakovich had made his living as a cinema pianist, and although even then he was criticized as being too avant garde, he was no stranger to writing a good tune and keeping the punters happy. The Suite for Variety Orchestra has often been mislabelled his Suite #2 for Jazz Orchestra which was lost during the 2nd world war. Jazz music (or music called Jazz) has been present in some form in Russia throughout the 20th Century, the pre-jazz influences reached Russia before the October revolution and then developed, state sanctioned, but with little official contact with western Jazz through the 20s and 30s. The 40s brought groups like the State Jazz Orchestra of the USSR into contact with the swing bands of the US as they entertained troops post-war and there was a nervous popular resurgence of Jazz in the 1940s until Stalin decreed the playing of saxophone illegal in 1949, presumably on the grounds that it was becoming more popular than he was.
Featuring 4 saxophones the expanded orchestra here also includes harp, pianos, celesta, guitar + percussion.
[Notes by Tom Davies]
An American in Paris
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Gershwin, so intrigued by Maurice Ravel's unusual harmonies and fragrant orchestration, was moved to go and study with him in Paris in 1926, two years prior to An American In Paris's conception. Upon meeting him, legend has is that, following a lengthy discussion on musical preferences and theoretical standpoints, Ravel turned him away with the send-off, “Why be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?”.
The story is likely the stuff of myth, but nevertheless Paris certainly left an impression with Gershwin. Having first encouraged Ravel to tour the US, Gershwin was himself motivated to return to Paris, home at the time to the likes of Yeats, Hemingway and Picasso, in order to complete a follow up to his highly successful Rhapsody in Blue.
Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, An American in Paris eschews traditional orchestral development (and a piano-centric focus, as was the case with the Rhapsody (1924) and the Concerto in F (1925)) in favour of a narrative travelogue, detailing an American tourist's path through the city via colourful use of a large orchestra featuring full wind and saxophones, not to mention now-iconic taxi horns.
For the premiere performance, critic Deems Taylor wrote an unusual programme note in the form of extensive poetic prose, designed as a tour guide of sorts to guide the listener on their journey. The piece is loosely in ABA form; Deems points us in the direction of a 'Walking Theme' in the form of a 'straightforward diatonic air' representing 'Gallic freedom'(!) followed by a 'special theme' of the aforementioned horns-plus-strings announcing the taxi drivers' arrival (not that you'll miss them).
A second strolling ditty comprises the rest of this section, before the famous Blues of the B section; blues in both senses given the portrayal of the protagonist's homesickness through increasing tempi and a general heightened agitato feel. The walking themes are eventually brought back and merged with earlier bluesy themes in a grandiose finale.
[Notes by Chris Noble]
George Morton studied Music at the University of Sheffield and, since graduating, has settled in the leafy city of Sheffield and continues to enjoy its proximity to the Peak District National Park and locally-brewed beer.
As a conductor, George is in demand across the North of England. He is founder and Artistic Director of Rep Orchestra, a professional ensemble based in Sheffield which devotes its concerts to exploring innovative and exciting projects. He is Musical Director of the Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra and Nottingham University Wind Orchestra. He has appeared as Guest Conductor with ensembles including Roma Tre Orchestra, London Mozart Players, Covent Garden Sinfonia, Bombay Chamber Orchestra, Hallam Sinfonia, Stamford Chamber Orchestra, Sounds of the Engine House and the Swan Ensemble. Over the next year George will make his debuts with Northern Ballet Sinfonia and the Vaasa City Orchestra (Finland) and returns to conduct the Roma Tre Orchestra.
George is also an arranger and orchestrator; his reductions have been performed to great acclaim at venues across the world and are published by Universal Edition, Schott Music, and Boosey & Hawkes. George is the founder and director of Steel City Music Publishing, an independent publishing house that specialises in producing arrangements, orchestrations and transcriptions for chamber orchestras and ensembles.