Program Notes- June 11, 2022

Program Notes

“Music in Pictures” 

Written by Todd Giles


Leonard Bernstein: Overture to Candide (1955-56)


Along with being the first US-born conductor to head up a major American orchestra, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was also one of the most influential music advocates of the 20th century, writing, teaching, and regularly appearing on television. Equally as adept at composing and conducting popular music as he was with art-music, Bernstein’s unique style brings together the intellectual clarity of Stravinsky, the vitality of Gershwin, and the accessibility of Copland. As is often the case with new art, music and literature in America, the artwork has to wait awhile for society to catch up with it. Witness Candide, which was composed just two years before he took the helm of the New York Philharmonic from 1958-1969. Many listeners found the operetta too intellectual, thus Bernstein made extensive revisions two times over the next 30 years. 


What really excited audiences was what Bernstein shared with them a year later—West Side Story. In the preceding years, though, Candide grew on folks. The “comic operetta,” as Bernstein labeled it, is based on the 1759 Voltaire novella of the same name about the misadventures of the young and naïve Candide. Clocking in at around only four minutes, the overture issues forth a bombastically eclectic collection of styles reflecting the various circumstances Candide finds himself in throughout the work. At times stylized and vaudevillian, the overture does its job in a rapid-fire way by at one and the same time forecasting the music to come, while also keeping us somewhat anchored by returning us to the lyrical main theme of the work. The fast pace and jubilance are accentuated by the extensive use of percussion and brass instruments—timpani, snare, tenor and bass drums, cymbals, triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel, four horns, two trumpets, and three trombones. Encapsulating some of the show’s best tunes, the overture to Candide stands today as Bernstein’s most popular and oft-performed orchestral work. 


William Grant Still: Symphony No. 1 in A flat major (“Afro-American Symphony”) (1930) 


William Grant Still (1895-1978) is our nation’s most well-known African American classical composer and, like our great poet Langston Hughes, he is associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s. Much like Hughes’ call in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” for young African American artists to embrace the culture of the “lowdown folk” without “fear or shame” (as opposed to the “smug, contented, respectable folk” of the “Negro middle class”), Still, in his own words, sought “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.” For both Still and Hughes, this in part meant incorporating the African American rhythms of blues and jazz into their work. Still’s Symphony No. 1 in A flat major (also known as the Afro-American Symphony), was premiered under the baton of Howard Hanson in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic. Not only was this the first time a complete work by an African American was performed by a major orchestra, by the mid-1940s it had also been performed by orchestras in Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris, London and Berlin. Two more important dates: in 1936, Still was the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in a performance of their own work; and in 1955 he was likewise the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South. 


In the 30s, blues was still seen by white audiences as vulgar, and although George Gershwin helped elevate jazz a bit in the eyes of concertgoers by incorporating its rhythms it into some of his classical works, it wasn’t until Still so seamlessly brought together blues, jazz and spirituals together with the traditional classical form of the symphony that white audiences saw African American music as something to be celebrated in the concert hall. 


While the Afro-American Symphony follows the traditional four-movement symphonic structure, Still subtitled each movement with epigraphs from four dialect poems by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The opening movement, marked “Longing,” presents the principal theme, an original twelve-bar blues melody introduced by the English horn, which calls to mind the solo for English horn in the second movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, a work itself influenced by African American spirituals. “Sorrow,” the second movement, depicts the strength of an oppressed people battered down but not yet broken. Here we hear the solo oboe present the main theme over flute and string accompaniment. The third movement, “Humor,” brings ragtime into the mix with the inclusion of the banjo for the first time in symphonic music. “Humor,” which is often performed as a stand-alone work, includes a tune reminiscent of Gershwin’s famous “I’ve Got Rhythm” (also composed in 1930), though Gershwin likely heard Still improvise the tune in the 1920s in the Broadway show Shuffle Along. The final movement, “Aspiration,” brings together the themes and styles of the previous movements to once again highlight the distinctive voice of African American spirit and creativity. 


José Moncayo: Huapango (1941)


Mexico has a rich and varied musical heritage that, like the American music discussed above, is born out of the landscape and its people. If the ‘American sound’ is exemplified in Copland’s Rodeo, you could say that the ‘Mexican sound’ is likewise encapsulated in José Moncayo’s Huapango. Like Rodeo, Huapango borrows liberally from regional folk tunes. Moncayo (1912–1958) was a Mexican pianist, percussionist, teacher, composer and conductor. His compositional output was rather modest—a couple symphonies, a ballet, an opera, and a handful of chamber pieces and works for solo piano, all written between 1931 and 1958. It is his 1941 Huapango, which premiered at the Palacio de Bellas Artes by the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, that will keep Moncayo’s name and music on the Mexican classical ‘A List’ in perpetuity. The following year, Moncayo was awarded a scholarship to the Berkshire Institute in the US (now known as Tanglewood), where he attended courses taught by his friend Aaron Copland; while there, he also met the then twenty-four year old Leonard Bernstein.


Huapango is a short, bright, single-movement work inspired by traditional dances (huapangos) from Veracruz, a local his teacher, conductor and composer Carlos Chávez, asked Moncayo to visit for some compositional inspiration. Huapango incorporates three traditional Veracruzan dances (“Siqui-Siri,” “Balajú,” and “El Gavilán”) and features instruments typical of the state, which is situated along the Gulf of Mexico (trumpets, harp, and violins). Written like a brief symphony without pauses between its four movements, Huapango brings together the traditional sounds of Veracruz in a lively orchestral form—sometimes playfully (scherzo), others nostalgically (lento), and sometimes at break-neck speed (the opening and closing allegros). Guitars are simulated by strummed violins, and the trumpet and trombone alternate in competition for the leading role throughout the work. As with both the Bernstein and Copland works on the program, we will also hear from the xylophone, harp and tympani in this rhythmic, brassy and percussive work. 


Antonín Dvořák: “Largo” from Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 “From the New World” (1893) 


The New World Symphony was composed by Antonín Dvořák while he was living in America as the director of the National Conservatory of Music between 1892 and 1895. The Ninth Symphony, as it is more formally known, is Dvořák’s most celebrated work by concertgoers and astronauts alike (Neil Armstrong took a recording of it to the moon in 1969!). Similar to the traditional Veracruzan dances in Moncayo’s Huapango, Dvořák brought to American with him the Romantic-era fascination with native folk songs and dance rhythms known as ‘musical nationalism,’ as seen, for example, in the music of Béla Bartók (Hungary), Jean Sibelius (Finland), Frederick Chopin (Poland), Aaron Copland (America), and The Mighty Five (Russia). In America, for Dvořák, that meant exploring (or co-opting) Native American and African American music. As the composer put it: “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil.” 


Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered under the baton of Anton Seidl at Carnegie Hall on December 16th, 1893. In a New York Herald article appearing the previous day, Dvořák said, “I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.” Further, he says that the second movement, marked “Largo,” was a “sketch or study for a later work, either a cantata or opera . . . which will be based upon Longfellow’s [The Song ofHiawatha.” This follow-up work never came to fruition, though the theme from the same movement was adapted into the African American spiritual-like “Goin’ Home” by Dvořák’s student William Arms Fisher in 1922. 


Aaron Copland: “Four Dance Episodes” from Rodeo (1942)


While one could easily argue that Leonard Bernstein was the quintessential conductor and musical statesman of 20th century America, one could also argue that Aaron Copland was the most influential American composer of the century. Whereas Bernstein helped bring the sounds of classical music to millions of Americans, Copland’s music is the sound of America, as seen in works such as Appalachian Spring, Lincoln Portrait, and Quiet City. Indeed, his most well-known works are so quintessentially American sounding that we seldom stop to think about just how unique they actually were in the era of High Modernism’s musical and artistic experimentation. 


Copland was the first American student to study under famed French music teacher Nadia Boulanger. Once back home in 1925, Copland did his best to break from European musical traditions by experimenting with the sounds of American jazz and the neo-classicism of Stravinsky (much like Stravinsky himself explored jazz in some of his own music). By the time Copland composed his harsh and atonal Piano Sonata (1939-1941), he knew he risked alienating the audiences of the very landscape he wished to emulate. Writing nearly 100 years earlier about his own shedding of the European tradition in “Song of Myself,” American poet Walt Whitman said:


Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with 


I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,

The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.


The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is 


It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,

I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.


And so with Copland, who stripped away the crowded intellectualism of the European parlor in exchange for an undistilled American idiom—a “fanfare for the common man,” if you will. Contact with the land, “undisguised and naked” of the weighty cloak of the past. Open air. Vastness. America. This is Copland’s music.


Rodeo, which was commissioned by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in October of 1942. It was the second of Copland’s “cowboy ballets,” the first being Billy the Kid (1938), and even though his new and more accessible sound was a hit from the get-go, he showed some trepidation in returning to the cowboy theme so soon. Choreographer Agnes de Mille successfully persuaded him to pursue the new project by telling him she envisioned a simple American love story set on a Western ranch, a “The Taming of the Shrew—with cowboys!”

Subtitled “The Courting at Burnt Ranch,” Rodeo consists of five segments: “Buckaroo Holiday,” “Ranch House Party,” “Corral Nocturne,” “Saturday Night Waltz” and “Hoe-Down.” For the concert suite titled “Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo” Copland penned in 1943, “Ranch House Party” is omitted. Like Bernstein’s Candide to come a decade later, Rodeo is also scored in part for cymbals, triangle, xylophone, triangle, glockenspiel, snare and bass drums (and wood block and whip/slapstick!). The ballet is about a cowgirl raised at Burnt Ranch who longs to be more than just one of the boys; indeed, she longs for one of the boys—the Head Wrangler, who, like the rest of the cowboys, has a hankering for the Rancher’s Daughter. Classic love story. And we all know how those end—at least in fiction: girl gets boy. Eventually catching the attention of the Champion Roper, who has just lost the Rancher’s Daughter’s attentions to the Head Wrangler, our heroine dons a lovely dress for the Hoe-Down, finally attracts the glance of the Head Wrangler, and the love story ends with our couple locked in a kiss in the middle of the dance.