Made in America Festival:
American Stories

Program Notes by Steven Lowe

Symphony No. 2

Nov. 25, 1896, Kansas City, Mo.
Died: Sept. 30, 1989, New York City
Work composed: 1931; revised 1941
World premiere: Nov. 17, 1941, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Beecham, conducting

Virgil Thomson captured an essential aspect of American musical byways, utilizing popular folk tunes, hymns and march music familiar to his countrymen. Like many a native son of his time, he packed his bags early to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, where he hobnobbed with Stravinsky, Cocteau, Satie and the leading lights of the French avant-garde. French sophistication and wit blended miraculously with a homespun American style, and figures prominently in this Symphony No. 2, which began life as a piano sonata in 1929 before the decade-plus transformation into a skillfully scored orchestral canvas.

Thomson wrote of this work, “The expressive character of this symphony is predominantly lyrical. Dancing and jollity, however, are rarely absent from its thought; and the military suggestions of horn and trumpet, or marching and of drums, are a constantly recurring presence both as background and foreground.”

The opening movement, Allegro militaire announces itself with an ironic-sounding trumpet against a thumping orchestral background. The mood is predominantly light, festive and charmingly bumptious. Dominance of brass and winds for much of the movement imparts an outdoorsy quality, though a slow section introduced by bassoon is lyrical and nostalgic. The ensuing Andante juxtaposes lyrical and jaunty episodes. The block-like scoring of section-by-section sonorities recalls Thomson’s early experience as an organist. The whole movement suggests a kind of rustic American waltz, or better still, a Ländler. The closing Allegro opens with chordal strings followed by increasingly rowdy additions of brass and winds. A spirit of the March weaves throughout (as it does in the first two movements), complemented by nostalgic lyricism.

Variations on “America”

Ives – Born:
Oct. 20, 1874, Danbury, Conn.
Died: May 19, 1954, New York City
Schuman – Born: Aug. 4, 1910, New York City
Died: Feb. 15, 1992, New York City
Work composed: original by Ives for organ 1891; orchestrated by Schuman 1963
World premiere: 1891, Danbury, Conn., Ives as organist; May 20, 1964, orchestral version, New York Philharmonic, André Kostelanetz conducting

In 1891, Charles Ives performed a set of organ variations on “God Save the King” by the German composer J.C.H. Rinck. In short order he composed his own set of variations on the familiar tune, known Stateside, of course, as “America.” Tongue-in-cheek, yet born of patriotic love, Ives’ audacious organ piece romps from hymn to popular dance to polonaise. In 1894, he added a short polytonal section rife with raucous dissonances created by the clash of playing simultaneously in different keys, years ahead of Stravinsky’s famous “Petrouchka chord” of 1911.

In 1963, William Schuman responded to a commission from Broadcast Music Inc., (BMI) with his vibrant orchestration of Ives’ Variations on “America.” Schuman captured the youthful exuberance and humor of the original, especially in his writing for percussion and brass. Henry Cowell, who played an active role in bringing Ives’ music to public awareness (and who was himself a noted maverick composer who experimented, as did Ives, with quarter-tones), told Schuman his orchestration was “delightful,” and that Ives would have liked it, too.

David Diamond
Symphony No. 4

July 9, 1915, Rochester, N.Y., where he currently lives
Work composed: 1945-46
World premiere: Jan. 23, 1948, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein conducting

As World War II moved toward its long welcome close in 1945, David Diamond composed his Fourth Symphony, the result of help from Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony and a great champion of new music. Koussevitzky persuaded the Koussevitzky Foundation to commission the new work, which Diamond graciously dedicated to the conductor’s late wife, Natalie Koussevitzky.

A compact but probing work, the Fourth was created in an atmosphere fraught with thoughts of mortality on the part of the composer. The opening Allegretto begins with swirling motion before a modal theme emerges from the primordial nebula of sound. An engaging, pensive two-part pastoral theme is given voice by muted strings, clarinet and bass clarinet before yielding to a variant given by upper strings without mutes. A second theme introduced by solo oboe promises a lighter mood. At a climactic moment, the two themes merge in conversational counterpoint before a brief coda brings the movement to a comparatively gentle close.

The Adagio—Andante second movement introduces itself through a “chorale-like theme of religious and supplicating nature.” Rather stern in its initial appearance, its demeanor is softened by restatement in the strings. A long-breathed second theme, modal and august in muted grandeur, unfolds in two parts, the first entrusted to winds, the second to first and second violins. A coda restores the initial chorale-like theme, and the movement ends delicately in the hands of the violins.

The brash and assertive finale, impelled by percussive piano, barking brass, scurrying woods and hammering drums carries one along on waves of manic exuberance. The music breathes the fresh air of the American outdoors, be it of real or imagined geography.

Peter Mennin
Moby Dick, Concertato for Orchestra
May 17, 1923, Erie, Penn.
Died: June 17, 1983, New York City
Work composed: 1952
World premiere: Oct. 20, 1952, Erie Philharmonic, Fritz Mahler, conducting

Peter Mennin enjoyed a career that capitalized on multiple talents as a composer, teacher and administrator. Born into a musical Italian-American family, he studied harmony at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio with Norman Lockwood, quickly absorbed the rules of composition and penned his first symphony and a string quartet by age 18.

Mennin’s Moby Dick resulted from a commission from the Erie Philharmonic in celebration of the centenary of the founding of that city. The specific inspiration, however, came from the composer’s love of Melville’s timeless classic tale of man and the forces of Nature. Mennin wrote, “The piece depicts the emotional impact of the novel as a whole rather than musically describing isolated incidents occurring in the novel.”

The work begins with a soft, long-held quiet note in the high strings before winds enter with shifting harmonies. A gradual increase in dynamic level catalyzes a rise in tempestuous drama. An undulating quality suggests the rolling power of the ocean. Closely voiced brass chords add a sense of power and potential menace. A woodwind melody that begins the Allegro section vaguely recalls old sea shanties. Busy and energetic counterpoint, entrusted to different instrumental groups, creates a sense of conflict and contest, a powerful metaphor for Ahab, the whale, Ishmael and the subsidiary characters on board the Pequod—though nothing is explicitly programmatic.

Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah”

May 18, 1918, Lawrence, Mass.
Died: Oct. 24, 1990, New York City
Composed: 1939-1942
World premiere: Jan. 28, 1944, Pittsburgh Symphony, Bernstein, conducting, Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano

Leonard Bernstein was as close to a Renaissance man as any composer of the 20th century. A terrific pianist and conductor, a natural and inspiring teacher, he brought passion and great skill to these overlapping multiple roles. His wide-ranging interests led him to compose music that explored American jazz and pop, as well as the inherited legacy of traditional classical music.

One of his earliest successes, Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony began as a sketch for a lamentation for soprano in 1939; it then lay dormant for two years. When the young composer returned to the idea, the horrors of World War II were upon the nation, even before the United States formally entered the conflagration following Pearl Harbor. The theme of Jeremiah—mourning the destruction of Jerusalem—drew added power as news of the Holocaust crossed the Atlantic. Bernstein, grappling with humankind’s lost faith (in itself, not simply in God), finished the work on the last day of 1942 and dedicated it to his father, though it also memorialized victims of tyranny. The work won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award.

For the premiere in 1944, Bernstein wrote, “As for programmatic meanings, the intention is … not one of literalness, but of emotional quality. Thus the first movement (“Prophecy” [largamente]) aims only to parallel in feeling the intensity of the prophet’s pleas with his people…” The insistent and ominous opening chords foretell a painful journey. The angular shape of the melodic material further heightens a sense of great pain and loss. Grieving strings lament against cannonades from the rest of the orchestral battery. The tension never abates, not even during quieter moments.

Profanation, the Symphony’s scherzo, finds Bernstein in full command of orchestral colors to convey, in his terms, “a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and the people.” This is music of considerable rhythmic urgency and syncopation, fusing elements from American jazz and musical theater with sounds suggestive of the Jews’ Middle Eastern heritage.

The text for the concluding movement with mezzo-soprano soloist derives from the book of Lamentations. Anguished, passionate and mournful, Jeremiah cries out in pain over the destruction of his beloved Jerusalem, an event he had desperately and vainly attempted to prevent. The work ends quietly with a prayerful plea, “Turn Thou us into Thee, O Lord....”

© 2005 Seattle Symphony

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