An American Composer’s Perspective
Tonight’s Plano Symphony Orchestra concert explores contrasting sides of the musical spectrum. The first half presents four works by European composers from the standard symphonic repertoire with winners of the PSO’s Young Artist Competition as soloists. In the second half, the orchestra revels in music from the Big Band tradition, featuring music by seven 20th-century jazz musicians of the Americas.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was the most important French composer of his time. His entire musical output is based either on texts or scenarios. Berlioz enjoyed his status as a musical revolutionary, and he was often at odds with his critics. The premiere of Berlioz’ Requiem was in an outdoor stadium the day after a stock show. One critic took the cheapshot of attributing the smell not to the livestock, but to Berlioz’ music. Berlioz, however, was confident of his place in history; on his deathbed, he uttered “At last, they are going to play my music.” Berlioz was also a gifted writer of words, and his witty Evenings with the Orchestra and monumental Treatise on Orchestration continue to be required reading for musicians.
The short and festive Roman Carnival Overture, with its celebrated English horn solo, is based on a scene from Berlioz’ opera Benvenuto Cellini, about the life of the Renaissance Italian goldsmith. Along with the Sinfonie Fantastique, it is one of Berlioz’ most often-performed works.
Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826) was a contemporary of Beethoven (1770-1827). Along with Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Weber was one of the first 19th-century composers to follow Beethoven’s stylistic journey from Classicism to Romanticism. Weber was unique among Romantic composers in that he worked with equal ease both in concert forms and in opera. His opera Der Freischütz was important in establishing the nationalist German opera tradition. Weber’s music runs the gamut from dark, expressive and dramatic to frivolous and playful, but the orchestration is always masterly, and French composer Hector Berlioz wrote respectfully of Weber in his Evenings with the Orchestra.
It is said that Weber wrote his Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra Op. 26 in three days and that the soloist learned his part over the next three days. The work thus made it from conception to premiere performance within one week. Cast in one movement, in variation form, the concerto begins with a theatrical introduction in C minor, leading to the lyrical clarinet entrance. The clarinet soon breaks into the sprightly theme in E-flat, followed by a series of variations. The music is effectively designed for the clarinet soloist to show off brilliant leaps, runs and arpeggios. The effect is operatic, as if a coloratura soprano were singing a Rossini aria and decorating it with maximum death-defying virtuoso pyrotechnics.
Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. He made lasting contributions to the fields of orchestral music, opera, ballet and chamber music. Most composers of concert music in Bartók’s time followed one of two completely different musical paths: 1) breaking apart the system of tonality with irregular rhythmic patterns and little literal thematic repetition (e.g. Arnold Schoenberg) or 2) remaining within the system of tonality and retaining more regular rhythms patters and literal thematic repetition (e.g. Igor Stravinsky). Equivalents in visual art would be a non-representational Kandinsky with no attempt to represent nature vs. an abstract Picasso, which, however distorted, always retains its reference to shapes such as bodies, animals and flowers.
Bartók followed track two. His music is emphatically tonal, often employing driving rhythms, and often colored by a luminous sensuousness which reveals the inspiration of Bartók’s French contemporary Claude Debussy. Another attractive feature of Bartók’s music is his distinctive use of Hungarian folk melodies and rhythms. The music often underlines the particularly Hungarian characteristic of accenting the first syllable of words, as in, “BE-gin at the BE-ginning.”
Bartók’s Viola Concerto (1945) was one of the composer’s last works, and it is the finest viola concerto ever written. Commissioned by American violist William Primrose, the work was unfinished at Bartók’s death. Bartók’s pupil Tibor Serly produced a completed draft, but there were revisions by others before Primrose could premiere it with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, with Antal Dorati conducting. The first movement is wrenchingly soulful and lyrically elegiac, with frequent viola soliloquys. Written loosely in sonata-allegro form, the music contains outbursts of rhythmic and dynamic aggression, but it remains mostly in song-mode. One could easily imagine the viola transformed into a super soprano singing heart-felt lyrics by a master poet. The movement ends with a viola cadenza followed by a lonely, folk-like bassoon solo that trails off into the distance.
The middle and late 19th century, known as the Romantic Era, saw a split between two contentious camps of composers and their followers. The avant-garde “Romantic Romantics,” such as Berlioz, Liszt and, most importantly, Wagner, claimed the right to Beethoven’s mantle for their colorful “program music” (music that tells a story or conveys extra-musical ideas) and for their bold departures from Classical norms. On the other hand, the conservative “Classical Romantics,” such as Schubert, Brahms, Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn, declared themselves the keepers of Beethoven’s legacy by following Beethoven’s model of symphonic structures in standard Classical forms, such as sonata-allegro and rondo. Today, we recognize the two “opposing” schools as two sides of the same musical coin.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote his orchestral compositions and chamber music in the standard forms of “Classic Romantic” tradition, but his most characteristic compositions are in freer forms, such as short piano pieces and songs, in which the composer could shift quickly from one musical texture to another, as a schizophrenic rapidly changes personalities, without following conventional and more “ordered” development and recapitulations.
Schumann’s life was short and troubled. He was manic-depressive and died in a mental institution after a suicide attempt. Writers often depict him as the Romantic prototype of the mad genius. He was, indeed, more productive in his periods of manic highs than in the depths of his depression, but scholars now recognize his erratic behavior as the growing symptoms of syphilis. Despite the trials of his personal life, Schumann was a prescient music critic, and, as a composer, he produced a massive catalogue of masterpieces in all the concert genres of his day. His melodies are noble and timeless, and he had a distinctive capacity for ending his compositions with a magnificent wind-up to the grand finale.
Schumann wrote his Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op. 54 in 1845, and his wife, Clara Schumann, was the soloist in the premiere performance the following year in Leipzig. The first movement, Allegro affettuoso, provides an unusual solution to the question of how to integrate the soloist and orchestra in the exposition of the musical material. The Classical model was for the orchestra to state the major themes first and for the soloist to enter later in a second exposition in which soloist and orchestra go through the material again together. Mozart’s Piano Concerto K.271 and Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto Op. 58 had already experimented with earlier entrances of the soloist, but in each of those cases, the piano entry was quick and was still followed by an orchestral exposition before the soloist actually tackled the main thematic material. Here, however, Schumann has the piano solo jump in immediately after the shortest orchestral introduction in all of music: just one note. After an opening flourish, the piano announces the main theme; then, solo and orchestra join as equal partners as the sonata-allegro form unfolds. The opening theme appears in many different guises, both in minor and major key, and, at the end, a powerful cadenza leads to the brilliant coda.
Much has been written about the roots and ingredients of jazz, but no one seems to be able to define it. As Louis Armstrong put it, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know.” Scholars note that jazz draws from African, American, Latin American and European sources dating back to the late 19th century; that it all came together in the United States in the 20th century; and that it has long been regarded as an important and uniquely American art form. The ingredients of jazz include swing, syncopation, colorful harmonies with dissonant “blue” notes (simultaneous major and minor thirds), call-and-response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation.
Among the earliest recorded uses of the word “jazz” was in 1912 by, of all people, a baseball player. The press reported that the player complained that he couldn’t hit a particular ball because the pitcher had thrown it “all jazzed up” with an unidentifiable spin. This special spin has always characterized jazz as music with an outsider identity, making it a brash alternative to more sedate and respectable “establishment” genres.
Part of the outsider identity of jazz is its innate impermanence. Much of jazz is improvised. This spontaneous quality means that a piece can never be repeated in exactly the same way. There is, thus, a built-in tension in jazz between free personal expression and adherence to the underlying rhythmic and harmonic patterns (the “changes”) that hold the music together. Dave Hickey wrote, “Jazz presumes that it would be nice if the four of us -- simpatico dudes that we are -- while playing this complicated song together, might somehow be free and autonomous…. Tragically, this never quite works out. At best, we can only be free one or two at a time -- while the other dudes hold onto the wire.”
Concert music tends to “hold onto the wire” in order for the players to reproduce the same notes and rhythms every time a given work is played. Still, there has been extensive cross-over, in which 1) composers from the jazz world employ symphonic forms and forces, usually, with specified passages of controlled improvisation for a few players or 2) composers from the symphonic world use the characteristic sounds of jazz, but usually all written out for the players. As Leonard Bernstein once said to Duke Ellington, “Maybe that's the difference between us --- you write 'symphonic jazz' and I write 'jazz symphonies.'”
How are symphonic jazz and jazz symphonies different? While the music of concert composers can basically be played by any ensemble, the music of jazz composers tends to work best when there is one single group that regularly plays the music. It is no accident, therefore, that the greatest jazz composers are, themselves, performers and that they like to perform with friends and colleagues who are used to working together and in the leader’s particular style.
The second half of tonight’s concert brings together orchestral arrangements of the works of seven important jazz figures -- six Americans and one Cuban -- who worked with their own bands. Like Haydn with his orchestra at Esterházy, these bandleaders had a regular, working music laboratory in which they could try out new works on the day they were written and perfect them over time. The synergy of talented and like-minded colleagues was and is a powerful force, especially when the awards are not only artistic but also financial. As Duke Ellington put it, "To keep a band together, you simply need a gimmick. The gimmick I use is to pay them money."
William “Count” Basie (1904-1984) was a pianist, band leader and, alongside Duke Ellington, was a leading figure of the swing era. He worked with groups of many different sizes. The large Count Basie Orchestra was the best known, but his most distinctive work was for smaller groups in which he and other individual players could improvise freely, rather than being homogenized into more generic arrangements. As a pianist, he was known for a “minimal” style, with short, melodic phrases rather than the more florid figuration of other pianists of his era. He was known for telling his players, “Four big beats in every bar and no cheatin’.”
Benny Goodman (1909-1986) was a clarinetist as well as a composer and bandleader. He performed with the Benny Goodman Trio, along with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa. The trio became a quartet with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Goodman then formed the Goodman Band, which toured to international acclaim and brought jazz to a wider audience. Known as the “King of Swing,” he was the first white leader to feature black jazz artists, and he was also active as a clarinetist in the world of classical music, having commissioned works by Aaron Copland and Bela Bartók. In 1982, he was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors Award.
Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956) was acclaimed as a trombonist. His band’s music was smooth and ideal for dancing. The arrangements were well-crafted, and many notable soloists performed with him, among them instrumentalists Bunny Bergen and Buddy Rich and vocalists Jack Leonard and Frank Sinatra.
Charlie Parker (1920-1955), known as “Bird,” was a jazz alto saxophonist. His complex and imaginative improvisations were legendary, and he had a wide influence upon succeeding performers and composers. He worked with such important colleagues as Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. He formed many ensembles in the course of his career, but his work was cut short by problems with alcohol and drug addiction. His last public engagement, shortly before his death, was at a New York nightclub named “Birdland” in his honor.
Perez Prado (1916-1989) was a Cuban pianist and bandleader known primarily for his mambo recordings and vivid stage personality, which earned him the nickname “King of the Mambo.” He toured in both Mexico and the U.S. His music bridges the gap between Latin and Anglo-American musical traditions.
Les Brown (1912-2001) had classical training in clarinet, saxophone and composition at Duke University, where he started his first dance band, The Duke Blue Devils. In 1938, he formed a twelve-piece dance orchestra which made many radio broadcasts and toured extensively. He was associated with Doris Day and Bob Hope, and in the fifties, his “Band of Renown” performed on The Steve Allen Show and The Dean Martin Show. He also appeared with the orchestra of the Hollywood Bowl.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974) was well known as a composer, pianist and bandleader. Early in his career, he worked with Louis Armstrong, and he had a long and productive relationship with Billy Strayhorn as arranger and second pianist. He formed many bands and toured widely over his long career. His compositions are noted for their formal elegance and their wide symphonic scope. Between 1943 and 1952, he gave a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall. He wrote more than 2000 compositions, and he is regarded as the most important composer in jazz history.
One final word about jazz, from the famous baseball player/malapropist, Yogi Berra: "Anyone who understands Jazz knows that you can't understand it. It's too complicated. That's what's so simple about it."