COLEMAN, VALERIE (b. 1970)
Seven O’clock Shout (2020)
Seven O’Clock Shout is an anthem inspired by the tireless frontline workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the heartwarming ritual of evening serenades that brings people together amidst isolation to celebrate life and the sacrifices of heroes. The work begins with a distant and solitary solo between two trumpets in fanfare fashion to commemorate the isolation forced upon humankind, and the need to reach out to one another. The fanfare blossoms into a lushly dense landscape of nature, symbolizing both the caregiving acts of nurses and doctors as they try to save lives, while nature is transforming and healing herself during a time of self-isolation.
When a composer has the rare opportunity to create for musicians they have gotten to know, the act of composing becomes an embrace tailored to the personality and capabilities of the musicians with elements of both challenge and appreciation. One such moment is dedicated to humanity and grace, as a clarinet solo written for Ricardo Morales, followed by a flute solo with both Jeffrey Khaner and Patrick Williams in mind, providing a transition into a new upbeat segment. Later, to continue tradition from the first commission the composer received from the orchestra, a piccolo solo dedicated to Erica Peel dances with joy.
It was suggested that a short work for a debut by multi-track recording could account for the ensemble performing together as if they were in the same room. One of the devices used to address this is the usage of Ostinato, which is a rhythmic motif that repeats itself to generate forward motion and in this case, groove. The ostinato patterns here are laid down by the bass section, allowing the English horn and strings to float over it, gradually building up to that moment at 7pm, when cheers, claps, clangings of pots and pans, and shouts ring through the air of cities around the world! The trumpets drive an infectious rhythm, layered with a traditional Son clave rhythm, while solo trombone boldly rings out an anthem within a traditional African call and response style. The entire orchestra ‘shouts’ back in response and the entire ensemble rallies into an anthem that embodies the struggles and triumph of humanity. The work ends in a proud anthem moment where we all come together with grateful hearts to acknowledge that we have survived yet another day.
STILL, WILLIAM GRANT (1895-1978)
Wood Notes (1948)
Called the “Dean of Afro-American Composers” and considered part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s, William Grant Still was a conductor, orchestrator, performer, and composer of nearly two hundred works. These included many large-scale orchestral works, choral works and songs, as well as solo pieces and chamber music. Choosing to leave the undergraduate program in Science at Wilberforce University, a historically-Black college in Ohio, Still used his inheritance from his father, supplemented with part-time work, to pursue studying at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Already a violinist, Still taught himself to play several other instruments including clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello, and viola. His promising early compositions caught the attention of Oberlin’s composition faculty, even though he hadn’t been registered in the program. His composition training eventually led him to study privately with Edgar Varèse and George Whitefield Chadwick.
Like many musicians of his era, Still’s musical life was interrupted by World War I. After serving in the United States Navy, he moved from Tennessee where he had been working in a Blues Band to New York, while keeping his employment with songwriter W.C. Handy. Living in Harlem allowed Still to connect with many influential Black artists, writers, philosophers, and activists such as Langston Hughes and Alain LeRoy Rocke, while playing in Broadway pit orchestras, arranging, and performing on various recordings. During this time, Still continued to compose his own music, and in 1931, his Symphony No. 1 Afro-American, was premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic under the baton of Howard Hanson, with whom Still enjoyed a lifelong friendship and close professional association, and who facilitated the premiere of many of Still’s works in Rochester.
Symphony No. 1 Afro-American was extraordinarily successful. Not only was it the first time the complete score of a work by an African-American composer was performed by a major Symphony Orchestra, it also reached audiences in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, and Paris over the next decade and a half. Until 1950 it was the most popular and frequently-played Symphonic work by an American.
Relocating to Los Angeles in 1934, Still received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In the years that followed, he achieved many firsts, including being the first African-American composer to conduct a major symphony orchestra (LA Philharmonic) performing his own music, he was the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra (New Orleans Philharmonic) in the Deep South, and his opera Troubled Island was the first opera by an American composer to be performed by the New York City Opera, and the first opera by an African-American to performed by a major opera company.
Wood Notes, written in 1947 and premiered in 1948 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was inspired by the composer’s deep love and appreciation of nature, and also by the poetry of writer and clergyman J. Mitchell Pilcher. A harmonically lush four-movement pastoral suite for orchestra, Wood Notes evokes the natural world of the American South.
PRICE, FLORENCE (1887-1953)
Piano Concerto in D minor in One Movement (1934)
Florence Beatrice Price (née Smith), an organist and pianist, composed over three hundred musical works, including about one hundred songs. Her compositions range from large-scale orchestral works, including four symphonies and four concerti, to choral works, chamber and solo pieces. As a composer, she rose to prominence in her forties after winning a prize for her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, which was premiered by the Chicago Symphony under the baton of Frederick Stock in 1932. This sudden success took place after years of teaching, playing organ for silent films, and writing songs for radio ads while raising two children on her own after divorcing her abusive husband.
When living in the South during the Jim Crow era became untenable, she moved to Chicago in 1927 with her family. Price had lived in Little Rock, her hometown where fellow African-American composer William Grant Still had been her classmate, and briefly in Atlanta where she was head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University, a historically-Black college. Price was an exceptional student in Little Rock, graduating at age fourteen as valedictorian of her class, and going on to study at New England Conservatory of Music pursuing a double major in piano and organ, where she convinced the admissions department that she was of Mexican heritage to sidestep racial discrimination.
Being a thoroughly American symphonist, Price’s training and classical style is rooted in Romanticism following in the footsteps of Liszt, Mendelssohn, and in particular Dvorak. Her music is brimming with references to her faith as an African-American Christian, containing spirituals, gospel, blues, and rhythms recalling African Dance. The opening of the second part of Piano Concerto in D Minor in One Movement is very reflective and hymn-like; the work in fact features three movements meant to be performed without break. The version of the Concerto on this program is a re-construction by Trevor Weston of the 1934 premiere in which Price was the soloist, since the score and some of the parts are lost.
In fact, all of Price’s musical achievements were very nearly lost. Price knew better than anyone the barriers her musical legacy faced. It’s not known if her highly successful Symphony No. 1 was performed again after its premiere, and in a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony in 1943, she wrote: “To begin with, I have two handicaps — those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. I should like to be judged on merit alone.” However, in 2009, papers and works of Price’s were found in an old house in Illinois during a renovation project. The house had once been the composer’s summer home, and restoring it is rightfully restoring her reputation as a composer belonging to the canon of respected American symphonists.
BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.5 in C Minor Op. 67
Opening with one of the most recognized musical motifs in classical music history, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is not only the most frequently performed Beethoven symphony, it is one of the most frequently performed orchestral works in the Western canon. The famous four-note opening motifs has transcended the symphonic oeuvre and found its way into other musical genres and popular culture generally. Its association with the Morse code for Victory (dot-dot-dot-dash) is purely coincidental; the Morse code usage came about decades after the symphony was written, but the reference to “Victory” has been culturally entrenched since World War II.
Beethoven conceived the opening motif in its rhythmic character as representing Fate knocking at the door. Like Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”), and Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”), Symphony No. 5 had a nickname, (“Schicksals-Sinfonie”), meaning Fate-Symphony in use for some time. Later Romantic-era compositions, including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, also use musical symbolism to evoke the inevitability of Fate. It is believed that Beethoven’s choice of key, C Minor, was linked to the theme of destiny, and a recording of the first movement of Symphony No. 5, along with the fifth movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, was included on the Voyager Golden Record, a disc sent into interstellar space in 1977 as part of a broad sample of human language and culture.
Unsurprisingly, Symphony No. 5, widely considered a masterpiece, took four years to write between 1804 and 1808. Beethoven was very busy with a number of other projects, including the three Razumovsky String Quartets, commissioned by Beethoven’s patron, Russian diplomat, Count Razumovsky, to whom Symphony No. 5 is also dedicated. Symphony No. 5 was premiered at the same concert as Symphony No. 6 in December 1808. In fact, Symphony No. 6 was the opening work on a four-hour-long, not particularly successful performance of eight of Beethoven’s works.
Following its publication in 1810, appreciation for Symphony No. 5 soared. In an ecstatic and breathlessly-reverential review by E.T.A. Hoffman, the experience of hearing the work live is described as follows:
Radiant beams shoot through this region’s deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up in jubilant tones sinks and succumbs, and only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.
To his credit, E.T.A. Hoffman was a very well-respected author, artist, and music critic who devoted the majority of the review to a critical analysis of the symphony, once he had regained his composure.
Program Notes by Tamsin Lorraine Johnston