Rhapsody in Blue: Program Notes, April 7 - 9
The jazz connection: Gershwin married classical music to the most unique of American art forms, while Ives’ Second Symphony alludes to popular American folk tunes including “Camptown Races,” “Turkey in the Straw” and “America the Beautiful.” Between them, Ravel’s beautiful piano concerto, also heavily influenced by jazz.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) Symphony No. 2
Allegro molto vivace
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Concerto in G Major for Piano and Orchestra
Simone Dinnerstein, Piano
George Gershwin (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue
Simone Dinnerstein, Piano
Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman included.
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for April 7 - 9. You'll be automatically linked to the next NoteStream at the end.
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Photo by Halley Erskine
Born in Danbury in 1874, Charles Ives was unknown during his creative years. By 1930 he had stopped composing. But he lived long enough—to 1954—to glimpse his eventual fame as the most formidable of all American composers for the concert hall.
He was acclaimed by 20th-century modernists, including Arnold Schoenberg, as a prophet of the new. But he was in fact steeped in the sounds of his Connecticut boyhood, of chapel hymns and corny theater tunes.
Walt Whitman wrote, in Democratic Vistas:
“I say that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil until it finds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that has been produced in the past under opposite influence.”
Whitman’s vision of an egalitarian American language, boldly intermingling the classical and vernacular, finds fruition in the voice of Ives—an American Everyman; a vigorous democrat attuned to ordinary people and things; a charismatic philosopher who idealized art and spiritualized everyday experience, whose music is equally prone to plain and extravagant speech.
Eleven Year Gap
In 1900—two years after finishing a First Symphony—Ives embarked on the Symphony No. 2 we hear today. He completed it nine years later. If this is “early Ives,” it far surpasses any previous American symphony, and remains a pinnacle American symphonic achievement.
In the 1890s, Antonin Dvořák and his American advocates had already pointed American composers to folk and indigenous music: to “Negro melodies” and to Indians.
But in fact Dvořák equally adored composed Stephen Foster tunes like “Old Folks at Home.” Ives, too, deeply served an unprejudiced breadth of musical speech.
As a Danbury Yankee, he shared personal experience not with slaves and Navajos, or even (excepting some handed-down fiddle tunes) with the folk musicians of North America. Rather: via the parlor and salon, he identified with hymns and minstrel tunes; via the organ loft, he identified with Bach; via his father and his Yale composition teacher Horatio Parker, he identified with Beethoven and Brahms.
That all of these influences intermingle in the Second Symphony, that all are equally privileged, creates a musical kaleidoscope more multifarious than any by Mahler.
In fact, Ives’ strategy is to use not a single wholly original melody. The resulting tune-tapestry infiltrates the Germanic symphony with American vernacular song. Its method parallels Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which a hallowed European genre— the novel—is likewise appropriated through recourse to vernacular speech.
Huck famously says: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”
Ives’ symphony begins with a contrapuntal Andante moderato—“sacred” music ennobling Stephen Foster’s “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” and the fiddle tune “Pig Town Fling.”
Movement two is a bright Allegro sonata-form whose tunes include “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Movement three is an Adagio centerpiece fixing on the hymn “Beulah Land.” Movement four, Largo maestoso, is both an intense recollection of movement one and the set-up for a joke: a riotous dancing finale refracting “Turkey in the Straw” and “Camptown Races.”
"Courtesy of the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University"
Civil War Influences
In a 1943 letter to the conductor Artur Rodziński, Ives added a programmatic twist: he linked his symphony with the “fret and storm and stress for liberty” of the Civil War.
Where the marches and dances of the symphony’s finale abate for a plaintive horn theme citing Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe,” Ives (according to his letter) finds inspiration in Foster’s “sadness for the slaves.”
The passage in question—a lyric high point—is the second subject of the fifth movement. When the tune returns later on, it is assigned to a solo cello—the horn and cello being instruments that strikingly evoke the male human singing voice.
Gone Are The Days
Foster’s tune, wordlessly sung by Ives, sets these words (which Ives assumes we know):
Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay Gone are the toils of the cotton fields away
Gone to the fields of a better land I know
I hear those gentle voices calling, “Old black Joe.” I’m comin’, I’m comin’
Though my head is bendin’ low
I hear those gentle voices calling, “Old black Joe.”
Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com
Ultimately, this culminating movement of Ives’ Second takes a patriotic “victory” turn, climaxing with “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” The closing measures add a bugle call: Reveille. And so Ives’ recourse to the vernacular not only secures an American flavor; it enables him to cite specific elements of the American experience.
Ives’ older contemporary George Chadwick, in Boston, tweaked Germanic practice in such works as Jubilee (1895), quoting “Camptown Races” and the Melpomene Overture (1887), which cites Tristan and Isolde.
These gentle gestures, in their different ways, explore an emerging dialogue with Europe—a testing of the umbilical cord. Ives, in his Symphony No. 2, is already father to the parent: whatever he appropriates, he makes his own.
In movement two, a passage from Brahms’ Third Symphony provokes a chaotic disruption. A subsequent allusion to Brahms’s First is italicized by a snare drum. At the close of movement four, a striding bass line uses Bach as a straight man for slapstick.
Completed in 1909, Ives’ Second was not premiered until Leonard Bernstein exhumed it with the New York Philharmonic in 1951: an epiphany.
Ives refused Bernstein’s invitation to come to Carnegie Hall. Rather, he listened to the Philharmonic’s Sunday afternoon broadcast on a neighbor’s kitchen radio. Afterward, he arose, spit in the fireplace, and walked home without a word.
Ives’ wife, Harmony, wrote Bernstein a note thanking him on her husband’s behalf. She added that Mr. Ives found some of the tempi too slow.
Echoing modernist conventional wisdom, Bernstein called the composer of Ives’ Second an “authentic primitive”—an observation itself primitive. Ives’ mediation of New World and Old, simple and complex, is knowing, not naïve.
The American symphonies directly preceding Ives are to varying degrees imitative, deferent, or tentative. Ives alone brusquely levels the playing field.
His paradoxical methodology is to burrow deep within the prevailing “genteel tradition”—its “sacred” Germanic templates; its hymns and parlor songs, remembered from his Danbury home. A fin-de-siècle masterpiece, the Second Symphony is the handwork of a cocky subversive, a master practitioner of the inside job.
Symphony No. 2
Leonard Bernstein conducts Second Symphony of the american composer Charles Ives (1874-1954), with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in 1987. (1/3)
* * * *
After World War I, Europeans embraced jazz as unique, exotic, fascinating and fresh—“American.” An early convert was the composer Darius Milhaud, who in 1924 observed jazz striking “almost like a start of terror, like a sudden awakening, this shattering storm of rhythm, these tone elements never previously combined and now let loose upon us all at once.”
Milhaud also wrote:
“In jazz the North Americans have really found expression in an art form that suits them thoroughly, and their great jazz bands achieve a perfection that places them next to our most famous symphony orchestras.”
In fact, the most ardent jazz supporters included Europe’s leading composers, who routinely ignored Aaron Copland and his American classical-music colleagues.
Among Americans, however, jazz was infinitely debatable. Among music educators, Frank Damrosch of the Institute of Musical Art (later The Juilliard School) denounced the “outrage on beautiful music” perpetrated by musicians “stealing phrases from the classic composers and vulgarizing them.”
A typical music appreciation response was a Music Memory Contest in Cleveland aimed to “cultivate a distaste for jazz and other lower forms, and a need for the great compositions.”
Meanwhile, Nikolai Sokoloff, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, denounced jazz as “ugly sounds” and forbade his musicians to play it.
The trans-Atlantic rift over jazz split opinion on George Gershwin. In American classical music circles, Gershwin was dismissed by highbrows as a lower musical species. Gershwin’s first appearance with the New York Symphony in 1925—the premiere of the Concerto in F— furnishes an extreme example.
The musicians “hated Gershwin with instinctive loathing,” testified the violinist Winthrop Sargeant (later a music critic of consequence).
They “pretended to regard Gershwin’s music humorously, made funny noses, and played it, in general, with a complete lack of understanding of the American idiom.”
Other orchestras were more respectful, but some writers were not. Paul Rosenfeld, who influentially championed Copland in intellectual circles, detected in Gershwin, the Russian Jew, a “weakness of spirit, possibly as a consequence of the circumstance that the new world attracted the less stable types.” This observation appeared in The New Republic in 1933.
Rosenfeld’s point was the Gershwin was talented but vulgar, “a gifted composer of the lower, unpretentious order.” More politely, Aaron Copland was similarly disposed. He omitted Gershwin from his various surveys of important or promising American composers.
Of Gershwin’s European admirers, none paid him greater homage than Maurice Ravel.
In 1928, he told Olin Downes of The New York Times, “I think you have too little realization of yourselves and that you still look too far away over the water. An artist should be international in his judgments and aesthetic appreciations and incorrigibly national when it comes to the province of creative art. I think you know that I greatly admire and value—more, I think, than many American composers—American jazz.”
Ravel’s supreme homage to Gershwin first took the form of a famous comment, then of a famous composition.
The comment was an unforgettable note to Nadia Boulanger (March 8, 1928):
There is a musician here endowed with the most brilliant, most enchanting, and perhaps the most profound talent: George Gershwin.
His world-wide success no longer satisfies him, for he is aiming higher. He knows that he lacks the technical means to achieve his goal. In teaching him those means, one might ruin his talent.
Would you have the courage, which I wouldn’t dare have, to undertake this awesome responsibility?
Ravel had been dazzled by Gershwin at a dinner party the night before—and had said no when Gershwin asked for lessons. Boulanger (the teacher of Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and countless other Americans) also declined to teach Gershwin.
Concerto In G
A year later, Ravel undertook a jazzy piano concerto—tonight’s Concerto in G.
It is a work in some ways kindred to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Piano Concerto in F (1925). It is equally a distinctive product of Ravel’s genius: a marvel of freshness, originality and refinement.
The first movement’s solos (for piccolo, trumpet, clarinet, trombone and bassoon) are themselves a jazz homage. The movement’s slinky second theme, introduced by the solo piano, is “Spanish”—and yet answered by a wailing blues. As in Gershwin’s concerto, there is a toccata finale.
The slow movement, in between, is a sublime song infinitely sustained (as Gershwin’s songs, whether vocal or instrumental, are not). David Schiff writes in his admirable Rhapsody in Blue (1997): “Ravel’s concerto remains the greatest compliment ever paid by a European composer to American music.”
Concerto in G
Helene Grimaud Ravel Piano Concerto In G
* * *
Paul Whiteman’s Aeolian Hall concert of February 12, 1924, was titled “An Experiment in Jazz.”
The featured work, amid more than a dozen much shorter selections, was the new Rhapsody in Blue by a young composer/pianist exclusively associated with Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and other playgrounds for popular culture.
Whiteman had commissioned Gershwin to compose a work for piano and orchestra. As Gershwin had never composed for orchestra, the accompaniment was scored by Whiteman’s ace arranger, Ferde Grofé.
The landmark significance of Rhapsody in Blue was instantly apparent—not least to Whiteman, who found himself in tears midway through the performance.
“A New Cultural Sensibility”
The program was twice repeated— first at Aeolian, then at Carnegie Hall—after which Whiteman took it on a sold-out national tour.
Back in New York, he and Gershwin made the first recording of Rhapsody in Blue. It sold a million copies and made Gershwin a rich man. Rhapsody in Blue became Whiteman’s theme song. Arranged for piano and full orchestra—the arrangement we hear at these concerts, also by Ferde Grofé—it also entered the symphonic repertoire.
As David Schiff observes, the combination of Whiteman’s jazz spices with Gershwin’s Russian Romantic piano style (not to mention the Rhapsody’s Russian Romantic Big Tune, so similar to the “love theme” from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet) produced “a new cultural sensibility.”
Schiff adds, “Had his parents stayed in St. Petersburg, Gershwin might have written many such Eastern European blues.”
In a 1936 essay for The New Republic, Paul Rosenfeld called Rhapsody in Blue “circus-music, pre-eminent in the sphere of tinsel and fustian. In daylight, nonetheless, it stands vaporous with its second- hand ideas and ecstasies; its old-fashioned Lisztian ornament and brutal, calculated effects, not so much music as jazz dolled up.” He unfavorably compared Gershwin’s “hash derivative” Rhapsody to Copland’s Piano Concerto (1926), in which the jazz influence had at last “borne music.”
Rosenfeld was an intelligent critic.
He acknowledged that there was “no question” of Gershwin’s talent, of his “individuality and spontaneity,” his “distinctive warmth,” his feeling for “complex rhythm” and “luscious, wistful dissonantly harmonized melodies.” And it is true enough that in all of Gershwin’s concert works (as never in Ravel) the stitching shows.
But this is somehow beside the point. In the Copland Piano Concerto so admired by Rosenfeld, the tunes are never special. The conscious sophistication Rosenfeld endorses cancels the illusion of spur-of-the-moment improvisation that Copland strives to sustain.
---George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, performed by Makoto Ozone, New York Philharmonic
There is every reason that, eight decades after Rosenfeld’s critique, it is Rhapsody in Blue that endures. As the pianist Ben Pasternack (a frequent Pacific Symphony guest artist) puts it: “Audiences are simply thrilled and happy whenever they hear the Rhapsody. It always has that effect. I think it’s probably the best- loved music in the entire American concert repertoire.”
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