Amy Beach and the American 'Gaelic' Symphony. By noted scholar Adrienne Fried Block.
Sunday, January 9, 2000 at 3pm
In the mid-1950s, John Cage began to create musical works that challenged some of the most cherished ideas in the Western tradition. Shouldn't artists strive for complete control over their own works? Cage looked at the technique of serialism, which aimed to supply a mathematical program to dictate pitches, tempo, dynamics, and every other aspect of a composition, and decided instead to write music that was out of control, determined only by a roll of dice. Isn't it the artist's duty to express himself or herself? Cage, a student of Zen Buddhism, sought to empty his compositions of his own personality, again by the use of chance procedures.
This hardly seems like a recipe for self-promotion in the music business, and yet so many musicians and listeners were captivated by Cage's ideas that, when the American bicentennial year of 1976 was approaching, all of the so-called "Big Five" orchestras (New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic requested new compositions from him. To fulfill all the commissions, Cage had to take a sabbatical from his work with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and devote full time to these purely instrumental compositions.
Cage was not such an iconoclast that he would refuse to make these bicentennial works "sound American." But he had to do it in his own way--no Gershwin riffs or Copland vistas for him. He was drawn to the music of eighteenth-century American composers such as William Billings (1746-1800), whose rough-hewn hymn tunes and choral pieces had also inspired music by Charles Ives and William Schuman. As he considered deriving new music from these 200-year-old tunes for a work called Apartment House 1776, Cage wanted (as he later told an interviewer) "to do something with early American music that would let it keep its flavor at the same time that it would lose what was so obnoxious to me: its harmonic tonality." At first, he tried simply subtracting notes at random from old pieces for four-part chorus, but that left him unsatisfied. Then he tried prolonging some notes and dropping others, all determined by chance, and the results pleased him:
The cadences and everything disappeared, but the flavor remained. You can recognize it as eighteenth-century music, but it's suddenly brilliant in a new way. It is because each sound vibrates from itself, not from a theory....The cadences which were the function of the theory, to make syntax and all, all of that is gone, so that you get the most marvelous overlappings.
Later that same bicentennial year, the idea of recomposing music in four voices took a different direction in the Quartets I-VIII for 41 Instruments. (One can imagine the Cagean twinkle in the composer's eye when he wrote down that title, and also when he arranged the work in versions for 24 and 93 instruments.) Here the process of melodic subtraction leads to an ever-changing musical texture in which there are never more than four single instruments playing at one time. To further discourage "orchestral" habits of playing, Cage writes this instruction in the score: "Let players of the same instruments (e.g. violinists) sit as far apart from one another as possible rather than close together as usual."
The music that Cage has subtracted from is, once again, a variety of early American choral works. The present performance offers a further subtraction, or rather a selection: the five of the eight Quartets that are derived from compositions by William Billings. The Billings tunes that Cage used, with their quartet numbers, are "The Lord Descended" (II), "Old North" (III), "Heath" (V), "Judea" (VI), and "The Lord is Ris'n" (VIII).
Composed between January 1894 and March 1896, Amy Beach's "Gaelic" Symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, english horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpany, and strings. It was published in Leipzig in 1897 by Arthur P. Schmidt, Boston Dedicated to Emil Paur, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who introduced the work on 30 October 1896 in Boston's Music Hall.
The premiere of the "Gaelic" Symphony caused much excitement. The critic for the Boston Courier heaped praise upon Amy Beach's "freedom and range of thought, upon the concentration of power, upon the comprehension and mastery of means, and upon the [work's] solidity and compactness of construction." The Boston Home Journal called Beach "an epochmaker who had broken through old boundaries and presented an enrichment and extension of woman's sphere in art."
Born Amy Marcy Cheney on 5 September 1867 in Henniker, New Hampshire, Beach was prodigiously gifted. By the age of four, she was playing piano and composing. Reviews of her debut in Boston at age sixteen praised her musicianship and brilliant piano technique. She made her acclaimed debut with the Boston Symphony in 1885, playing Chopin's Concerto in F minor.
Following her marriage that year to Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a man a little older than her father, her focus changed to composition. Thereafter she produced a steady stream of songs, piano, choral, chamber, and orchestral works, almost all of them published. She soon became the most frequently performed composer of her generation. At her death in 1944 at age 77, she left a legacy of over three hundred compositions.
The "Gaelic" Symphony, written before she was thirty, is a landmark in her oeuvre. Its inspiration lay in "a set of melodies of Ivernia, old Ireland" she found in an Irish-Gaelic collection from 1841. "Their simple, rugged and unpretentious beauty," she wrote, "led me...to develop their ideas in symphonic form. ....Most of the themes are actual quotations from this collection of folk music and those which are original I have tried to keep in the same idiom and spirit."
Beach, a consummate melodist, did not need to use borrowed melodies as themes for the Symphony. But other forces were at work. Antonín Dvorák, who sojourned here from 1892 to 1895, advised American composers to create American-sounding art music by using as themes the music of African- and Native-Americans--as he had done in his "New World Symphony." Beach agreed with Dvorák's goal, but disagreed with his choice of music, stating that it was remote from her experience, that "we of the North should be far more likely to be influenced by old English, Scotch or Irish songs, inherited with our literature from our ancestors."
Influenced, nevertheless, by the "New World" Symphony, given its Boston premiere in December 1893, she soon began writing her symphony on Irish themes, not only to mark her mastery as a composer, but also as an exercise in musical nationalism. Her choice was more "American" than even she realized. Throughout the nineteenth century, Irish music had a profound influence on American popular music. Now she proposed to bring its influence into the realm of American art music.
Most of the first movement, marked Allegro con fuoco, is based, on her own highly dramatic art song, "Dark is the Night." It is the source of the chromatic, buzzing introduction, the heroic first theme given first by the brass, and the rhapsodic second theme. The closing theme quotes a lilting Gaelic dance tune, played by woodwinds in imitation of the sound of the bagpipe. The development section builds to a climax using all but the closing theme. A clarinet solo introduces the recapitulation. The final coda recalls the introduction as well as the first and second themes in the climactic close.
In the second movement, Alla Siciliana, the lyrical tune called "The Little Field of Barley," provides all the thematic material. In ternary form with a coda, the movement is a scherzo turned inside out. The woodwind choir plays the theme in the trio-like opening section, marked Adagio. The central scherzo, marked Allegro vivace, presents a variation of the theme as a sparkling perpetuum mobile. Following a return of the opening theme, the coda briefly returns to the central scherzo.
Two Irish tunes are the themes of the third movement, "Cushlamachree," and "Which way did she go?" The themes are at times somberly lyrical, at others heroic, expressing, in the composer's words, "the laments of a primitive people, their romance and their dreams." After an opening violin solo, the cello section plays the dark-sounding first theme in its entirety. In its development, anticipations of the second theme are heard. Its full statement precedes a second development section; thereafter, a violin cadenza leads to the coda.
In the final movement, Beach wrote that it "contains only themes of my own devising....The finale tries to express the rough, primitive character of the Celtic people, their sturdy daily life, their passions and battles, and the elemental nature of their processes of thought and its resulting action." The heroic first theme, in brisk march rhythm, is an expansion of a two-bar phrase from the first movement. Beach stated that she developed the entire movement out of that theme. The second theme is romantic in its soaring length, its wide range, the prominent falling and rising sixths, and its rhythmic suspensions. At the movement's climax, the two themes sum up this expansive, late-Romantic work.
--Adrienne Fried Block
Muhal Richard Abrams is pianist, composer, co-founder of The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), founder of The AACM School of Music, President of The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, New York City Chapter, and the first recipient of the Grand international jazz award. In 1999 Muhal was presented a proclamation by Richard M. Daly, Mayor of the City of Chicago, declaring April 11, 1999 as Muhal Richard Abrams Day in Chicago.
Except for a brief period of study at Chicago Musical College and Governors State University in Chicago, Illinois where he studied electronic music, Mr. Abrams is predominately a self-taught musician who, as a result of many years of observation, analysis, and practice as a performing musician, has developed a highly respected command of a variety of musical styles both as a pianist and composer. The versatile Mr. Abrams and members of The AACM are responsible for some of the most original new music approaches of the last three decades
In addition to teaching privately for the past twenty years or more, Mr. Abrams has taught jazz composition and improvisational classes at: The Banff Center, Columbia University, Syracuse University, The New England Conservatory, The BMI Composers Workshop, and The Sibelius Academy.
Tomorrow's Song, as Yesterday Sings Today was commissioned by ACO with support of the late Francis Goelet. About the work, the composer writes:
Daniel Bernard Roumain has been described as "a combination of Mozart, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Prince-just as far-out and creative and in another world". Mr. Roumain recently completed doctoral studies at the University of Michigan School of Music, received his bachelors degree in music from the Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music, his master's degree from the University of Michigan School of Music, and his high school diploma from the Dillard School of the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
An Accomplished violinist, Mr. Roumain's works have been performed by the orchestras of Detroit, Florida, Memphis, and Oakland, the American Composers Orchestra, the Peter Sparling Dance Company, the Uhuru African Dance Company, members of the Blair String Quartet, and broadcast over National Public Radio here, and in Europe.
Mr. Roumain has completed his sixth orchestral work in Harlem Essay For Orchestra and Digital Audio Tape, and is currently composing two new works for the dancer/choreographer Bill. T. Jones and his dance company.
Harlem Essay for Orchestra and Digital Audio Tape was commissioned by ACO with generous support of the Helen F. Whitaker Fund. About the work, the composer writes:
Harlem Essay is about Harlem and its people; it's about everyday conversations and Hip-Hop music. It's about reality and relevancy, the relevancy of what we hear and see to what we think and do.
It took two years, beginning in September of 1997, to understand what I wanted this work to be, what I wanted it to represent. I knew, even then, that it might be my final work in this medium. So, I wanted it to be unique. And I knew it had to contain an extra-musical statement. But I had no way of knowing, then, that it would end up a multitude of statements reaching far, far beyond my own personal one.
Those statements come from the people of Harlem, and they are so much more than music. Their themes resonate loudly, boldly, and with the pride of place and purpose I once knew. In Harlem, I found something more than an occasion for a new orchestral work. I found something beyond a home, my history, or my adopted heritage. I found my humanity. I'm profoundly grateful for what Harlem has given me, and proud of what my Harlem Essay has become.
--Daniel Bernard Roumain
Khalid Abdul Muhammad speaks
because all over the world it is the youth
My father died when I was very young... it was just me and my mom.
Don't take much...
Harlem is full of Black people, and it is not as scary as it used to be