“To me, Seven O’Clock Shout is a declaration of our survival. It is something that allows us our agency to take back the kindness that is in our hearts and the emotions that cause us such turmoil. … We cheer on the essential workers with a primal and fierce urgency to let them know that we stand with them and each other.” –Valerie Coleman
How does a music ensemble remain relevant or even function during a worldwide pandemic? That was the dilemma orchestras throughout the world faced when COVID-19 brought the world to a “socially distanced” halt. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s answer was to commission Valerie Coleman to compose a piece that she entitled Seven O’Clock Shout.
Flutist and composer Valerie Coleman was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky and started her musical studies when she was 11 years old. She pursued parallel interests in flute and composition, receiving degrees in composition and flute performance while studying in Boston and New York. In 1997, she founded Imani Winds, a wind quintet with the dual mission of presenting music by composers from backgrounds under-represented in the Western art canon and providing role models for young musicians from minority groups. Coleman was the quintet’s flutist and honed her compositional chops as its resident composer and arranger. As Imani Winds’ reputation grew, so did Coleman’s, and she began to receive commissions from ensembles such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Library of Congress, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, American Composers Orchestra, and the National Flute Association. She left Imani Winds in 2018 to focus on her compositional and solo careers and is presently on the flute and composition faculty at her alma mater, the Mannes School of Music in New York.
In September 2019, the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by their music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, premiered a new work by Coleman, UMOJA: Anthem of Unity!, that they had commissioned. In early 2020, while brainstorming ways for the orchestra to remain active at the height of the pandemic, Nézet-Séguin, remembered that performance and thought that Coleman would be just the composer to write a new piece for the “Fabulous Philadelphians” to premiere virtually. He contacted her and gave her two weeks to write it! And she wrote it! The special character of the orchestra’s players and the celebrations of COVID-19 first-responders at “that moment at 7pm, when cheers, claps, clangings of pots and pans, and shouts ring through the air of cities around the world!” moved Coleman to write “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 online premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra was on June 6, 2020 and unsurprisingly, presented the orchestra with unique challenges as each player recorded his or her part in isolation. Coleman anchors the disparate sections of the piece (which starts with solos suggesting the isolation at the beginning of the pandemic, moves to a lush section suggesting both the generosity of spirit of first-responders as well as the regeneration of nature, and ends with an evocation of those noisy celebrations) by using repeating rhythmic figures (ostinatos or, as Coleman puts it, grooves) in the bass of the orchestra, allowing upper voices to ride the groove to the music’s finale just as a surfer rides a wave to shore.
“Oh no! ... I don’t want to do another cowboy ballet!”
“Well, it isn’t Hamlet, but it can have what Martha Graham calls ‘an aura of race memory.’”
“Couldn’t we do a ballet about Ellis Island?”
“You go to hell!” –Aaron Copland and Agnes De Mille
Returning to America in 1926 after studying music and composition with the French pedagogue and mentor Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), Aaron Copland (1900-1990) made a conscious decision to make a living in America as a composer rather than as a full time academic who composed on the side. Furthermore, he would make a living as a composer by writing the type of music he wanted to write – edgy music informed by Stravinsky, jazz, and other influences that were anathema to the musical establishment of the day. (The Dean of the Yale Music School had written that listening to Claude Debussy’s tone poem La Mer was like listening to an oyster bank.)
Copland realized that this living would not just happen; he would have to build it. So Copland accepted the responsibility of not just getting his own music performed, but of proselytizing for an American musical culture for his country. He worked ceaselessly as an advocate, organizer, and mentor, always asking audiences to “take off the earmuffs.”
However, the arrival of the Great Depression, combined with Copland’s leftist political leanings, changed Copland’s emphasis. He still wanted audiences to take off their earmuffs and still wrote music that caused some audience members to reach for those earmuffs. But he felt that “we composers (are) in danger of working in a vacuum … I (feel) it is worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.” To meet audiences halfway, Copland began using American folk music such as cowboy tunes, spirituals, and the blues as source material. The results – movie scores, ballets, music for schools, and popular concert works. The resulting income didn’t hurt either.
Take the ballet Rodeo (1942). Copland had written the successful cowboy ballet Billy the Kid in 1938, which led to that unpromising meeting quoted above in 1942 with the dancer/choreographer Agnes DeMille (1905-1993). After realizing DeMille’s ballet would be very different from Billy the Kid, Copland set to work, using cowboy songs and fiddle tunes in his own musical voice while closely following DeMille’s extremely specific scenario. Rodeo’s premiere in New York by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was a triumph (DeMille, who danced the leading role, received 22 curtain calls) and Copland subsequently arranged the score in 1943 as a concert suite entitled Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo.
The ballet’s subtitle, "The Courting at Burnt Ranch," tells you what the ballet is about – the age-old saga of the need and search for love. It follows the story of a lonely cowgirl (danced by DeMille) working at a remote ranch as she tries to find someone to love who will love her in return. While it is a bumpy journey (in five scenes), she succeeds by the final curtain. In arranging Dance Episodes, Copland omitted the second scene (“Ranch House Party”) and cut a few honky-tonk piano solos (rumored to have been written by Leonard Bernstein). The remaining sections – “Buckaroo Holiday,” “Corral Nocturne,” “Saturday Night Waltz,” and “Hoe- Down.”
Copland wrote the following note about the Dance Episodes: “The first section (“Buckaroo Holiday”) is the most complex. Included are variations on two folk tunes, “If He Be a Buckaroo by His Trade”, and “Sis Joe.” The second section, “Coral Nocturne,” is characterized by woodwind solos in 5/4 time. I was striving here for a sense of the isolation felt by the heroine. In “Saturday Night Waltz,” country fiddlers are heard tuning up, followed by hints of the tune “Old Paint.“ The final movement, “Hoe Down,” is the best-known and most frequently performed episode. Two square dance tunes are included: “Bonyparte” and a few measures of “McLeod’s Reel” played in folk fiddle style. Pizzicato strings and a xylophone add a comic effect to “Bonyparte,” and the music winds down like a clock before the tune returns for the last time.”
Copland’s penchant for understatement is on full display here. “Hoe Down” is not merely “the best known and most frequently performed episode.” It has permeated our popular culture and has been used by the rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Bob Dylan, the 2002 Winter Olympics, movies such as Titanic, and, last but not least, as background music for the “Beef. It's What's for Dinner” commercials. Copland, who worked to make American classical music part of the broader culture, was successful beyond his fondest hopes.
"Many musicians do not consider George Gershwin a serious composer. But they should understand that, serious or not, he is a composer – that is, a man who lives in music and expresses everything, serious or not, sound or superficial, by means of music, because it is his native language…An artist is to me like an apple tree: When his time comes, whether he wants it or not, he bursts into bloom and starts to produce apples. And as an apple tree neither knows nor asks about the value experts of the market will attribute to its product, so a real composer does not ask whether his products will please the experts of serious arts. He only feels he has to say something; and says it….I do not speak here as a musical theorist, nor am I a critic, and hence I am not forced to say whether history will consider Gershwin a kind of Johann Strauss or Debussy, Offenbach or Brahms, Lehar or Puccini….But I know he is an artist and a composer; he expressed musical ideas; and they were new – as is the way in which he expressed them."
Consider the curious case of George Gershwin (1898-1937). Born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents, he grew up in lower Manhattan in the tenements around the Yiddish Theater District. He showed no signs of an interest in music until his parents bought a piano for Gershwin’s older brother Ira (1896-1983) to use. When it arrived at the Gershwin’s apartment, the 11-year-old George surprised everyone when he sat down at the keyboard and played a popular song he had learned by watching the keys of a neighbor’s player piano. Ira was off the hook (he wasn’t very interested in playing the piano) and George started taking lessons. His talent was so obvious that his teacher, Charles Hambitzer (1878/81?-1918) gave George lessons for free and his progress so extraordinary that George quit school at age 15 to work in Tin Pan Alley as a song plugger, promoting sales of new sheet music by playing it for prospective customers.
It wasn’t long before Gershwin was writing his own songs to plug. While the 17-year-old earned a princely 50 cents on the sale of his first song, the 20-year-old earned a lot more when the sheet music for Gershwin’s song Swanee sold over 1,000,000 copies. With Ira joining George as his lyricist, a career was born, starting on Broadway with shows such as Lady Be Good (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Girl Crazy (1930) and Of Thee I Sing (1931 – the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama) and leading to Hollywood (Shall We Dance -1937/ Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers). But Gershwin had other ambitions. He wanted to write for the “serious” concert audience.
This was not an easy thing for a song plugger to do. Gershwin always downplayed the depth of his musical education and regretted his lack of systematic training as a composer (his time taken up with his Broadway successes). Even after writing successful concert works, he asked European composers such as Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) as well as the renowned French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger for lessons. They all refused, seeing Gershwin as a composer with his own voice with something to say – after all, Ravel wrote music inspired by Gershwin! But some American composers did take Gershwin to task for his perceived lack of training. For example, Aaron Copland, the most prominent point man for American music of the time said “Gershwin is serious up to a point. My idea was to intensify it (the use of jazz). Not what you get in the dance hall but to use it cubistically – to make it more exciting than ordinary jazz.” And that was one of the nicest critiques. How could Gershwin convince the doubters in the American musical establishment and break into concert music on his home turf?
He got his first opportunity when Paul Whiteman (1890-1967), the conductor of one of Gershwin’s shows that flopped, asked Gershwin in 1923 to write an instrumental piece for his orchestra’s “An Experiment in Modern Music” concert at New York’s Aeolian Concert Hall. The premiere of Rhapsody in Blue for solo piano and jazz band (not quite finished in time for the February 1924 premiere with the 25-year-old Gershwin improvising music to cover over incomplete passages) was attended by classical music luminaries such as John Philip Sousa, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Leopold Stokowski, Serge Rachmaninov, and Igor Stravinsky. The Rhapsody created a sensation and overnight Gershwin became world famous.
The success of Whiteman’s concert resulted in a series of prestigious commissions for Gershwin. One of the first was offered the day after the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue from an attendee of the concert, the conductor Walter Damrosch (1862-1950). He asked Gershwin to write a piano concerto for concerts featuring Gershwin as soloist. Gershwin accepted, in part to prove the naysayers wrong. “Many persons had thought that the Rhapsody was only a happy accident. Well, I went out, for one thing, to show them that there was more where that had come from.”
Gershwin wrote the Concerto in four months and the Concerto in F premiered in Carnegie Hall on December 3, 1925. The critics were divided – “a dubious experiment… (Gershwin has) neither the instinct nor the technical equipment to be at ease in … a work of symphonic dimensions.” The work showed “the lifelessness of its melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive.” On the other hand: “He gave us something really new in music. Not more than a dozen composers out of the hundreds on the honor list since composing began have succeeded in doing that.” “…the whole of America was blossoming into beauty before me.” – but the public loved it and the work has remained in the active repertoire ever since.
Fitting for a piece drawing from two different musical worlds, the Concerto takes its formal structure from the classical tradition (three movements – fast/slow/fast, movements connected by the reuse of melodies, structural devices), while using the vocabulary of popular musics (jazz, blues, ragtime, popular dance rhythms such as the Charleston), all the while giving the solo pianist the opportunities to show off, as Gershwin himself often did at parties.
Gershwin was very aware of using this synthesis. He wrote the following short description of the concerto for the premiere, which mentions elements of both classical and popular music:
I. Allegro. The first movement employs a Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young, enthusiastic spirit of American Life. It begins with a rhythmic motif given out by the kettledrums, supported by other percussion instruments, and with a Charleston motif introduced by bassoon, horns, clarinets and violas. The principal theme is announced by the bassoon. Later, a second theme is introduced by the piano.
II. Adagio. Andante con moto. The second movement has a poetic nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues, but in a purer form than that in which they are usually treated.
III. Allegro agitato. The final movement reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping the same pace throughout.
Before his tragically early death from a brain tumor, Gershwin went on to compose such iconic works as An American in Paris and perhaps the great American opera, Porgy and Bess. There indeed was more where that had come from!
“So much the better if our tradition is richer and multiple, deriving from native as well as Western culture. We are just as much the owners of our ancestral Tlacuilos as we are of our Florentine Renaissance grandfathers. To circumscribe ourselves, to fix on one thing or the other, is to impoverish ourselves.” – Carlos Chavez.
When most people talk about classical music from the New World, the discussion tends to focus on composers such as Copland, Gershwin, John Adams, Philip Glass – that is to say, American composers. Fine composers all. But it ignores composers such as R. Murray Schafer, Carlos Chavez, Silvestre Revueltas, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Alberto Ginastera, Leo Brower, Astor Piazzolla – that is to say, composers from Canada, Mexico, and the entire continent of South America! We can gain a lot by having their sound worlds in our ears. Their music offers unique perspectives in their blending of European classical music with distinct regional traditions.
Take, for example, the music of the Mexican composer Arturo Márquez (b.1950). Born in Mexico, raised and educated in both Mexico and the United States, he heard Mexican folk music performed by his grandfather and mariachi music performed by his father as well as the sounds of Mexican salon music and works from the European classical tradition. All of these influences can be heard in Márquez’s compositions, the best known of which is his Danzón No. 2 (1994).
Derived from European dance styles introduced in Cuba during the Spanish occupation, the danzón is a distinct Cuban dance that absorbed cross-cultural currents (such as African music) that were widespread on the island. In the early 20th century, it hopped over the Yucatan Channel to take root in Mexico becoming particularly popular in Veracruz and has inspired Márquez to compose nine danzóns (so far). Danzón No. 2 was composed in 1994 on a commission from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Marquez wrote the following for the premiere of Danzón No. 2:
The idea of writing the Danzón 2 originated in 1993 during a trip to Malinalco with the painter Andrés Fonseca and the dancer Irene Martínez, both of whom [have] a special passion for the danzón, which they were able to transmit to me from the beginning, and also during later trips to Veracruz and visits to the Colonia Salon in Mexico City. From these experiences onward, I started to learn the danzón’s rhythms, its form, its melodic outline….I was fascinated and I started to understand that the apparent lightness of the danzón is only like a visiting card for a type of music full of sensuality and qualitative seriousness, a genre which old Mexican people continue to dance with a touch of nostalgia and a jubilant escape towards their own emotional world…..Danzón 2 ... endeavors to get as close as possible to the dance, to its nostalgic melodies, to its wild rhythms, and although it violates its intimacy, its form and its harmonic language, it is a very personal way of paying my respects and expressing my emotions towards truly popular music.
Danzón No. 2 is not only Márquez’ most popular work, but also one of the most performed concert pieces from all of Latin America and its infectious character belies its sophisticated compositional techniques. Try not to dance in the aisles as you listen!
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