In designing a program around the “New World” Symphony a few years ago, I wanted to feature some of the spirituals that had moved Dvorak so deeply and had exerted such a powerful influence on that work. I was surprised and frustrated to discover how few artistically compelling orchestral versions of spirituals were available. I decided to invite some of my favorite American composers from varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds each to select his or her favorite spiritual and clothe it in his or her own unique orchestral fabric. The set was so varied and appealing that two years later, the Albany Symphony and I commissioned a second set. Tonight’s program grows out of those two years of commissions and the thirteen new versions of classic spirituals they generated. The Albany Symphony and I were very proud to collaborate on all these premieres with the extraordinary young African-American bass-baritone Nathan D’Shon Myers. Tonight we will present eight of them, preceded by George Tsontakis’s “Let the River Be Unbroken.” The 1994 work is woven from folk songs that were sung in Virginia during the Civil War era and before. The Albany Symphony and Mr. Tsontakis have had a long, close association. A resident of New York’s Hudson Valley, he is currently the orchestra’s “Meet the Composer” Music Alive Resident Composer, and the orchestra is recording our second disc of his orchestral works. His new concerto for clarinet and orchestra will premiere at the Albany Symphony’s annual American Music Festival on May 21 at the Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.
To close the program, the orchestra will present the seldom-heard complete Appalachian Spring, in the full orchestra version. The original ballet had strong abolitionist overtones. In fashioning his popular suite from the ballet, Copland removed about twelve minutes of music, including an extraordinarily powerful, eight-minute central section depicting the arrival of a fugitive slave and the mother’s strong denunciation of slavery. When reinstated, the three sections—“Fear in the Night,” “Day of Wrath” and “Moment of Crisis”—make the ballet a less bucolic, much more intensely dramatic narrative work.
David Alan Miller
Let the River be Unbroken (1994) was commissioned by the Alexandria Symphony (VA) and was inspired by a perceptual overview of Alexandria in its position at the southern bank of the Potomac at the start of the Civil War. The music was originally composed to accompany a phantasmagorical slide show of the history of the city. The musical idiom lies somewhere between an arrangement—not unlike Copland’s treatment of “Simple Gifts,” in his Appalachian Spring—and an original composition. A myriad of precious Appalachian fiddle tunes, Shaped-Note hymnals, Negro Spirituals and Civil War songs lend an air of pastiche to the flowing texture. Among them are such colorfully entitled tunes as “Farewell to Whiskey” (which opens the work), “Neil Gow’s Lament on the Death of His Second Wife,” “Wondrous Love,” “Cuckoo Bird,” “Big-Eyed Rabbit” and “All Quiet Along the Potomac” (used to symbolize the death of Lincoln).
In 1942, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge gave Martha Graham $1, 500 to commission three composers to write works for her company’s upcoming season at the Library of Congress. The composers selected were Carlos Chavez, Paul Hindemith and Aaron Copland. The hall was extremely small, so Graham asked the composers to write for an ensemble of 10 to 12 instruments (Copland pushed the envelope and created his ballet for 13). After much back and forth, Copland and Graham settled on the scenario he described as follows: “Martha’s ballet concerned a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the last century. The principal characters are a bride and her young husband…it had to do with the pioneer American spirit, with youth and spring, with optimism and hope.” Copland unearthed an unknown Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” and used it in a central scene of the ballet, creating a set of variations that depict scenes of daily pioneer life.
Once the scenario was generally agreed upon, Copland worked independently on the score. He saw the choreography for the first time when he arrived in Washington, D.C., four days before the premiere. He was surprised to find that music he had composed for one kind of action was often used to accompany something else. But he was charmed by the ballet, and by the title Graham had given it. Copland’s working title had simply been Ballet for Martha, but Appalachian Spring, culled from a Hart Crane poem, seemed to him the perfect evocation of the ballet’s pastoral spirit.
Appalachian Spring was premiered on October 30, 1944, and was an overnight sensation. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the Music Critics Circle Award, and was so popular that Copland created a shortened suite from the ballet for full orchestra, which the New York Philharmonic premiered in 1945. That is the most frequently performed version of the work. Ten years after the premiere, at Eugene Ormandy’s request, Copland orchestrated the parts of the ballet not in the suite so that the Graham Company could dance the complete ballet with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It is that complete version of the ballet which the Albany Symphony performs this evening.
David Alan Miller