November 17, 2017 • O Beautiful
Concert program notes by Betsy Schwarm
Tonight’s program, O Beautiful, brings together the works of three American composers, two of them first generation Americans, each with an idea of something that particularly typifies what it is to be American. Aaron Copland gives us heroism. George Gershwin captures the down-home-South, distilled through his imagination as a native of Brooklyn. Peter Boyer, inspired by the estimate that at least a third of all Americans have an ancestor who passed through Ellis Island, gives dramatic musical expression to the immigrant experience. All those points of view contribute to the American character.
Fanfare for the Common Man
Aaron Copland (1900–1990)
During World War II much of this country’s attention was devoted to the war effort and to showing support of those involved in the war. Such diverse tasks as gardening and factory work came to be regarded as expressions of patriotism, and classical music was no exception.
The best example of a musical contribution to the war effort took place in Ohio, where Eugene Goosens led the Cincinnati Symphony. Goosens commissioned 19 composers, mostly American, to write fanfares on war themes. Among the resulting works are Gould’s Fanfare for Freedom, Harris’ Fanfare for the Forces and Piston’s perhaps overly alliterative Fanfare for the Fighting French. Offerings from other regions in the alphabet included Goosens’ own Fanfare for the Merchant Marine and Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.
Copland’s Fanfare, with its thunderous timpani and stately brass proclamations, premiered in Cincinnati March 12, 1943. The composer described the piece as honoring “the man who did no deeds of heroism on the battlefield, but shared the labors, sorrows and hopes of those who strove for victory.” Perhaps Copland’s most familiar melody, he would soon incorporate the theme into the finale of his Third Symphony, where it is much expanded and further glorified. Tonight, we hear it in its original form: short, bold, and triumphant.
Porgy and Bess: a Symphonic Picture
George Gershwin (1898–1937)
Arr. Robert Russell Bennett (1894–1981)
Gershwin himself never created an orchestral version of his opera Porgy and Bess; with a brain tumor taking his life less than two years after its October 1935 premiere, he simply hadn’t had time.
However, his friends and colleagues made sure that it would happen. In 1942, Hungarian-born/American-based conductor Fritz Reiner wanted an orchestral Porgy to add to an upcoming concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony. He invited the respected American composer Robert Russell Bennett to craft an arrangement. In notes for a later performance by the New York Philharmonic, Bennett observed, “Dr. Reiner selected the portions of the opera that he wanted to play and also set the sequence of the excerpts. He expressed his ideas as to instrumentation, wishing to make generous use of saxophones and banjo, and to dispense with Gershwin’s pet instrument, the piano… although carrying out Dr. Reiner’s approach, I have been careful to do what I knew — after many years of association with Gershwin — Gershwin would like as a symphonic version of his music.”
In Bennett’s single-movement “orchestral picture,” as he called it, the chosen excerpts are sequenced according to how one might best transition from one to another for the sake of musical effect, rather than in the order in which they appear in the opera itself. The orchestra is rich with winds, including piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet, two alto saxes, and one tenor sax, along with pairs of the standard woodwinds. Bennett also requires four horns, three trumpets, and one tuba, along with a generous complement of strings, two harps, celeste, banjo (most prominent in I Got Plenty of Nuttin’), and an expansive percussion section. The result is a brilliantly vibrant score perfectly suited to communicating the energy of Gershwin’s opera, even without participation of singers. It’s easy to imagine that, as Bennett himself hoped, the departed spirit of Gershwin would have approved.
Ellis Island: The Dream of America
Peter Boyer (b. 1970)
Rhode Island native Peter Boyer says he is fascinated by the storytelling potential of orchestral textures and their ability to “suggest scenes and emotions, and evoke responses in listeners.
Given a commission from Hartford, Conn.’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, he saw an ideal opportunity to bring one of the most dramatic continuing chapters of American history to the concert hall: the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island in the harbor of New York City.
Thousands of interviews with immigrants were compiled through the historic site’s Oral History Project, enabling Boyer to draw upon the actual thoughts of actual immigrants. Their stories, Boyer says, “are in many ways our family stories… [and] part of our collective history.”
Ellis Island: The Dream of America uses an orchestra particularly well supplied with woodwinds and percussion; seven actors capture the voices of immigrants. Each of those immigrants has his/her own story to tell:
- Helen Cohen, arriving from Poland in 1920, spoke of her uncles who came first, leaving young Helen “always dreaming of America,” where she could be free from fear.
- James Apanomith, arriving from Greece in 1911, recalled leaving his family’s fishing village at age 16 and his father’s quiet pride that the youth had been man enough to make up his own mind to find a better life.
- Lillian Galleta, arriving from Italy in 1928, remembered the agony of the crossing, offset by the joy with which she, her mother, and her siblings were reunited with the father who had gone ahead of the family.
- Lazarus Salamon, arriving from Hungary in 1920, fled military oppression in his homeland; the snare-drum-driven tension of the first portion of his narrative evolves into serene strings upon sighting the Statue of Liberty.
- Helen Rosenthal, arriving from Belgium in 1940, avoided the fate of her family that remained behind and perished at Auschwitz; Boyer gives a plaintive Jewish folk character to her music.
- Manny Steen, arriving from Ireland in 1925, was apparently a high spirited soul, as his personality is underscored with what Boyer describes as a jaunty “Tin Pan Alley treatment.”
- Katherine Beychook, arriving from Russia in 1910, shared the trials of escaping near starvation in their Jewish village and making the journey to America, seeing the Statue of Liberty, her feelings at that moment no less memorable for her than her feelings on finding her father waiting to receive the family.
For the finale of his Ellis Island, Boyer chose the most famous of all texts related to American immigrants: Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet The New Colossus. You may not know the poem by that title, but you can likely quote a line or two from it. Inscribed in 1903 on the base of the Statue of Liberty, Lazarus’ poem contains those famously powerful words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It’s hard to imagine a text more suitable for use as a summation of the immigrant experience.
Program notes by Betsy Schwarm, author of the Classical Music Insights series.