Program Notes: Bumping Into Broadway, February 17, 2015

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Music for Small Orchestra

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)

Until the late 20th century, composition was not an easy path for a woman to pursue. Ruth Crawford was a pioneer among American women in that regard, forging ahead in a field overwhelmingly dominated by men. She began her career as a children’s music teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, studying composition privately. In 1921 she moved to Chicago to pursue formal study at the American Conservatory of Music. Working with the German-born composer Adolf Weidig, she delved fearlessly into many modernist techniques: polytonality, tone clusters, twelve-tone music, and microtones.

One of Crawford’s mentors was the American radical experimentalist Henry Cowell. In 1929, when she had completed two degrees at the American Conservatory, Cowell arranged for her to study with Charles Seeger in New York. After a year in Paris and Berlin on a Guggenheim fellowship – she was the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim in composition – she married Seeger and became involved in his folk song research. They had four children, and she did little composing after becoming a mother. (The folksinger Pete Seeger was her stepson: Charles’s third son from a prior marriage.) Stomach cancer caused her premature death in 1953.

Most of her compositions date from the Chicago years, from 1921 to 1929. Biographer Judith Tick calls Crawford Seeger’s style “posttonal pluralism.”

The style is ‘posttonal’ in that Crawford handled tonality as an option rather than a premise, and it is ‘pluralistic’ in that she responded to a wide range of prewar and postwar stylistic orientations.

She was interested in the music of other modernists – Scriabin and Stravinsky, Hindemith and Honegger. Still, expressing individuality was important to her, and Music for Small Orchestra does not sound ‘like’ any other composer. Its distinctive sound world results from Crawford Seeger’s choice of instruments, her use of extreme registers, and her fearless dissonance.

Prior to Music for Small Orchestra, she had written only for one or two performers – piano music, songs, and a couple of piano/violin duos. Despite its modest dimensions, Music for Small Orchestra was thus an ambitious leap.

The piece consists of two movements of unequal length. “Slow, pensive,” the longer of the two, opens with an insistent repeated note in the piano, soon joined by a five-note ostinato in the celli. Initially, the woodwinds have the thematic material in music that is eerie and sometimes vaguely ominous in a crescendo to the first climax.

Midway through, the roles switch, with clarinet and bassoon assuming the ostinato and the violins declaiming a long, lyrical melody. The notes are slow-moving, but different rhythmic patterns in the ostinati add complexity to the layers of sound. This is music requiring careful coordination from the conductor.

“In roguish humor” also uses repeated patterns, but now Crawford Seeger has a mischievous gleam in her eye. A brisk march tempo accelerates until it is practically frantic, then abruptly stops. The process repeats, becoming almost out of control, to a surprise ending. Throughout, the atmosphere recalls old-fashioned cartoon music, but edgier.

No performance of Music for Small Orchestra took place during Crawford Seeger’s lifetime. The premiere was in Canyon, Texas in 1969, at the college that is now West Texas A&M University.

The score calls for flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, four violins, and two celli.

– Laurie Shulman ©2015

Suite from Appalachian Spring

Aaron Copland

Appalachian Spring is one of three “folk ballets” that constitute the foundation of Aaron Copland’s substantial reputation. (The other two are Billy the Kid and Rodeo.) Only his Fanfare for the Common Man is arguably better known than these ballets. Appalachian Spring‘s sentimental appeal derives from the strong sense of Americana with which Copland suffused his score. Even though the only borrowed melody is the Shaker tune “‘Tis a gift to be simple,” his original music communicates the sense that we have always known it. Somehow Copland distills the essence of our nation’s spirit in ways that speak to us all.

The Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation commissioned Copland to compose this ballet for Martha Graham in 1943. He completed the score in 1944 while teaching at Harvard. The premiere took place in Washington, at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium that October; Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham danced the principal roles. Appalachian Spring was an immediate success, earning the New York City Music Critics’ Circle Award for the outstanding theatrical work of the 1944-1945 season, and the Pulitzer Prize in music for 1945.

The ballet scenario takes place in the early nineteenth century. A young farming couple in Pennsylvania Dutch country are being married; the wedding celebration centers around their new pioneer farmhouse in the Appalachian foothills. The ballet takes 34 minutes in performance. For the Concert Suite, Copland reduced his score to 26 minutes. He told Vivian Perlis:

The Suite . . . is a condensed version of the ballet, retaining all essential features but omitting those sections in which the interest is primarily choreographic (the largest cut was the Minister’s dance). The Suite follows a sectional arrangement of eight sequences and is scored for an orchestra of modest proportions.

Copland’s concise, modest description does not mention the gentleness of spirit that permeates his lovely music. Elsewhere, however, he acknowledged the essential message that guided his thinking when he composed this ballet:

I knew certain crucial things — that it had to do with the pioneer American spirit, with youth and spring, with optimism and hope.

Copland scored the original ballet for just thirteen instruments, as we hear it this evening: flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, four violins, two violas, two cellos, and double bass.

– Laurie Shulman ©2015

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