"A King Celebration 2001" features outstanding works by African-American composers, jazz musicians, and classical-music mainstays. Below are this year's featured artists and program notes on their music written by Atlanta Symphony annotator Nick Jones. Composers are listed in the order that their works will air.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
Ballade in A Minor, for Full Orchestra, Op. 33
Coleridge-Taylor was without doubt the most prominent Black composer of his time. The son of a doctor from Sierra Leone who was studying in London at the time, he was raised by his white English mother after his father returned to Africa. He had a fine boy-soprano voice and showed early evidence of musical talent, entering the Royal College of Music at age 15 and studying composition with Charles Stanford, one of the most respected British composers of the generation before Elgar. Several of his compositions were published by Novello while he was still a student, "Lift up Your Heads" being one of them.
In 1898, a year after finishing his studies, Coleridge-Taylor received his first commission. His editor and mentor at Novello was A. J. Jaeger, Edward Elgar's friend who was later to be immortalized in the "Nimrod" variation of Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. Jaeger made Coleridge-Taylor's music known to Elgar, who recommended his young colleague to be commissioned to produce a new orchestral work for the annual Three Choirs Festival. Coleridge-Taylor thus composed his Ballade in A Minor, which was warmly applauded by the festival audience. As important as this early success was, it was eclipsed two months later when Stanford conducted Coleridge-Taylor's cantata Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, which Jaeger would later describe as "the biggest success Novello's has had since Elijah."
"Lift Up Your Heads"
Coleridge-Taylor is a composer destined to be remembered for a single composition, one overwhelming success that both made his fame and cast into shadow all of the rest of his music. His cantata Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, a setting of Longfellow's poem for soloists, chorus and orchestra, was performed to wild public acclaim in London when he was 23 years old. Although in his short life he composed other cantatas, sacred music, an oratorio, piano and organ music, orchestra pieces, and chamber music, his name is primarily associated with the early cantata.
A revival of his music is in order, for it is well and skillfully written and carries important messages of racial self-respect and religious conviction. Dr. William Tortolano, professor of music at Saint Michael's College in Vermont, has written a biography of Coleridge-Taylor and edited some of his music for publication, including "Lift Up Your Heads." The composer, he says, "was fond of strong, clear-cut rhythms which are often repeated. Warmth of melody and abundant color are nearly always features. . . . He had a fine sense of tone color and a fascination with words. . . . He leaned to solid chords, attractively picturesque changes of key, and vivid dynamic contrasts. He had a fine sense of the effective climax."
The words of "Lift up Your Heads," which were also set by Handel in his oratorio Messiah, come from two verses of Psalm 24:
Lift up your heads, O ye gates,
and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors,
and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory?
It is the Lord strong and mighty,
even the Lord mighty in battle. Amen.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Ave Maria, Op. 12
After Robert Schumann met an unknown young pianist and composer named Johannes Brahms in 1853, he was so impressed that he published an article in his influential music journal declaring that Brahms "carries all the marks of one who has received a call." He also wrote, "when [Brahms] waves his magic wand where the power of great orchestral and choral masses will aid him, then we shall be shown still more wonderful glimpses of the secrets of the spirit-world."
Brahms was taken aback by such strong and public praise. He still had no regular position; he had produced no popular works whose sales would sustain him. He was just beginning to make his way in the musical world. Reluctant to challenge the mighty memory of Beethoven in the symphonic world, he confined himself to composing choral and chamber music for a few years. His first symphony was not released until 1876.
Among his earliest choral works was this setting of the Latin Ave Maria text, for women's voices accompanied by either organ or orchestra, written in 1858. He conducted it the following year in his home town of Hamburg, probably with the women's chorus he founded and conducted there. The words are an elaboration of those spoken to the virgin Mary by the angel Gabriel and those of her cousin Elizabeth, quoted in the first chapter of the gospel of St. Luke:
Hail, Mary, filled with grace:
the Lord be with you.
You are blessed among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us.
Rhapsody for Alto Solo, Male Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 53
Brahms never married. In all probability scarred by his parents' unhappy marriage and his childhood experiences playing piano in waterfront bordellos, he had few relationships with women - and he quickly broke off any of these that threatened to culminate in marriage. The love of his life was unattainable, for he fell under the spell of Clara Schumann shortly after entering her husband's circle. After Robert Schumann died in 1856, Brahms may have spoken of his love to her, but they never married or lived together. They remained close friends until her death in 1896, which was followed less than a year later by that of Brahms.
The composer did conceive other passions through the years, always for a woman with whom marriage was impossible. One of the most poignant was for Clara Schumann's daughter Julie, a girl 22 years his junior. He apparently kept his feelings so well in check that none of the Schumanns was aware of them at first, but news of Julie's engagement caused him great pain. Shortly thereafter, he gave to Clara a wedding present for her daughter, the score of this Rhapsody, referring to it as his wedding song. Clara's diary speaks wonderingly of its "profound pain in the text and the music."
To express his anguish, Brahms chose three stanzas from Goethe's 1777 poem "Harzreise im Winter" (Winter Journey in the Harz Mountains), lyrics filled with the bitterness of the rejected lover, wandering disconsolately in the wilderness. Unlike the poetry of some of his short choral-orchestral works, filled with mythological images drawn from classical antiquity, this text deals entirely with modern Romantic emotions. There is no mention of gods or classical heroes. The poet's psychological state is reflected in the composer's music, beginning with the shocking sound of a diminished second-inversion chord and continuing down dark avenues of harmonic torment. In the end the soloist is joined by a male chorus in a moving prayer for consolation and reconciliation.
Scott Joplin (1867 or 1868-1917)
"A Real Slow Drag," Finale from Treemonisha
The greatest of all ragtime composers, Scott Joplin was born in Texas and began his career in Sedalia, Missouri, where he played in dance bands, published his first songs, taught piano and ragtime composition, and attended music classes at the George R. Smith College. For one of the clubs where he performed, the Maple Leaf Club, he wrote his Maple Leaf Rag, which became so popular that it provided him with a steady if small income for the rest of his life. Maple Leaf Rag (1900) was soon known as the "King of Rags" and its composer as the "King of Ragtime Writers." He went on to compose such still-popular pieces as The Easy Winners and The Entertainer.
One of the precursors of true jazz, ragtime features a syncopated melodic line over a rhythmically four-square bass. Its roots go back in African-American history well into the days of slavery. (The slow drag was a type of ragtime dance, more serious and sedate than other types.) It was Joplin, working in Sedalia and Saint Louis, who brought solid musical training and sophisticated composing techniques to ragtime's creation, establishing what came to be known as the "Missouri style."
Joplin had aspirations beyond dance-hall music. He composed a ballet entitled The Ragtime Dance in 1899 and staged it in Sedalia. His first opera was A Guest of Honor (1903), depicting Booker T. Washington's invitation to dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt. Joplin copyrighted this work and took it on tour with a company of 30.
Treemonisha is his greatest work. He completed the opera in 1910 after several years' work and spent his remaining years trying to get it staged. He published the score himself in 1911, around the time he presented an unstaged reading without scenery or orchestra. Several times he announced full production of the opera, but plans always had to be abandoned. A couple of individual numbers were performed in his lifetime, but the opera's premiere had to wait until 1972, when Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony gave two fully staged performances in Atlanta's Symphony Hall. An acclaimed production and recording by the Houston Grand Opera followed soon after.
"A Real Slow Drag" is the finale of the opera. Celebrating the advent of new, educated leadership in a black community in rural Arkansas, the people sing, "Marching onward, marching onward,
Marching to that lovely tune, . . . Hop and skip, Now do that slow drag."
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellignton (1899-1974)
Harlem, a Tone Parallel to Harlem
Duke Ellington remains the most significant composer to have arisen from the jazz and big-band scene, with myriad concert performances and recordings attesting to the continued popularity of his work. From his professional debut as a 17-year-old pianist until his death at age 75, he was in demand as a performer and band leader. All the while, he poured out a flood of compositions in a variety of musical forms - by most estimates, more than 2,000 major and minor works. Such Ellington songs as "Come Sunday," "Mood Indigo," "Satin Doll" and "Solitude" have become enduring standards, while larger works like the suites The River, Harlem and Black, Brown and Beige continue to figure on symphonic programs. His movie music for The Asphalt Jungle and Anatomy of a Murder helped establish jazz as a viable medium for film scores. He also wrote music for Broadway and worked on an opera, Boola, which was never completed.
A few years ago, in providing notes for a recording of orchestral works by Duke Ellington, composer and arranger Maurice Peress noted that all the works on that recording were concerned with Ellington's African American heritage. Peress wrote, "In a man ostensibly apolitical, who was not known for marching in protest or making waves, we find a remarkable single-mindedness about his music. By virtue of his birthright, Ellington had a mission. And in some fateful way he enjoyed an enviable position in being free to write directly about his deepest concerns for an audience Black, White, or Beige that was, and still is, deeply involved."
Harlem was composed in 1950 at the request of Arturo Toscanini for his NBC Symphony to play with Ellington's band. Toscanini was old and in poor health, however, and he never conducted the piece. Don Gillis conducted its concert premiere in Carnegie Hall in 1955, but Ellington's band had already recorded it the year before. The composer gives this description of the piece in his memoirs, Music Is My Mistress:
We would like now to take you on a tour of this place called Harlem. It has always had more churches than cabarets. It is Sunday morning. We are strolling from 110th Street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighborhood toward the 125th Street business area. Everybody is nicely dressed and on their way to or from church. Everybody is in a friendly mood. Greetings are polite and pleasant, and on the opposite side of the street, standing under a street lamp, is a real hip chick. She, too, is in a friendly mood. You may hear a parade go by, or a funeral, or you may recognize the passage of those who are making Civil Rights demands. (Hereabouts, in our performance, Cootie Williams pronounces the word on his trumpet - Harlem!)
Come Sunday, arranged by Robert Sadin
In the last decade of his life, Ellington produced three Sacred Concerts, performed with his band augmented by soloists, chorus and dancers. Intended for the concert hall, they were at the same time personal testimonies of faith and reminiscences of religious expressions he had experienced throughout his lifetime. As Stanley Dance said in his eulogy for the Duke, "Duke Ellington knew that what some called genius was really the exercise of gifts which stemmed from God. These gifts were those his Maker favored. . . . Duke knew the good news was Love, of God and his fellow men. He proclaimed the message in his sacred concerts. . . . He reached out to people with his music and drew them to himself." One of the best-known individual numbers to come from the Sacred Concerts is "Come Sunday," made famous by the soaring gospel interpretation of Mahalia Jackson. Our performance features the renowned jazz clarinettist Don Byron.
Kurt Weill (1900-1950)
"Lost in the Stars," Title Song from Lost in the Stars
Lost in the Stars was Kurt Weill's last stage work, premiering on Broadway in the year before his death and starring Todd Duncan, Gershwin's original Porgy. Based on Alan Paton's moving novel Cry the Beloved Country, the show deals with race relations in South Africa, culminating with the white father of a murdered man and the black father of the man's condemned killer uniting in their shared grief. Weill and librettist Maxwell Anderson called the show a "musical tragedy."
Following the example of the ancient Greek dramatists, Weill included a Chorus of non-participants, to comment upon the situations and actions. Critic David Ewen has written, "Perhaps never before or since has the popular American stage boasted such moving choral music." Both the choral and the solo singing emerges from the ongoing drama in such an integrated way that Lost in the Stars is sometimes considered an American opera, and it has had productions by opera companies in addition to a Broadway revival and a film version in the 1970s.
The song "Lost in the Stars" is sung by Rev. Stephen Kumalo, the black father played by Duncan, to express his crisis of faith: Has God gone away and left humankind alone in the universe? By the end of the show he has found a friend and fellow sufferer. Responding to this show of sympathy and brotherhood, he regains his faith and returns to the congregation of which he is pastor.