Appalachian Spring Suite
Work composed: 1943–45
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: December 8, 2014; James Gaffigan, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, bass drum, claves, orchestra bells, snare drum, cymbal, tabor, triangle, wood block, xylophone, piano, harp, and strings.
Estimated duration: 24 minutes
Shortly before the debut of Ballet for Martha, Aaron Copland’s working title for the ballet Martha Graham had commissioned from him, the choreographer announced that she had decided on the name Appalachian Spring. Graham, who borrowed the words from Hart Crane’s poem “The Dance,” admitted she had chosen it simply because she liked the sound of the words together, and that it had no connection with either the location or scenario of the ballet. “Over and over again,” Copland recalled in 1981, “people come up to me after seeing the ballet on stage and say, ‘Mr. Copland, when I see that ballet and when I hear your music I can just see the Appalachians and I just feel spring.’ Well, I’m willing if they are!”
In Appalachian Spring, Copland’s penchant for folk melodies and folk idioms reaches its zenith. The Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which Copland discovered in a 1940 book on Shaker culture, and Copland’s celebratory variations of its melody, form the climax of Appalachian Spring. When Copland arranged Appalachian Spring as an orchestral suite, he emphasized the song’s centrality by cutting several episodes from the ballet and changing the order of the variations. As scholar William Brooks notes, “In this context the Shaker melody came to serve as a kind of paradigm for the simplicity and authenticity of frontier America: mythical music for a mythical past.” In similar fashion Copland’s music, particularly Appalachian Spring, became the paradigm of the American sound.
Copland explained his musical conception: “When I wrote Appalachian Spring, I was thinking primarily about Martha and her unique choreographic style, which I knew well. Nobody else seems quite like Martha: she’s so proud, so very much herself. And she’s unquestionably very American: there something prim and restrained, simple yet strong about her, which one tends to think of as American.”
Edwin Denby, a noted dance critic, provided program notes for the premiere of the Appalachian Spring orchestral suite in 1945:“A pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, that their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.”
Double Bass Concerto No. 2 in B Minor
Work composed: 1845
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 19, 2009; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Edgar Meyer, double bass
Instrumentation: solo double bass, flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings
Estimated duration: 17 minutes
Double bassists owe a huge debt to Giovanni Bottesini. Without him, the double bass might still be languishing at the back of the string section, its players unknown and its potential as a solo instrument unrealized. Through his brilliant playing, Bottesini singlehandedly gave the double bass a new identity as a virtuoso instrument. He also composed a number of works that feature the double bass, although many are seldom performed today because of their extreme technical difficulty.
Bottesini became a bass player by accident. At 14, he entered the Milan Conservatory, but the only scholarships available were for bassoon and double bass. Bottesini quickly became a virtuoso player; after he left the conservatory, he soon established himself as an outstanding soloist. Bottesini performed throughout Europe and also toured America; it was during this time that he earned the nickname “Paganini of the double bass.” In later life he became a noted conductor and composer, but it is for his double bass techniques that Bottesini is best remembered, and where he made his most significant musical contributions.
Edgar Meyer considers this concerto his favorite in the bass repertoire. “In my headlong desire to put my mark on the piece, I indulged in some rewriting of the concerto,” he admits, referring to his rewriting of the first movement cadenza. “It [the cadenza] consists primarily of whatever tricks I knew on the bass.” These “tricks” include lightning-fast glissandi and technically demanding phrases played in double-stops, as well as forays into the highest and lowest ends of the bass’s range.
The second movement is an aria for double bass, warm and lyrical, with an understated string accompaniment, while the third features a vigorous, muscular theme that transforms into a march. The third movement also includes another solo cadenza by Meyer, which showcases his breathtaking virtuosity and speed; it also ranges over an unheard-of six octaves. “Of course, that last octave or so, once you get well past the end of the fingerboard, is really novelty material,” says Meyer modestly.
Double Bass Concerto No. 3 in E
Work composed: 2011
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: solo double bass, 2 flutes (1 doubles piccolo, 1 doubles alto flute), bass flute, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (1 doubles E-flat clarinet; 1 doubles bass clarinet), contrabass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, timpani, 2 glockenspiels, and strings
Estimated duration: 22 minutes
Bassist Edgar Meyer has carved out a unique niche for himself and his instrument. His abilities as a classical performer have won him international acclaim, and he continues to expand the boundaries of “classical” music in his collaborations with violinist Mark O’Connor, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, bluegrass violinist Sam Bush, and others. As did his predecessor Bottesini, Meyer has also added to the solo double bass repertoire with several compositions of his own.
“My dear friend Béla Fleck was speaking to his banjo predecessor Earl Scruggs at some point previous about composition and the limits on one’s own voice,” Meyer writes in his notes for the Concerto in E. “Béla’s best paraphrase of Earl’s thoughts: ‘Most folks just have one tune in them, maybe two.’ I am still writing my tune, but doing my best to draw it out. All of my musical interests inform this piece, including most instrumental music that I am aware of, but I am interested in creating music outside of my current understanding. That is, after all, where a lot of the fun is.”
Meyer wrote the concerto in three movements, which are played without pause. The first two movements introduce and develop various musical ideas, while the third summarizes material from the previous two. Meyer points out what he calls “the music of interest,” 12 notes played in three sub-phrases by the solo oboe. “This music is rarely played by the solo bass,” Meyer points out, “but it is played often by the woodwinds and is fundamental to the organization of the piece.”
In a review of the 2012 premiere, which was co-commissioned by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Michael Huebner wrote, “With the ink barely dry on the 22-minute work, [the concerto] is a fresh and vibrant impression of Meyer’s considerable stylistic palette, incorporating shades of Appalachian folk music and jazzy pitch bends. One section distinctly referenced an Indian raga, the bass becoming a sitar or sarod, [and] the orchestra providing the tambura drone.
“Meyer’s compositional strengths lie with orchestral color and rhythmic intensity. An expanded woodwind section includes such underused instruments as the contrabass clarinet, bass flute, and contrabassoon – all, not coincidentally, [having a range] residing in the neighborhood of his own instrument.”
Work composed: 1930
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 4 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, vibraphone, triangle, wire brush, snare drum, cymbals, tenor banjo, harp, celeste, and strings
Estimated duration: 24 minutes
“I knew I wanted to write a symphony,” said William Grant Still. “I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.”
Still’s childhood and teen years were filled with music. Still’s stepfather Charles introduced him to classical music through recordings and live operetta performances in Little Rock, Arkansas. Still studied violin in his teens, and taught himself to play a number of other instruments before he graduated high school at 16. He attended Wilberforce College and Oberlin College, and studied composition with George Whitefield Chadwick. In 1919, Still joined the pit orchestra as an oboist for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s pioneering musical, Shuffle Along. Throughout the 1920s, Still rarely lacked for gigs – he played regularly with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra – and for two years he also studied privately with the French modernist composer Edgar Varèse. Under Varèse’s mentorship, Still met influential musicians and conductors, had his own works performed, and expanded his compositional horizons.
Ironically, Still’s busy schedule left him little time to concentrate on a long-form composition. “It was not until the Depression struck that I went jobless long enough to let the [Afro-American] Symphony take shape,” Still observed. “In 1930, I rented a room in a quiet building not far from my home in New York, and began to work. I devised my own Blues theme (which appears in varied guises throughout the Symphony, as a unifying thread), planned the form, then wrote the entire melody. After that I worked out the harmonies, the various treatments of the theme, and the orchestration.” Still completed his first symphony in just five weeks, during the autumn of 1930.
In his program note for the premiere, Still laid out his intentions: “The Afro-American Symphony is not a tone picture of the ‘New Negro.’ It portrays that class of American Negroes who still cling to the old standards and traditions; those sons of the soil who differ, but little, if at all, from their forbears [sic] of antebellum days. These are an humble people. Their wants are few and are generally childlike. Theirs are lives of utter simplicity. Therefore no complex or elaborate scheme of harmonization would prove befitting in a musical picture of them. ‘Tis only the simpler harmonies, such as those employed, that can accurately portray them. From the hearts of these people sprang Blues, plaintive songs reminiscent of African tribal chants. I do not hesitate to assert that Blues are more purely Negroid in character than very many Spirituals. And I have employed as the basic theme of the symphony a melody in the Blues style. This theme appears in each movement.”
Still gave each of the symphony’s four movements a descriptive title as well as a tempo marking – Longing (Moderato assai); Sorrow (Adagio), Humor (Animato), Aspiration (Lento, con risoluzione — Vivace) – and also included lines from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry. As Still mentioned, each movement features a prominent blues melody. In Longing, displaced former slaves yearn for a homeland of their own. Sorrow speaks through the medium of a Negro spiritual, while Humor uses popular tunes of the day and a banjo accompaniment to conjure up happier times. Aspiration combines memories of a painful past with hopes for a dignified, optimistic future.
Howard Hanson led the Rochester Philharmonic in the first performance on October 28, 1931. The Rochester Evening Journal’s review noted, “The symphony has life and sparkle when needed and a deep haunting beauty … It laughs unrestrainedly, it mourns dolefully.”
© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com