DUKE ELLINGTON (1899-1974)
Three Black Kings
Edward Kennedy Ellington, known from the 1920s simply as “Duke,” was born in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899, and died in New York on May 24, 1974. Three Black Kings was his final composition, left not entirely finished at his death. The scoring calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons in threes, horns, trumpets (all flugelhorns) and trombones in fours, tuba, timpani plus two percussionists, piano, and strings. Duration is about 19 minutes.
Duke Ellington has long been regarded as the greatest of jazz composers. Already by the end of the 1920s, when his big band first attained widespread prominence at the Cotton Club in New York, it was as much for the highly original compositions of the leader as for the remarkable tonal qualities and ensemble of the playing. The innovative “jungle style” of the ’20s and the increasing list of masterful works turned out in his most creative decade, from 1932 to 1942, propelled him to the head of the list of creative artists in jazz, a position that he never left thereafter. Mood Indigo, in 1930, made him world famous. Throughout the history of his band, Ellington constantly created pieces tailored to the specific talents of his players—much as Mozart used to write operatic arias designed to fit the voices of particular sopranos. When the make-up of the band changed, he often reworked a piece so as to reflect the personality of the new player. His imagination, flexibility, and energy were extraordinary.
Between 1943 and 1952, Ellington gave a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall, for which he composed works of greater scope than the normal length and character of earlier jazz compositions; later on, the development of the long-playing record allowed him the opportunity for more original work in large, multi-movement suites. Throughout his career he concerned himself with the issue of musical form in jazz, moving far beyond the basic theme-and-variations character of most early jazz pieces to original large-scale compositions, many of them aimed to celebrate the black experience in America, as indicated by such titles as Black, Brown, and Beige or Harlem.
The late 1940s was a difficult time for Ellington and all the formerly popular big-band leaders. Ballrooms and nightclubs were beginning to close or to turn to other forms of music, cutting off the main venue of performance, and the sales of jazz records was dropping. Some big bands were forced, by changing conditions, to break up. Ellington decided to make his first European tour since before the war. In the spring of 1950 he took his band to France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and West Germany. Finding the tour inspiring, he began to compose again.
Three Black Kings began as a commission for a dance work from the Dance Theatre of Harlem. In 1973, Ellington gave Luther Henderson a short score from which he was asked to prepare the ballet version with a symphonic orchestration. The project never came to fruition, and after Ellington’s death in 1974, his son Mercer completed it and asked Henderson to score it for jazz band and orchestra. There is a version for a jazz soloist, but the present performance will be of the orchestral version without a featured soloist.
In his last decade, Ellington composed a number of large-scale works under the overall classification “sacred concert,” usually based on a Biblical theme. Though it goes beyond that designation, Three Black Kings celebrates two figures from the Bible and one modern leader who was a Christian preacher, all of whom can fit into the category of “king.” The three movements refer, respectively, to Balthazar, one of the “three kings” of the Nativity story, who is traditionally identified as black. The second movement refers to King Solomon, identified as notable for his wisdom; he was the son of King David from his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, the wife of one of David’s generals. The final movement is devoted to the most significant modern “king”—Dr. Martin Luther King, whose martyrdom was still a recent event at the time Ellington wrote this music.
SAMUEL BARBER (1910-1981)
Adagio for Strings
Samuel Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 9, 1910, and died in New York on January 23, 1981. He composed the Adagio originally as part of his String Quartet, Opus 11, in 1936-37. Barber took the slow movement of the quartet as a separate piece for string orchestra. It became famous overnight when Toscanini conducted it on his nationwide radio broadcast on November 5, 1938. Duration is about 8 minutes.
Samuel Barber grew up in a musical family (his aunt was the great contralto Louise Homer, whose husband, Sidney Homer, was a composer), and he began play the piano at six and compose the following year. Still, it was with some trepidation that he left a note on his mother’s dresser when he was about eight to tell her of his self‑realization: “To begin with, I was not meant to be an athelet [sic] I was meant to be a composer. and I will be, I’m sure…Don’t ask me to try to forget this…and go play foot‑ball.” It was Sam’s uncle Sidney who encouraged his composition most with letters full of advice, and by the time the boy was seventeen, his famous aunt had begun including some of his early songs on her recital programs.
Barber’s musical technique was formally developed during eight years he spent as a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he joined its first class in 1924 (when he was just fourteen). There he studied piano, composition (with Rosario Scalero), conducting (with Fritz Reiner), and voice. For a time he contemplated the idea of a career as a professional singer, but it was primarily as a composer that he developed during his Curtis years.
Barber’s style was always conservative, emphasizing the long lyrical line and relatively traditional tonal harmonies. His setting of language was felicitous, and his ear for color acute. All of these strengths made him for many years one of the most popular of American composers. Though by the time of his death he felt himself to be an outsider in the musical world, his music has been heard more frequently in recent years and appreciated for its craft and expressive directness.
From early on Barber won awards; at first these took him for study in Europe, especially Italy, where he not only composed a great deal of music but made useful connections. In July 1937 Artur Rodzinski conducted Barber’s First Symphony at the Salzburg Festival, the first American music ever to be performed in that bastion of European culture. At the time, Arturo Toscanini was planning his programs for the following year and looking for an American work to include. Rodzinski suggested Barber, and when Toscanini expressed an interest in seeing a short piece, Barber quickly composed his Essay for Orchestra and made an arrangement for orchestral strings of the Adagio from his String Quartet. He sent the works to Toscanini, but heard nothing. Eventually the conductor sent back the scores with no message from the conductor.
When Barber’s classmate GianCarlo Menotti visited Toscanini at Lago Maggiore that summer, Barber refused to go with him. Toscanini understood the reason for the young composer’s absence: “He’s just angry with me, but he has no reason to be‑‑I’m going to do both of his pieces.” The performances on November 5, 1938, were widely heard and remarked, partly because Toscanini had a reputation for musical conservatism and for a lack of interest in American music. The fact that he played two works by an American composer on the same program brought Barber’s name and music before the public more effectively than almost anything else could have done.
Of course, it was the quality of the music that held the public attention. The haunting serenity of the Adagio, in particular, has retained its hold unbroken. The Adagio for strings is one of those extraordinary works that feels never to have been created but always to have existed just out of hearing. Its shape is a nearly seamless arch from infinite quiet sadness to great intensity and back to silence.
LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1918, and died in New York on October 14, 1990. He composed the score for the Elia Kazan film On the Waterfront , which opened on July 28, 1954. Bernstein himself conducted the first performance of the symphonic suite that he created from the film score a year later, at Tanglewood, on August 11, 1955. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, alto saxophone, 2 timpanists and three percussionists (xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, snare drum, bass drum, suspended cymbal, triangle, wood block, chimes, three tuned drums, two tamtams, plus harp, piano, and strings. Duration is about 23 minutes.
Leonard Bernstein’s only venture into the score of films was for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, a story of violence and heroism, of racketeers and longshoremen. Marlon Brando played Terry, an ex-prizefighter and longshoreman who, though at first a tool of the racketeers, develops the courage to withstand them, largely through the love and support of his girl Edie (played by Eva Marie Saint), whose brother has been killed by the mobsters, a hit that Terry unknowingly helped set up. The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards (including for best score) and won eight of them, including Best Picture.
The orchestral suite begins with the film’s opening music presenting, in the solo horn, Terry’s theme, which, in a much grander version, will conclude the score. A rapid, nervous section, Presto barbaro, presents the music connected with scenes of violence in the film. Its septuple meter creates unsettling, even frightening, effects. A complete change of character, to a fresh lyrical melody in solo flute accompanied by harp and clarinets, marks the beginning of an extended love scene, building to great intensity.
Another version of Terry’s theme leads to a new section of violence, the music that accompanies Terry’s fight with the racketeer John Friendly (played by Lee J. Cobb). Its conclusion leads to the dénouement of the film and the score. The other longshoremen have agreed to work only if Terry works. Though he has been severely beaten in the fight, he drags himself to the docks and begins working in an act of heroic defiance of the crooked union leaders. His music builds gradually to a powerful climax with recollections of the bitterness of his story.
LOWELL LIEBERMANN (1961-Present)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 132
Lowell Liebermann was born in New York City on February 22, 1961. He composed his new Cello Concerto on a joint commission from six orchestras. The Jacksonville performances are the second to be offered. INSTRUMENTATION TIMING??
Lowell Lieberman was born in New York City, grew up there, and still lives there. He began piano studies at age eight and formal composition studies at fourteen. A year later he made his performing debut at Carnegie Recital Hall—playing his own Piano Sonata, Opus 1. He attended the Juilliard School, where he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and the Doctor of Musical Arts degrees (the last in 1987). While at Juilliard he continued his piano studies with Jacob Lateiner while studying composition with David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti. He also studied conducting with Laszlo Halasz and served as assistant conductor for the Nassau Lyric Opera Company.
Liebermann has been one of the most prolific composers of his generation, and one of the most frequently commissioned and performed. Moreover, musicians who have premiered one work of his have often come back to premiere the next in the same genre, a clear sign that he composed music that the soloists themselves found satisfying. Pianist Stephen Hough, for example, premiered both his first and second piano concertos in 1988 and 1992 (the Baltimore Sun called the latter work “perhaps the best piece in the genre since Samuel Barber’s Concerto”); both concertos have been recorded by Hough, under the composer’s direction with the BBC Scottish Orchestra, on Hyperion. Flutist James Galway premiered his Flute Concerto in 1992 and his Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra (a genre created by Mozart) in 1995. In May of 1996 his opera The Picture of Dorian Gray, based on the novel of Oscar Wilde, had a very successful premiere in Monte Carlo—the first opera by an American composer to be performed there.
His voluminous creative output now includes no fewer than twelve concertos, four symphonies, and two operas (in addition to the aforementioned Oscar Wilde opera, he composed Miss Lonelyhearts in 2005). There is also a substantial body of chamber music, piano works, and vocal and choral pieces.
HOWARD HANSON (1896-1981)
Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, “Romantic”
Howard Hanson was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, on October 28, 1896, and died in Rochester, N.Y., on February 26, 1981. He composed his Second Symphony for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which gave the first performance, under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, on November 28, 1930. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals, harp, and strings. Duration is about 23 minutes.
Millions of people know Howard Hanson’s Romantic Symphony without knowing they know it; one section of this rich example of 20th-century American romanticism provides the quiet, consoling music that appears under the final credits of the outer space adventure Aliens—a welcome touch of humanity after the nerve-wracking tension of the film, in which violently destructive alien creatures nearly take a small human community in the far reaches of space.
Howard Hanson might have been surprised to know that some part if his symphony would enjoy such unanticipated fame, but he would not have been surprised that its warmth and human qualities were recognized, because it was always his desire to touch the listener.
Born in Wahoo, Nebraska, in 1896, Hanson became an important symbol of American music-making as composer, conductor, teacher, and academic administrator. Every composer (indeed, every artist in any medium), seeks within himself, drawing upon everything he has ever learned of life and art to create his works. Howard Hanson was born to Swedish immigrants on the plains of Nebraska. Thus, he was an example of the classic American story. Though there was never any doubt in his mind that he was an American composer, his sense of “place” was greatly colored by the culture and the music of Scandinavia. It is not surprising, then, that as a symphonist (he composed seven works in that genre) Hanson should show particularly the influence of Jan Sibelius. This is especially true of his earliest symphonies, which were written at a time when Sibelius was widely regarded as the greatest living composer of symphonies.
In 1924 George Eastman hired him as founding director of the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, N.Y.; he was not yet thirty! Soon after this appointment, he won the Prix de Rome, and stayed in Europe for three years, composing there his First Symphony. It demonstrated the arrival of a master of symphonic style in the mode of the Sibelius symphonies, which were then at the peak of their popularity. Not surprisingly, then, Serge Koussevitzky chose Hanson as one of the American composers commissioned to write a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s fiftieth anniversary in 1930.
This work turned out to be far and away his most popular. Its subtitle Romantic makes explicit the composer’s link to the past—and, again, especially to Sibelius, whose dark, rich sonorities he favored. At the time of the premiere, Hanson wrote that he chose this approach, and his subtitle, because he believed “that romanticism will find in this country rich soil for a new, young, and vigorous growth.” But what makes this symphony “romantic,” is not a program or a story connected with the piece or described in it, but the broad spaciousness of the melodic lines, the rich texture of the orchestration, and the flexibility of mood throughout.
Cast in three movements, the symphony would seem to present itself as a fast-slow-fast pattern, but the tempo ranges widely, and this affects the character, too; the slow introduction builds to an Allegro–but only one at moderate speed, and the very lyrical second theme is introduced in a Lento (slow) passage for strings with a countermelody in the horns. Like Sibelius, Hanson sometimes creates “cyclical” structures by bringing back themes from earlier movements to appear in a later part of the score. Following the main theme of the tender second movement, the brass recall the introduction of the first movement for a time before leading to a “new” theme, which itself is derived from a horn melody in the first movement.
The last movement is the liveliest in tempo, and its middle section develops through a substantial passage featuring solos or fanfares in the brasses—horn, then trombones, finally trumpets, building to a climax that announces the main theme of the first movement. The second theme of the first movement is also restated, fortissimo, before the closing coda. Such a description makes the music sound far more complicated than it is. In essence Hanson shapes the entire symphony out of a few thematic kernels, developing color and mood and character from beginning to a richly romantic conclusion.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)