Ballade in A Minor, Op. 33
Born August 15, 1875, in Croydon (London), England; died there, Sept. 1, 1912
In the 21st century, many neglected composers are finally receiving the recognition they have long deserved; among them are many African-American composers, such as Florence Price as well as international composers of African heritage, such as Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Coleridge-Taylor was the child of an English-trained physician from Sierra Leone and an English woman. His father could not maintain a medical practice in Britain because of his race; he returned to Africa permanently around the time of Samuel’s birth. Coleridge-Taylor studied violin and attended the Royal College of Music to study composition with Charles Villiers Stanford. Soon after, he began collaborating with the African-American poet/author Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906).
In addition to creating a large and varied body of composition, Coleridge-Taylor was conductor of the Handel Society of London from 1904 until his early death. He taught at the Croydon Conservatory and was Professor of Composition at Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music as well as violin teacher at the Royal Academy of Music.
In 1898, a year after finishing his studies, Coleridge-Taylor received his first commission. His editor and mentor at the music publisher Novello was A. J. Jaeger, a friend of Edward Elgar; Elgar immortalized Jaeger in the “Nimrod” variation of his “Enigma” Variations. Jaeger introduced Elgar to Coleridge-Taylor’s music. Soon thereafter, Elgar, too busy to produce a new piece for the annual Three Choirs Festival, recommended the 23-year-old Coleridge-Taylor receive the commission which had been offered to him. Coleridge-Taylor thus received the bid to produce a new orchestral work for the Festival’s 1898 season. Elgar wrote that Coleridge-Taylor “still wants recognition but is far away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men.” To fulfill this commission, Coleridge-Taylor composed the Ballade in A Minor, which was very warmly received. As important as this early success was for him, it was followed by the premiere of Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata, two months later, which Jaeger described as “the biggest success Novello’s has had since Mendelssohn’s Elijah.”
British historian Jeffrey Green speaks of the legacy of Coleridge-Taylor for all musicians of African descent: “By including African, Afro-American, and Afro-Caribbean elements in his compositions in melody and in title, as well as by being visibly and proudly of African descent, the music and the achievements of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had made black concert musicians proud and able to walk tall, especially in America where the compositions of European masters dominated in concert hall programs.”
During his lifetime, Coleridge-Taylor was very popular in the United States, where he was celebrated as “the Black Mahler.” He toured the country three times and was received by President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House in 1904. He died at the age of 37, reportedly from a combination of exhaustion and pneumonia. Unfortunately, his work almost completely disappeared from concert halls after World War II; recently, a revival of interest in his music has occurred.
Ballade in A Minor adheres to the Romantic tradition of Dvořák, who was a major influence on the young composer. Ballade begins with a dramatic flourish designed to command attention with trilling flutes above unison strings. Woodwinds introduce a strutting theme; the whole orchestra joins in the muscular, declamatory opening, punctuated by timpani and cymbals. A second theme is tender and much more lyrical. As the work continues, the two disparate moods alternate, climaxing in the orchestra’s iteration of the melodic romantic theme before the opening music returns for a dramatic ending.
Ballade is scored for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, and strings.
Violin Concerto No. 2
Born April 9, 1887, in Little Rock, AR; died June 3, 1953, in Chicago, IL
The early 20th century African-American composer Florence Price spent her professional career in Chicago, where, because of her extraordinary musical talent and her family’s affluence, she was able, despite her race and her gender, to study at the Chicago Musical College and the American Conservatory. Later, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where she majored in organ and piano. After graduating with two degrees, Price worked as a college professor, church organist, and theater accompanist. However, she is best remembered as the first African-American woman to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played her Symphony in E minor. That orchestra also premiered her Piano Concerto the following year.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, music groups sponsored by the Works Project Administration in Illinois and Michigan performed some of Price’s longer works. Price’s groundbreaking Symphony in E minor was the first prize-winner of the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Music Contest and was premiered in 1933 by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was the first work by an African-American woman to be performed by a major symphony orchestra in the United States.
Price wrote more than 300 musical compositions. Some of her works have been lost, and others are unpublished, but some of her piano and vocal music is still being performed in concert halls. Contralto Marian Anderson brought her historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial to its conclusion with Price’s “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” Since then, Price’s art songs and spiritual settings have been favorites of artists who specialize in African-American concert music.
Price completed Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1952, the year before her sudden death at age sixty-six. The manuscript was never published and was considered lost. The concerto, along with some other music and personal papers, was discovered by accident in 2009 when renovators opened up an abandoned house Price once owned some 70 miles south of Chicago.
The concerto is in one movement, divided into four sections. Each section contains an introductory, as well as the principal and secondary themes, which, when they reappear in each subsequent section, are set to different textures. Price’s repetition of the themes in new contexts reflects her adherence to standard elements of the genre of spirituals.
The lighthearted and melodic principal theme features rhythmic and harmonic elements from juba dance, (originally known as Pattin’ Juba, it is an African American dance that involves stomping as well as slapping arms, legs, chest, and cheeks) while the secondary theme reflects Price’s own distinctive, novel style. For the secondary theme, the orchestra is used as a duet partner for the soloist, pairing strings and brass joined with a warm timbre, featuring Price’s unique ways of bringing familiar material into new polyphonic settings.
The work opens with a serious orchestral introduction with jarring chords of D major and F minor, that create an unstable harmonic environment. The music pauses to allow the solo violin to make its serpentine entrance. Price’s harmonies include some dissonance; the concerto, overall, is richly chromatic. The solo music, almost Romantic in feel, has a rhapsodic tone and is reminiscent of the music of Samuel Barber and other melody-driven American violin concertos of the 1930s. Of this lyrical, challenging but terse concerto, Alex Ross of the New Yorker writes, “This terse, beguiling piece has an autumnal quality reminiscent of the final works of Richard Strauss.
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28
Born October 9, 1835, in Paris; died December 16, 1921, in Algiers
Camille Saint-Saëns’ talents were multiple: he was a composer, conductor, pianist, author of eleven books on music, collections of poetry, and scientific studies in astronomy and archaeology. He traveled almost all over the world on concert tours and for pleasure. He visited the United States twice; he made his South American debut at the age of eighty-one. “He has,” Romain Rolland wrote in 1915, “a clarity of thought, an elegance and precision of expression, and a quality of mind that make his music noble.” His greatest contribution to the musical life of his time was the establishment of the importance of instrumental composition in France, where opera had been long supreme.
Saint-Saëns wrote two of his three violin concertos and a number of shorter violin pieces for the great Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1890), an impeccable technician whose performing style stressed beauty of tone and grace of manner. He gave the first performance of the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso at a concert in Paris on April 4, 1867.
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso is a charming work made up of a melancholy opening section and a rondo whose main theme’s syncopated rhythms illustrate its “capriciousness.” It closes with a solo cadenza and a coda of dazzling brilliance.
The orchestral version is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Symphony No. 2, in D Major, Op. 43
Born December 8, 1865, in Hämeenlinna, Finland; died September 20, 1957, in Järvenpää
Jean Sibelius was an international traveler who never composed in isolation in his native country. After musical studies in Helsinki, he received a government stipend upon successfully composing a string quartet, allowing him to continue his studies in Berlin. He also studied in Vienna; his music was published in Leipzig. He made concert tours to the principal cities of Europe; he also frequently went to England, where his works were very popular. He taught for a while at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In the last decades of his life, he retired from international exposure, seeking seclusion in his native Finland. He did no composing in the last thirty years before his death.
In 1899, Sibelius wrote his Symphony No. 1, in which he looked backward at such models as Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. In his strong and heroic Symphony No. 2, Sibelius forged a new, independent path for himself. The music of this vigorous symphony has great boldness and individuality, yet it is infused with a dark brooding that has a definite Nordic flavor.
Sibelius’s originality in this symphony is a result of his formal structural technique. Instead of introducing full-blown themes, he first presents fragments, short melodic kernels that he later combines to make up larger thematic units. This musical technique is very innovative because it reverses the usual classical procedure in which the composer begins with statements of complete themes, which are then broken up in the development section. Sibelius himself explains his practice poetically, “It is as if the Almighty had thrown down the pieces of a mosaic from Heaven’s floor and asked me to put them together.”
In the first movement, Allegretto, he begins with what seem to be unrelated fragments, which then metamorphose into extended long themes in the development section, the part of the movement where traditionally composers break themes down into their components; later, he dissolves and disperses the material again in the recapitulation.
The slow second movement, Andante ma rubato, opens with an accompaniment figure in the low strings and a multitude of fragments of melody, beginning in the bassoons. Sibelius eventually extends the fragments so they come together as two themes, one melancholy and one lyrical. The third movement is more conventional, a tumultuous scherzo, Vivacissimo, with the woodwinds introducing fragments of melody. After a contrasting middle section, Lento e suave, whose main theme starts very unusually and boldly with the oboe’s repetition of a single note nine times, the movement is joined to the last movement without a pause. The finale, Allegro moderato, has a stately and ceremonious feel with its principal theme setting the mood and establishing the character of the whole movement. This flowing melodic line also is the product of a series of fragments that Sibelius strings together. Gray’s comments about Sibelius’s concluding movement indicate that he feels the composer has “achieved the state of spiritual serenity, optimism and repose” which makes it possible for him to conclude this work in a triumphant manner with a large crescendo leading to a tremendous climax.
He composed the symphony in 1901 in Italy; it premiered in Helsinki on March 8, 1902 in a concert conducted by the composer.
The score requires two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.
Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.