John Williams — Liberty Fanfare
Few modern composers have achieved the level of name recognition that is enjoyed by John Williams. Composer of scores to such popular films as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and of course Star Wars, Williams has managed to bring modern classical music to the ears — and record shelves — of many American families who have never even heard of Robert Schumann or Gustav Mahler.
In 1986, for the celebration of the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty, Williams was commissioned by the Statute of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to write a fanfare for orchestra.
“As fanfares go, [it] is a humdinger,” wrote Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of the New York Times. “It’s got two great tunes: a brassy and boisterous fanfare riff, all roulades and flourishes and forward motion; and a long-lined tune for hushed-up strings that sounds like lots of others Williams has composed for Hollywood, but still gets you right in the back of the throat.”
Cole Porter — “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”
It would be almost impossible to live in Indiana and know nothing of Cole Porter. Born in the north-central Indiana town of Peru, Porter became one of the best-known songwriters of the early 20th century — not just here, but across America. Songs like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Begin the Beguine” and “Anything Goes” perfectly captured the optimism of the 1930s; Porter’s musicals were the talk of Broadway.
But then came a long period of seeming decline, brought on by a horse-riding accident in 1937. Porter’s subsequent music was largely forgettable — until 1948, when he unleashed what was arguably his greatest musical, “Kiss Me Kate.” Here was classic Porter again: the infectious melodies, the jazzy rhythms. Those attributes appear right at the beginning of the clever show-within-a-show, via “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” a classic “show-biz” two-beat song about the joys (and trials) of life on the stage.
Irving Berlin — “God Bless America” / A Berlin Medley (Blue Skies, There’s No Business like Show Business)
In 1911, a young Russian-born American composer splashed onto the international stage with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The song was heralded by Variety as “the musical sensation of the decade.” It also spelled overnight fame for its composer, Irving Berlin.
In subsequent years, Berlin would live up to his reputation time and again with new songs that exquisitely captured the spirit of the American times. He did so by combining his singular melodic gift with simple, direct lyrics. “My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country,” he wrote.
In this concert we will hear several examples of that formula, beginning with the song that would later become his signature: “God Bless America.” Since its premiere in 1938, this song now stands as America’s unofficial second National Anthem.
Leonard Bernstein — “West Side Story,” medley arranged by Jack Mason
For many Americans growing up in the 1950s, Leonard Bernstein was classical music. The young, vivacious musician— the first American-born maestro to ever hold a major conducting post in America — took orchestra concerts out of the concert hall and put them on radio and television, bringing the glories of classical music into the living rooms of millions of Americans.
He was also a brilliant composer who wrote music for the concert hall as well as Broadway. Bernstein’s first three musicals — “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Candide” — were quickly hailed as masterpieces. Still, these great works hardly prepared the world for the smash hit that was Bernstein’s fourth foray in the theatre, “West Side Story,” which premiered in 1957.
Based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” tells of two teenagers who fall in love across rival gang lines. Graced by timeless tunes including “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere,” and “Tonight,” “West Side Story” summed up not only the concerns of a generation, but also the glory of American music in the 1950s.
Tonight, we’ll hear a medley of tunes from the musical, arranged with Bernstein’s approval by Jack Mason, a great musical theater arranger and orchestrator.
Antonin Dvořák — Symphony No. 9
One of the great ironies of American music history is that Antonin Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, “From the New World,” was primarily responsible for first putting this country’s classical music on the map. Given that Dvořák was a Czech composer who never studied under an American teacher and spent less than five years of his life in America, the success of his final symphony in lending international credibility to American music and creating an idiomatic template for other composers to follow is either remarkable or kind of depressing, depending on how you look at it.
Granted, when you listen to Dvořák’s symphony today, you can’t help but hear music that sounds somehow quintessentially American. But one can reasonably wonder whether it sounds so American because subsequent composers echoed its style, or because it taps a deeply, uniquely American idiomatic vein.
Dvořák was brought to America in late 1892 by Jeannette Thurber, a self-appointed culture maven who sought to develop a distinctively American tradition of classical music through the creation of a National Conservatory of Music. Dvořák was brought on as the institution’s first director; within eight months of his arrival in New York, he completed his new symphony.
When the work was premiered, Dvořák made a statement that would prove prescient. “I am satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies,” asserted the composer. “These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” Though somewhat controversial at the time, Dvořák’s statement would prove true over the course of the ensuing century, when urban African-American musicians developed the idiom of jazz. Meantime, many classical composers took Dvořák at his word, mining spirituals and other African-American music for source material.
Dvořák also trumpeted the virtues of Native American music, and claimed to have drawn on Native melodies and rhythms for much inspiration in his symphony. He specifically claimed to have written the melody of the second movement with Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” in mind.
Yet most scholars today insist that Dvořák’s symphony is no more American in content or character than any of his other works. Indeed, the Ninth is more clearly reminiscent of Dvořák’s previous symphonies — particularly the Seventh and Eighth — than any external source material that he encountered in America. And Dvořák himself modified his statements about the true source of the material in the symphony over time. “Leave out the nonsense about my having made use of American melodies,” he wrote in 1900 to a conductor who was planning a performance of the symphony. “I have only composed in the spirit of such American national melodies.”
In the end, Dvořák’s ode to the new world should best be recognized on purely musical merits: This is one of the greatest symphonies ever written, a masterpiece that combines immediately memorable melodies with a perfectly balanced structure.
Program notes provided by Joe Nickell