An American New Year’s Eve is one of four individual performances produced and distributed by the New York Philharmonic and personally selected by Alan Gilbert for commercial release during his inaugural season with the Philharmonic.
Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring, Suite for Orchestra Selections from Old American Songs, First and Second Sets
Few nights in the history of the arts in America can rival October 30, 1944, when the ballet Appalachian Spring was premiered at the Library of Congress. That the music was by Aaron Copland and the choreography by Martha Graham speaks of the level of creativity that was put before the audience. Copland had already won a place in the hearts of balletomanes through his Wild West ballets Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942), and Graham’s name had become synonymous with the new direction of modern dance. But others involved in the project were as eminent in their own ways. Erick Hawkins and Merce Cunningham, who shared the stage with Graham in the performance, both would go on to lead their own dance companies to prominence; Isamu Noguchi, who designed the sets, was a distinguished artist who is remembered for his sculpture and public works. The nuts-and-bolts side of the production was starry, too, involving, principally, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the doyenne of Washington’s cultural patrons, who commissioned the ballet, and Dr. Harold Spivacke, head of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, who patiently coached the masterpiece through its extended labor. Copland and Graham had flirted with collaborating as early as 1941, when Graham was envisioning a ballet that might be described as Medea set in New England. When Copland didn’t evince much enthusiasm, Graham’s thoughts turned instead to something imbued with the gentle spirit that had made such an impact in Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town. This sentiment would become the emotional heart of Appalachian Spring. Copland reported that the first script he received from Graham began: “This is a legend of American living. It is like the bone structure, the inner frame that holds together a people.” Such a vague approach was not atypical of Graham’s method, and, although it vexed many of the composers with whom she worked, it appears not to have rattled Copland, who diplomatically called his score-in-progress simply Ballet for Martha, and wisely allowed the project to develop considerably in Graham’s imagination before investing much time in actually committing music to the page. As the project developed, Graham’s scenario conflated many strands of American social history, all intersecting around the time of the Civil War in some generalized place in the American heartland. Eventually the setting coalesced in rural western Pennsylvania — a region well known to Graham, who had spent her childhood in the town of Allegheny, not far from Pittsburgh. In the end, the ballet’s plot was straightforward: A bride and bridegroom become acquainted, shyly and nervously, and members of their community, including a revivalist preacher, express their sentiments. The couple grows more comfortable with the ritual of daily life that lies ahead, their humility underscored by Copland’s use of the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts,” and they greet the future with a sense of serenity. The “Simple Gifts” section of Appalachian Spring is the part that has lodged most insistently in the popular memory, and Copland’s variations on that melody are indeed remarkable. Nonetheless, it is a curious inclusion in the context of the final scenario. Copland later observed: “My research evidently was not very thorough, since I did not realize that there have never been Shaker settlements in rural Pennsylvania!” Although the general sound of Appalachian Spring can be found elsewhere in Copland’s works of this period, this is the music that established its vocabulary as representing the quintessential “American sound.” Rich in wide-open, disjunct intervals, it’s a style that became much imitated by American composers — including, very often, by Copland himself. That it seemed to evoke something inherently American made it irresistible to composers of strictly commercial music, and in a sentimentalized form it thrives to this day as the inspiration for countless sound tracks of movies that have a period setting. Copland was aware of the pitfalls of empty nostalgia that might torpedo his score, and some years later, after he had conducted the work on numerous occasions, he wrote: “I have often admonished orchestras, professional and otherwise, not to get too sweet or too sentimental with it.” For a year, beginning in March 1949, Aaron Copland labored on his Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, which would prove to be his longest work in the field of art song, and one that gave him considerable difficulty. He later told the music historian Vivian Perlis: By the end of the year, I was finally up to number 11, and I felt myself bogged down. As a break I arranged five American Folk Songs. I wrote to Irving [Fine, his friend and fellow composer], “No one else may like them, but Hawkes [Copland’s publisher] is delighted!” To Copland, these melodies were a sort of subspecies of American popular music, and they provided the kind of pleasant diversion he needed from his more strenuous creative work. As soon as he finished his Old American Songs, First Set, he returned refreshed to the work he’d put aside, which in short order would include not only the Dickinson poems but also the Piano Fantasy and the opera The Tender Land. The song collection proved immensely successful, not to mention a veritable cash cow in Copland’s catalogue. He had enjoyed the exercise of writing the arrangements, and now he had a practical reason to continue with more. As he explained to Perlis, “Everyone seemed to enjoy singing and hearing Old American Songs I so much that I decided to arrange a second set in 1952.” This second set would also comprise five songs from disparate traditions, and it was similarly well received. Yet, neither group drew much attention from critics, who apparently wrote them off as trivial. During the 1930s and ’40s, American “classical” composers had shown considerable enthusiasm for employing folk inspiration in their concert works, but by the time Copland produced these two sets the practice was perhaps overfamiliar. Certainly they are among his less innovative achievements, but they are nonetheless adept. In her groundbreaking 1953 study of Copland, the composer and author Julia Smith accurately observed of the voice-and-piano settings that “the accompaniments, practical but exceedingly attractive, offer moods by turns nostalgic, energetic, sentimental, devotional, and humorous.” Their character is intensified in Copland’s orchestrated versions, which add variety of sonic color to underscore the detail and character of the texts. These remain among Copland’s most frequently performed works, whether in their original versions for voice and piano, in Copland’s subsequent arrangements for voice and orchestra, in the choral arrangements by Irving Fine, or in other transcriptions that have entered circulation. On this recording there are three songs from the First Set (“The Dodger,” “Simple Gifts,” and “The Boatmen’s Dance”) and two from the Second Set (“The Little Horses” and “The Golden Willow Tree”). Copland told Perlis: “The Dodger” was found in the John and Alan Lomax book Our Singing Country. It dates from the presidential campaign of 1884, when Grover Cleveland defeated James G. Blaine. ... “Simple Gifts” is the Shaker song used in Appalachian Spring, arranged in a style closer to the original, with a direct and straightforward melodic line and simple hymnlike harmonies. “The Boatmen’s Dance” is one of the few songs in these sets whose original composer is known. Copland reported that this “minstrel show tune by Daniel Decatur Emmett, composer of ‘Dixie,’ is from the Harris Collection at Brown University. I composed the accompaniment in imitation of minstrel banjo playing.” Of the five pieces in the Second Set, only the lullaby, “The Little Horses,” and the ballad, “The Golden Willow Tree,” are real folk songs, passed through the generations but not traceable to any composer or distinct moment of origin. Copland made a few convenient alterations to their contours while maintaining the modal harmonic flavor. “The Little Horses,” Copland said, is “a children’s lullaby from the South based on a version from Lomax’s Folk Song U.S.A.,” and “The Golden Willow Tree” is “a variant of a well-known Anglo-American ballad often called ‘The Golden Vanity,’ which I heard on a Library of Congress recording for banjo and voice.” Instrumentation: Appalachian Spring Suite uses two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tabor (long drum), wood block, claves, triangle, orchestra bells, harp, piano, and strings. Old American Songs employs two flutes, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, trombone, harp, and strings, in addition to the solo baritone.
Cole Porter: Selections from Cole Porter’s Musicals
Cole Porter was the most urbane, the most intellectual, the most highbrow of the Golden-Age American lyricist-songwriters, and he was practically born into the part. His Hoosier family enjoyed considerable wealth, and his mother, an accomplished pianist as well as a coal and timber heiress, determined that he should receive adept musical instruction, which included violin lessons beginning at age six and piano lessons two years later. Young Cole headed east to continue his education at the Worcester Academy in Massachusetts and then at Yale, where he was a member of the Whiffenpoofs and leader of the Glee Club. In 1915 two of Porter’s songs made their way into Broadway shows, and the next year he earned a credit as composer of an entire Broadway musical. When these first steps on the Great White Way met with little success, he moved to France. He joined the French Foreign Legion during World War I. After three years of service he picked up the social whirl in Paris, Venice, and the Riviera, proving popular among the smart set by accompanying himself in his own clever, sometimes risqué songs at parties. He was serious about his craft, however, and at the end of his stint in the Foreign Legion he also enrolled for instruction in harmony, counterpoint, composition, and orchestration with Vincent d’Indy, the most eminent of the conservative French musical pedagogues at the time, and steeped himself in the art-song tradition of Schubert and Schumann. Porter’s career was centered entirely on musical theater. While many of his contemporaries cast their songs to sink or swim on the fashions of Tin Pan Alley, Porter’s works were typically introduced by big-name stars in big-budget Broadway productions — hardly a guarantee of success, but at least assurance that his songs would be unveiled under the most flattering circumstances possible. Porter hit his stride in the 1930s with a string of Broadway successes, including The New Yorkers in 1930; Gay Divorce, with its showstopping number “Night and Day,” in 1932 (turned into the film The Gay Divorcée in 1934); Anything Goes in 1934; Jubilee, with its imaginative “Begin the Beguine,” in 1935; and Red, Hot and Blue in 1936. The following year he sustained a serious accident while horseback riding in Locust Valley, on Long Island. Both his legs were crushed and rendered useless — the right one was eventually amputated — and he spent the remainder of his life in chronic pain. His morale and his productivity took a plunge, but he was not out of the game. Quite a few superb songs emerged from even these dark years, and in 1948 he achieved the show that many consider his masterpiece: Kiss Me, Kate (after Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), a major hit that ran for 1,007 performances on Broadway and was transformed into a 1953 film. The five Porter songs on this recording sample famous and not-so-famous moments from the composer’s extraordinary career, beginning with “Night and Day,” a testament to Porter’s radical expansion of the songwriter’s art. Its verse is audaciously based almost entirely on repeated notes, which Porter claimed — seriously? — were inspired by a chant he heard coming from a minaret in Morocco. Can-Can doesn’t enjoy much of a reputation among musical-theater aficionados due to what many consider its weak book, but it did run for a very respectable 892 performances on Broadway following its opening on May 7, 1953, making it Porter’s second longest-running show. “Who Said Gay Paree?” was composed for this belle-époque fantasy but was dropped before the opening. It lives on, however, as a useful, wistfully nostalgic cabaret number. From Kiss Me, Kate we hear “Where Is the Life that Late I Led?”; Petruchio in his newly married state hungers after the romantic flames of his bachelorhood, with grin-inducing rhymes. “In the Still of the Night,” from the MGM film Rosalie, conveys Porter’s touchstone emotional subtlety as the singer wonders about the fate of the love he feels. “Begin the Beguine” spins out to an unprecedented length for a popular song, its essential structure of 108 measures bursting the standard 32-bar song form many times over. Porter himself admitted of this brilliant tour de force: “I can never remember it — if I want to play, I need to see the music in front of me!” Instrumentation: two flutes (one doubling alto flute and piccolo), two oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets plus one bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, orchestra bells, suspended cymbal, drum set, bongos, maracas, harp, piano (doubling celesta) in addition to the solo baritone.
George Gershwin: An American in Paris
In the spring of 1928 George Gershwin took his fifth trip to Europe, bringing with him his sister, Frances; his brother, Ira; and Ira’s wife, Leonore. While he was there he worked on his tone poem An American in Paris. Gershwin was, in fact, an actual American in Paris for part of the time that he worked on the piece, and Ira reported that the entire “blues” section of An American in Paris was composed in the Hotel Majestic in that city. Other parts, however, were written in New York City (where he had sketched a good deal of the piece before he set sail), in Vienna, and, after his return from abroad, at a farm in Connecticut. All of the orchestration was carried out in the United States. Gershwin’s career was going swimmingly, and if he had cared to he could have sat back and basked in the knowledge that he had two shows running concurrently on Broadway just then — Funny Face and Rosalie — and another, Oh Kay!, packing in crowds in London. But he was often driven by a desire to be more than “just” a composer of musical comedies, and much of his time in Europe he gave over to seeking out advice and coaching from composers who were esteemed for their concert music. One of the composers Gershwin most admired was Maurice Ravel, whom he had met during a trip the latter made to New York in January 1928. During his visit Ravel had marveled at hearing Gershwin improvise at the piano and had enjoyed a grand time attending a performance of Funny Face. Gershwin had asked Ravel if he might study with him, but the French composer politely declined, insisting that Gershwin’s talent was already perfectly formed and that he would have nothing to contribute. But since Gershwin was so obviously sincere in his desire to pursue more “classical” instruction, Ravel wrote a letter of introduction that Gershwin could present to the esteemed teacher Nadia Boulanger should he find himself in France. This Gershwin did, but Boulanger reiterated Ravel’s opinion and firmly refused to risk suffocating Gershwin’s originality through the imposition of academic rigor. Despite his efforts, Gershwin was left to his own devices, forced to clear his own path toward a distinctive fusion of popular and classical styles on the concert stage. An American in Paris was written in response to a commission from the conductor Walter Damrosch. He had previously commissioned Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, in 1925, and soon after that he broached the idea of a second commission. The work was on Gershwin’s mind before he left home, but the experience of being in Paris proved highly stimulating. The composer and pianist Mario Braggiotti, who was studying at the Paris Conservatoire, went to visit Gershwin at the Hotel Majestic, where he arrived unannounced. “Attired in a dressing gown,” Braggiotti reported: Gershwin gaily ushered me inside with that vague and stunned manner of one who was holding tightly to the thread of a creative mood. Beside his Steinway was a group of bridge tables covered with all sizes and makes of French taxi horns ... “I’m looking for the right horn pitch for the street scene of a ballet I’m writing. Calling it An American in Paris. Lots of fun.” Audiences agreed that it was lots of fun, and the Brooklyn Eagle reported of the premiere that the listeners responded “with a demonstration of enthusiasm impressively genuine in contrast to the conventional applause which new music, good and bad, ordinarily arouses.” Instrumentation: three flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, three saxophones (alto, tenor, and baritone), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, xylophone, tom-toms, four French taxi horns, wood block, celesta, and strings. The work is played here in the slightly revised orchestration made after Gershwin’s death by Frank Campbell-Watson (1898–1980); it somewhat subdues Gershwin’s saxophone parts, entirely eliminating a passage in which the composer had indicated that all three players should double on soprano saxophones.
ReviewsThe Gershwin could not have been more energetic or assertive, nor could its painterly, cosmopolitan vision have been presented more vividly. ” Allan Kozinn, The New York Times