If you’ve ever listened to baroque music (think Vivaldi, Corelli, Handel, etc.), you’ve probably seen the term Concerto Grosso and wondered, “What is that?” Well, as you can probably guess, it does not mean the concerto is gross.
Concerto grosso (or the plural concerti grossi) is Italian for “big concerto”. Unlike a solo concerto where a single solo instrument plays the melody line and is accompanied by the orchestra, in a concerto grosso, a small group of soloists passes the melody between themselves and the orchestra or a small ensemble.
The group of soloists (or soli, concertino, or principale) was often made up of two violins, a bass melody instrument such as a cello, and a harmony instrument such as a harpsichord. Wind instruments were also common. The orchestra (or tutti or ripieno) was usually a string orchestra or a small ensemble of strings, often with a few woodwinds or brass added.
Concerti grossi were very common in the Baroque era (1600-1750). Right around 1750 (just after Handel composed his Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 with 12 different concerti), the solo concerto became the more popular musical form and the concerto grosso all but disappeared. Interestingly, a few 20th century composers like Igor Stravinsky, Philip Glass, and Henry Cowell have revived the form.
Listen to Corelli’s Concerto Grosso op. 6 no. 8 below and see if you can spot the concertino vs. the ripieno.
Vltava, better known by its German name, Die Moldau (or The Moldau), is a symphonic poem that is patriotic in every sense of the word. It is one of six movements of a larger work called Má vlast which means “My Homeland” or “My Country”. In it, Czech composer Smetana combined nationalistic melodies with musical depictions of the Bohemian countryside, history, and legends. When performed, you can hear the land come alive as the music paints the scene of a proud and culturally-rich region of Europe.
The Moldau specifically was intended to evoke the sounds of one of Bohemia’s great rivers – the Vltava river. The “Moldau” name comes from the German name for the source of the river in the Bohemian mountains. In Smetana’s own words:
The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe.
The piece begins with the flutes playing a flowing tune reminiscent of two rippling springs. Violin pizzicato evokes raindrops. Soon, clarinets begin to play and continue the theme. Then one of Smetana’s most famous melodies emerges. It is an adaptation of a piece called La Mantovana and is arguably one of the most strikingly beautiful parts of the entire work. In fact, it has inspired other pieces, most notably the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. Later on, a horn melody representing jubilant hunters and a polka rhythm that depicts a wedding scene can be heard before the famous melody returns. The piece ends with a regal hymn that fades away until the final two loud notes.
The Moldau was written in the 1870’s, a time when Bohemians had a renewed interest in freedom from German culture. They embraced it and the rest of Má vlast as a sort of patriotic symphonic national anthem. Research suggests this was Smetana’s intent as well. Today, it has achieved the most success of all of the six movements.
When thinking of nature-inspired classical music, pieces inspired by flowers, rivers, trees, birds, seasons, and beautiful scenery definitely fit the bill. You may think of everything from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”. But how about a piece about a cave?
Yes, there is at least one classical piece about a cave and it’s a mysterious, dramatic, and beautifully melodic work. It’s everything you’d expect from a piece about a stunning yet lonely cave surrounded by the ocean. It’s Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and you can hear it performed by the Parker Symphony Orchestra live on May 5.
Learn more about this fascinating overture. Here are 9 interesting facts you should know about The Hebrides.
1. It has had several titles. When Mendelssohn completed the work in 1830, it was originally titled Die einsame Insel or The Lonely Island. He revised the score 2 years later and, at that time, renamed the work Die Hebriden (The Hebrides). It was published in 1833 with the “Hebrides” title on various orchestral parts and Fingal’s Cave on the score.
2. It was inspired by a trip to the real cave. Mendelssohn visited England in 1829 and after touring the country, proceeded to Scotland. He and his friend, Karl Klingemann, traveled to the Hebrides Island off the west coast of Scotland and later to Fingal’s Cave, a real cave on the island of Staffa. The sea cave is known for its natural acoustics which project the rumbling of the waves inside for miles. Mendelssohn tried to capture the phenomenon in his overture. The cave is also known for its hexagonal basalt columns similar to those you can find at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
3. It is not a traditional overture. Many overtures serve as the opening to an opera or ballet, but The Hebrides represents a new type of overture called the “concert overture”, intended to stand as a complete work. Also, unlike some pieces, it does not tell a story, but rather depicts a mood and “sets a scene”. That also makes it an early example of a musical tone poem.
4. Mendelssohn was seasick on his trip to Fingal’s Cave. The composer and his friend took a skiff to Staffa to view the cave and sat at the mouth of the awe-inspiring formation. Mendelssohn was terribly seasick during the trip, but enjoyed it nonetheless. His friend, Klingemann, wrote that he got “along better with the sea as an artist than as a human being with a stomach.”
5. The overture didn’t come easily. Mendelssohn apparently came up with the opening phrase of the overture while on his tour of Scotland. He sent it home on a postcard with a note to his sister Fanny that read, “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.” Unfortunately, despite this stroke of genius, he completed at least 2 versions of the piece and wrote to his sister that he was still wrestling with it in 1832 because it did not savor enough of “oil and seagulls and dead fish”.
6. It was dedicated to King Frederick William IV of Prussia. He was the Crown Prince of Prussia at the time and Mendelssohn’s patron.
7. The final autograph manuscript still exists. It is held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Its 34 pages are full of deletions and revisions in a fine calligraphy that was characteristic of Mendelssohn.
8. It consists of two distinct themes. The opening notes state the theme Mendelssohn conceived while visiting the cave and is played by violas, cellos, and bassoons. It sets an initial scene of haunting solitude until the violins take over and the lower voices begin a pattern of sixteenth notes that represent the ebb and flow of the sea. The second theme is a soaring melody meant to convey the drama of the scene. It was once called “the greatest melody Mendelssohn ever wrote” by musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey. There are also recognizable crescendos and crashes that represent the often stormy tides of the area.
9. A theory claims that first draft was completed on a very important cave-related date. Scottish writer Iain Thornber pointed out that the initial draft of The Hebrides was completed on the only day of the year the cave is illuminated by the sun. The cave is only fully illuminated when the sun lies 5.6 degrees above the horizon which is generally on or about December 16. Mendelssohn completed the draft on December 16, 1830. Either this was on purpose or it’s a big coincidence.
Impressionism is a term most familiar to fans of late 19th century painters such as Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and Degas among other notable names. In fact, the term derives from Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. In general, impressionist painters focused on using visual brush strokes to paint overall visual effects and capture light and its changing qualities rather than focusing on details. They also tended to paint en plein air rather than in the studio.
Impressionist paintings depict experiences, moods, and movement. Similarly, Impressionist music also conveys moods, scenes, and emotions rather than detailed stories. This style of classical music was written around the same time (late 19th century) and uses “color” or timbre through different textures, harmonics, and orchestrations to arouse feelings and create atmosphere.
Notable Impressionist composers include:
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Interestingly, while he is often referred to as Impressionist, Debussy rejected the label. Even Ravel was uncomfortable with the name saying it could not be accurately applied to music.
Impressionist music often has an evocative title. For example, Debussy’s Clair de lune or “Moonlight”. While it is actually the third movement of a larger work known as Suite bergamasque, the piece is more famous on its own performed in its original form by solo piano or adapted for orchestra. And when you hear its lush melodies and dramatic ebbs and flows, it’s not hard to see why it is a great example of French Impressionism in music.
Other Impressionist music titles include Debussy’s La Mer and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.
Depending on the instrument you play or your passion for classical music, you may have heard the works of one or a few female composers. Pianists, for example, may know of or even have played Clara Schumann. However, the vast majority of the world has never heard of the likes of Amy Beach, Fanny Mendelssohn, or Florence Price, and that is quite unfortunate.
Women have actually made significant contributions to the classical music world. However, they remain on unequal footing with their male counterparts. So for International Women’s Day, here’s a look at some notable and some forgotten women composers throughout history.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896): Clara Schumann was not only the wife of composer Robert Schumann, but also one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. Her career began at a young age. At age 11, she went on a concert tour of various European cities and gave her first solo concert in Leipzig. Later, during her marriage to Robert, she met Johannes Brahms and not only helped encourage his career, but also was the first to perform publicly any Brahms work. She premiered several of his works during her career including the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.
She also began composing at a young age. In fact, she wrote her piano concerto when she was just fourteen and performed it at age sixteen (with Mendelssohn conducting). As she grew older and focused on other responsibilities, she found it difficult to find time to compose. Her output decreased greatly when she reached 36 years old. Her works include piano pieces, the aforementioned piano concerto, a piano trio, choral pieces, songs, and three Romances for violin and piano.
Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847): Like Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn was a pianist and composer. She was Felix Mendelssohn’s sister and the pair shared a deep love of music. Felix arranged to have some of Fanny’s songs published under his name, due to prevailing attitudes toward women publishing music, which actually led to an embarrassing moment. Queen Victoria received Felix at Buckingham Palace and expressed her intention of singing her favorite of his songs. He confessed it was actually by Fanny.
Fanny Mendelssohn was very prolific. She composed over 460 pieces including a piano trio, books of piano solo pieces and songs, and a cycle of pieces depicting the months of the year titled Das Jahr. This last work was written on colored sheets of paper with illustrations by her husband, Wilhelm.
Fanny passed away after suffering a stroke while rehearsing one of her brother Felix’s oratorios. Felix completed his String Quartet No. 6 in F minor in memory of her.
Louise Farrenc (1804-1875): Louise Farrenc is undoubtedly France’s first female composer. Born into a family of sculptors, she showed early talent in music and studied under such masters as Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Hummel. She married a flute student and together they gave concerts throughout France. The couple opened a publishing house together, Éditions Farrenc, which became one of France’s leading music publishers for 40 years.
Like other female composers around her time, she was a pianist from a young age and wrote many works for the instrument. However, while she wrote exclusively for piano until 1830, she expanded her range and wrote works for orchestra starting in 1834. She wrote 3 symphonies, a wind sextet, vocal works, choral works, and chamber music in addition to music for piano. Unlike Schumann and Mendelssohn, Farrenc’s works remained largely forgotten until the late 20th century during a surge in interest in women composers. In December 2013, Farrenc was the subject of the BBC Radio Three “Composer of the Week” program.
Rachel Portman (1960-present): Rachel Portman is best known as a composer of film scores and, unlike our previous composers, is still writing today. She was born in Surrey, England and became interested in music at a young age. She started composing at the age of 14 and subsequently studied music at Worcester College, Oxford. During her time in school, she started experimenting with writing music for student films and theater productions. After that, she wrote music for drama in BBC and Channel 4 films.
Since then, she has written over 100 scores for film, TV, and theater including The Legend of Bagger Vance, Mona Lisa Smile, Emma, Benny and Joon, The Lake House, Oliver Twist, and The Duchess. Her most famous soundtrack compositions are for the movies Chocolat and The Cider House Rules which was used in the Pure Michigan commercials.
Rachel Portman was the first female composer to win an Academy Award for Best Musical or Comedy Score. She won for Emma in 1996. She has also won a Primetime Emmy Award for her work on Bessie.
Florence Price (1960-present): Florence Price was not only a female composer, but also the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, her mother was a music teacher who guided her early musical training. She had her first piano performance at the age of four and published her first composition at the age of 11. After graduating high school at 14, she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music. She graduated with honors in 1906.
After college, she moved back to Little Rock and was married. They moved to Chicago after a series of racial incidents. It was in Chicago where Florence entered her most fulfilling period of composition. She studied composition, orchestration, and organ with leading teachers and published four pieces for piano. Unfortunately, financial struggles led to a divorce and Florence became a single mother. To pay the bills, she worked as an organist for silent films and composed songs for radio ads (under a pen name). She submitted compositions for Wanamaker Foundation Awards and won first prize with her Symphony in E minor. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the symphony in 1933, making it the first composition by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra.
Florence Price’s music incorporates elements of African-American spirituals, Southern themes, and inspiration from blues, African-American church music, and modern urban sounds.
Amy Beach (1867-1944): Amy Beach was also a pianist as well as a composer. She is considered the first successful American female composer of art music. She was born a prodigy, able to sing 40 songs accurately by age one. She learned to sing counter-melody to her mother’s singing at age 2 and by age 3, she was reading. She composed simple waltzes at age 5. At age 14, Amy received a year of formal training in composition.
Her performance debut was when she was 16. She played until she was married at which time she agreed to limit her performance to two public recitals per year. She devoted herself to composition. However, her husband disapproved of her studying composition with a teacher. So other than her one year of formal training at 14, she was a self-taught composer. She collected every book she could find on theory, composition, and orchestration.
Her first success as a composer came with the performance of her Mass in E-flat major by the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra. It was the first piece the group performed composed by a woman. After that, she wrote many other works including her Piano Concerto, which she premiered as soloist with the Boston Symphony, and the Gaelic Symphony. Her compositions include symphonic works, choral works, chamber music, solo piano music, and songs (of which she wrote about 150).
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944): Cécile Chaminade was a female composer in France whose music was largely financially successful. Born in Paris, she studied music with her mother at first and then piano, violin, and music composition later with other notable names. She began composing at a young age and when she was eight years old, she played some of her music for Georges Bizet who was impressed.
Cécile wrote character pieces for piano and salon songs – all of which were published. Many of her piano compositions received good reviews from critics and were favorites in Europe and America. In fact, when she traveled to the United States in 1908, she discovered that her Scarf Dance and the Ballet No. 1 were in the music libraries of many piano music lovers. Other notable compositions include her Concertstück in C sharp minor for piano and orchestra, ballet music for Callirhoë, and her Flute Concertino in D major. The latter remains one of the most popular of her works performed today.
In 1913, she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, a first for a female composer.
We realize there are many other women we could list here. Follow the links below for more information on these and other women composers.
Duke Ellington. The name immediately brings to mind jazz. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, his legacy as an accomplished pianist and bandleader lives on today. But do you know he was also a composer of symphonic music? In fact, it was his inventive use of the orchestra that many point to as a reason that jazz was elevated to an art form on par with more traditional music genres.
Among his symphonic works are pieces like Black, Brown, and Beige Suite, Harlem, For Jazz Band and Orchestra, New World a-Comin’, and Les Trois Rois Noirs or, in English, Three Black Kings. This last piece was actually Ellington’s final work, composed at the time of his death in 1974. While laying in his hospital bed, he reportedly gave his son, Mercer, final instructions on how to complete the work. However, how much detail he gave is not clear. Mercer once lamented, “Pop had many superstitions, and one of them was never to finish writing a piece until the day of its initial performance. I analyzed it, trying to figure out how he intended to end it, but it wasn’t easy, because he left me no clues.”
Mercer Ellington completed the work and the result is a lush and alluring piece infused with African motifs, a warm down-home feeling, and the unmistakable jazz sound that made Duke Ellington famous. The New York Times noted about the work’s premiere, “…with its crescendo of gospel rhythms and its expressionist symbols of marches and martyrdom…moves the spectator” and The Daily News hailed the work as “An intensely moving vision…”.
The title of the work refers to the 3 movements, each depicting a different “king”: Balthazar the black king of the Magi, King Solomon, and Ellington’s good friend Dr. Martin Luther King. Mercer Ellington explained that his father, “intended it as a eulogy for Martin Luther King and he decided to go back into myth and history to include other black kings. Primitivity, the opening movement, represents [Balthazar,] the black king of the Magi. King Solomon is next, with the song of jazz and perfume and dancing girls and all that, then the dirge for Dr. King. The piece owes its inspiration to a stained glass window of the three Kings Ellington saw in the Cathedral del Mar in Barcelona.”
African-American heritage is celebrated year-round in the Mile High City, but during Black History Month, it truly comes alive. Below are just some of the various Denver area Black History Month events you can take part in this February.
Celebrating Black Composers Throughout The Centuries: The Parker Symphony Orchestra and Parker Arts are presenting an amazing concert featuring works by composers of color from the late 1700’s to the late 1900’s. The program includes “Three Black Kings” by Duke Ellington with a saxophone solo performed by Art Bouton, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and the Overture to “Treemonisha”, William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony”, and the Overture in D by Joseph Bologne (also known as The Black Mozart). February 25 at 7:30 at PACE Center, 20000 Pikes Peak Ave., Parker, CO 80138 Tickets available here: https://parkerarts.ticketforce.com
Black American West Museum: Located in the former home of the first Black woman doctor in Denver, Dr. Justina Ford, the museum is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the African American men and women who helped settle and develop the West. They will be hosting several educational speaking events. 3091 California St., Denver, CO 80205
Stiles African American Heritage Center: The mission of this museum and heritage center is to teach African American history 365 days of the year. They are located in Five Points, the heart of Denver’s historic African American community. They were named The Best of Denver by Westword Magazine for their rich cultural teachings. 2607 Glenarm Pl., Denver, CO 80205
Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library: This 3 story library houses a full-service branch, collection archives, and The Western Legacies Museum and Charles R. Cousins Gallery. The name of the library is a combination of the last names of Omar Blair, the first black president of the Denver school board, and Elvin Caldwell, the first black Denver City Council member. They host events throughout the year as well as during Black History Month including Black History Live – Harriet Tubman on 2/18 and the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame exhibit of Mildred Pitts Walter from 1/23 to 2/28. There is also a solo art exhibition by Christine Fontenot titled Chromatic Attraction through March 24.2401 Welton St., Denver, CO 80205
Hallowed Ground: The University of Denver Black Student Alliance and The Black Actors Guild present a multi-dimensional theater performance celebrating the cherished spaces in African American culture. Admission is free. February 11 at 6:30 PM. University of Denver Lindsay Auditorium
Strum Hall, 2000 E. Asbury ave, Denver, CO 80210
2017 Black History Live – Harriet Tubman Harriet Tubman is coming to Colorado. Becky Stone, a national humanities and Chautauqua scholar, will portray Harriet Tubman, showing everyone how one woman became an abolishonist and led hundreds of slaves to freedom. It will be held at various locations throughout the Denver metro area and beyond. See website for dates and locations. http://coloradohumanities.org/
A History Of Black Firefighters The Denver Firefighters Museum is presenting an exhibit about the brave African American firefighters who carved out a career in a historically segregated profession. 02/01/2017 to 02/28/2017. 1326 Tremont Place, Denver, Colorado 80204
History Colorado Center: The History Colorado museum presents the history of Colorado year-round, but on February 25, you can see Tim Johnson portray Sgt. Jack Hackett, a Buffalo Soldier. Buffalo Soldiers were the first peacetime all African American units formed after the Civil War. Ask him questions about the life of a soldier. 1200 Broadway, Denver, CO 80203
Author Toni Tipton-Martin Lecture, Food, and Book Signing: Enjoy food and a lecture with Toni Tipton-Martin, author of The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. Book signing is also available. Wednesday, Feb. 22, 4-6 p.m. CentreTech S100 Rotunda, Community College of Aurora
“Black Women in Medicine”: Colorado premiere of documentary honoring black female doctors around the country, featuring rarely-seen documentation of black women practicing medicine during critical operations, emergency room urgent care and community wellness sessions. Includes first-hand accounts from black female pioneers in medicine and healthcare like Dr. Claudia Thomas and Dr. Jocelyn Elders. Airing, Sunday, Feb. 19 at 8 p.m. Colorado Public Television 12.1.
Incognito: A free, one-man play starring Michael Fosberg detailing the journey of discovery after learning that he is part African-American. A question-and-answer session with Fosberg will follow. Part of Aurora Race Forum Series. Wednesday, Feb. 15 – 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Community College of Aurora CentreTech Campus – 15900 E. Centretech Pkwy. – Aurora, CO 80011
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Facilities Fundraiser: Enjoy a complimentary breakfast, tour the Cleo Parker Robinson dance facilities and hear from the legendary Cleo Parker Robinson, who will be honored for her accomplishments (Presented by Keller Williams Downtown RH Luxe Group). Saturday, Feb. 25 – 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Cleo Parker Robinson Dance – 119 Park Ave. West – Denver, CO 80205
Other Colorado African American History Articles and Resources:
His family name is often misspelled as “Boulogne”. He is sometimes referred to as “The Black Mozart”.
Born: December 25, 1745
Occupations: Composer, champion fencer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the Concert des Amateurs, a leading symphony in Paris. Was also a colonel in the French Revolution.
Other Interests: Dancing and ladies. He was a fine dancer, being invited to numerous balls and salons (and boudoirs) of highborn ladies.
Compositions: 3 sets of string quartets, 2 symphonies, 8 symphonie-concertantes, 6 operas comiques, three violin sonatas, 14 violin concertos, a sonata for harp and flute, a bassoon concerto, a clarinet concerto, a cello concerto, six violin duos, and a number of songs.
He is best remembered as the first classical composer of African ancestry. His father was a wealthy planter on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and his mother was an African slave. He was born on the island and moved to France as an early teenager.
Upon graduation from the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation (fencing and horsemanship), he was made an officer of the king’s bodyguard which is where he acquired the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
He was such an amazing fencer that he was called “the god of arms”. At the age of 19, he had only suffered one defeat in a serious fencing match.
Not much is known of his early music training although several works were dedicated to or written for him including two Lolli concertos and Gossec’s six string trios. His first composition is a set of six string quartets inspired by Haydn.
He was a skilled violinist, but he also played the harpsichord.
He was an early Black Mason. He conducted the Concert des Amateurs, a top Paris orchestra, for years, but after the American Revolution, the organization suffered financial losses. The Masons helped him revive the orchestra as part of the Loge Olympique, renamed Le Concert Olympique, which was an exclusive Freemason Lodge.
He became fascinated by the stage, abandoning writing instrumental music in favor of opera around 1776. However, he suffered a serious setback when his nomination to be the next director of the Paris Opera was halted by a petition from three of its leading ladies. To avoid embarrassing the Queen, Marie-Antoinette, he withdrew his name. He went on to write operas and direct the Marquise de Montesson’s prestigious musical theater instead.
He volunteered to serve during the French Revolution. He joined the Garde Nationale, but even his duties couldn’t prevent him from giving concerts. He built an orchestra and reportedly gave concerts every week.
In 1794, he became colonel of the first cavalry brigade of “men of color” – the St. Georges’ Legion – which was also the first all black regiment in Europe. He lead 1,000 volunteers of color and halted what became known as “The Treason of Dumouriez”.
He was wrongfully imprisoned for 11 months and threatened with execution after returning from military duties in Sant-Domingue (now Haiti). He was released and lived in semi-retirement, unfortunately with health problems. He did, however, become even more devoted to his violin during this time saying, “Never before did I play it so well”. He died in 1799 in Paris aged 53.
President John Adams called him, “the most accomplished man in Europe”.
You may have heard of Scott Joplin and you may associate him with ragtime pieces such as “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag”, but did you know that he wrote two operas? One is titled “A Guest of Honor”. The other, “Treemonisha”, has been described as “charming and piquant and … deeply moving”. Although sometimes referred to as the “ragtime opera”, this is a misnomer because the rag style is used only sparingly. Instead, the score and libretto follow the European opera form with conventional arias, ensembles, and choruses.
Treemonisha is the name of the opera’s main character – a heroine who is kidnapped by a band of magicians. She eventually leads her community against the conjurers who prey on their superstition, teaching them the value of education and the liability of ignorance. It is said that the main character may have been inspired by Joplin’s second wife, Freddie Alexander, who herself was educated, well-read, and an activist for women and African-American rights.
While the story in the opera is entertaining and the music enchanting, the story behind the work and its performance is truly fascinating. It was completed in 1910. However, Joplin had to pay for a piano-vocal score to be published the following year. He sent a copy to the American Musician and Art Journal which wrote a glowing, full-page review of the work calling it, “entirely new phase of musical art and… a thoroughly American opera (style)”.
Unfortunately, the endorsement wasn’t enough. The opera was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime. Its only performance was a concert read-through in 1915 at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, where Joplin played the piano. This was also paid for by Joplin.
“Treemonisha” was subsequently forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1970 and performed for an entirely new generation. Excerpts were performed in 1971 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, but it was the world premiere in 1972 that really brought this amazing work back into the spotlight. A joint production of the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, it was directed by the famous African-American dancer Katherine Dunham and conducted by Robert Shaw. It was well received by critics and audiences alike.
Since then, it has been performed by the Houston Grand Opera, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, and throughout Europe including several times in Germany. You can hear the Parker Symphony Orchestra perform the Overture from “Treemonisha” on February 25, 2017 at 7:30 PM at the PACE Center in Parker, CO. Discover this beautiful and once-forgotten piece for yourself next month.
When it comes to classical music, William Grant Still isn’t exactly a household name and that’s quite unfortunate because his music is truly captivating. I vividly remember the first time I heard his works. I had turned on CPR Classical one night a few years ago so my oldest daughter and I could play and listen to some good music.
Although I intended it to be in the background, I found myself really listening and wondering who wrote this amazing stuff. I could place the era – 20th century with some interesting jazz rhythms and influences – but I just couldn’t put my finger on the composer.
One check of the CPR site gave me the answer – Still.
And after further reading, I discovered there is much more to William Grant Still. He is much more than just a 20th century composer. He is also a man of many firsts who broke barriers.
He was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra – the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936.
He conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra in 1955 becoming the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the deep south.
His Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” was the first symphony written by an African American for a leading US orchestra. It was first performed by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931. Hear the PSO perform it in February.
His opera Troubled Island was the first by an African American that was performed by a major company – the New York City Opera
He was the first African American to have an opera performed on national US Television. His A Bayou Legend premiered on PBS in 1981.
Still was prolific, writing 8 operas and numerous symphonies and ballets. He worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy’s band and later as an arranger of music for radio and film including movies like Pennies from Heaven and Lost Horizon. When looking at his body of work, it’s not hard to see how he earned the nickname “Dean of Afro-American Composers”.
Despite the fact that he is not as well known as say Beethoven, his works live on in performances by everyone from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The Parker Symphony Orchestra will be performing his 1st Symphony on February 25. Purchase tickets here.