Joplin’s Treemonisha – Rediscovered For A New Generation

 

Scott Joplin - Composer of Treemonisha 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“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.

 

William Grant Still: A Man Of Many Firsts

William Grant Still Portrait

 

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.

 

Finlandia: The Secret Protest Piece

Helsinki

Helsinki, Finland – courtesy of Fodors


Finlandia, one of Sibelius’ most famous compositions, is often referred to as a tone poem. A tone poem is a piece of orchestral music with only one movement that evokes a poem, story, painting, or other non-musical source. In the case of Finlandia, it was one of seven pieces that served as an accompaniment to a tableau that depicted episodes from Finnish history. It premiered July 2, 1900 in Helsinki.

But it was much more than just a historical tribute. It was secretly a protest against censorship from the Russian Empire. Prior to 1917, the Grand Duchy of Finland belonged to the Russian Empire. Most of the piece features rousing music that is meant to evoke the national struggle of the Finnish people. After that, a serene melody can be heard. Named the Finlandia Hymn, this section is Sibelius’ own creation that was arranged later for solo performance. The hymn has become one of Finland’s most important national songs with words written for is in 1941.

To avoid Russian censorship while protesting it, Finlandia was performed under alternative names. Some of these include Happy Feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring and A Scandinavian Choral March.

Finlandia can be heard prominently in the film score for Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

It will also be performed by the Parker Symphony Orchestra on October 29. Purchase tickets here.

 

10 Facts About Dvorak That You May Not Know

 

Dvorak Portrait You may know Antonín Dvořák as the composer of the much-loved and often-played Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’ (aka the New World Symphony), but there is more to the man than just his most famous work. Although his time in America is well-known thanks to the aforementioned symphony, he was actually born in a small village north of Prague and was very passionate about his homeland and its music, infusing the sounds in pieces like his Slavonic Dances.

Here are 10 others things you may not know about Dvořák.

1. He Apprenticed As a Butcher: Dvořák was the oldest of 14 children (8 who survived infancy). His father was a zither player, an innkeeper, and also a butcher. A young Antonin not only joined his father in the local band, but also in his business as an apprentice butcher. At the age of 13, he was inducted into the Butcher’s Guild of Zlonice.

2. His Grandmother Had a Pet Name For Him: Dvořák’s grandmother called him, “my little toothy” because he apparently had good teeth.

3. His First Compositions Went Unnoticed: Dvořák’s first compositions received no critical reception and no public performance. In fact, it wasn’t until Johannes Brahms’ efforts to boost his career that any of his music began to attract interest. It is said that Dvořák was so critical of himself that he burned his early works.

4. Sheet Music For The First Slavonic Dances Sold Out: In 1874, Brahms sat on a jury to award financial support to talented composers in need. It is then that he encountered Dvořák and was “visibly overcome” by his “mastery and talent”. Brahms recommended that his publisher, Simrock, publish a set of Slavonic Dances for piano duet. The sheet music for the 8 dances sold out in one day.

5. Dvořák Loved Trains: The composer was known to spend hours at the Franz Josef railway station in Prague, watching trains. He knew the timetable by heart and even asked his students to describe train journeys they had made. Later, when he visited America, he also took up pigeon raising and watching steamboats.

6. He Stole Pencils: In an effort to help calm Czech speakers in Austria who were upset over the banning of their language, Dvořák was appointed a member of the Austrian Senate. He came the first day in 1901, accepted the honor, stole all of the pencils at his desk because they were perfect for composing, and never showed up again.

7. He Was An Early Riser: Dvořák and his wife got up very early in the morning. When they stayed in Cambridge with composer and organist Charles Villiers Stanford, the host was surprised to find couple sitting under a tree in the garden at 6 AM.

8. A Ship Is Named For Dvořák: In 1943, an American Liberty ship in the U.S. Navy was named the USNS Antonín Dvořák in the composer’s honor.

9. There Is A Mural In His Honor In Iowa: Dvořák spent a few weeks living in Spillville, IA. It was a town of mostly Czech speaking immigrants at the time. It is there that he wrote his “American” String Quartet. Today, a mural is there in his honor.

10. He Is The Second Czech Composer To Achieve Worldwide Recognition: Dvořák is not the only Czech composer of note. Bedřich Smetana, of Má vlast and its The Moldau movement fame, first established a nationalist example during the 1848 Prague uprising.

 

Be sure to join us to hear Dvorak’s “The Water Goblin” at our “Sounds of the Deep” concert, Friday October 27 at 7:30 PM at the PACE Center in Parker, CO.

 

What Is A Symphony?

Parker Symphony Orchestra

Even if you’re not a classical music fan, you’ve probably heard a symphony or two. You may not know the names or composers, but symphonies have been featured in everything from commercials to cartoons and they are a staple in classical music.

The Symphony Defined

There are two ways to define symphony. One definition refers to a symphony orchestra, a group of musicians who perform symphonies among other works. If a friend says, “I went to the symphony last night,” they mean they went to hear an orchestra.

A symphony is also a musical work, and a great one at that. It has multiple parts called movements separated by a brief pause. The audience does not applaud between movements. One basic format is a brisk and lively first movement followed by a slow and lyrical second movement, a dancing third movement, and a virtuosic finale. There are many variations on this, however. The form has been around for more than 300 years, but it has evolved greatly over the centuries. While symphonies in the 1700’s held to a more standardized format, those of the 1800’s and beyond began to include non-traditional elements like soloists and choruses. They can also vary in the number movements. Many symphonies have 4 movements. Some have 3.

The Symphony Today

What does all of this mean for you, the listener? It means that symphonies offer something for everyone. They have a variety of tempos and styles that naturally keep you engaged. In just one piece, you can be whipped into a frenzy by a robust motif, whisked away by a lyrical melody, and inspired and amazed by a grand theme. Symphonies are actually a journey. Like a book with chapters or a play with acts, the symphony takes you through very different parts that all combine to create a satisfying whole.

Symphonies are also incredibly listenable. They offer a way to escape the everyday. They evoke images and inspire emotions. They reveal the depths of the composers’ musical thinking without telling you what to think. They give you the freedom the feel and think whatever you want based on what you are hearing.

Examples Of Great Symphonies

Since the 18th century, many composers, certainly most of the famous names, have written at least one symphony. Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvorak wrote 9. Haydn wrote no fewer than 107. Below is a list of some well-known and beloved works.

Dvořák – Symphony No. 9 (‘From The New World’)

Beethoven – Symphony No. 5

Mozart – Symphony No. 25

Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 4 (‘Italian’)

Brahms – Symphony No. 4

Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 (‘Choral’)

Franck – Symphony in D Minor

Saint Saëns – Symphony No. 3 (‘Organ’)

Haydn – Symphony No. 94 (‘Surprise’)

Schubert – Symphony No. 8 (‘Unfinished’)

What’s In A Name? Understanding Classical Music Titles

Sheetmusic Violin

 

Everyone from seasoned performers to those just discovering classical music has had questions about how works get their titles. Did composers like Beethoven nickname their own symphonies? What is an opus number? Why do Mozart pieces have a “K” listed at the end of the title? Why is it confusing to say you love “the Minuet” or “the Adagio”?

Today, we’re going to try to answer some of these questions by explaining classical music naming conventions.

Composition Type:

Symphony, sonata, piano quintet, concerto – these are all composition types. Classical music composers wrote works in many of these forms and often the same composer wrote multiple pieces in the same type. This is why saying you enjoy listening to “the Serenade” or “the Concerto” or “the Mazurka” is confusing. Even using the composer name often does not narrow down which piece you are referring to. For example, it is not enough to say “Beethoven Symphony”. He wrote 9 of them!

Generic Name:

Compositions often have a generic name that can describe the work’s composition type, key signature, featured instruments, etc. This could be something as simple as Symphony No. 2 (meaning the 2nd symphony written by that composer), Minuet in G major (minuet being a type of dance), or Concerto for Two Cellos (an orchestral work featuring two cellos as soloists). The problem with referring to a piece by the generic name, even along with the composer, is that, again, that may not enough to identify the exact work. While Symphony No. 2 by Mahler is sufficient since it is his only 2nd symphony, Minuet by Bach is not since he wrote many minuets over his lifetime.

Non-Generic Names:

Non-generic names, or classical music nicknames and sub-titles, are often more well-known than generic names. They can even be so famous that the composer name is not necessary to clarify which piece you are referring to. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the Trout Quintet, and the Surprise Symphony are all examples of non-generic names.

Who gave classical music works their non-generic names? Sometimes the composer added a subsidiary name to a work. These are called sub-titles and are considered part of the work’s formal title. The sub-title for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor is “Pathetique”.

A nickname, on the other hand, is not part of the official title and was not assigned by the composer. It is a name that has become associated with a work. For example, Bach’s “Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments” are commonly known as the Brandenburg Concertos because they were presented as a gift to the Margrave of Brandenburg. The name was given by Bach’s biographer, Philipp Spitta, and it stuck. Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 earned the nickname Jupiter most likely because of its exuberant energy and grand scale. Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 is known as the Unfinished Symphony because he died and left it with only 2 complete movements.

In many cases, referring to a work by its non-generic name, especially with the composer name, is enough to identify a piece. Most classical music fans know which work you are referring to when you say “Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony”.

Non-Numeric Titles:

Some classical compositions do not have a generic name, but rather a non-numeric title. These are formal titles given by the composer that do not follow a sequential numeric naming convention. Works that fall into this category include the Symphony Fantastique by Berlioz, Handel’s Messiah, and Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.

Opus Number:

Opus numbers, abbreviated op., are used to distinguish compositions with similar titles and indicate the chronological order of production. Some composers assigned numbers to their own works, but many were inconsistent in their methods. As a result, some composers’ works are referred to with a catalogue number assigned by musicologists. The various catalogue-number systems commonly used include Köchel-Verzeichnis for Mozart (K) and Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV).

Other Famous Examples Of Classical Music Nicknames and Sub-Titles

  • Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 – sub-titled the Pastoral Symphony: While many of Beethoven’s works have nicknames, “Pastoral” is the only name intentionally given by the composer. In fact, the full title was “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life.”
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  • Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G major (H. 1/94) – nicknamed the Surprise Symphony: Named because of the sudden fortissimo chord at the end of the opening theme of the second movement. The movement is otherwise played very quietly (or piano).
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  • Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 – nicknamed the Organ Symphony: This is not truly a symphony for organ. However, two sections out of the four use the pipe organ prominently.
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  • Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 – nicknamed the Trout Quintet: The name did not originate with Schubert. It is known by the more popular name because the fourth movement is a set of variations on Schubert’s Lied “Die Forelle” (The Trout) – a German poem sung to music.
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  • Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 5 – nicknamed the Black Keys Etude: This study for solo piano earned its name because of the right hand triplet figure that is played exclusively on the black keys.
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  • Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95: From the New World – nicknamed the New World Symphony: The New World Symphony is a nickname although Dvorak did include the “New world” in the title. It was written during the composer’s time in New York City and purportedly incorporates his reflections on living in America.
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  • Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major, K. 525 – nicknamed Eine kleine Nachtmusik: The popular title, literally “a little night music” in German, comes from an entry Mozart made in his personal catalog that began, “Eine kleine Nacht-Musik”. In this case, Mozart was most likely not giving the piece a special name, but rather entering in his records that he had written a little serenade.