PROGRAM NOTES

 

DARIUS MILHAUD former Music Academy faculty member
La création du monde
Composed 1923
Duration ca. 17 minutes
Scored for 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, alto saxophone, horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, piano, timpani, percussion, 2 violins, cello, and bass

Dance and music have been intimately connected throughout human history and, it is safe to say, deep into our pre-history. They remain so today. Much modern instrumental music has been written for dance. Our concert opens and concludes with notable examples. Between them, we hear a work celebrating a great and influential dancer and choreographer.

Among the musical styles most closely associated with dance is jazz. Beginning around 1920, composers on both sides of the Atlantic became fascinated with the new American idiom. Among the first was the French-born Darius Milhaud. When a concert tour brought him to the United States in 1922, Milhaud made a point of listening to as much jazz as he could. Between appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Boston Symphony, he frequented the nightclubs of Manhattan’s Harlem district. In his autobiography, Milhaud recalls that “the music was unlike anything I had ever heard before and was a revelation to me. Against the beat of the drums the melodic lines crisscrossed in a breathless pattern of broken and twisted rhythms. ... Its effect on me was overwhelming. ... More than ever I was resolved to use jazz for a chamber work.”

An opportunity to do this presented itself upon Milhaud’s return to France, when he was engaged to collaborate on a ballet with scenarist Blaise Cendrars and painter Fernand Léger. Cendrars had devised a plot based on an African legend of the creation of the world and agreed that a jazz-influenced score could be effective. The music Milhaud produced proved not only an effective ballet score but one of the finest of all his works, and it soon established itself as a successful concert piece.

La création du monde is not jazz: it contains no improvisation and employs established procedures of European art music for its structure and development. Indeed, the strength of the work is in its use of jazz-like elements within a fairly rigorous compositional framework. Milhaud’s sophisticated workmanship is most apparent and effective in its second section, where a lively syncopated theme serves as the subject for that most learned of musical forms, a fugue, an intricate weaving of echoed statements of a singular theme.

A juxtaposition of Old World and New informs the piece from its first measures. The evocation of the formless chaos before creation achieved in the restless churning of the strings recalls, however distantly, the opening of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, while the soulful singing of a saxophone and interjections from the trumpets and trombones add new colors to that venerable soundscape. We subsequently hear a blues-like melody, introduced by the oboe, and an animated dance tune, given to the clarinet. Milhaud unifies his composition with several references to both the opening theme and the fugue subject, combining these in counterpoint with each other, and with other motifs, before closing the work on a convincingly jazzy final chord.

 

JAMES STEPHENSON ('88, '89, '91)
Martha Uncaged                                                                               
Composed 2017
Duration ca. 18 minutes
Scored for solo trumpet, 2 flutes, clarinet, English horn, 2 saxophones, contrabassoon, trombone, percussion, harp, piano, and bass

Any discussion of modern dance must acknowledge the achievements of Martha Graham (1894–1991). Over her long and productive career, the pioneering dancer and choreographer invented a new vocabulary of movement and used it this to create dances of unprecedented emotional and dramatic intensity. She also was responsible for the composition of several important scores by American composers. The most famous of these follows on our program.

Graham’s life and work has been documented and celebrated in books, on film, and now in music. James Stephenson conceived Martha Uncaged is a ballet score imagining different episodes from Graham’s career. At the same time, this is a concerto-like piece for trumpet and small orchestra. This last feature is not as surprising as it might initially seem. Stephenson was for years a professional trumpet player. Since turning full-time to composition he has written music in a variety of genres, but brass instruments generally, and trumpet particularly, have had an important place in his output.

The composition of Martha Uncaged was made possible by a commissioning consortium that includes Paul Merkelo, who plays the solo part this evening. This is the work’s first performance. The piece unfolds in five movements, each corresponding to a phase of Graham’s life. Notes by James Stephenson form the basis for the following commentary:

Caged Lion: As a young dancer, Martha watches a lion pacing in captivity. Fascinated by the power and purity of its movement, she watches the animal take four steps and turn, as she recalled, “in a wonderful way.” The beating of a bass drum suggests the lion’s pacing, Stephenson writes. “I used a mixed meter (adding an eighth-note to each bar), both to reflect the time it would take for the lion to turn, but also to inject a bit of uncertainty, since this marks the beginning of Martha’s career. A four-note ‘Martha motif’ in the low flute becomes the centerpiece of the entire work.”

Denishawn Dance Company - Martha’s breakaway: Martha joins the Denishawn Dance Company, gaining valuable experience touring with the ensemble but ultimately finding herself wanting to break free. The music reflects her freedom-seeking spirit and the importance of gravity in her movements.

Interlude I – Louis Horst: Martha had a long love affair with Louis Horst, her company’s musical director. It ended only when another dancer, Erick Hawkins, entered the picture. This “pas-de-deux” expresses certain sadness, since neither partner could commit to a permanent relationship. A couple of short interruptions indicate the arrival of Erick Hawkins, foreshadowing the next movement.

Interlude II – Erick Hawkins: This movement, a modern form of a Baroque “Bourée,” corresponds to the entrance of Erick Hawkins into Martha’s life. They married, but it didn’t last long. Musically, the movement ends almost before it begins.

Finale – Gravity: Many of the themes find their way back into this final movement, which reflects Graham’s strength and agility. It also conveys a strong sense of gravity, the signature element in her work. Many of the musical lines lead downward. The bass drum returns,  fortifying this gravitational essence but also recalling the caged lion Graham watched early in her career. Now, however, the bass drum has no uncertainty about it, and the ‘Martha motif’ finally resolves itself, giving the piece closure and stability.

 

AARON COPLAND
Appalachian Spring, Ballet Suite
Composed 1943-44
Duration ca. 26 minutes
Scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, strings, and piano

As mentioned in connection with Martha Uncaged, Martha Graham’s work prompted the creation of several important scores by American composers. Of these, the most famous is Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. In 1943, Graham approached Copland about providing music for a new ballet. The scenario she had devised was unpretentious: a young pioneer couple, beginning life together in rural Pennsylvania, celebrates the building of a new farm house. Joining them are their neighbors and a revivalist preacher. 

Modest as this seems, no subject could have better suited Copland at the time. Like many artists, he had been strongly affected by the wave of populist sentiment that swept the country during the Depression, a humane populism expressed in the novels of John Steinbeck and paintings of Thomas Hart Benson. Responding to the growing sympathy for ordinary Americans, the composer moved in the mid-1930s to make his style more accessible and turned to American folk music as a source of thematic material. His use of traditional dance tunes and song melodies was highly personal, however, for instead of quoting these literally, Copland usually transfigured them in subtle yet telling ways. Nevertheless, they imbued his work with a distinctly national flavor and drew from him that rare eloquence reached only by a mature artist using clear and economical modes of expression. In Appalachian Spring, Copland achieved the expression of a sturdy populist vision of America and the full flowering of a musical idiom for which he had been striving nearly a decade.

From its initial performance in October 1944, Appalachian Spring has enjoyed a success unequaled by any American work of its kind. It remained for years a staple of Martha Graham’s repertory, and Copland’s music received the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. The composer’s original ballet score used a theater orchestra of thirteen players. Copland later reworked part of his music into a concert suite for full orchestra, and this has become one of the most widely heard compositions of the last century. But he also created an alternate scoring of the suite that retains the original theater ensemble, and it is this version of the work that we hear now.

The music vividly suggests the setting and action of the ballet: the pastoral countryside, the gathering of farm folk, their barn dance, the frightening admonitions of the preacher, the shy affection of the young couple. The final section presents a set of variations on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which Copland made famous through his ballet score. All this, however, hardly conveys the achievement of Appalachian Spring. With this work, Copland captured not only an appealing frontier atmosphere but something more significant: a transcendent feeling of rural life as a wellspring of purity and harmony with nature.