Classical II: Made in America

In this concert, we celebrate music composed in America with works by two important American-born composers and a work inspired and completed during a visit by another composer who helped America find its musical voice.

Joan Tower
(born September 6, 1938)
Made in America
     Joan Tower was born in New Rochelle, New York. At age nine, her family moved to Bolivia, which was very influential to her future musical choices. As a composer, Tower’s first big success was the orchestral tone poem Sequoia (1981), and she has since had a stellar career as a composer and pianist. She has been called “one of the most successful woman composers of all time” by The New Yorker. Tower has been a professor of composition at Bard College since 1972.
     In 2004, Tower became the first composer commissioned for the Ford Made in America program, which involves a consortium of 65 smaller-budget orchestras as commissioning agents of new works by major composers. The result was her 15-minute Made in America, which was premiered by the Glens Falls (NY) Symphony Orchestra in October 2005. In 2008, a recording of the piece by the Nashville Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin won three Grammy Awards in the categories Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Album and Best Classical Contemporary Composition.
     The main theme of the work is based on the song “America the Beautiful.” Tower describes the inspiration for the piece this way (

When I returned to the United States [after several years living in Bolivia], I was proud to have free choices, upward mobility, and the chance to try to become who I wanted to be. I also enjoyed the basic luxuries of an American citizen that we so often take for granted: hot running water, blankets for the cold winters, floors that are not made of dirt, and easy modes of transportation, among many other things. So when I started composing this piece, the song “America the Beautiful” kept coming into my consciousness and eventually became the main theme for the work…This theme is challenged by other more aggressive and dissonant ideas that keep interrupting, unsettling it, but “America the Beautiful” keeps resurfacing in different guises (some small and tender, others big and magnanimous), as if to say, ‘I’m still here, ever changing, but holding my own.’ A musical struggle is heard throughout the work. Perhaps it was my unconscious reacting to the challenge of how… we keep America beautiful.

Aaron Copland
(November 14, 1900-December 2, 1990)
Billy the Kid Suite
     Aaron Copland’s instrumental, vocal and stage works have done more for the collective imagination of American music than most, in a sense defining the sound of American music for his and subsequent generations. After studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in the 1920s and adopting a rather modernist stance, in the 1930s Copland experienced the same stresses that others felt in the buildup to World War II, and his heightened social consciousness and nationalist/populist feelings led him to a more popular style using indigenous subject matter. This resulted in works like Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Appalachian Spring and The Tender Land. His musical style became deliberately simpler, with diatonic melodies and harmonies, transparent textures, and references to familiar styles of music, including direct quotations of folk and popular songs.
     Billy the Kid is a ballet commissioned by impresario Lincoln Kirstein. It was choreographed by Eugene Loring for the Ballet Caravan (now the NY City Ballet) Company, and despite Copland’s initial uncertainty about his capabilities as a “cowboy composer” (being a native of Brooklyn, New York), it is most famous for its incorporation of cowboy tunes and American folk songs. It is built around the legend of Billy the Kid, but it is less a biography of the legendary figure than a musical impression of the Wild West. The ballet was premiered on October 16, 1938, in Chicago by the Ballet Caravan Company, with pianists Arthur Gold and Walter Hendl performing a two-piano version of the score. The full orchestra version was premiered in May 1939 in New York City.
     The ballet contains eight different sections that tell the story, and the suite includes music from all eight: “Introduction: The Open Prairie,” “Street in a Frontier Town,” “Mexican Dance and Finale,” “Prairie Night (Card Game at Night),” “Gun Battle,” “Celebration (After Billy’s Capture),” “Billy’s Death,” and “The Open Prairie Again.” In each, Copland uses familiar cowboy tunes and evocative sound effects (e.g., loud percussion in the gun battle) to tell the romanticized story in sound. At least six cowboy tunes have been identified: “Great Granddad,” “Git Along Little Dogie,” “The Old Chisholm Trail,” “Goodbye, Old Paint,” “The Dying Cowboy,” and “Trouble for the Range Cook.”
     The ballet’s success was immediate and widespread, and it contributed greatly to Copland’s reputation as one of America’s most recognized composers.

Antonin Dvořák
(September 8, 1841-May 1, 1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191
     In the late 1800s, as nationalistic music became popular throughout Europe, Dvořák’s knack for combining folk elements with classical settings made him busy and rich. He also encouraged composers to explore musical styles of their homelands to find their own voices. In June 1891, Jeannette Thurber, president of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, asked Dvořák if he would become the school’s artistic director and professor of composition and promote a national style of art music in America. He accepted. His visit inspired not only many American composers but led to several pieces of his own, including his “New World” Symphony, “American” String Quartet (No. 12), and the Cello Concerto in B minor.
     Dvořák had attempted a cello concerto early on, in 1865, but did not complete it. In 1894, while in New York, he heard Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 2 and was inspired to compose the B minor concerto for friend and cellist Hanuš Wihan. It took about three months to complete and was his last concerto for any instrument. Wihan gave a private performance of the concerto in September 1895, but the official premiere occurred on March 19, 1896, in London by the London Philharmonic Society with Dvořák conducting. The date was not convenient for Wihan, so English cellist Leo Stern played the premiere.
     The first movement starts softly, with the clarinets introducing the first theme. The full orchestra then plays the theme more urgently, and the journey begins. The energy gradually subsides, and a gentle horn solo introduces the lyrical second theme. The soloist enters and elaborates upon both themes. The technical and expressive ranges required are considerable, and the soloist leads the way through the movement playing both themes in various guises. The movement ends triumphantly.
     The gorgeous second movement is almost as long as the first, filled with passionate phrases and lush harmonies. In the middle section, the passion turns darker and deeper, and then the first theme returns, followed by a cadenza that also includes several members of the orchestra. The movement ends gently.
     The third movement unfolds gradually but with great purpose. Once again, the soloist leads the way through a variety of sections that are sometimes aggressive and other times pensive, where the theme is modified but eventually returns intact. Dvořák reintroduces melodic material from the first two movements as well, creating a sort of summation of feelings. There is a folk music flavoring that comes and goes, and scholars have noted that in this movement he quotes his own song “Leave Me Alone,” op. 82, no. 1, as a tribute to his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzova. This quotation brings the piece to a momentary rest, but the orchestra has the last word in a final surge to the end. It is no wonder the work is generally regarded as the greatest concerto for this instrument.

© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2019