Table of Contents
by Michael Clive
When the American composer George Theophilus Walker died in 2018 at the age of 96, tributes on National Public Radio and in Fanfare Magazine acclaimed him as one of the greatest composers of our time—accomplished as a pianist and organist, and the first African American to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He was born of West Indian-American parents in Washington, D.C., where his father had emigrated, eventually graduating from Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia and becoming a physician. George’s mother, Rosa, supervised her son’s first piano lessons, beginning when he was five years old.
Before graduating from Dunbar High School at age 14, George Walker was presented in his first public recital at Howard University’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel. He was admitted to Oberlin College as a scholarship student in 1937, studying piano with David Moyer and organ with Arthur Poister. In 1939, he became the organist for the Graduate School of Theology of Oberlin College.
Graduating at 18 from Oberlin College with the highest honors in his Conservatory class, he was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music to study piano with Rudolf Serkin and chamber music with William Primrose and Gregor Piatigorsky. He graduated from the Curtis Institute with Artist Diplomas in piano and composition in 1945, becoming its the first Black graduate.
Walker’s more than 90 major compositions include commissions from important ensembles including the New York Philharmonic (Cello Concerto), the Cleveland Orchestra (Dialogus for Cello and Orchestra), the Boston Symphony (Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra), the Eastman School of Music (An Eastman Overture) , the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 2), the David Ensemble (Five Fancies for Clarinet and Piano Four Hands), Affiliate Artists and Xerox (Guido’s Hand), the Pew Charitable Trust (Piano Sonata No. 4), The Boys Choir of Harlem (Cantata), The Cleveland Chamber Symphony (Orpheus), New Jersey Symphony (Pageant and Proclamation), the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust (Modus), the New Jersey Chamber Music Society (Wind Set), Maryland International Piano Competition (Bauble), Columbus Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra (Tangents), New Jersey Youth Symphony (Icarus In Orbit), and the Network for New Music (Abu). The Boston Symphony commission, Lilacs, was his Pulitzer-winning work.
The intensely lyrical, heartfelt Lyric for Strings was originally titled “Lament,” and was composed after the death of Walker’s grandmother in 1946. It has often been compared to Barber’s Adagio for Strings: Like Barber, Walker studied composition with Rosario Scalero at Curtis, and like the Adagio, the Lyric for Strings was originally the central movement of a string quartet. Its expressiveness and popularity prompted Walker to make an arrangement for string orchestra that has won a permanent place in the American concert repertory.
Nationalist movements in Western classical music owe much to Antonín Dvořák, who believed passionately in composers’ use of indigenous sources for their compositions. In his own music, native Czech sources account for the distinctive, echoing melodies and an ever-present sense of “swing.” We hear these elements in his delightful Serenade for Strings, a youthful work that he completed in only two weeks.
The sheer pleasure of listening to Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings suggests the relaxed enjoyment of a divertimento such as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik—not only in its loose structure, but also in the feeling of a glowing twilight that suffuses the music. Dvořák composed this five-movement suite in 1875, a productive and happy year for him: his marriage was new, his first son was born, and he was finally enjoying financial self-sufficiency as a composer of high repute.
The sense of relaxation in the Serenade was seemingly reflected in its ease of composition, which reportedly took less than two weeks for all five movements. From the opening moderato movement, which overlays a serene yet expectant theme over pulsing eighth notes, each movement until the finale is presented in a simple ABA pattern: an expressive melody leading to the development of a second theme, leading back to the original theme. In the final movement, a brisk allegro vivace, the development is more complex, hewing more closely to the Classical sonata allegro form and to Dvořák’s beloved Bohemian dance rhythms. (Dvořák’s music never really strays far from dancing.) The suite ends in a swirl of presto energy and three final chords in emphatic E major.
Vigorous and eclectic, Joan Tower’s distinctive musical style reflects both her talent and the remarkable circumstances of her life. Born in New Rochelle, New York, she moved to Bolivia with her family when she was nine years old. There the complex, dynamic rhythms of Bolivian music became part of her life—one reason why rhythm would later become such an important element in her work. Aware of his daughter’s early talent in music, Tower’s father insisted that she receive musical training, especially in piano studies. Her mastery of the keyboard enabled her to begin her career as a pianist including with the ensemble she co-founded, the Da Capo Chamber Players.
Tower’s undergraduate studies were at Bennington College, and she earned a PhD in Columbia University’s composition program, a bastion of academic serialism and modernism. Mastering the rigors of this approach to composition gave Tower a strong foundation for developing a strongly personal style. In the 1970s and 1980s, Tower wrote many pieces for the Da Capo Chamber Players. In their sound and even in their titles we can see a legacy from her father, who was a mineralogist, as Tower explores subjects inspired by nature and finds in them the contrasts of soft and hard textures, large and small scale, calmness and forcefulness. We hear these juxtapositions in the poetic tension Tower conveys between instrumental textures, loud and soft passages, and complex, energetic rhythms.
In the 1990s and beyond, many listeners heard Tower’s style being pulled away from the strictness of serialism toward the more fluid expressiveness of George Crumb and Olivier Messiaen. Works such as the Bassoon Quintet demonstrate Tower’s development of a uniquely poetic style, but also her potent mastery of musical contrasts. Often her choice of instruments, combining the plangent, reedy resonance of the bassoon with the luster of strings, speaks to us in a special way. In the case of her Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, a series of six short compositions that comprise a suite of approximately twenty-five minutes’ duration, instrumentation is critical. Parts I, II, III and V are scored exclusively for brass along with percussion, reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Part II, composed in 1989, augments the percussion forces.
The Fanfares are among the most popular of Tower’s modern compositions. Written in tribute to women risk-takers and adventurers in history, they have been performed by more than 500 orchestras worldwide.
The glories of the Italian Renaissance are evident throughout Gabrieli’s music. His birthplace, the city-state of Venice, was one of the most cosmopolitan places on earth during his lifetime, an economic and cultural crossroads that was also home to Claudio Monteverdi, who was born about a decade later. Monteverdi and Gabrieli were exposed to the most advanced and far-ranging musical ideas of the day, and were themselves fearless innovators. Together, these two giants helped Italian music make the transition from Renaissance to Baroque styles.
Originally scored for eight instruments, the Sonata pian’ e forte is a study in contrasts: “Pian’ e forte” means loud and soft, and the juxtaposition of contrasting textures, colors, and dynamics is showcased in this work—as it is not only in music but also in painting of the time. The responsive structure of the work, with instrumental voices “answering” each others’ melodic statements, makes these contrasting patterns especially striking. The Sonata is thought to be the first known musical composition scored for specific brass instruments.
Like much of Gabrieli’s and Monteverdi’s music, the Sonata was almost certainly composed for performance in St. Mark’s Basilica—the spectacular, onion-domed cathedral that dominates the Piazza San Marco in Venice. There, the cathedral’s remarkable architecture becomes integral to musical performance, with instruments located in separate performance spaces throughout the interior to create special effects. In this case, the original scoring indicates two groups of four instruments to be placed in opposite sides of the cathedral, for an early version of stereophonic sound.
Henri Tomasi (1901–1973)
Performance time: 7 minutes
In researching Henri Tomasi’s fascinating Fanfares liturgiques, your intrepid annotator found it useful to compare it with other operatic excerpts that have transcended the operas for which they were originally composed—including Glinka’s overture for Ruslan and Lyudmila, the aubade from Edouard Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys, and “The Chairman Dances,” the swinging fox trot that never quite made it into the performing edition of John Adams’s Nixon in China. Tomasi originally composed the Fanfares for his opera Don Juan de Mañara, but from the very beginning its three movements have had an orchestral life of their own, and they have always been more widely performed than the opera for which they were written. They premiered in 1947 in Monte Carlo, where Tomasi had recently become music director of the highly respected opera company, and were published as a stand-alone score in 1952. The opera’s premiere did not occur until four years after that, in Munich.
In keeping with the suave, worldly man who made his living in one of the world’s most elegant resort towns, Tomasi’s music can be described as suave, sophisticated, and luxuriously entertaining. He counted Puccini, Mussorgsky, Bizet, and Debussy among his decisive early musical influences. “In the end,” he noted on his website, “what I have retained from Ravel and Debussy is a bit of harmonic inspiration.” In a 1969 interview with his son, he described his compositional style in greater depth:
A rumor says that I’m allergic to serial or dodecaphonic music – balderdash! I even used these modes in the Silence de la Mer and the Symphonie du Tiers-Monde. But I only use them occasionally, when needed, at times when I feel they are called for. What I did say was that I can’t stand systems and sectarianism. And I do maintain that the continual absence of modulation weakens a piece and can only result in monotonous, boring music. In my opinion, color is necessary, as in the juxtaposition of reds and greens, at least in the theater…
The Fanfares are a brilliant showcase for the brasses. They comprise three movements; in the opera they accompany a religious procession in Seville, part of the Catholic observance of Holy Week. In this dramatic context, the three movements begin with a fiery opening statement. The final two movements, Evangile and the Apocalypse, are respectively more somber and more vividly devotional. The Apocalpyse movement has the immediacy of a prophetic vision and is as long as the other two movements combined.
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)
Performance time: 7 minutes
Born seven years before the midpoint of the 19th century, Edvard Grieg emerged as an internationally important composer at a time when classical composers throughout Europe were exploring roots music and regional culture, developing the national voices of their respective countries. Today Grieg remains the foremost classical voice of his native Norway.
There is a monumentality to Grieg’s two best-known works, his Piano Concerto and the Peer Gynt Suite, which are staples in the concert hall. The concerto, which he began composing when he was only 24, shows us something quite different from the early Funeral March: Though he was a virtuoso pianist who originally expected to make his career as a soloist, it is his only concerto, and thunders with grandeur and solemnity from its opening bars. He composed it during the summer of 1868, while on holiday in the Danish town of Søllerød. As for the Peer Gynt Suite, we can easily forget that it, too, is large scale, traversing in its many movements the entire Norwegian national epic.
The Funeral March displays a side of Grieg that is more introspective than these familiar works—equally passionate and fully committed to Norwegian nationalism, but far more intimate. Grieg composed the Funeral March in memory of his friend Rikard Nordraak, a composer who died in March of 1866. Both men were in their early 20s that year.
Grieg conceived the March as a work for piano in A minor, then produced arrangements in B-flat minor for brass choir and wind band. It remained important to him throughout his life, perhaps as a touchstone for emotional truth in his music. He brought the score with him on all his travels. In accordance with his wishes, it was performed at his own funeral.
Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu, who died in 1996 at the age of 65, was one of the first to combine elements of Eastern and Western music into a unique international style. He was innovative and influential not only in his compositions, but also in his writing on aesthetics and music theory. His compositions reached millions of people during his lifetime, mainly through his scores for major Japanese films such as Ran (1985), Rising Sun (1993) and Harakiri (1962), working with major directors such as Akira Kurosawa, and his music was revered by no less a composer than Igor Stravinsky.
At the time of his death, Takemitsu’s portfolio included over 180 concert pieces, 93 film scores, and several major works for theater and dance, making him one of the most prolific and significant composers on the classical scene in the latter half of the 20th century. Yet even in the 21st, his reputation in the U.S. does not yet reflect the depth of his compositions. But it may have begun to catch up.
Takemitsu seems to have been almost mythically destined not only to become a composer, but to bring divergent musical worlds together. His first exposure to Western music came when he was enduring a hellish existence toward the end of World War II, one among thousands of Japanese civilians living underground in a network of shelters in the mountains west of Tokyo that had been excavated as a civil defense measure against invasion. The 14-year-old Takemitsu had never heard non-Japanese music, and no music was permitted in the shelters except for patriotic songs. But in the midst of these bleak, militarized conditions, an officer played some unauthorized music to distract some children including Takemitsu. His revelation came at an unlikely moment, as he listened to the French monologist and chanteuse Lucienne Boyer singing her biggest hit, the romantic “Parlez-moi d’amour.” But he credited it as the beginning of his musical awareness.
Combining deep naturalism with urbane sophistication, Takemitsu’s music provides a continuous flow of rich color and texture. Even the silences are dense and expressive. Playing it effectively requires a degree of stylistic sensitivity that his pieces did not consistently receive in the concert hall until recently. In the Night Signals Suite, his Japanese heritage echoes in his use of brass and wind instrumental textures. The suite’s movements are described as “antiphonal fanfares,” with brass instrumental voices answering each other responsively, playing “against” each other —much as Gabrieli’s brasses did in St. Mark’s Cathedral almost five centuries ago.
In England and American during World War II, cultural forces mobilized on the home front. Moviemakers provided entertainment that honored the armed forces and reminded the rest of us what they were fighting for. Pop singles were like letters between home and the theater of battle. It was in this tradition that the conductor Eugene Goossens, a native of England who was conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, asked Aaron Copland to compose what became Fanfare for the Common Man, an iconic work of the American classical repertory. No fewer than 18 composers responded.
“It seemed to me that if the fighting French got a fanfare,” wrote Copland, “so should the common man, since, after all, it was he who was doing the dirty work in the war.” Copland’s concerns were also in the spirit of the Pulitzer Prize-winners Ernie Pyle, who wrote about the “dogface” infantry soldiers as a roving correspondent throughout World War II, and Bill Mauldin, whose cartoons about his composite infantry archetypes “Willie and Joe” showed the dangers and difficulties faced by GIs. The work of both men nettled armed forces higher-ups while delighting the “common man” soldier much the way the Dilbert comic strip and the sitcom The Office have captured the affection of modern-day cubicle drones.
If his subject is down-to-earth, Copland’s treatment of it is exalted. While many fanfares have a quick tempo and a martial air, if not an outright march rhythm, Fanfare for the Common Man elevates its subject with a slower pace that suggests gravitas—”a certain nobility of tone, which suggested slow rather than fast music,” as Copland described it. (The marking calls for it to be played “very deliberately.”) In it we hear the familiar, wide-open intervals of fifths and fourths that make Copland’s music sound so characteristically American. But from the opening bars, it is the distinctive and majestic use of percussion—timpani, bass drum, and tam tam—that give the fanfare its sense of importance.
Of the 18 original fanfares that Goossens commissioned, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was one of only ten that Goossens included when he anthologized them. Of those, only Copland’s survived to find a life in the concert hall after World War II.