Concert II, 2021-2022 season
A New World
Voices Shouting Out
Nkeiru Okoye is an American composer who has just (2021) been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in composition. She has degrees from Oberlin College Conservatory and Rutgers University, and has been closely involved with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. ”Voices Shouting Out” is her best-known orchestral work. Written in 2002 for the Virginia Symphony as an artistic response to 9/11, it is not a sombre reflection, but rather, in her own words, “a march to acknowledge those fighting on behalf of our safety and yet a sparkling celebration of life for those who continue living.” The various American “voices” we hear are determined, jazzy, sweet, and rooted in folk-like music.
Rowing in Eden
The composer writes:
“‘Rowing in Eden,’ written in 1992 for the Portland Symphony, is a piece that attempts to evoke, in purely musical language, the astonishing outpouring of love and desire from Emily Dickinson in her poem “Wild Nights.”
Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
My musical metaphors for Dickinson’s ecstatic words include driving triplet rhythms that suggest the relentless surge of the sea, as well as lush harmonies that may bring to mind the flamboyant classic scores for Hollywood and Broadway romances. Other influences include Debussy’s tone poem “La Mer,” the great love music in Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe” and Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalila Symphony.”
There is also a striking allusion to the “New World” symphony, which, just like this weekend’s MSO concerts, also concluded that long-ago Portland program. Near the end of “Rowing in Eden,” the English horn commences spinning out a dreamy tune, beginning very deliberately with the same notes as Dvořák’s famous “Going Home” theme. Here it becomes Dickinson’s “Heart in port,” a mooring place of peace and refuge.”
Violin Concerto, Movement 1: Allegro non Troppo
Brahms wrote four concertos—two for piano, one for violin, and a “double” concerto for violin and cello. With the exception of the first piano concerto, which he wrote for himself, he had specific performers in mind for all of them. The violin concerto (1878) was written not only for, but in collaboration with, Joseph Joachim, one of the most notable violinists of the late nineteenth century and a composer himself. Joachim advised Brahms on matters both compositional and violinistic, and wrote the cadenza (the long solo passage towards the end of the movement) himself, using bits of the first half that Brahms had used less extensively in the second half.
His initial reaction to Brahms’s first draft was: “most of it is playable, much of it violinistically quite original; but whether it will be enjoyable to play in an overheated hall, I cannot confirm unless I play through the whole piece.” This was, after all, an age when male musicians wore warm woolen suits and tight cravats even in the middle of summer.
It is a fearsomely difficult work, written, as one early conductor quipped ”Against the violin, not for it.” It includes material that ranges from the martial to the menacing, through the sweet and waltz-like. The violin plays all the main ideas in the movement, but spends much of the time offering elaborate decorations and passionate rhapsodizing while the orchestra plays the main material.
Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”
This symphony was written in 1893, close to the the beginning of Dvořák’s two-year visit to America. He had been hired to teach at the National Conservatory in New York, partly because his works were enormously popular on this side of the Atlantic, and partly because, as a Czech nationalist composer he was thought to be someone who could help American musicians (who suffered from a bad case of Germanophilia and a lack of national self-confidence) develop something like a national style. Dvořák was entirely aware of this responsibility, writing:
The Americans expect great things of me. I am to show them the way into the Promised Land, the realm of a new, independent art, in short, a national style of music! This will certainly be a great and lofty task, and I hope that with God’s help I shall succeed in it. I have plenty of encouragement to do so.
Partly in preparation for this symphony, and partly out of interest, Dvořák had Henry Thacker Burleigh, an African-American student at the National Conservatory, sing him some songs, and he corresponded with music critic Henry Krehbiel about Native American music, though it seems highly unlikely that he actually heard any. Despite this research, though, the “New World” symphony uses no originally American melodies; the famously folk-like tunes are all Dvořák’s own inventions, written “in the style of” the music he researched.
In fact the musical means he used to evoke America are pretty much the same means he and other composers used to evoke English, Czech, Chinese, Hungarian, and other folk music: namely, the five-note pentatonic scale (best understood by playing just the black notes on the piano), or seven-note scales like major and minor, but with the half-steps in different places. Also, drone (the same bass note played for a really long time, like the bagpipe uses) and syncopation (offbeat rhythms)—both used here—are part of the vocabulary used to suggest deeply rural and “exotic” cultures.
Scholars argue about whether the New World Symphony is more “Czech” or more “American,” but the real point is that it deviates from the Germanic standards of the late nineteenth century in a way that allowed listeners of the time to imagine a variety of different cultures. Whether we hear American-ness in it or not, it is a deservedly popular work, traversing a spectrum of moods, deploying orchestral color with great imagination, and offering the world some unforgettable melodies.
© Copyright Mary Hunter 2021