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Songs of Life Program Notes

by Bradley Clem and Claudia Jensen

 

Reedbird

Emily Doolittle
b. Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1972

Composer Emily Doolittle shares her thoughts about Reedbird, her work for winds and brass: “The bobolink, also known as a “reedbird,” is a small New World blackbird found across North America. Its song is fast, bubbly, and metallic, and could perhaps be described as sounding like an old-fashioned modem. Heard live, the song is too fast for human listeners to appreciate its complexity, but when slowed we can hear that it is rich in overtones, with the intervals thirds and fourths, as well as triads, jumping out prominently. The frequent appearance of consonant intervals and triads, combined with the repetition, variation, and development of motif-like “elements,” makes parts of the song sound like fleeting bits of human music. However, the way the bird combines the intervals and triads, the way it juxtaposes motifs, and the structure of the song is very unlike most human music. Each movement of Reedbird is based on a direct transcription of a slowed-down bobolink song. I’ve expanded each in a way that draws on both human and bobolink developmental techniques. Of course the timbre of orchestral winds is quite different than that of the bobolink, and the transcriptions are about one-eighth the speed of the original song. But I like to imagine that if Reedbird were sped up to bobolink speed, the bobolink, too, might find that it sounded somewhat familiar and somewhat strange.”

 

Being in Life

Sheila Silver
b. Seattle, Washington, 1946

The composer of the next work on our program, Sheila Silver, also generously described her work, which is a horn concerto with strings and percussion: “The title, Being in Life, reflects the idea that we are all walking down our individual life paths, intersecting and interacting in various ways and experiencing both the joys and pains of life. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Raphael Anthony Warshal Yell, who died suddenly and tragically just short of his 3rd birthday. I spent time with this delightful little boy just a week before his death in March of 2018 and came to believe that he was a musical genius. I could tell that he was listening to music – from Mozart to reggae and even my “modern” music — with an intention of complete understanding. He was processing the construction of the music while being totally immersed in the glory of the sound. He may have been a child, but he was already a sophisticated and discerning listener. In tribute to him, I decided to write a joyful piece that would “knock his socks off” – enchant his young ears and fill him with amazement. If I started to veer into the sadness of his death, I stopped myself and changed course. I hope that this work will appeal to the “child” in all of us. The first movement explores the sound world of the Alpenhorn – whose harmonic structure is dependent on the fact that the Alpenhorn is in F# with only the first 14 or so pitches of that harmonic series available. I selected the specifically pitched singing bowls to work with this. The second movement is a setting of a Hindustani “bandish” (prayer melody), Aiso Mahagyani Konahay, in raag Bilaskhani Todi. The melody is one that I learned while studying Hindustani music in India and which Ann Ellsworth fell in love with when I sang it for her. I have given it a fairly Western setting, much in the tradition of composers setting a folk tune. For both Ann and myself, writing a concerto for two horns meant including some reference to the hunting horn, so the third movement, “The Hunt,” has a playful program: starting out at a fast pace, the dogs and riders are chasing a fox but they lose him when they all get ensnarled in a thicket. Then the fox (now the Alpenhorn) emerges triumphant, thumbing his nose at the hunters and dogs as he gets away. Ann Ellsworth and I collaborated closely on Being in Life, and the give and take in developing ideas has been rich and rewarding. It was Ann’s idea to include the Alpenhorn (about which I knew little) and we both wanted to combine the horns with Tibetan singing bowls, which I have been collecting and using in my compositions for almost two decades. We thought that strings would be the best third element, and thus the concept for the orchestration was born. Throughout the work, and especially in the 2nd movement, the concertmaster is featured as soloist. I am especially thankful to Julia Tai and Philharmonia Northwest for commissioning and premiering this piece and to the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University for funding it. It is very special that it is to be premiered in Seattle, where I grew up with the Warshals: Raf’s grandparents and great aunts and uncles.”

 

Gaelic Symphony, op. 32 (1896)

Amy Beach
b. Henniker, NH, 1867, d. New York, NY, 1944

Amy Beach was among a group of New England composers who were influenced by Antonín Dvořák’s musical discovery of America. Dvořák expressed this not only through his New World Symphony (1893) but also in the form of the advice he gave to American composers to explore their national musical heritage—he apparently had in mind Native and African-American (what he called “plantation”) melodies. Dvořák’s advice generated widespread reactions from American composers, and Beach, in a published response, offered musical inspirations that would be more readily accessible to Boston composers: “We of the north should be far more likely to be influenced by old English, Scotch or Irish songs, inherited with our literature from our ancestors.” As music historian Richard Taruskin notes, Beach thus identified herself musically “not with the country of which she happened to be a citizen, which had neither a uniform ethnicity nor a long history, but with the country from which she descended ethnically.” Her symphony was thus imbued with Gaelic folk tunes, which, as she said, “sprang from the common joys, sorrows, adventures and struggles of a primitive people. Their simple, rugged and unpretentious beauty led me to ‘take my pen in hand’ and try to develop their ideas in symphonic form.” Beach’s assured and accessible symphony was quite popular in its day and well received at its premiere (1896). As one early reviewer wrote, it was “full of fine things, melodically, harmonically, and orchestrally, and mighty well built besides.” The first movement is based on one of her own songs (“Dark is the Night”), but the remaining movements use Gaelic folk songs, which were intended, in Beach’s words, to express “the rough, primitive character of the Celtic people, their sturdy daily life, their passions and battles.” These folk tunes appear primarily in the inner movements of the symphony. The second movement is based on a single Gaelic tune, “The Little Field of Barley,” that evokes a nostalgic view of Ireland; the third movement is based on a lullaby and a lament. The fourth movement, although created, as Beach wrote, entirely from “themes of my own devising,” nevertheless continues the mood of the inner movements, expressing “the elemental nature” of the Celtic people’s “processes of thought and its resulting action.”