Dancing in the Sun Program Notes

Concert info: https://philharmonianw.org/concert-2-dancing-in-the-sun/

Those of us living in the Pacific Northwest have a unique relationship with the sun. For certain times of the year, we don’t see it much, but when it shines, there is nothing quite like the sight of it setting behind the Olympic Mountains or glistening across Lake Washington. Like others across the country for whom winter weather is bleak, many Pacific Northwesterners will escape to sunny climates to get their dose of Vitamin D, something that will fortify them until spring when the wildflowers appear, bringing hope and rejuvenation. The experience of a different place brings new perspectives and an appreciation of home, even when that home involves the absence of sun.

Each composer on today’s program brings us to a new place or composed from a place that inspired them or enriched their lives. Florence Price transports us to the south to share in the experience of enslaved people as they toil in cotton fields; Mozart writes from Mannheim, Germany, where he first fell in love and experienced the power of a full symphony orchestra; Mendelssohn brings us to the colors and atmosphere of Italy, where he first conceived of many aspects of his familiar fourth symphony.

Florence Price: Dances in the Canebrakes

Florence Price (1887-1953) was an American composer and the first Black woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra. Much of Price’s music was concerned with Black American experiences in history and contemporary life and with over 300 works in her catalog, she is one of the most prolific composers of any era. Yet her music has only been championed in recent years after lost manuscripts were found in 2009 in a dilapidated home in St. Anne Illinois, a small town about 70 miles from Chicago where Price often spent summers. As stated by Alex Ross in a 2018 article for The New Yorker: “not only did Price fail to enter the canon; a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history.”

Originally composed for solo piano, Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes was one of the last pieces she composed before her death in 1953. In this piece, Price uses ballroom dance rhythms popular during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries to transport us to the experience of slaves clearing canebrakes, thickets of tall reeds similar to bamboo that needed to be leveled before the planting of cotton could begin. In this unabashedly pleasant sounding music, a listener might be forgiven for missing the tragedy of enslaved work, yet it is the evening communal time of dance and sharing of songs that Price is pointing to here, what historians now understand to be essential contributions to the building of American culture.

The first movement, Nimble Feet, uses a “rag” rhythm, which may remind listeners of the music of Scott Joplin. Movement 2, Tropical Noon, showcases the “slow drag” dance, while the 3rd movement, Silk Hat and Walking Cane, makes clever use of the “cakewalk” rhythm common in many early jazz compositions such as those recorded by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. Price’s original composition is presented in an orchestration by William Grant Still, another prominent African American composer working at the same time as Price. Listen for the ways Still captures the lilt and bounce of Price’s original piano rhythms while retaining a nostalgic elegance through careful use of woodwind colors and subtle accentuating percussion.

W.A. Mozart: Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major, K. 313

“Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major is the pedestal that all flutists are measured against. To make it sound interesting and personal is one of the greatest challenges of the profession.” Leanna Keith, Professor of Flute, Cornish College of the Arts

Much has been made about Mozart’s presumed dislike of the flute, all stemming from a one-off comment he wrote to his father as he struggled to finish the Concerto in G: “you know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument that I cannot bear.” Historians now see this quote as more a distracted son writing to an overbearing father than a statement about the composer’s actual dislike for an instrument. Regardless of Mozart’s pithy comment, one cannot hear this remarkable concerto, especially the sublime 2nd movement, and consider all of Mozart’s brilliant writing for the flute, not to mention his naming an opera after its magical powers, and still believe he had nothing but high regard for this member of the woodwind family.

Two other factors that may have contributed to Mozart’s comments about the flute: deadlines and distractions. The former was brought on by Ferdinand Dejean, a wealthy doctor in the Dutch East India company and amateur flutist, who commissioned 3 concertos and a “handful” of flute quartets from Mozart while the composer was living and working in Mannheim between 1777 and 1778. The fact that this commission came with a specific deadline did not fit well in the young Mozart’s composing schedule, which was known to be easily sidetracked by emergent interests. In the end, Mozart was only able to deliver 2 concertos and 3 quartets, for which he was paid an accordingly lower sum than planned, which may have contributed to the souring of his flute interests. Also while sojourning in Mannheim, Mozart fell in love for the first time with the sister of the woman who would later become his wife. It seems this would explain, at least in part, Mozart not fulfilling Dejean’s commission.

With all this complexity at hand, Mozart produced a work of characteristic elegance and charm in his first flute concerto. While not achieving some of the profundity of other of his concertos, this work brilliantly entertains the listener while simultaneously showing off the soloist, inspiring Philharmonia Northwest conductor Julia Tai to claim: “anyone can dance to Mozart’s flute concerto.” 

Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90 “Italian”

The opening themes of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 are some of the most well-known melodies in Western classical music. They show up in children’s cartoons, movie soundtracks, commercials, and many in today’s audience will find themselves singing along, without knowing exactly when or how they learned these melodies. All of this is for good reason, with Mendelssohn referring to it as one of the “jolliest” compositions he had ever made. Though completed in Berlin in 1833, the work has its inspiration in the hillsides of Italy during a trip the composer took there several years prior.

“This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it.” Mendelssohn in a letter to his parents, 1830

The structure of the symphony is standard for the times, with 4 movements and fairly expected forms and harmonic language. It is in the melodic shapes that the symphony outshines many others, however. Notwithstanding their familiarity, the themes of the opening Allegro movement are a study in how melody is at the center of musical intrigue. The fact that these themes are both memorable and outline harmonic movement with such ease is a testimony to a composer who placed high value in melody, somewhat in contrast to other composers of his day. The themes of subsequent movements are similarly constructed with balance achieved between charm, wit, and musicality. Pay particular attention to the interplay between the horns and strings in the 3rd movement as they introduce rhythms from the Italian saltarello and tarantella dances, an approach not dissimilar to Florence Price’s incorporation of ballroom dance rhythms in the first work on our program.

As a final note on this remarkable symphony, it should be noted that Mendelssohn was never quite satisfied with the final version of his “Italian” symphony and worked on edits and tweaks for several years after its premiere in 1833. He seemed to be looking for more ways to capture the flavor of Italy that gave the work its inspiration. The version we now hear most orchestras perform, including this one, is, for the most part, the original version from 1833 as most historians and conductors believe Mendelssohn’s tweaks only detracted from the white hot inspiration of his time in Italy.


James Falzone
Dean and Professor of Music
Cornish College of the Arts