William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony

The Afro-American Symphony is not a tone picture of the “New Negro.” It portrays that class of American Negroes who still cling to the old standards and traditions; those sons of the soil who differ, but little, if at all, from their forebears of antebellum days.

These are an humble people. Their wants are few and are generally childlike. Theirs are lives of utter simplicity. Therefore no complex or elaborate scheme of harmonization would prove befitting in a musical picture of them. ‘Tis only the simpler harmonies, such as those employed, that can accurately portray them.

From the hearts of these people sprang Blues, plaintive songs reminiscent of African tribal chants. I do not hesitate to assert that Blues are more purely Negroid in character than very many Spirituals. And I have employed as the basic theme of the symphony a melody in the Blues style. This theme appears in each movement.

–William Grant Still, 1931

I think there are a wide range of interpretations that could be read into it. I really had no program in mind. I wanted, above all, to write music that would be recognizable as being in the idiom employed [by the American Negro] or recognized, I should say, as that of the American Negro. It was the object that I desired most of all.

–William Grant Still, 1964

Ives’ Decoration Day from the Holidays Symphony

Notes by TŌN percussionist William Kaufman

The Composer
Ives is best remembered for his touching depictions of life in the northeast United States. He was born and raised in Connecticut, and worked at a life insurance agency in New York City. His father was a reputable bandmaster during the Civil War, which is apparent with a close listening to Ives’ work. Ives’ music is recognizable by the way in which he incorporated variations on patriotic melodies that serve as a grounding force amid a clustering cacophony of crossing rhythms and melodic dissonances. His genius is unique and unreplicable.

The Story
Decoration Day is the second movement in his work A Symphony: New England Holidays, which served as a collection of childhood memories from growing up in post-Civil War New England. Decoration Day takes listeners along for the observation of the holiday now known as Memorial Day. In the Postface to Decoration Day, Ives writes about celebrating the holiday with the townspeople as he remembers it from his childhood. The people gather together in the village with flowers and fill the Town Hall “with the Spring’s harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies.” Then the parade is formed with military personnel, horses, and the fire brigade. There is a slow and somber march to the cemetery, where the graves are decorated. The march back to town is more lively, “though, to many a soldier, the somber thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band”. After the final march, Ives recalls, there is a noticeable silence that concludes the piece.

A Personal Connection
I have a personal connection with Charles Ives’ music because I was raised in a small town very near to his hometown of Danbury. I recall our Memorial Day ceremonies, and Ives’ description of the people congregating in the town center with flowers and flags is a familiar image for me. I actually marched in the Memorial Day parade playing snare drum as a young music student and a member of the school band. It is a pleasure to present this brilliant and deeply heartfelt work of Charles Ives with The Orchestra Now this season.

Copland’s Lincoln Portrait

Notes by TŌN flutist Matthew Ross

The Commission
In 1942, conductor Andre Kostelanetz commissioned a “gallery of musical portraits” from three of the most preeminent American composers of the time. He requested works that reflect “the qualities of courage, dignity, strength, simplicity, and humor which are so characteristic of the American people.” Along with works by Virgil Thomson (depicting Fiorello H. La Guardia and Dorothy Parker) and Jerome Kern (Mark Twain), Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was a result of this commission. The piece was premiered to rave reviews.

Copland’s Instructions
In writing Lincoln Portrait, Copland noticed parallels between his present-day and that of Lincoln in the sense of the emergence of a nation. Both were dealing with the devastation of war and the search for identity that inevitably comes with it. Copland chose to use original text to frame Lincoln’s own words, extracting from an 1862 State of the Union Address, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and the Gettysburg Address. He includes a note for the speaker on the first page of the score, discouraging the use of “undue emphasis in the delivery of Lincoln’s words,” and says that they are to be read “simply and directly, without a trace of exaggerated sentiment.” The focus needs to be on the complete “sincerity of manner” and not on acting ability. Copland recognized that Lincoln’s poignant words held all the dramatic implication necessary for the affect to be felt by the audience.

Copland’s Americana Style
Lincoln Portrait is a prime example of Copland’s distinct Americana style. He first started developing his idea of the “American sound” after hearing the Library of Congress’ newly released recordings of American folk music in 1936. Most of these recordings were extremely simplistic, using only a guitar or banjo to accompany a solo voice. Copland’s first explicit reflection of these recordings is Billy the Kid, a ballet written in 1938. Lincoln Portrait employs all of the same musical devices, most notably his frequent use of the intervals of a fourth and fifth (like the tuning of guitar and banjo strings) and his inclusion of folk song. In the case of Lincoln Portrait, he chose to include the ballad “On Springfield Mountain” and Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.” Copland hoped these musical quotes would adequately represent the gentleness and simplicity of Lincoln’s personality.