Ulysses Kay’s Scherzi musicali

Notes by TŌN horn player Ser Konvalin

The Composer
Ulysses Simpson Kay Jr. was an African-American composer born in 1917 in Tucson, Arizona. He was born into a musical family—his mother and sister played piano, and his uncle was the famous jazz bandleader Joe “King” Oliver. Kay began playing piano and violin at a young age, then learned saxophone and played in his high school’s marching and jazz bands. He studied music at the University of Arizona, where he first learned theory and composition. It was there that William Grant Still heard Kay’s music and encouraged him to keep composing. Kay then studied with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers at the Eastman School of Music, and in 1942 studied with Paul Hindemith at Yale University. He also studied at Columbia University. He studied in Rome from 1949–53 with a Fulbright Scholarship, the “Prix de Rome,” and a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship. He was named Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, where he taught theory and composition for twenty years. Kay wrote five operas, twenty large orchestral works, thirty choral compositions, a ballet, fifteen chamber pieces, and many other works for film, television, solo instruments, and voice.

The Music
Kay’s chamber orchestra work Scherzi musicali was written in 1968 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Chamber Music Society of Detroit. Kay’s compositional style is sometimes labeled as neoclassical, much like the works of Paul Hindemith, and his later works are sometimes labeled as atonal, crisp, and dissonant. Scherzi musicali employs the use of twelve-tone composition, ensuring that all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are circulated in melodic lines. The first movement begins by passing around dissonant long tones through the orchestra, followed by swirling melodic lines that are echoed in different instruments. The beauty of the chamber orchestra setting allows for each instrument to be heard clearly even while layering on top of one another. Often the orchestra functions as two groups: the wind quintet and the string section. The inquisitive second movement, Interlude I, offers an exposed look at the wind instruments, excluding strings entirely. The last movement builds in intensity with increasing volume, more dissonant chords, and strings furiously increasing tempo and rhythm, until a last unison tone releases like a pressure valve.