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American Music - A Revolutionary Evolution

Samuel Barber (1910 - 1981)

Adagio for Strings

Aaron Copland (1900 -1990)

Fanfare for the Common Man

Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990)

On the Waterfront - Symphonic Suite

1. Andante (with dignity) - presto barbaro
2. Adagio - Allegro molto agitato - All breve (poco piu mosso) - Presto come prima
3. Andante largamente - More flowing - Still more flowing - Poco meno mosso - Lento
4. Moving forward, with warmth - Largamente - a tempo - Calmato - Andante come prima - sempre avanti, with intensity - Ancor piu mosso
5. Allegro no troppo, molto marcato - Poco piu sostenuto - Moving forward - Meno mosso
6. A tempo

Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" (orch. Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal)
1. Prologue
2. “Somewhere” - adagio
3. Scherzo - vivace leggiero
4. Mambo - presto
5. Cha-cha (“Maria”) - andantino con grazia
6. Meeting Scene - meno mosso
7. “Cool” Fugue - allegretto
8. Rumble - molto allegro
9. Finale - adagio 

In the pre-established civilisation of Europe, music in all its forms evolved pretty well everywhere at once. In America it was a very different tale. Along the westward-bound frontier, hymns and rough, tough folk music - the “bare necessities of life” - flourished. Only the securely-settled East could afford and accommodate the luxury of classical music - and that, like the fine furniture, was imported from Europe. Consequently, approaching the end of the Nineteenth Century, America enjoyed a thriving indigenous popular culture - and suffered a stagnant, copy-cat art-music. 

Of course, people weren’t happy to leave it like that: America wanted to show the world that it was as civilised as any “Europe”. Mrs. Thurber brought in a formidable “troubleshooter”, and home-grown musical pioneers like Charles Ives started to appear. Their common goal: to foster a distinctively “American” classical tradition Their common means: to capitalise on the rough but rich folk-culture. It took off like a rocket! 

This rocket formed a new frontier, an avant-garde “heading westward”, leaving in its wake schools of settlers, stretching right back to the hide-bound “East”, wedged firmly in its imported furniture. The neo-Romantic Barber, while nowhere near hide-bound, nevertheless had one foot firmly planted in the Old World. In Spring 1936, during a travelling scholarship to Europe, an idyllic woodland retreat near Salzburg inspired the Op. 11 String Quartet. Toscanini’s enthusiasm for the Adagio resulted in this string orchestral arrangement. Its simplicity is deceptive. The violin theme revolves over a bed of chords. Other parts gradually separate out, into a polyphonic round-dance. Then they coalesce, leaving the theme in the bass under a bed of chords. The cycle restarts, now expanding into a blaze of colour. Finally, the vision recedes like a fading dream, perhaps of luminous blooms opening, closing, and re-opening in the Spring sunshine. 

To the “west” of Barber came Copland, who amalgamated his European learning with often acerbic jazz elements, and could make music of the wide prairies. In 1942, with the USA entering the arena of war, Eugene Goossens commissioned some patriotic fanfares. Copland’s contribution was a Fanfare not for the famed and fêted, but for the factory floor. We “common men” might initially be dismayed - for us no regal roulade of golden trumpets, instead the clash of steel and thump of leaden hammers. By way of compensation, our trumpets give us first resolve, then strength of purpose, and finally the will to rise. Nice one! 

If the “far west” is the stronghold of way-out characters such as Ives and Partch, then the “mid-west” must be held by those who dug deepest into popular culture, the likes of Gershwin and Bernstein. Love him or loathe him, “Lenny” was a real one-off. In fact, part of his uniqueness was that you could do both - adore one work and find another squirmingly embarrassing, be enchanted by one interpretation and appalled by another. Some regarded his podium manner as expressing gut-level passion for the music, whilst others saw only cynical showmanship. There’s no middle ground - loving or loathing, but never bland indifference. The one thing I think everyone agrees is that without him the world’s a poorer place. 

As a composer, Bernstein came from where Gershwin left off. What Bartók did with Hungarian folk-melody, Bernstein did with jazz. Horrified to find his music for On the Waterfront hitting the cutting-room floor, Bernstein seemed unaware that the same fate befell similar swadges of film, all part of the common artistic process of “creative filtration”. Never mind, at least he had the presence of mind to sweep up. From all the music he wrote he distilled a symphonic suite or, really, a symphonic poem - a thread of continuity binds the nominal six movements. On each recurrence, the lonely solo horn theme becomes more recessed, whilst the music around it progresses from aggressive to expansive. The uncompromisingly brutal fast music paints a grim, violent “city-scape”. This frays then sunders, liberating the welling optimism of its rural heart - a Utopian prairie such as Copland conjured. 

The New York dockland isn’t so far from the West Side and, in terms of its juxtaposition of brutality and tenderness, neither is On the Waterfront from West Side Story. Arguably the definitive musical, it broke new ground in numerous ways, not least in its raw-knuckled approach to a realistic, contemporary “social problem” and (dare I suggest?) a more credible plot than Shakespeare’s original! Yet, perhaps most impressive is the integrity of its approach: songs and dances weren’t just “stuck in” - everything reinforced the unfolding drama. Elements of play, ballet and opera are bonded by Bernstein’s scenario-suffusing music. The impact of the use of classical styles and techniques is discernable even within the limited confines of the suite of Symphonic Dances, as is, more obviously, the frightening violence that Bernstein unleashes through his harnessing of jazz - in what we might call “the apotheosis of the dance-band”. 

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 05 February 2005
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© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


 

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