It’s the quintessential tale of the romantic artist. He or she devotes his or her life to the Muse. He or she is largely rejected or ignored by the establishment, or becomes pigeonholed or typecast because of a modest success or a certain characteristic of his or her creative output. Ultimately, the artist dies underappreciated, only to have his or her work “rediscovered” and reevaluated well after said artist’s death.
American composers have always had it tough. And in the golden age of American classical music, composers of color had it especially bad.
Two of them will be featured on an ambitious program to be performed by the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey at the Trenton War Memorial on Sunday, February 24, at 4 p.m.
William Grant Still, who lived from 1895 to 1978, was one of the lucky ones. The so-called “Dean of Afro-American composers,” Still emerged from unlikely circumstances — born in Woodville, Mississippi, and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas — to become a major force in American music.
Having abandoned a career in medicine for studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory in Boston (where he studied with George Whitefield Chadwick), Still was a “first” in many ways.
His was the first symphony written by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra (the New York Philharmonic). He was the first to be given the opportunity to conduct a major orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl).
His opera, “Troubled Island,” became the first to be produced by a major company (the New York City Opera). Another of his operas, “A Bayou Legend,” was the first to be performed on national television (as late as 1981). His works were performed internationally by the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony, and Tokyo Philharmonic.
Perhaps the least likely pupil of avant-garde composer Edgard Varese, Still incorporated jazz and blues elements into his concert music. He cut his teeth writing arrangements for Paul Whiteman, W.C. Handy, and Artie Shaw.
According to Eubie Blake, one of Still’s improvisations in the pit band during Blake’s revue “Shuffle Along” became the basis for George Gershwin’s hit tune “I Got Rhythm” (though Blake conceded the appropriation was probably inadvertent). Still didn’t seem to mind. The two composers remained friendly and continued to attend performances of each other’s music.
Still quotes the melody in the third movement of his Symphony No. 1, the “Afro-American Symphony,” of 1930. It had always been his intention to do so, even before Gershwin popularized it. The symphony is a kind of “portrait of the artist as a young man,” built on lovely daydreams and punctuated by syncopated, banjo-like riffs. It’s the kind of music that Antonin Dvorak would have loved.
Dvorak, the Czech master who directed the National Conservatory of Music in New York from 1892 to 1895, famously encouraged American composers to abandon European models, such as Schumann and Brahms, and look to their own indigenous music, especially songs of African-Americans, in the development of a distinctive national sound — first-rate American music, in defiance of the pale imitations of Old World masters then commonplace in American concert halls. By way of example, Dvorak composed his “New World” Symphony. The melodies are all Dvorak’s own, but the inflections unmistakably evoke the African-American spirituals introduced to him by his assistant, Harry T. Burleigh.
If any music by Still ever turns up on orchestra programs, it is the “Afro-American Symphony.” However, the Capital Philharmonic has opted to embrace one of Still’s later works, the Symphony No. 4 of 1947, which bears the determinedly anti-commercial subtitle “Autochthonous.” To save you a trip to the dictionary, “autochthonous” is defined as “an inhabitant of a place; indigenous, rather than descended from migrants or colonists.”
Still’s strength is as a melodist, and the Symphony No. 4 is full of good tunes.
“I listened to all of his symphonies, and this is by far my favorite,” says Capital Philharmonic music director Daniel Spalding. “Although it’s based on folk-like themes, it’s not in your face. That’s what attracted me to it. He didn’t write about a particular geography. What really sold me on it was the ending. The hymn in the final movement is so spectacular — it’s so dramatic — I just knew that’s how I wanted to end the concert.
“I think it’s much more sophisticated than the ‘Afro-American Symphony.’ This is elevated. Obviously it’s a later symphony. He’s growing as a musician, as he matures.”
Melody is also a hallmark of Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 1, another rarity to be revived.
Price, who lived from 1887 to 1953, like Still, enjoyed a certain degree of success. But as an African-American and a woman, too often she was dismissed out of hand. It wasn’t so much that she was rejected; frequently she was ignored.
In fact, she shared many parallels with Still, who was eight years her junior. She was born in Little Rock, where Still was raised. She attended the same school, the New England Conservatory, where she studied with Still’s teacher, Chadwick. Both came from nurturing, middle-class families who were well respected within the community.
In Price’s case she remained there, marrying a civil rights attorney, until racial violence drove her from Little Rock. Raising a family divided her attention in a way Still never had to contend with. She also had to deal with an abusive husband whom she eventually divorced.
It was the conductor Frederick Stock, unusually broad-minded among his peers, who championed Price’s works with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She became the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and she was the first, thanks to Stock, to have one of her works played by a major orchestra. In 1933 her piano concerto was performed at the Chicago World Fair. In 1939 her arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in De Lord” was sung by Marian Anderson to conclude her historic Lincoln Memorial concert.
Just after Still wrote his “Afro-American Symphony,” Price embarked on the first of her four essays in the form. Both composers’ music frequently emulates the modal contours of African-American spirituals, even as it follows traditional European models.
In fact there are moments in Price’s Violin Concerto No. 1, to be heard on the first half of the Capital Philharmonic program, that are like memories that keep flitting around just beyond a listener’s reach.
“At some points it sounds a little like Tchaikovsky,” Spalding concedes. “It’s definitely neo-romantic. I think Florence Price did a beautiful job with it. The second violin concerto may be a little more sophisticated, I suppose, or a little more forward-looking. But I think this one hangs together just beautifully.”
Incredibly, the concerto is one of dozens of works rescued as recently as 2009 from Price’s summer home on the outskirts of St. Anne, Illinois. The house was heavily in disrepair. Left vacant for decades, it had been vandalized, and a fallen tree had torn a hole in the roof. When Vicki and Darrell Gatwood took it upon themselves to renovate the property, they came across a mother lode of Price’s personal effects — books, papers, and musical manuscripts — all preserved in a part of the house that remained undamaged.
There is no record of the first violin concerto, written in 1939, ever having been performed prior to its rediscovery. To Spalding’s knowledge, the piece has been performed publicly only once, in Arkansas, so this will be an East Coast premiere.
“When I tracked it down last year it was still in manuscript,” Spalding says. “The University of Arkansas had it engraved just months ago. Then I got a copy. It’s just out in the very first printing.”
Having also recently obtained the world premiere recording, he thinks the New Jersey performance will be a lot closer to Price’s original intentions.
“You know, there are quite a few discrepancies between the score and the recording,” he says. “It’s not exactly what’s in the score. Price wrote two endings. They play the first ending, and they play the second ending, and then they go on. Also, they don’t take the repeat. It’s very interesting, but it works. Anyway, there are some discrepancies. I’m not sure if I’m going to take both the first and second endings, or skip the first one. I think we’ll mostly stick to what’s written.”
The soloist for the Capital Philharmonic performance will be Samuel Thompson. A graduate of Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, Thompson is on the faculty of Baltimore’s Bryn Mawr School. For two seasons, he served as concertmaster at Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theater. He is currently a member of the Colour of Music Virtuosi, a 20-member chamber orchestra made up of African-American musicians from across the United States. He appears regularly with the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra and the Delaware Symphony.
The program will open with a lively curtain-raiser, the 1974 concert overture “Celebration” by Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941). Hailstork is professor of music and composer-in-residence at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
Both Still and Price were limited in some respects because of the color barrier. Even so, it is amazing and inspiring to find just how far they were able to make it in an era well before the Civil Rights Movement strove in earnest to level the playing field.
Eventually race became secondary to changing musical fashions. With a shift toward the avant-garde at mid-century, Still and Price’s “old-fashioned” music went the way of that of most of their contemporaries. Now that the pendulum has swung back, both composers are being reevaluated, and their works are finally being heard in concert halls and recording studios. At last, what had been kind of a parallel history in American classical music is being blended into the overall narrative.
Composers like Still and especially Price were so marginalized that not even many African-Americans know of their work. For one thing there haven’t been recordings of much of their music until fairly recently, and there is still much to be discovered.
Hoping to raise awareness — and, not incidentally, to drum up business — Spalding says he plans to drop by places like Union Baptist Church to pitch the concert. He is also hoping that bold programs like this one will help to build the Philharmonic’s audience. Spalding hints that if the concert is a success, there is a very good possibility there could be a follow-up next year.
The conductor has always been a champion of half-forgotten repertoire and attractive new works by up-and-coming composers. He brought American music to Russia, on tour with his other orchestra, the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Ensemble, in 2014, including the “Concerto Grosso for Strings” by one of Hailstork’s teachers, Philadelphia-born Vittorio Giannini. Among his other accomplishments, Giannini founded the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1965.
Spalding recorded Giannini’s Symphony No. 4 and Piano Concerto (with his wife, Gabriela Imreh, the soloist), as well as CDs devoted to music by Howard Hanson, Jeffrey Jacob, and Trenton’s own George Antheil. His album featuring Antheil’s most notorious work, the “Ballet Mecanique” — which provoked one of classical music’s great riots at its premiere in Paris in 1926 — was actually recorded in Trenton at the War Memorial.
Spalding’s brand of adventurous programming, typified by the African-American concert, is a real feather-in-the-cap for the orchestra, the War Memorial, and Trenton itself. In theory, music-lovers from out of the area who recognize its value should be inclined to travel considerable distances, not least from New York and Philadelphia, for the privilege of hearing these works, which are rarely done live.
But people have to be made aware of it in order for them to attend. Spalding, who lives in Trenton, is doing what he can to get the word out even in his own backyard. He knows that if he can get people in the hall, it has a good chance of being a transformative experience.
“I think it’s going to be a revelation for many people,” he says. “I’m very excited about this program.”
Celebrating Great African-American Composers, Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey, Trenton War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Sunday, February 24, 4 p.m. $10 to $65. 609-203-7433 or www.capitalphilharmonic.org.