by Robert Simon
Jerry Noble, a long-admired friend, kindly sent me the following notes on his Marching In which opens today’s program, and which I’m very pleased to quote verbatim:
For 15 years I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of playing traditional jazz with clarinetist
Bob Sparkman. Those years have been chock full of explorations and discoveries, conversations both musical and verbal, and non-stop joy. While Bob’s role – perhaps his mission – has been to ensure and reinforce my appreciation of early jazz from the heroic extroversion of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong to the light-fingered wit of “Fats” Waller and the elegant understatement of Teddy Wilson, my mission has been to bring Bob’s life-affirming love and mastery of this music into ever broader and sometimes unexpected surroundings.
Throughout jazz history, classical music and jazz music have coexisted peacefully, if
sometimes at arms length. From the early days of the 20th century in New Orleans when
operatic wind players would stroll directly from the orchestra pit to the saloon, playing La Traviata one moment and Limehouse Blues the next (Armstrong quotes the famous Rigoletto quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore” in one recorded solo trumpet chorus) to Duke Ellington’s lavish jazz transcriptions of the Nutcracker Suite (complete with frivolous titles like Toot Toot Tootie Toot, and Sugar Rum Cherry), open-minded jazzers and classicists have met in the common arena of what Ellington knowingly called “good music.”
My idea in writing Marching In has been to bring the light-hearted swing of New Orleans, Dixieland, whatever-you-want-to-call-it jazz into an orchestral context with a nod to
classical form (three movements, fast-slow-fast, with introductions and virtuosic cadenzas) and a hat respectfully raised to the age-old art of improvisation, practiced to the nth degree by musicians of the highest order from Bach to B.B. King. For the building blocks of the concerto, I chose tunes that Bob and I have played and recorded many times, to “work out” both in the trio context with the fine bass playing of Paul Kochanski and in the context of a standard symphony orchestra. The first movement is based on Shall We Gather at the River and Down by the Riverside, the second on Just a Closer Walk with Thee (but containing obvious quotes from the other piece on today’s program, another monument of American music by way of Bohemia, Dvořàk’s Symphony From the New World) and the third on Nearer My God to Thee, and When the Saints Go Marching In. Maestro David Kidwell has been a constant source of encouragement and enthusiasm for this kind of collaboration as long as we have known each other, and I am deeply grateful for his invitation to work with the Holyoke Civic Symphony once again as we go Marching In.
In 1891, Jeannette Meyers Thurber, the wife of a millionaire grocery wholesaler, prominent in New York society, and an ardent patron of music, set out to engage a new director for her recently established National Conservatory of Music in America. Strictly after a big name, her sights became focused on the Czech master, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), then at the peak of his powers and reputation. Although disinclined to leave his beloved Bohemia, he ultimately just couldn’t resist Mrs. Thurber’s $15,000 salary offer, triple what he was then earning as Professor of Composition at the Prague Conservatory. In today’s dollars her offer would be well up in the six-figure range – and by the way, there was no income tax back then. Taking a leave of absence from Prague, his contracted stays in this country lasted from September 1892 through May 1894, and from the following October through April 1895.
A relatively light work schedule and nice, long summer vacations – spent with his family
at a Czech immigrant farming community in Spillville, Iowa – gave Dvořák ample time for composition, and he used the time well – exceedingly well. Works written during this period include two of his finest string quartets, his magnificent Cello Concerto, and, probably most important, the Symphony in E Minor, which he subtitled Z noveho sveta – “From the New World.” It was completed in May 1893 after about five months of work, followed by a few touch-ups during the summer in Spillville. The premiere, extraordinarily successful, took place at a concert by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall the following December. The critics were unanimous in judging the work a major addition to the repertoire, and that opinion still holds true.
Over the years there has been considerable discussion about how “American” this work
really is. Many believe they hear African-American spirituals (particularly in the second movement), Irish jigs, children’s rounds (e.g., “Three Blind Mice”), and other American, or Americanized, tunes in it. It must be remembered, however, that Dvořák was an unsurpassed melodist, not inclined to “borrow” thematic material. What he did utilize, however, are more indirect elements – rhythms, harmonies and inflections absorbed principally from African Americans and Native Americans, along with some themes which he based on the Dorian mode and pentatonic scales. (You get the latter when you run up and down the black keys on the piano.) In addition, as the composer reportedly revealed, the mood of some sections was inspired by portions of Longfellow’s extended narrative poem, The Song of Hiawatha. But these American influences were primarily just tints added to an already rich musical palette which had developed from his Czech background, along with the classical and German Romantic traditions that nurtured him. It is a tribute to his genius how these all coalesce in the work and enhance one another with such remarkable effect.