American Connections program notes

Program Notes

by Jane Rausch

In 1899, John Philip Sousa wrote Hands Across the Sea, a military march that he dedicated to America’s allies in Europe. By paying tribute to U.S.–European friendship, the title of this march aptly embodies the theme of today’s concert, “American Connections,” since the works of all three featured composers reflect the intermingling of musical developments in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and America.

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Sousa was born November 6, 1854, in Washington, D.C. of a Spanish father and German mother. As a youth, he studied violin, band instruments, and music theory, and later played for five years in the United States Marine Corps Band. At the age of seventeen he began conducting theater orchestras and writing compositions, and by 1880 his steadily growing reputation brought him the post of bandmaster of the Marine Band. Sousa’s meticulous rehearsal technique and firm leadership restored the morale of this faltering organization. By broadening its repertory and improving its instrumentation, he transformed it into a superb concert and marching band. In 1892, Sousa obtained his release from the Marine Corps and formed his own concert band. Under his exacting training, crisp direction, and brilliant showmanship, this new band made many tours of America and Europe and became one of the world’s most celebrated musical organizations.

Although he is known for his 136 stirring marches, Sousa composed music of many forms. He wrote 15 operettas, innumerable suites, humoresques, fantasies, and dances for band, and, in addition to the over 200 songs of his operettas, he composed 70 other vocal works, many transcribed for use with his band. Given this amazing output, he stands as the last of the great line of late nineteenth century masters of light classics which includes the Strausses of Vienna, Offenbach of Paris, Gilbert and Sullivan of London, and Hans Christian Lumbye of Copenhagen. Like the works of these composers, Sousa’s musical output represents a heritage that belongs not only to Americans but also to vast numbers of music lovers around the world.

Among Sousa’s marches, The Washington Post March has remained one of the most popular. It was written in 1889, when the owners of The Washington Post newspaper asked Sousa, then still the leader of the United States Marine Corps Band, to compose a march for the newspaper’s essay contest awards ceremony. Sousa obliged, and introduced The Washington Post March at the ceremony on June 15, 1889. Opening with a brief, typically Sousian fanfare, the march goes on to present one of the composer’s most familiar tunes. Written in 6/8 time, this melody quickly caught the public’s fancy, for it was adaptable to a dance craze new at the time called the “two-step.” Soon The Washington Post March had become the number one hit tune in both America and Europe, prompting a British journalist to dub Sousa “The March King.” It was a title he wore with pride, for he said, “I would rather be the composer of an inspired march than of a manufactured symphony.”

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Doctor, violinist, and composer Nicholas Coe is a valued member of the HCS first
violin section. This afternoon the orchestra is honored to present the world premiere of his symphonic work, Song of the River, which is described by Dr. Coe in the following paragraphs:

Song of the River is a symphonic tribute to the ancient, much-storied River Thames which arises near Cirencester in the Cotswolds and winds its way for 215 miles through southern England. It makes its way past Oxford’s dreaming spires and Abingdon where I grew up, and three miles later it ambles through Wallingford where Agatha Christie wrote her murder mysteries. It meanders through Henley-on-Thames, past Windsor Castle and finally it reaches London where the Houses of Parliament look down on its waters. It passes by Greenwich, the original location of global mean time, and finally widens out into an estuary that blends almost imperceptibly with the English Channel.

I grew up on the Thames and swam, kayaked, canoed, rowed, punted, sailed, or motored on virtually every part of the river from the barely navigable stream below the village of Cricklade to rowing in regattas in Oxford, Wallingford and Reading, and exploring the vast estuary as the Thames merges with the Channel. The Thames is a playground for many types of water craft, but I particularly like the upper reaches above Oxford because there is a very low, ancient bridge which blocks the passage of any motorized vessels, so the river upstream is very quiet and peaceful. I first visited this part of the Thames when I was about five years old when my parents rented a rowboat in Oxford and we went up river camping. We slept in the boat and drank the water fresh from the river. It was a long time ago.

Song of the River opens with the main theme which you will hear throughout the piece. Then it meanders along, sometimes slow and graceful and other times flowing more quickly. The mood and the melodies change like the river, and when the river arrives in London, it has an appropriately stately theme, within which you might even hear Big Ben. Finally the river and this piece reach the end of their journey and the river merges with the English Channel as the orchestra fades away with just a last hint of the original melody.

I should like to dedicate Song of the River to my parents Joan and Stuart who introduced me to this beautiful river and gave me such a great childhood growing up on its banks and waters.

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The later l9th century brought an increasing consciousness of national identity to various ethnic groups in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Antonin Dvořák was born September 8, 1841, in a Bohemian village where his father was an inn-keeper and butcher. From this humble beginning, he was to follow Bedřich Smetana to become the leading exponent of Czech musical nationalism that rested firmly within the classical traditions of Central Europe. His early musical training prepared him to perform for some years as a violist in the Prague Provisional Theatre Orchestra directed by Smetana. Later, with the positive encouragement of Johannes Brahms, he devoted his energies primarily to composition. As a master of the folk music of his native Bohemia as well as the broader, Germanic tradition of symphonic music developed by Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, Dvořák won recognition abroad and rather more grudging acceptance in Vienna.

In 1892, Dvořák travelled to the U.S. at the invitation of a rich patron of the arts, Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, to become director of her National Conservatory of Music in New York City. He was quickly inspired by the music of the “New World,” especially the songs of Native Americans and African Americans whose rhythms he combined with folk tunes of his country. His American experience deepened further when he spent the summer of 1893 in the Czech immigrant community of Spillville, Iowa. The town was a welcome retreat from his busy schedule in New York, where he had just completed and conducted his ninth symphony, From the New World. In Spillville he was joined by his sister, wife, and six children. Dvořák went on long walks among the fields and orchards with his fellow countrymen, and it was here that he composed his String Quartet in F Major and its sister piece, the String Quintet in E-flat.

Dvořák returned to Prague in 1895, where he was much honored, but his three years in the U.S. made a lasting impression on the emerging American music scene. He believed that the melodies of Native and African Americans would heavily contribute to the foundation of a distinctly American musical style, and his American-inspired pieces served as a model for many young composers including Amy Beach, William Grant Still, and Rubin Goldmark, from whom George Gershwin later took composition lessons between 1917 and 1918.

Dvořák composed his Symphony No. 6 in D Major in 1880, and it was performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on March 25, 1881. Although the work is widely believed to have been influenced by Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, which is also in D major, the rich colors and textures of Czech folk music are always present. Dvořák conducted it himself on a visit to England in 1884, at a concert of the London Philharmonic Society. It was his first symphony to be heard outside Czechoslovakia and became a great favorite with the English public at the time.

The first movement, Allegro non tanto, begins in pastoral style with a gently swaying melody. The second theme is first heard in the cellos and horns and then passed to the second violins, violas, oboe, and bassoon, varying slightly with each interpretation. The bassoon element is picked up in the rest of the opening and gradually developed in an exuberant central section. Heavy, rising scales in the strings precede the return of the opening theme and build to a climax in the brass section at the end of the movement.

The Adagio in B-flat major is a loose rondo containing variations within the sections. A tender woodwind introduction leads to the main theme, which starts as a duet between wind and strings. Fragments of this theme pervade the whole movement in all varieties of different instrumental combinations. A moment of melodrama towards the end is followed by a pensive flute cadenza, which signals the closing coda.

The Scherzo is a presto that incorporates a furiant – a quick Czech folk dance with cross-rhythms instantly recognizable from Dvořák’s popular Slavonic dances. The effect is that the movement appears to alternate between 2/4 and 3/4, giving it an infectious, syncopated feel. The more leisurely Trio is a contrasting rustic idyll, featuring a piccolo to paint the picture. Excitement builds towards the end of the Trio as the tempo explodes back into a thrilling recapitulation of the Scherzo.

The finale, Allegro con spirito, is in sonata form and opens with a soft scampering in the strings which gradually expands to fill the whole orchestra. The final moments of the movement combine racing strings with a restatement of the original theme, coming to a close with a jubilant finish – a brass chorale to make up for the lack of trombones and tuba in the middle movements.

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