The American Experience program notes

Saturday, August 7, 2021 , 6:30 PM

Price: Ethiopia's Shadow in America

Montgomery: Five Freedom Songs

Copland: Lincoln Portrait

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Ethiopia’s Shadow in America

Composed: 1929-1932
Instrumentation: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion (suspended cymbal, woodblock, snare drum, bass drum, glockenspiel, xylophone, crash cymbals), celeste, and strings

Florence Price is among a growing list of prolific African American composers whose music is being rediscovered by 21st-century classical music audiences. Born to a musical mother and a father who was one of the handful of Black dentists in the U.S. at the time, Price was a precocious musician and scholar. She gave her first public piano performance at age 4 or 5, published her first composition at age 11, and graduated from high school in Little Rock as valedictorian in 1903. She went on to study piano and organ at the New England Conservatory (tellingly, she claimed to be Mexican rather than African American on her application, figuring her race would preclude her admission). After teaching stints in Little Rock and Atlanta, Price left the South for Chicago in 1927, when an especially horrific lynching in her community was the final straw for many Black families in Little Rock who had the means to join the Great Migration. The move was fortuitous. Price quicky immersed herself in the rich musical life of the city, where she became known as a performer, teacher, and composer. Her major breakthrough came in 1932, when her Symphony No. 1 won the Rodman Wanamaker Prize for a symphonic composition by an African American composer. That same year, her piano sonata won in the piano composition category, and two pieces won Honorable Mention in those categories, including Ethiopia’s Shadow in America. These wins not only brought considerable financial reward but also led to a premiere of the Symphony No. 1 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—the first performance of a symphonic work by an African American woman by a major American orchestra. The piece was exceptionally well received, bringing Price to national prominence. She would go on to write four symphonies, three large-scale concertos, numerous other orchestral works, and hundreds of vocal and piano pieces.

In a New York Times piece in 2018, scholar Micaela Baranello details Price’s gift for self-advocacy and meticulous organization of her scores. After Price’s death in 1953, her physical absence led to a rapid drop-off in performances of her works. But the 2009 discovery of a treasure trove of orderly, unpublished scores in Price’s old summer home began an enthusiastic renaissance of Price’s music. Her tone poem (and likely first orchestral piece) Ethiopia’s Shadow in America was among these scores, and it is believed that the 2015 performance of the piece by the University of Arkansas Symphony was its premiere. In the year or two before the pandemic, the score was published, and the piece had seen multiple performances throughout the United States.

Price’s music had the uncanny knack of capturing the spirit of African American folk idioms without quoting directly from any specific song or melody. Much of this quality came from rhythmic elements, as Price wrote:

In all types of Negro music, rhythm is of preeminent importance. In the dance, it is a compelling, onward-sweeping force that tolerates no interruption. All phases of truly Negro activity—whether work or play, singing or praying—are more than apt to take on a rhythmic quality.

Price’s description of the narrative depicted in Ethiopia’s Shadow in America reads as follows:

I. Introduction and Allegretto: The Arrival of the Negro in America when first brought here as a slave
II. Andante: His Resignation and Faith
III. Allegro: His Adaptation, a fusion of his native and acquired impulses

The Introduction is at turns deeply noble, march-like and oppressive, and lamenting. The brief and light Allegretto introduces characteristic rhythms and ostinatos reminiscent of the jazz age. The stirring Andante, featuring solos for violin, cello, and others, is a warmly accompanied spiritual-like melody that seems to obliquely reference “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The final section is a kind of orchestral Juba dance, a favorite style of Price’s. The Juba was an early plantation dance developed by African American slaves involving lively body percussion (slaves were generally prohibited from playing drums for fear that they would encode secret messages in their rhythms). Price’s work ends with a return to the theme from the Introduction, both a tribute and a remembrance.

Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)

Five Freedom Songs

Composed: 2018, 2021
Instrumentation: solo soprano, 1 percussion (kick drum, snare drum, hi-hat, cymbals, brake drum, glockenspiel), and strings

Jessie Montgomery is a New York-born composer and violinist who is quickly becoming a household name in the American classical music world. She attended Juilliard and is an alumna of the Sphinx Organization, a collection of music ensembles designed to promote and support young African American and Latinx musicians. Montgomery maintains close ties to the group, currently serving as composer-in-residence for the Sphinx Virtuosi, the professional touring arm of the organization. Her works reflect her background and influence, dynamically interweaving her immersive expertise in classical music and her identity rooted in multicultural America with its own evolving sonic quilt. Montgomery maintains an active career as a performer as well, with her Catalyst Quartet releasing its fifth album, UNCOVERED, featuring music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, this past February.

This year, Montgomery assumed the role of composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In this role, she succeeds prior appointee Missy Mazzoli, whose piece These Worlds In Us is also part of the Festival’s 2021 summer season (Sun Valley favorite Mason Bates also held the role previously). Montgomery has cited Mazzoli as an inspiration for her vision as she begins her three-year stint with the CSO. Though over half of the CSO composers-in-residence have been women, Montgomery’s appointment marks the first time an African American composer has held the post. Montgomery and Florence Price are the only Black women whose music the CSO has performed in its 130-year history.

Five Freedom Songs was composed as a joint commission by the Sun Valley Music Festival, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, New Haven Symphony Orchestra, Grand Teton Music Festival, Kansas City Symphony, and Virginia Arts Festival. As lead commissioner, the Festival presents tonight’s world premiere.

During Julia Bullock’s 2018-2019 artist-in-residence year with the MetLiveArts program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she commissioned Montgomery to compose the work Five Slave Songs for voice and small string ensemble, which she performed at her first Met concert. Montgomery and Bullock went through the 1867 anthology Slave Songs of the United States, choosing five texts and melodies that Montgomery fleshed out into rich, layered, and often visceral arrangements reflecting the history and modern legacy of the African American slave experience. Five Freedom Songs builds on this collaboration, expanding and enriching these settings. Montgomery writes of her new work:

Five Freedom Songs was conceived in collaboration with Soprano Julia Bullock between 2017-2018. We wanted to create a song cycle that honors our shared African American heritage and the tradition of the Negro spiritual while also experimenting with nontraditional stylistic contexts.

Each of the five songs in this cycle are sourced from the historical anthology Slave Songs of the United States (originally published by A. Simpson & Co., New York, 1867), which categorizes each song based on origin and social context.

For example, “My Lord, What a Morning” is actually the original lyric to the more popular spiritual “Stars Begin to Fall,” which also originated in the Southeastern slave states. “I Want to Go Home” also originates from the Southeastern states, and my setting is inspired by the way it was transcribed as a simple seven-note melody without an indicated rhythm, which inspired me to write it in a hybrid Gregorian chant/spiritual style. “Lay dis Body Down”, a funeral song said to originate from the region surrounding South Carolina, is set in an improvised style, wherein each part of the ensemble chooses their own pacing of the line to create a swirling meditation. “My Father, How Long?” contains the refrain “We will soon be free, we will soon be free, De Lord will call us home,” the words of which reflect the dual meaning between spiritual salvation and freedom from oppression. It is a song that emerged from a jail in Georgetown, South Carolina, at the break of the Great Rebellion and is accompanied by percussive sounds in the strings evoking the chain gang. “The Day of Judgment” originates from the region surrounding Louisiana and is set as an uneasy celebration over the refrain of a traditional West African drumming pattern.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Lincoln Portrait

Composed: 1942
Instrumentation: narrator, 2 flutes doubling piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion (glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, sleighbells, snare drum, tam-tam, bass drum), harp, celeste, and strings

Copland composed his inspirational Lincoln Portrait at the request of conductor Andre Kostelanetz and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. This was the same orchestra that in the same year had commissioned his long-cherished Fanfare for the Common Man. Kostelanetz—with feelings of pride and defiance after the Pearl Harbor attack—was commissioning a number of composers in order to create a “musical portrait gallery of great Americans.” Copland chose Lincoln but with some trepidation, writing:

No composer could possibly hope to match in musical terms the stature of so eminent a figure as that of Lincoln…. But secretly I was hoping to avoid the difficulty by doing a portrait in which the sitter himself might speak. With the voice of Lincoln to help me I was ready to risk the impossible.

Copland carefully chose the particular excerpts of Lincoln’s speeches and writings for his narrated “voice,” quotes that seem to reflect not just on the crisis of the Civil War but on the continuing inequities and inhumanities of Jim Crow (the Armed Forces during World War II for example, were still officially segregated). There was prescience in Lincoln’s words, spoken a month before the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.” These words, emphasized so prominently in the Lincoln Portrait, resonated with Copland during the decade preceding the journey from Brown v. Board of Education through the civil rights rulings of the mid-1960s. What Copland could not have known in 1942 was the central role Lincoln would play as a kind of historical emblem for the Civil Rights Movement, solidified and immortalized by Martin Luther King Jr.’s choice to deliver his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial. The same site was chosen as the venue for a 1968 Memorial Day concert of the National Symphony Orchestra in honor of Dr. King, who had been assassinated less than two months before. The central component of that performance was the Lincoln Portrait, narrated by King’s widow. Although that performance ultimately had to be moved indoors because of weather, Coretta Scott King served as narrator for the piece numerous times during her life, including at a 1969 Washington, D.C., performance conducted by Copland himself.

The orchestral introduction serves to represent multiple facets of Lincoln’s personality, opening with a noble section that touches on his “mysterious sense of fatality,” as Copland wrote. Copland works in a plaintive quote from the 18th-century American folk tune “On Springfield Mountain” here, and in a lively sketch of Lincoln’s America, brief snippets of “Camptown Races” appear. As the narration takes center stage, Copland aims “to draw a simple but impressive frame about the words of Lincoln himself.”

Program notes by Jon Kochavi