ANTONIN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
SYMPHONY No.8 in G, Op.88
Premiered: Prague (now in the Czech Republic), 1890
- 1. Allegro con brio
- 2. Adagio
- 3. Allegretto grazioso – Molto vivace
- 4. Allegro ma non troppo
Written and orchestrated in an astonishing ten weeks, Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony was a determined effort to get away from the gloomy, stormy world of the Seventh, even at the risk of sounding downright cheerful in places. This was not usually the Dvořák way. Indeed, the surviving sketches for the first movement are almost entirely in the cheerful major; the composer appears to have found it not nearly miserable enough – hence the excursions into the minor in the final version. However, Dvořák’s publisher was downright disappointed with all this uncommercial good humor, and paid Dvořák so little for it that the composer was driven into a teaching job at the Prague Conservatory. He and the publisher never spoke again.
After a typically solemn Dvořák opening, all hymnal chords and solemn brass, the flute flutters in with one of many birdsong-like themes that will hover over the work, and we are off into the Bohemian countryside, which Dvořák was determined would be at least musically free of rural Germans (Beethoven in particular). Not even the thunderstorm of the Adagio can disturb the overall serenity of the music, which is so settled that we don’t even wonder why we’re in E flat, a key unrelated to the symphony’s main key. Unless, of course, we’re hearing a few folk tunes in Slavic modes.
For the third movement, Beethoven’s bucolic stomping is replaced by a solid Slavic dumka, oscillating between sad and (sort of) happy, while in the central section we hear simultaneous dark/bright versions of a semi-folksong that has defied identification. The word dumka actually means “thought” – in Dvořák’s hands, a quintessentially Czech thought.
At the Czech equivalent of a hoe-down, revelers are summoned to dance by a fanfare, and so it is in the finale. At first, the solemn main subject looks like it will be churned through an entire sequence of Brahmsian variations, but Dvořák will have none of it; a stomping country dance leads to a final lyrical glimpse of the Bohemian summer before we are treated to a final dose of bucolic bounce. After all those years of playing third viola under Smetana, Dvořák finally showed the older master how to combine national pride with musical solidity
JAMES LEE III (born 1975)
CHUPHSHAH! HARRIET’S DRIVE TO CANAAN
Premiered: Baltimore, MD, 2011
James Lee III was born in Michigan, and studied with many leading American and world composers. His African-American heritage has been a deep source of inspiration and imagination for him. Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan is a striking example of this. The composer has described the music:
Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaanis a twelve-minute work based off various aspects of the life of Harriet Tubman. The word ‘Chuphshah’ is a biblical Hebrew word for freedom. Specifically, it is freedom from slavery. Canaan refers to the northern free states of America or even as far north as Canada that would have been the “promised land” for the slaves. As Chuphshah begins, it appears that one is already witnessing a scene of action already in progress. The brass and string section open the work with an ascending pattern accented by percussion instruments. This is immediately followed by the sound of a marimba personifying an escape to freedom by night. An English horn, oboes, and clarinets enter into the action with similar figures.
As the work continues, there are various scenes that I have tried to musically capture in Harriet Tubman’s life. One such scene includes the personification of Harriet with the English horn. I have tried to capture some of the emotions that she may have felt after she first escaped from slavery in Maryland’s eastern shore. The sadness and longing that she felt for her family prompted her to return several times back into dangerous slave territory in Maryland and the deep South in pursuit of family members and other slaves.
Throughout the work there are various quotes of Negro spiritual melodies that are heard. Harriet Tubman used to announce her presence among the other slaves by singing “Go Down Moses.” Another common tune that they would have sung was “Follow the drinkin’ gourd.” Other songs that are partially quoted are “I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” These tunes appear as opposing melodies that are harmonized in various ways as they reappear.
As the American Civil War continues to be bitterly fought, these melodies continue to struggle against each other as the music portrays an imagined battle in the war and a more specific experience of Harriet Tubman in Troy, New York. It was in Troy where she was instrumental in helping a man named Charles Nalle escape to freedom. Much of the orchestra is involved in the battle that ends with the death of the “Dixie” tune and bitingly dissonant chords in the orchestra.
This is followed by a mysterious passage including mallet percussion instruments and harp accompanied by the low string instruments. Immediately, the English horn returns with the lamenting tune of “No More Auction Block for Me.” This melody is set in E-flat major, but the percussion, harp, and violins provide an eerie counterpoint, which suggests that freedom would come with suffering. As the work nears its end, the violins and oboe sing the last part of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The words sung by these instruments are “…His truth is marching on.” The music here is not martial, but pensive. This is followed by a quasi brass fanfare with tutti orchestra, which suggest the full military funeral ceremony that was given to her at her death.
MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)
PIANO CONCERTO in G
Premiered: Paris, France, 1932
At first, Ravel didn’t even want to call his masterpiece a piano concerto; the working title, right up to the week before the first performance, was Divertissement (“Diversion”), with the opening intended to conjure up his father’s workshop. The unmistakable jazz elements have their own explanation: as he was composing the work, Ravel was preparing what would be a triumphant tour of the United States, and the concerto would act as a preliminary bombardment.
The music-box whirrings of the opening soon give way to an unmistakable glimpse of Gershwin; indeed, the whole piece is almost an Impressionist painting of the Rhapsody in Blue, but with more brushstrokes to the inch than Gershwin managed in his entire piece. It is all detail – and many of those details are Basque. Ravel sketched the first movement on a train on his way back from receiving a degree in Oxford, and jotted down a couple of Basque tunes for use later in the work; they never appear as such, but they are much on the composer’s mind.
The slow movement is a self-consciously Mozartian take on a waltz, based on a melody of such heartdissolving lyricism that the pianist Marguerite Long (the work’s dedicatee and first performer) praised the composer for its “natural flow.” His outraged reply was: “That flowing phrase! How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!” A less pacific, slightly edgy central section leads to the cor anglais restating the opening melody; this fades into a final dying trill by the piano. Ravel actually wanted to end the work here, but was persuaded to write a third movement.
The very short finale sounds very like an out-take from the rather angry Concerto For Left Hand that Ravel wrote simultaneously with the G Major concerto, under ferocious pressure from the one-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. It is at least arguable that Ravel worked out his frustrations with Wittgenstein in this sharp, spiky little movement.
About the Concert
The Bohemian flair and tuneful spirit of Dvořák are on full display in his sunny Eighth Symphony. Ravel's Concerto with its blend of Romanticism, Impressionism, and jazz is a perfect vehicle for talents of Rachel Franklin who straddles the classical and jazz worlds. We welcome Morgan State University composer James Lee III who celebrates Harriet Tubman by weaving the melodies and tumult of her time into a vividly cinematic score.