Bloch's "American" Concerto:
Most composers, when they write a Violin Concerto, usually consult with a good violinist during the process—unless, that is, they play violin themselves. That was the case with the Swiss-born American composer and violinist Ernest Bloch, who completed his big violin concerto in 1938. Bloch was born in 1880, and was in his 30s when he came to America, where he achieved remarkable success with both critics and audiences. His most famous work, “Schelomo,” subtitled a “Hebraic Rhapsody” for cello and orchestra, premiered in New York in 1917, when Bloch was 36 years old. Despite his popularity in America, Bloch returned to Europe for most of the 1930s. By the end of that decade, the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany and Italy led the composer, then approaching 60, to reconsider making America his permanent home. Bloch’s Violin Concerto was premiered in America on today’s date in 1938, a month after he arrived, with violinist Joseph Szigeti and the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. The main theme of Bloch’s Concerto was supposedly based on a Native American theme, but the tone of the whole work echoes the Hebrew themes in his other music. Bloch wrote: “Art for me is an expression, an experience of life, not a game or an icy demonstration of mathematical principles. In not one of my works have I tried to be "original" or "modern." My sole desire and single effort has been to remain faithful to my vision.”
Barber in Rome (part 2):
On today’s date in 1936, just one day after the premiere of his Symphony No. 1, the young American composer Samuel Barber attended the first performance of his String Quartet No. 1. Both premieres took place in Rome, where Barber was enjoying the benefits of the Prix de Rome, which included a two-year residency at the American Academy in the “Eternal City.” Barber found Europe a congenial place to compose, finding inspiration in both the art and the important musical personalities he encountered there. Even so, he found writing a string quartet hard going: “I have started a new quartet,” he writes in one letter, “but how difficult it is. It seems to me that because we have so assiduously forced our personalities on Music—on Music, who never asked for them!—that we have lost elegance, and if we cannot recapture elegance, the quartet form has escaped us forever.” It’s perhaps debatable whether Barber recaptured “elegance” in his new quartet, but “eloquence” is another matter: The new quartet’s slow “adagio” was described as being “deeply felt and written with economy, resourcefulness and distinction” by one critic after a New York performance the following year. Barber later recast this movement for full string orchestra, and, as Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” it’s become one of the best-loved pieces of modern American music. During the Second World War, it was adopted as a kind of unofficial anthem of mourning, and was played for the funeral of America’s great wartime President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Barber in Rome (part 1):
In 1935, when he was 25 years old, the American composer Samuel Barber was selected as “the most talented and deserving student of music in America” and awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome. This meant that Barber could study at the American Academy in Rome for two years, with free lodgings, a music studio and an annual stipend of $1,400—a considerable sum of money in the 1930s! Barber found his Italian studio, a little yellow house approached through a garden, to be a good place to work. He wasn’t very thrilled by his sleeping quarters at the Academy, however, and reportedly never completely unpacked his bags. While in Europe, Barber finished his Symphony No. 1. The premiere took place in Rome on today’s date in 1936, with the Italian conductor Bernardino Molinari leading Rome’s Augusteo Orchestra. Years later, Barber recalled that the orchestra played well, but also that the Italians in the audience were “not shy about expressing their feelings... 50% applauded and 50% were hissing.” In Barber’s opinion, the Italians found the new work “too dark-toned, too Nordic.” The Cleveland Orchestra gave the Symphony’s American premiere early the next year, followed by a New York performance under the direction of Arthur Rodzinski, who was so impressed he conducted the work with the Vienna Philharmonic at the opening concert of the 1937 Salzburg Music Festival in Austria. That performance was more warmly received, and Barber was called back to the stage three times.
On today’s date in 2001, the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas gave the first performance of a new work by the American composer Henry Brant. The new piece was entitled “Ice Field,” and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2002, the year Brant turned 89. The Pulitzer Prize was a major acknowledgment of five decades of work as one of America’s great experimental composers. In the 1950s, when he turned 40, Brant became fascinated with the possibilities inherent in spatial music—music that positioned various groups of performers in all the corners of performing space. Moreover, he felt his music should reflect a wide variety of musical styles as well. As Brant put it: “I had come to feel that single-style music… could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit.” A 1984 composition entitled “Western Springs” is scored for a spatial ensemble of two orchestras, two choruses, and two jazz combos, comprising a grand total of about 200 musicians. Brant cites as his major model the earlier American composer Charles Ives, but also credits the experience of hearing in Paris a modern performance of the massive Requiem Mass of the extravagant French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, who way back in the 19th century positioned an orchestra, brass choirs, and vocalists around a vast cathedral for a unique “surround sound” experience.
Cowell at the Forum:
The Great Depression put many Americans out of work, and in 1935 the Roosevelt administration created the Works Progress Administration, putting some of the unemployed to work on various public projects. A Federal Music Project was also created for unemployed musicians, and thirty-four new orchestras were created all over the country. American composers weren’t neglected either. A program called the Composers Forum Laboratories showcased new chamber works and invited audiences to offer their feedback and comments directly to the composers involved. On today’s date in 1935, at the seventh Composers Forum Laboratory held in New York, Henry Cowell was the featured composer, and took questions and comments from the audience at the Midtown Community Center on Park Avenue following the premiere of his String Quartet No. 3. Typical of a “laboratory” situation, this chamber piece was highly experimental. Cowell conceived it as a kind of musical kaleidoscope or crazy quilt, in which five predetermined musical patterns can be played in any order. Cowell called this work his “Mosaic” Quartet, and, theoretically, no two performances would ever be the same. America’s entry into World War II eventually brought all the WPA’s musical projects to a close, but not before Federal Music Project orchestras had premiered a number of new symphonic works by American composers, and dozens of new chamber works, like Cowell’s Quartet, had been performed and discussed at Composers Forum Laboratories.