In my experience, American music is not a staple of the symphony orchestra repertoire. It’s February, and in my orchestra we are already well into our rehearsal cycle for the winter concert. It is going to be a “Three B’s” concert: Bach, Beethoven, and Bruch, three well-known and beloved non-American composers.
Last concert we did something different. The program included William Grant Still’s “Afro-American” symphony, written in 1930 and first performed in Rochester NY, and a movement from Dvorak’s “American” string quintet No. 3, Op. 97, written in Spillville IA in 1893. Neither of these pieces was known to me before I started preparing them for this concert, and I’m writing about them here to bring more attention to these American masterpieces.
The “Afro-American” symphony is the first symphony written by an African-American composer to be performed by a major orchestra. Even the sheet music was a little different, written in the composer’s own charming and quite legible handwriting:
And insured for thousands of dollars:
Still gave each movement a title: Longing, Sorrow, Humor, and Aspiration, and he included with the symphony some short poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Once you figure out how to read the manuscript, the symphony is challenging, but not intimidatingly so. It uses jazz, blues, and gospel themes in a traditional, tonal, 4-movement structure. It also employs a banjo in the 3rd movement. I immediately said, as a shorthand, “oh, it sounds like Gershwin.”
It turns out plenty of other people think so too. Still and Gershwin knew each other and played music together. Although scholars don’t agree on this issue, it is possible that Gershwin borrowed the famous “I’ve got rhythm” motif from Still. The same motif can be heard clearly in the symphony’s 3rd movement.
The “American” quintet was written immediately after the more famous “American” quartet, during the summer of 1893 when Dvorak was living in Spillville IA. In fact, this piece isn’t always referred to as “American,” although there are a number of high-powered reviewers and references who use the term, for example this review from Gramophone, or this clip from the BBC.
Our group decided to do it for a more prosaic reason: after performing the Schubert cello quintet last year, we needed another quintet. And one of our cellists was learning to play the alto violin, which is tuned like a viola. So he took the viola 2 part. We played the first movement in the spring, and it served as the warm-up for me before my Telemann concerto performance.
The highlight of this movement for me was my viola solo about 2 minutes in. It is a plaintive melody, which I decided sounded better fingered high up on the D-string, rather than on the higher, shriller A-string. After I read that a group of Native Americans visited Spillville while Dvorak was composing this piece, I hear sadness in the melody along with its beauty. The drum-like viola 2 solo that opens the piece also brings Native music to mind.
Reviewing this concert to write the blog, I realize that so much is missing from this account. It’s very hard to write program notes; one is tempted to say “Just listen to the music!” But I hope that these lesser-known American masterpieces will find their way into more concert programs in the future!