Month: May 2017

The Road to the Classics: a 1928 point of view

The Road to the Classics: a 1928 point of view

Nearly 90 years ago, in 1928, the Theodore Presser Company published a book to teach how to play piano, Music Play for Every Day: The Gateway to Piano Playing. It is one of a legion of such books published in the last century. Perhaps you had piano lessons with the Thompson or Schuam method. Or even this book. They all make it sound so easy.

Many years ago, a friend gave me a photocopy of a page of this method, a drawing titled The Road to the Classics.  I’ve recently obtained an original copy of this book and the drawing is found below.

Hand in hand, the young boy and girl start on the path toward TRIUMPH. How do they get there? PRACTICE. KEEP AT IT. THE JOY OF WORKING. And CAREFUL STUDY. What are the pitfalls? VALLEY OF LAZINESS. FOREST OF POOR MUSIC. And the SWAMP OF JAZZ. Yes, it actually says “swamp of jazz.” Wow.  And who lives in the pantheon of TRIUMPH? BACH, BEETHOVEN, MOZART and their friends. Even MACDOWELL. MacDowell? Between Gounod and Schubert?

Take a few minutes to look at this. If you were making up a drawing to inspire beginners to take up the study of music, what would you include? How would YOU tell the story of musical inspiration?

Road_to_the_Classics_Presser

And I Saw A New Heaven: An invitation to attend a choir concert

And I Saw A New Heaven: An invitation to attend a choir concert

My wife and I attend Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona. One of the ways we serve our church is to sing in the choir, a superb group led by our Pastor of Worship and Music, Dr. Luke Lusted. It is such a blessing and privilege to serve in the choir with our  group of committed, talented members who love God. Our spring concert is on this coming Sunday, May 21, at 3:00 PM. The centerpiece of the program is John Rutter’s Requiem for choir, soloist and chamber orchestra, and the whole program is centered around the theme of “And I saw a new heaven,” taken from the Bible’s book of Revelation, Chapter 21, and Edgar Bainton’s classic anthem with that title.

Luke asked if I would be willing to write program notes for the concert to be included in the concert program and I was more than happy to do so. With his permission, my notes on the program appear below. If you are in the Phoenix area on Sunday, you are heartily invited to the concert. Directions to Camelback Bible Church may be found here on the church’s website. The concert is free and I hope to see you there. Even if you can’t attend the concert, I pray that my program notes provide food for thought, meditation, challenge and encouragement.

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Notes on the program

by Douglas Yeo

The three central events of the Christian faith are the incarnation of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, and his promise to return. The first two are securely in the historical and Biblical record, but the third remains what Titus called, “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13, ESV). The expectation of life after death for those called to Christ is central to Jesus’ teaching:

In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14: 2-3, ESV)

And so it is that the music performed at this concert reflects the great comfort of God’s promise to his children, and the encouragement that he gives us as we wait for that day and contend for Christ in a fallen, hurting world. Heaven is not “pie in the sky, bye and bye,” but rather something tangible and within sight. There is more to life than our time here on earth, “three score and ten [70 years]; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years [80 years]” (Psalm 90:10, KJV), and composers have often turned to scripture to present the great Truth of suffering on earth paired with the comfort of life after death.

Exhaltation

Song of Exaltation by American composer John Ness Beck (1930-1987) takes its exuberant text from the book of I Chronicles 16:29-36, a joyful hymn of praise to God in gratitude for his sovereignty over the heavens, earth, and the sea. Talk of the life in the world to come starts now–today–by praising God for his mighty works as all creation shouts, “God reigneth!” Beck’s tribute to George Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah is unmistakable, when he concludes Song of Exaltation with, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for ever, and ever, and ever, and ever.”

Quickly_come

The Bible’s final chapters, Revelation 21 and 22, are full of images of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, which is made ready in the new heaven and new earth. The challenges of this present life lead all Christians to yearn for that day, and the New Testament’s penultimate verse concludes with Christ’s promise, “Surely I am coming soon,” to which his children reply, emphatically, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). Paul O. Manz (1919-2009) composed his most famous choral composition, E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come in 1954; it has become popular through its frequent use at the annual Christmas Eve Festival of Lessons and Carols at King’s College in Cambridge, England. Manz’s setting of the text is for unaccompanied choir, and it beautifully reflects the anticipation of a time when “night shall be no more . . . for Christ will be their All!”

Saints_Bound

In the wake of the Second Great Awakening, a wave of Christian revivalism that swept across America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, William Walker (1809-1875) published a collection of “Tunes, Hymns, Odes and Anthems” in 1835 that he titled The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. It featured well-known hymns and folk melodies, and among them were texts and tunes that Walker both composed and collected. By the 1845 edition, the exuberant song, Saints Bound for Heaven, with a tune by Walker and text by J. King, had been included. Its seven verses–four are included in the arrangement by Mack Wilberg that is sung today–speak of the longing for the breaking of the bondage of the suffering of this life and the crossing “over Jordan” to “the vaults of heaven.”

New_heaven

The theme of this program is taken from the famous choir anthem by London-born Edgar L. Bainton (1880-1956), And I Saw a New Heaven. Its text is taken from the opening verses of Revelation, Chapter 21, where John speaks of his awe at seeing the new heaven and new earth. The imagery of Revelation is exceptionally rich: the sea, that had been home to the Beast of Revelation (Revelation 13:1), is no more; there is no more death, no more pain, “for the old things are passed away.” Apart from the words of Jesus that are spoken from his throne, his words that proclaim, “Behold,” in the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “The tabernacle of God is with men,” Bainton’s setting of this memorable text is warm and contemplative. Written in 1928, And I Saw a New Heaven has achieved status as one of the most beloved and frequently performed of all choral anthems, both in England and the United States.

The earliest surviving musical settings for the church’s ancient mass for the dead, the Requiem–this Latin word means, literally, “rest”–date from around the tenth century. At that time, the text was sung in what is popularly referred to as Gregorian chant, a single, unison vocal line. Over time, composers have treated its many movements–with its traditional words of judgment, comfort and hope–in dramatic fashion as the Requiem has moved from being a piece performed at funerals to a work for the concert hall. Nineteenth century composers Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi scored their Requiems for huge forces. Berlioz called for a chorus of at least 200 and an orchestra with four brass bands with 38 trumpet, trombone, and tuba players. He famously complained that Wolfgang Mozart’s use of one trombone in the Tuba mirum movement of his Requiem (The dreadful trumpet of the Lord) was woefully inadequate when “not three, not thirty, not three hundred would be enough.” Johannes Brahms was one of the first composers to take a very different approach, fashioning his Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) from selected passages in the New Testament to comfort the living rather than to honor the dead. Benjamin Britten came from yet another direction in his War Requiem, a work that argued against the horror of World War II by combining some of the Requiem’s original Latin text with poems in English by British soldier Wilfred Owen who was killed in battle a week before the end of World War I.

Rutter_Requiem

John Rutter (born in London in 1945) has added his own take on the Requiem’s storied history. Rather than a complete setting of the full, ancient Requiem text, his 1985 Requiem includes selected movements from the Latin Requiem along with passages from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer in English as, “a meditation of themes of life and death.” While those who have died in Christ leave this earth for their heavenly home, it is left for those who are still living to suffer until they are themselves called to their eternal rest.

Three movements, Requiem æternam (Grant them eternal rest), Pie Jesu (Blessed Jesu) and Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) are sung in Latin (you may follow the English translations in your program), Psalms 130 (Out of the deep) and 23 (The Lord is my shepherd) are in English, and two movements, Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) and Lux æterna (Eternal light) combine both Latin and English texts. The result is an integrated work that is intended for concert performance rather than as part of a church service. The mix of languages and varied texts as well as the Requiem’s arch–the opening and closing movements contain some of the same text, with the Sanctus, the great hymn to the Trinity, standing in the middle–very much speaks to our time.

Psalm 116:15 reminds us that, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” (ESV). Throughout this afternoon’s concert, that theme has been present. Life here on earth is but a blink of time in God’s economy. We trust in his promise of the new heaven and new earth even as we work today to do his will in this imperfect world and, by doing so, share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13). That is both the blessing for and blessed hope of those who know Christ. E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come.

© 2017 by Douglas Yeo

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What is “American Style” in music?

What is “American Style” in music?

Several months ago, my friend, Ronald Barron, with whom I shared 22 years as a member of the trombone section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, posed a question to me:

What is “American Style” in music?

Ron had been thinking about this himself and gave a presentation on the subject at the International Trombone Festival in Valencia, Spain, in 2015. Since then, I’ve continued to think about his question, and the answer that I gave to Ron at that time.

Earlier this week, I was in the radio studios of Central Sound at Arizona PBS, where I regularly go to be the voice of the radio program, Arizona Encore! that is broadcast locally on KBAQ (KBACH) 89.5 and can also be heard anywhere in the world on the KBAQ website at 7:00 pm on Tuesdays and on demand with the Central Sound at Arizona PBS mobile app. In addition to voicing programs, I also write scripts for Arizona Encore! and another program that Central Sound produces, ASU in Concert.

While writing a script for an Arizona Encore! show that included Antonin Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet, Op. 12 in F major, Op. 96, Ron’s question came to mind again. I pulled out the comments I wrote when he first posed the question and thought that this would be a good time to turn them into a short article to provoke thought and discussion. I think anyone who lives in the United States would answer this question in their own way. But here’s what I think.

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What is “American Style” in Music?

Douglas Yeo

The native people who settled and lived in what we call the United States of America have virtually no voice in today’s broad American cultural conversation. This is highly regrettable, because any discussion of an American Style – whether in music, painting, literature or any of those disciplines that we call “the arts” – has been influenced by them. When talking about American Style – and for the sake of this discussion, I am confining my comments to American Style in music – we must remember that their contributions were fundamental in shaping the great “melting pot” (to use the over-used word) of influences that came to shores to settle in the United States.

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Old_Ship_of_Zion

The African American spiritual, “The Old Ship of Zion,” as published in Slave Songs of the United States, published in New York by A. Simpson & Co. in 1867.

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The Puritans (from Boston, England, by way of the Netherlands and Plymouth, England), Roman Catholics (from Spain and Portugal), and traders (from the Netherlands and France) who were among the first European explorers of America brought their religious influences to what we today call the mid-Atlantic and New England states. English Psalm tunes and Italian-influenced Spanish plainchant was heard mixed with the folk music of the motherlands and rhythms and chants of America’s native people. In time, the new colonies – occupied by England, Holland and Spain and, to some extent, France – developed their own form of folk song born out of a newly found freedom of expression. America was a vast place even before its West was discovered anew by Europeans, and the rural, agrarian life brought with it a sense of space, and distance from forces that dictated “proper” style. This mélange of ethnic groups was broadened even more with the introduction of the horrific slave trade. Denominational and non-conformist/free church musical traditions from Europe were influenced by African and West Indian rhythmical expressions, and rather than exploding into the musical equivalent of the destruction of the Tower of Babel, they coalesced around a word that I believe most defines the American musical style:

Optimism.

Whether the music of spirituals, folk music of Appalachia, shaped note music of the South, honky-tonk and saloon music of the West, cakewalk and ragtime of Louisiana, hymnody of the Mormon trail, gospel songs of white churches or what became jazz, it all had one theme: despite its considerable challenges and many problems, America was a good place to live, it was good to be here, and there was more good ahead.

So while the classical and popular music of young, immigrant America was influenced both by the people who had roamed the land for centuries and those who had just arrived, the American sense of optimism – of “can do,” of the foray into the great unknown, of the pioneer spirit, of a gold rush that could (but would not but to a few) make any man rich, of “Happy Days are Here Again,” of the race to the moon – imprinted this place with a musical expression that was positive and looking forward. Even a great composer like Antonin Dvořák, who came to New York in 1892 and wrote music that was infused with an intangible, bright and optimistic quality, realized that he could not have written his “New World” Symphony or “American” String Quartet, in his own words, “‘just so’ if I hadn’t seen America.”

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James_Reese_Europe_band

James Reese Europe leads the 369th Infantry Harlem Hellfighters Band in France, 1918.

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Of course, by the end of the long nineteenth century – roughly the time from 1776 (the writing of the American Declaration of Independence and all that it brought to the colonial powers who had conquered the land) to 1918 (the end of the First World War, the “war to end all wars” which, of course, it was not), the optimism began to ebb. Post-war ebullience was tempered by the loss of more than of a generation of young men from England, France, and Germany, and many from the United States. The Native people who had once roamed the land had been rounded up and confined to reservations. The promise of true emancipation for the descendants of slaves gave way to Jim Crow. The economic boom of the 1920s paved the way to the Great Depression of the 1930s. A second World War consumed western civilization for nearly another decade, and all of the good intentions of the League of Nations and United Nations could not tame the greedy and selfish appetites of forces that were political, national and religious, whether the Ku Klux Klan, communism or radical Islamic-facism. The optimism gave way to cynicism, to forms of rebellion. The work of the second Viennese School – with its abandonment of 18th century tonal harmony that led music to more and more reflect the chaos and ugliness of the times – even found its way into popular music. American composers like Aaron Copland, who in the middle of the 20th century seemed very much to define the American Style’s sense of space and optimism, traveled the road of the European serialists, not wanting to be out of step with the relentless rush of modernity, seeing if they could find a new voice that was both relevant and honest. Some succeeded better than others, yet there always seemed to be a pull back to the center of the American thought ethos, a desire not to be wholly desperate but rather hopeful even in the midst of what Paul Hindemith called, “confusion, rush and noise” (The Posthorn).

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Small_Moravians_Harpers_Weekly_1888_01

“The Moravian Easter at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,” Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XXXII, No. 1632, March 31, 1888, pages 228-229.

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For the trombone, the staid harmonies of Moravian chorales – by which the trombone was introduced to American shores – gave way to ragtime and jazz. The world found Arthur Pryor’s eye-popping trombone virtuosity to be nothing short of stunning, while Henry Fillmore’s toe-tapping “Trombone Family” of trombone smears – with their roots in minstrelsy and blackface – were found on band programs around the country. As jazz found its legs and kept growing out of the clothes of its African, West Indian, and European roots, styles like be-bop brought the joyful exuberance of Frank Rosolino and J.J. Johnson, whose creative and enthusiastic music and music making belied the dark demons that ultimately led them to point a barrel of a gun at their heads. And pull the trigger. For every trombone concerto by someone like Christopher Rouse – dark, brooding, introspective, even hopeless – there were two or three by composers like Eric Ewazen, who forsook his long exploration down the tunnel of serialism only to come out wholly embracing 18th century tonality and a new Romanticism with a renewed sense of joie de vivre, with a relentlessly syncopated, rhythmic drive, and expansive melodies that seemed to point one to the high peaks and majestic canyons of the great American west.

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From_Komatke_Sierra_Estrella

Sierra Estrella (Komatk Doag), Arizona. View from Gila Crossing, the birthplace of Russell Moore. Photo by Douglas Yeo.

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As an American who celebrates his 62nd year of life and 53rd year of playing the trombone in 2017, I find myself more and more attracted to – Hindemith, again – “the lasting, calm and meaningful.” Having grown up and worked in the great population centers of the East and Midwest – childhood in New York City, college in Chicago, more college in New York City, and orchestral careers in Baltimore and Boston – I have returned to the west. Having been born in California in the final days of my father’s service in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict – a still unresolved war that became emblematic of the conflicts of the second half of the 20th century and beyond – I now live in Arizona, where the natural beauty and sense of space has affected my artistic temperament in significant ways. From my front porch where at night it is so dark I can see the Milky Way with my naked eye – in the foothills of the Estrella Mountains (that is their Spanish name; the Native Americans who were here long before them called them Komatk Doag), with silhouettes of saguaro cacti on the horizon in every direction – I very much feel like the 19th century American explorers Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery. Like them, I no longer know what to expect around every turn as I did while in my comfort zone in the East. Now, my artistic personality is informed by influences overlooked, forgotten, abandoned and tamped down in the mad rush to settle the continent – the voices of the Native peoples. Their pottery and basketry informs the artistic ethos of our home. I’ve recently been involved in a major research project on Russell “Big Chief” Moore, a member of the Akimel O’odham tribe who in 1912 – the year Arizona became the 48th state in the Union – was born just over the mountains from my home, and went on to be one of America’s great jazz trombonists. A bison skull, a reminder of what the clash of old and new societies nearly brought to extinction, overlooks our patio. Two racks of shed elk antlers on display in my living room and music studio remind me that contrary to the dominant thought that I found so easy to embrace in the fast-paced East, I am not the biggest and strongest thing around. Most of all, though, I am in a place where quiet is easy to find, where I can, within minutes, be where I cannot see another indication of modernity as far as my eyes can see.

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“Tribute to “Big Chief” Russell Moore,” The Mississippi Rag, Vo. XI, No. 3. Photo by Kathy Gardner

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This, for me, is America: bold, beautiful, ever changing, positive, optimistic, peaceful. These American values are ever before me, and remind me that even though these noble aspirations are not always to be found  easily – there is much work to do in this imperfect, fallen world – the challenges faced in desiring them cannot keep me from pursuing them relentlessly. It is these qualities, in a season of life where I no longer need to play any music I do not wish to play, where I choose to put aside the music that tries to reflect the confusion of our present age in favor of music that celebrates the purity of what I wish it to be. I stand with James Reese Europe and his 369th Infantry Harlem Hellfighters Band, Russell Moore and his Pima people, with Aaron Copland and his vision of  Appalachian Spring, Eric Ewazen and his Pastorale, and even Dvořák, whose “American” string quartet, composed in Iowa, reflects his understanding that American Style had to reflect something of the history and greatness of the land, its people, and their struggle.
In this, I am an American musician who embraces what I believe is the greatest informer of American Style in music: Optimism.

 

© 2017 Douglas Yeo. All rights reserved.