Good afternoon and welcome to the first Symphony Sundays program for the 2015 – 16 season. We’ve chosen to begin with music focused on our country, two works by Americans and one inspired by a visit here.
Charles Ives (1874 – 1954) is often considered the most American and most original composer the United States has produced. Though he made his fortune as an insurance executive, Ives anticipated most of the musical innovations of the 20th century including atonality, polytonality, microtones, and tone clusters. An iconoclastic New Englander, Ives cared little for public recognition and was not at all surprised that it took almost fifty years for his compositions to be accepted and admired. Indeed, his Symphony No. 3, written in 1904, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1946. His early training came from his bandmaster father and he was performing as a church organist in his teens. Ives wrote his now famously patriotic Variations on “America” for solo organ in 1891. We will play it today in the standard orchestration done by William Schuman in 1963.
The same William Schuman (1910 – 1992) was one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century as a composer, educator, and administrator. He was the first composer to be named head of the Julliard School and later became director of New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Compositionally, his main influences were Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990) and Roy Harris (1898 – 1979). He wrote ballets, vocal and choral works, chamber music, concertos, and ten symphonies. In 1943 Schuman wrote the William Billings Overture, but never published it. He expanded it in 1956, calling the new work New England Triptych. It is based on hymn tunes by William Billings (1746 – 1800), considered America’s first choral composer. The three hymns are “Be Glad Then, America”; “When Jesus Wept”; and “Chester”.
Frederick Delius (1862 – 1954) was born in Yorkshire, England, and became a musician only after failing at the family mercantile trade that had made his father quite wealthy. He came to the US in 1884 ostensibly to manage an orange grove on the St. Johns River near Jacksonville, Florida. On hearing American folk music and especially the singing of the African Americans at both work and play, he devoted increasing portions of his time to the study and composition of music. Returning to Europe in 1886, he went to Germany for serious study. He developed a small reputation and moved to France, spending most of the remainder of his life there. His music became something of an acquired taste among music lovers, winning praise for Sea Drift, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, and the opera A Village Romeo and Juliet. The great English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879 – 1961) championed his music and mounted several Delius festivals. The Florida Suite is an early work, premiered in 1888 in Leipzig but waited until 1937 for a second hearing in a revised edition by Beecham. The movements are “Daybreak Dance”, “By the River”, “Sunset”, and “At Night”.
We hope you enjoy our homage to America and will join us again in February to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great Finnish master Jean Sibelius.