Here I Stand: Paul Robeson Program Notes

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 6
Joan Tower (b. 1938)

Born in New Rochelle, New York, Tower grew up in South America, where her father was a mining engineer. Returning to the United States at eighteen, she attended Bennington College and Columbia University, where she received a doctorate in composition. A founding member of the Da Capo Chamber Players, she played piano and composed for the group for fifteen years. She currently teaches at Bard College in New York.

Tower’s six works titled Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman are dedicated to “women who take risks and who are adventurous.” She  says the title “was inspired by Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

The sixth fanfare was commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Marin Alsop, in celebration of the Orchestra’s Centennial Season. It was first performed on May 7, 2016. The work was originally composed in 2014 for solo piano, dedicated to composer Tania Leon, and later arranged for full orchestra. 

“Here Tower projects a galvanic Stravinsky-esque demeanor,” writes Ellen Grolman. “This is a compelling, stormy work that ends triumphantly. Although it prominently features brass and percussion, Fanfare No. 6 is more overture than fanfare.”

~Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2024

Here I Stand: Paul Robeson
(World Premiere – Oakland Symphony Commission)
Carlos Simon (b. 1986) with libretto by Dan Harder (b. 1952)

Here I Stand, a dramatic oratorio, was commissioned by the late Michal Morgan, music director and conductor of the Oakland Symphony.

The main character and focus of attention is the once famous African-American singer, actor, activist, and thinker, Paul Robeson.  The oratorio begins with a scene when close to the end of his life, Robeson performs at the construction site of the Sydney Opera House.  A vigorous supporter of labor movements, he sings the labor anthem, Joe Hill, to throngs of construction workers.  The workers are transfixed with wonder; Who is this man?  Robeson’s answer begins at the bedrock of his being, “I am an American Negro…”  and with the Chorus intoning the spiritual Go Down Moses, he further describes his convictions ending with the commitment to fight “for the freedom of my people.”  But… he falters—as in real life he did—soon after the Sydney Concert.  He feels he has failed miserably to do enough for the causes he sought to serve.  

The scene shifts back in time; Robeson approaches the pinnacle of his career and influence as a singer, actor, and activist, and the Chorus witnesses and responds.

He now has not only a world of fans but some very powerful enemies, not least of which is the United States government. He is accused of being a communist.  The Chorus and Robeson trade lines—many coming directly from the Congressional transcripts— in an exchange that rises to a crescendo of conflict.

Success in a political struggle comes down to a question of power.  Unbroken by Congressional restrictions imposed on his ability to travel and perform, Robeson continues to fight in print for “liberty, equality, and justice,” and though he will die without having fully achieved his lofty goals, he will rise with the Chorus to a Spiritual apotheosis.

~ Notes by Carlos Simon, copyright 2024

Symphony No. 5, Opus 47
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

In 1936, after a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk, Pravda printed an editorial headlined “Confusion Instead of Music.” The opera was described as “a wilderness of musical chaos, in places becoming cacophony.” The Union of Soviet Composers endorsed Pravda’s opinion. All performances of Shostakovich’s music ceased. Shostakovich himself withdrew from public life.

But he was hardly idle. From April to July of 1937, he wrote his Fifth Symphony. There is some dispute over whether it was Shostakovich or a Soviet critic who subtitled the work “a Soviet artist’s practical creative reply to just criticism.”

Shostakovich was at least publicly contrite. In a magazine article, he wrote: “Working ceaselessly to master my art, I am endeavoring to create my own musical style, which I seek to make simple and expressive. I cannot think of my further progress apart from our socialist structure, and the goal that I set for my work is to contribute at every point toward the growth of our remarkable country.”

Yevgeny Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic in the first performance of the Fifth Symphony on November 21, 1937. “The atmosphere at the premiere was highly charged,” Shostakovich recalled. “The hall was filled. All the best people were there, and all the worst too. It was definitely a critical situation…. Which way would the wind blow?”

In short, the Fifth was a smash hit. One listener remarked: “This is not music; this is high-voltage, nervous electricity.” The composer remembered: “People who came to the premiere of the Fifth in the best of moods wept.” Writing in Izvestia, Alexei Tolstoy reported: “The powerful, rousing sounds of the finale stirred the audience. All rose to their feet, infused with joy, and happiness streamed from the orchestra like a spring breeze.”

~Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2024