The Music Returns

William Grant Still (1895-1978)
In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy

“The Dean of Afro-American Composers,” Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi. After his father died, his mother moved the family to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he began studying the violin. He later attended Wilberforce College and the Oberlin Conservatory. After serving in the navy during World War I, he played with W.C. Handy’s band, and studied with George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgard Varèse. Still was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra (Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra). His “Afro-American Symphony” was the first symphony by a black American to be played by a major orchestra (Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra).

In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy was one of a series of patriotic works commissioned by the League of Composers during World War II. It was first performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Artur Rodzinski, on Jan. 5, 1944. In his review in the New York Times, Olin Downes noted the music’s strong “simplicity and feeling, without affectation or attitudinizing.” In his liner notes to the Fort Worth Symphony’s recording, David Ciucevich writes: “The wording of the title does carry an ironic aspect, reflecting the fact that African-Americans were fighting for world freedom and civilization abroad while being denied those very freedoms at home.”

Florence Price (1887-1953)
Piano Concerto in One Movement

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Price played her first piano recital at the age of four. Her first composition was published when she was eleven. After graduation from high school, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory, where her teachers included Frederick Converse and George Chadwick. After graduation she taught music in Little Rock and Atlanta then moved to Chicago in 1927. There she studied at the American Conservatory of Music, the University of Chicago and Chicago Musical College. 

Price composed more than 300 works including symphonies, concertos, organ works, art songs, chamber works, and arrangements of spirituals. She was the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra when Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor in 1933.

The Piano Concerto in One Movement was first played in 1934 in Chicago, with the composer as soloist. The Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph reviewer wrote, “There is real American music, and Mrs. Price is speaking a language she knows.” Though written in one continuous movement, there are three distinct sections, the last an evocation of a juba dance.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Opus 55 “Eroica”

As early as the spring of 1798, so the legend goes, the French ambassador to Vienna, General Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, suggested that Beethoven write a symphony about Napoleon Bonaparte. At the time, Napoleon was one of Beethoven’s idols, but it wasn’t until 1801 that the composer first sketched “Third Symphony, written on Bonaparte.” 

The title page originally read “Grand Symphony composed on Bonaparte.” But in May, 1804, Beethoven heard the news that Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor. Beethoven flew into a rage, tore up the title page, and gave the symphony a new title, “heroic symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man.” The Third Symphony received its first public performance in Vienna on April 7, 1805.

Paul Henry Lang called the Eroica “one of the incomprehensible deeds in arts and letters, the greatest single step made by an individual composer in the history of the symphony and the history of music in general.” For Richard Wagner, “the first movement embraces, as in a glowing furnace, all the emotions of a richly-gifted nature in the heyday of unresting youth.” When, in 1821, Beethoven heard the news of Napoleon’s death, he remarked: “Well, I’ve written the funeral oration for that catastrophe seventeen years ago,” referring to the second movement, a funeral march. Donald Francis Tovey said the third movement is “the first in which Beethoven fully attained Haydn’s desire to replace the minuet by something on a scale comparable to the rest of a great symphony.” The Finale is a set of twelve variations on a tune Beethoven first used in a little country dance in 1801, then again in The Creatures of Prometheus ballet and also in the Eroica Variations for piano. Edward Downes comments that “each variation is a little cosmos in itself and the sum of them is overwhelming.”

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2021.