Rooted in America Program Notes
Five Folksongs in Counterpoint
Florence Price (1887-1953)
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.
Price wrote two compositions for string quartet around 1950, though some of the material may date from as early as 1927. Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint consisted of three settings, “Calvary,” “Shortnin’ Bread,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” She later added two more, “My Darling Clementine,” and “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” and changed the title to the present Five Folksongs in Counterpoint.
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
In 1931 George and Ira Gershwin wrote the music for a film called Delicious, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The plot concerned a Scottish immigrant fleeing an immigration officer, hiding in a horse van owned by a wealthy Long Islander, with a Russian composer-pianist thrown in to complete the love triangle. In a sequence variously titled “Manhattan Rhapsody,” “New York Rhapsody” or “Rhapsody in Rivets,” Gaynor is about to be deported and separated from her happy Russian friends. In despair she wanders the streets of Manhattan, accompanied by street noises, newsboys shouting, the hammering of riveters and Gershwin’s music.
Gershwin later extracted the music from the movie, made some changes and titled it simply “Second Rhapsody” (the first being Rhapsody in Blue). This version was completed on May 23, 1931 and introduced by Gershwin at Symphony Hall in Boston on January 29, 1932, with Serge Koussevitzky conducting. The composer was pleased. “In many respects, such as orchestration and form,” he said, “it is the best thing I’ve written.”
“There is no program to the Rhapsody,” Gershwin said. “As the part of the picture where it is to be played takes place in many streets of New York, I used as a starting-point what I called ‘a rivet theme,’ but, after that, I just wrote a piece of music without any program.” The contrasting tune he called the “Brahmsian melody.”
Negro Folk Symphony
William Dawson (1899–1990)
Born in Anniston, Alabama, Dawson ran away from home at the age of 13 to study music as a pre-college student at the Tuskegee Institute. By the time of his graduation in 1921 he had learned to play most of the instruments of the orchestra. He then enrolled at Washburn College in Topeka, and later at the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City. In 1925 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music theory and in composition. The next year he moved to Chicago to study at the Chicago Musical College and then at the American Conservatory of Music, where he received his master’s degree.
In 1930, Dawson was invited to direct the music department at the Tuskegee Institute. During his tenure, Tuskegee’s 100-voice choir performed at the grand opening of the Radio City Music Hall in New York, at the White House for President Herbert Hoover, and at Hyde Park, New York, for future president Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1946, the choir broke the race barrier at Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall.
Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, on November 20, 1934 at Carnegie Hall in New York. It was a sensation. One critic called it “the most distinctive and promising American symphonic proclamation which has so far been achieved.”
In his program note for the premiere Dawson said he wanted his audience to know that the Symphony was “unmistakably not the work of a white man.” He was clearly not trying to imitate Beethoven or Brahms. “The themes,” he wrote, “are taken from what are popularly known as Negro Spirituals. In this composition, the composer has employed three themes taken from typical melodies over which he has brooded since childhood, having learned them at his mother’s knee.”
~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2023