William Tell Overture
Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
Instrumentation: piccolo, flute, 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (triangle, bass drum, and cymbals), and strings
Duration: 12 minutes
Italian composer Gioachino Rossini wrote an astonishing 39 operas over the course of his career. This fact is even more stunning when you consider that he wrote his final opera, William Tell, in 1829 – nearly forty years before his death. A massive historical drama, William Tell is highly respected but rarely performed, not only because of its length but also because of the immense difficulty of its lead tenor role. The opera’s overture, on the other hand, has become one of the most iconic orchestral pieces of all time.
William Tell depicts the story of a medieval folk hero who, according to legend, helped lead a nationalist insurrection leader in Switzerland. When the opera premiered in Paris, revolution was already in the air. Only a year later, the July Revolution would lead to the removal of Charles X from the throne and the end of the Bourbon dynasty. So, like many operas of its time, William Tell’s story had powerful real-world implications.
Rossini creates a sense of suspense from the overture’s very first notes, a mysterious cello melody meant to evoke dawn. The opera’s rustic Alpine setting gradually comes to life with a distant roll of thunder in the timpani and an idyllic, pastoral melody from the strings. Soon, the thunder becomes a storm, foreshadowing the opera’s conflict as chaotically swirling melodies in the high strings and woodwinds evolve into full-on mayhem with the entry of the brass.
As the storm subsides, the pastoral simplicity of the countryside resumes with a traditional Swiss musical style known as the Ranz des Vaches (Call to the Cows) – music a herdsman would play on the horn while driving cattle.
Suddenly, the trumpets intone the overture’s famous march theme, taken from opera’s final act, in which Swiss soldiers liberate their country from Austrian rule. Rossini, whose father was a horn player and who played the horn himself, brilliantly captures the fervor of the final moments before a battle.
Violin Concerto No. 2
Florence B. Price (1887–1953)
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, triangle), harp, celesta, and strings
Duration: 14 minutes
It was almost like a reality TV show. In 2009, a couple of home renovators picked up a run-down, vandalized property in rural Illinois. Although a tree branch had fallen through the roof, they found in the attic an undamaged, unassuming stack of old papers that had once belonged to a woman named Florence Price. Little did they know that among these papers were long-lost musical manuscripts by one of the United States’ great composers.
Born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence Beatrice Price grew up in a middle class African American household at the end of the Reconstruction Era. For her parents and their community, education was the most highly valued principle, the top priority on the path toward equality. Price enthusiastically adopted this philosophy in her own life, and in 1903 she decided to study at the New England Conservatory, one of the era’s few desegregated music schools at the time. It quickly became clear that she had a special talent; she finished degrees in both organ performance and education in just three years, while still finding time to study composition with the conservatory’s most prominent composer, George Whitefield Chadwick, in her free time.
After finishing her degrees, Price returned south with the goals of teaching and giving back to her community. However, conditions in Little Rock had deteriorated significantly since Price’s childhood. Jim Crow laws had eroded the African American community’s freedoms to the point that the city could no longer be considered safe. Between 1883 and 1959, lynch mobs killed at least 284 people in Arkansas. In 1927, after a particularly horrific lynching, thousands of white supremacists created a reign of terror in Little Rock for African Americans throughout the area.
Faced with this terrifying violence and shrinking opportunity in Little Rock, Price and her family moved north to Chicago. There, she found a wellspring of inspiration among a vibrant community of writers, artists, and musicians. She worked as an organist in local vaudeville venues and movie theaters, found publishers for her music, and began composing longer pieces like symphonies and concertos in this thriving cultural environment.
Soon, Price was breaking down barriers in rapid succession. In 1933 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her First Symphony – the first time a major American orchestra had performed music by an African American woman. She also successfully fought to have her music performed by orchestras in Pittsburgh and Detroit, and African American diva Marion Anderson closed her iconic 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial with Price’s arrangement of the spiritual “My Soul’s been Anchored in de Lord.” The Chicago Daily News described Price’s setting of a text by Langston Hughes, Songs to the Dark Virgin, “one of the greatest immediate successes ever won by an American song.”
Still, most American conductors and orchestras ignored Price’s music. Over the course of eight years, she attempted to convince Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony to review her music, but to no avail. And even Price’s successes often came with a bitter downside; for instance, the historic premiere of her First Symphony was undercut by the fact that it shared the program with music by a notorious white supremacist and segregationist.
As William Grant Still described his own struggle to find success as an African American composer, “the more one advances, the higher the hurdle grows.”
Despite these challenges, Price’s reputation had begun to spread overseas by the 1950s. An English orchestra premiered her new concert overture in 1951, and she made plans to travel to Europe in 1953 to receive a major award and meet with European publishers. It seemed that Price might be on the verge of another breakthrough, but she fell ill and had to cancel the trip at the last minute. Shortly after, she died at age 66.
Price completed her Second Violin Concerto just before her death, and it was never performed during her lifetime. It did receive a first performance at the 1964 opening of the Florence B. Price School in Chicago, but the concerto was never published and had been presumed lost. That is, until it was discovered among the papers found in Price’s former summer home in 2009. Since then, the concerto has been resurrected and recorded notably by violinist Er-Gene Kahng, professor of violin at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where Price’s papers are now housed.
In one of her letters to Serge Koussevitsky, Price went into compelling detail about her compositional influences:
Having been born in the South and having spent most of my childhood there I believe I can truthfully say that I understand the real Negro music. In some of my work I make use of the idiom undiluted. Again, at other times it merely flavors my themes. And at still other times thoughts come in the garb of the other side of my mixed racial background; I have tried for practical purposes to cultivate and preserve a facility of expression in both idioms, altho I have an unwavering and compelling faith that a national music very beautiful and very American can come from the melting pot just as the nation itself has done.
The remarkable 14-minute Second Violin Concerto, written as a single movement, radiates the final sentiment of this description, combining her influences into a unified musical expression. Juxtaposing impressive technical feats by the violinist with serene, lyrical melodies, Price writes in a style that is both clearly American and highly personal.
Finding artistic fulfillment as a composer is never easy – and it’s only harder when every step you take is tied to society’s slow march toward progress. As Price told Chicago’s black-owned newspaper the Chicago Defender in 1936, “I feel deeply thankful for progress, but satisfaction – no, not satisfaction. . . . I don’t think creators are ever quite satisfied with their work. You see there is always an ideal toward which we strive, and ideals, as you know, are elusive.”
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Johannes Brahms (1833–97)
Composed: c. 1856–76
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
Duration: 47 minutes
Johannes Brahms began writing his First Symphony when he was barely twenty years old. By then, he was already the talk of the town among musicians in Germany and Austria. His friend Robert Schumann had written a highly influential article that heralded Brahms as a virtual messiah of musical talent. It seemed as though it would only be a matter of time before Brahms unleashed his musical vision to the public in the form of a symphony worthy of comparison to the idolized symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven. As Schumann advised Brahms on the subject of writing a symphony, “The beginning is the main thing; once you’ve begun, the end comes to you as if by itself.”
When it comes to timing, Schumann could not have been more wrong. Brahms would begin writing not one but three symphonies before finally premiering his “First” in 1876 – at age 43. By then, it was the most hotly anticipated piece of orchestral music ever written. Friends and colleagues had been begging Brahms to finish his First Symphony for decades. By 1869, Brahms’ publisher could barely contain his frustration; he wrote in a letter to Brahms, “I . . . can only repeat for the umpteenth time that I expect more soon; the quartets and the symphony: come out with them finally – I’ll give you no peace!” Brahms drily replied, “Some esteemed colleagues (Bach, Mozart, Schubert) have spoiled the world terribly. But if we can’t imitate them in writing beautifully, we must certainly avoid wanting to [imitate them] in writing quickly.”
The pressure weighed heavily on Brahms. He routinely began his correspondence with comments like “in spite of my fear of paper,” referencing his reluctance to work on his symphony. His most consistent concern was that he would fail to live up to the example of his hero, Ludwig van Beethoven; as he wrote to one friend, “You have no idea how it feels to one of us when he continually hears behind him such a giant.”
When Brahms finally got past his anxiety, it was by working so thoroughly on his music that he felt that every note had been perfected. “Let it rest, let it rest, and keep going back to it and working at it over and over again,” he wrote in a description of his compositional philosophy, “until it is completed as a finished work of art, until there is not a note too much or too little, not a measure you could improve upon.”
At the 1876 premiere of Brahms’ First, excitement about his music had reached a fever pitch. Conductors were jockeying with one another to be able to perform it first. Although Brahms wryly downplayed the symphony as “long and not exactly charming,” it was an immediate success. Critics immediately dubbed it “Beethoven’s Tenth,” describing it as “one of the most individual and magnificent works of the symphonic literature.”
As for Brahms’ publisher, he could not have been happier. “The volume seems durable at least,” he wrote of the newly published sheet music, “but even the most durable one will have long since turned to dust when spirit and soul of all those whose feelings are devoted to the noble and beautiful in our art are still being rejuvenated and lifted by the contents.”
—© Ethan Allred