An American Tune

Seattle, WA, United States

Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall

Saturday, March 21, 2015
$45 General | $20 Students

Artistic Director Stephen Stubbs will be playing an original 19th century guitar with soprano Catherine Webster; Tekla Cunningham and Brandon Vance, violins, Tom Berghan, banjo and John Reischman, mandolin.

at 7pm Stephen Stubbs will conduct a pre-concert chat with American Music Specialist and UW Professor Larry Starr.

There is a growing awareness among early music performers in this country that we may be able to apply our viewpoint – taking earlier European music seriously on its own terms and in its original state – to the vast subject of America’s own musical history. This program takes the era and music of Stephen Foster as our point of departure for a new musical adventure. All of these performers have grown up with one foot in the early music camp and one in some form of American traditions. Come and find out if we can walk with both feet!

Program Notes:

The subject of American music is so vast that no single program or approach could purport to give even an overview of the subject. To get an idea of this impossibility, just imagine a program that attempted to portray “European music”. And yet, with our classical music culture so heavily reliant on the European tradition, it might be tempting to think of American music as a mere tributary of that mighty river, akin to Scottish or Polish music. The reality however is that the entire complex of European traditions as well as many African ones poured into the American continent and, over the course of centuries, created entirely new hybrid forms.

Looking narrowly at the classical mainstream in Europe – the Symphony Orchestra and related chamber music ensembles – it took a considerable time for even the cultural capitals of the Northeast to establish the necessary institutions to continue in this vein, and even then, American composers and instrumentalists often suffered an inferiority complex vis-à-vis their European counterparts. So, to begin an exploration of American music in the 19th century, rather than taking the orchestra, or any other fixed ensemble, as the point of departure, we looked at the figure of Stephen Foster, arguably the “father of American song”.

Stephen Foster’s personal ancestry (Irish and English) as well as his possible study with a German-born musician, Henry Kleber, may both have played a role in the kind of composer and musician he became. Certainly he had a native gift for melody, and the memorable lilt of his best tunes shares something essential with Scottish and Irish folk songs that had been the mainstay of British parlor music since the 18th century. This was one side of his large body of song: parlor songs “of the hearth and home”, cultivated by anyone with a piano or guitar with which to accompany the voice. The other side of his production was aimed at the professional troupes that called themselves “minstrel shows”. He signed a contract with E.P. Christy of “Christy’s Minstrels” giving Christy exclusive first-performance rights to every new song he wrote. There is no adequate way in a short essay to grapple with the unsettling phenomenon of black-face minstrelsy in the history of American music, but it was also too pervasive to ignore. To take only the positive side into account, it was a vehicle for the influence of African music, dance and instruments (particularly the banjo) to put down widespread and permanent roots in our musical culture. Our first set of Foster songs alternates the ‘home and hearth’ side of his output in songs like Slumber my Darling, with the minstrel-show songs Nelly Bly and Angelina Baker. That Foster himself wished to place himself in the context of the European classical tradition can be seen most clearly in his publication in 1854 of The Social Orchestra, in which he wove some of his most popular songs (like Old Folks at Home) into chamber music fantasies which he called ‘Quadrilles’, and placed these alongside “Gems from Lucia” – arrangements for various instruments of highlight’s from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor!

Foster’s own life extends into the period of the Civil War, and he even wrote a few Civil War songs in support of the Northern unionist side (We are coming, Father Abraham from 1862), but we decided to venture into that era by following the most iconic figure of the age: Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was very fond of music and once told his friend Henry Clay Whitney “all other pleasures have a utility, but music is simply a pleasure and nothing more, and I fancy that the creator, after providing all the mechanism for carrying on the world, made music as a simple unalloyed pleasure.” Stephen Foster’s song My Old Kentucky Home from 1852 must have struck a sentimental resonance in Lincoln for his early days in a log cabin in rural Kentucky, just as his fondness for Listen to the Mocking Bird likely held a personal meaning. Of the latter he once said “it is as sincere as the laughter of a little girl at play”, but dealing as it does with the melancholy of lost love, it may have connected to the loss of his first love, Ann Rutledge, to typhoid at the age of 22.  The iconic song of the Civil War era South, I wish I was in Dixie, was ironically composed by the Northerner Daniel Emmett in 1859 for his own minstrel show. Nevertheless, it became the unofficial anthem of the Confederate States. Lincoln, on hearing of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, asked the military band to play Dixie, and it remained one of his favorite songs. He later said “that tune is now Federal property and it is good to show the rebels that, with us in power, they will be free to hear it again.” The Year of Jubilo, another minstrel-show song, is a vision of the celebration of freed slaves whose master has been frightened away from the plantation by the approach of Union forces. The Battle Cry of Freedom written in 1862, a patriotic song for the Union cause, became one of the most popular songs of the era, and the distinguished American pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottshalk wrote that “it should be our national anthem”.

Besides the Civil War, the other most prominent feature of 19th century America was westward expansion. This phenomenon also inspired a body of music. Cumberland Gap, a narrow pass in the Appalachians near the junction of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, became symbolic of the hardships of the journey, and also gave its name to one of the most popular folk songs of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. The Buffalo Skinners is a folk song that recounts the 1873 buffalo hunt on the southern plains. It was collected in 1918 by John Lomax for his Cowboy songs, and Other Frontier Ballads, and popularized by Woodie Guthrie in his recording of 1945. Come, come ye saints is such a well-known hymn within the Mormon tradition that it serves as an icon of identity for that community, featuring prominently in celebrations of Pioneer Day in Utah. The lyrics were written in 1846 by the Mormon poet William Clayton, but the music is the popular English folk tune All is Well. Playing the four part setting on violins and guitar with the banjo taking an ornamental approach to the melody provided us with one of the true “aha” moments of our work on this program. The connection to the early 17th century sound of the English “broken consort” was immediate and unmistakable. In the earlier context, plucked and bowed strings provide the harmonic framework while the solo lute decorates the melody – this is the earliest form of specifically orchestrated music in the European tradition, and here it is again in a hymn from Utah!

All of the instrumental pieces on our program are derived from the tradition of American folk fiddling, which in turn has its roots largely in Celtic traditions from Ireland and Scotland. The relative cultural isolation of Appalachia in particular allowed for the preservation of those traditions, often beyond the time of their life-span in the countries of origin– much as Elizabethan English speech patterns with “Thee and thou” persisted there into our own time.

Finally, we were attracted to a special repertoire of American folk-song with a macabre theme: the murder ballad. Murder ballads have been a notable proportion of ballads going back at least to their collection and publication in broadsheets in 17th century Europe. American murder ballads are often re-workings of those European ballads. Folk song is always balanced between preservation and innovation. An important figure for the preservation of English folk song in particular was Cecil Sharp (1859-1924). Besides his important activity collecting songs in many parts of England, he also came to the states from 1916-1918. His field work in remote regions of southern Appalachia has given us the basis of English folk art, often preserved there in an earlier form than what was known in contemporary England. The transformation of the timeless beauty of Come all ye fair and tender ladies into the driving rhythms of Silver Dagger in its more modern bluegrass guise can attest to the durability of folk song in the face of musical evolution.

Stephen Stubbs, 2015

Venue Details

Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall
200 University Street
Seattle, WA 98101
United States