Tone Poem Tuesday

One of Leonard Bernstein’s main self-appointed missions in life was the advancement of new American music. As comfortable as he was in the orchestral repertoire all the way back to Mozart, Bernstein saw it as his duty to stand up for modern music as well, and particularly modern American music at that. He felt strongly that it was essential for American concert music to move beyond the rigidity of the forms already over a century old that sprang largely from the Germanic symphonic approach, and that American music was, in terms of a nationalistic school, actually in its infancy, roughly on par with where that old Germanic tradition had been not at the end of the 19th century, but at the end of the 18th.

One composer Bernstein championed was William Schuman, an academic and arts administrator who was overwhelmed as a young man by a Toscanini-led concert of the New York Philharmonic; at that concert he decided to be a composer. Over his long life (1910-1992), Schuman generated a large body of work, much of which is highly-regarded.

This piece, the American Festival Overture, was written for a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert of American music led in 1939 by Serge Koussevitzky. Bernstein would later lead this work frequently, and include it in recordings, such as this by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (The performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring from this same album is simply the best recording of that wonderful piece I’ve ever heard.)

Of this piece, Schuman himself wrote:

“The first three notes of this piece will be recognized some listeners as the “call to play” of boyhood days. In New York City it is yelled on the syllables “Wee-Awk-Eee” to get the gang together for a game or festive occasion of some sort. This call very naturally suggested itself for a piece of music being composed for a very festive occasion. From this it should not be inferred that the Overture is program music. In fact, the idea for the music came to mind before the origin of the theme was recalled. The development of this bit of “folk material” then, is along purely musical lines.

“The first section of the work is concerned with the material discussed above and the ideas growing out of it. This music leads to a transition section and the subsequent announcement by the violas of a Fugue subject. The entire middle section is given over to this Fugue. The orchestration is at first for strings alone, later for woodwinds alone and finally, as the Fugue is brought to fruition, by the strings and woodwinds in combination. This climax leads to the final section of the work, which consists of opening materials paraphrased and the introduction of new subsidiary ideas. The tempo of the work, save the last measure, is fast.”

(from WiseMusicClassical)

Here is the American Festival Overture by William Schuman, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

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