1954 in America

Sunday, May 17, 2015 • 3:00 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church

Orchestra Seattle
Seattle Chamber Singers
Clinton Smith, conductor


Aaron Copland (1900–1990)
The Tender Land Suite

Eric Whitacre (*1970)
Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine

Stacey Philipps (*1967)
Breathe (world premiere)


Ernő Dohnányi (1877–1960)
American Rhapsody, Op. 47

Alexander Borodin (1833–1877)
“Stranger in Paradise” (“Gliding Dance of the Maidens” from Prince Igor)

Charles Chaplin (1889–1977)
“Smile” (Love Theme from Modern Times)

Pat Ballard (1899–1960)
“Mr. Sandman”

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite

About the Concert

Our 2014–2015 season concludes with a snapshot of musical events from the cinema, theater, radio, opera and concert stage from a specific moment in time: 1954 in America. We celebrate the maiden voyage of the first commercially successful jetliner (the Boeing 707) through Eric Whitacre’s beautiful and haunting choral work, enjoy chart-topping favorites from popular artists and Broadway, hear the score from 1954’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, On the Waterfront, and present the world premiere of the winning entry from the inaugural OSSCS composer competition, Breathe by Portland-based composer Stacey Philipps.

Program Notes

Aaron Copland
The Tender Land: Suite from the Opera

Copland was born in Brooklyn on November 14, 1900, and died in North Tarrytown, New York, on December 2, 1990. His opera The Tender Land debuted at New York City Opera on April 1, 1954. Fritz Reiner conducted the Chicago Symphony in the first performance of this suite on April 10, 1958. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celesta and strings.

The April 5, 1949, issue of Life magazine included a report on a Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace held in New York, along with a two-page photo spread of famous attendees headlined “Dupes and Fellow Travelers Dress Up Communist Fronts.” The gallery included American composers Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, as well as filmmaker Charlie Chaplin. Copland’s perceived leftist leanings eventually resulted in him being denounced on the House floor and caused the cancellation of a planned performance of his Lincoln Portrait at Dwight Eisenhower’s first inauguration. Responding to a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee, Copland testified on May 26, 1953, while avoiding telling the whole truth (or “naming names”). This experience would provide a subtext for his only full-length opera, The Tender Land, premiered the following year.

Copland had been commissioned in 1952 by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to write an opera to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the League of Composers. He and librettist Erik Johns (Copland’s romantic partner at the time, who worked under the pseudonym Horace Everett) drew inspiration from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a 1941 book with a text by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans of Depression-era sharecroppers—in particular, portraits of a mother and a daughter.

“The opera takes place in the 1930s,” Copland wrote, “spring harvest time. It’s about a farm family—a mother (Ma Moss), a daughter (Laurie) about to graduate from high school, her sister (Beth), and a grandfather (Grandpa Moss). Two drifters (Martin and Top) come along asking for odd jobs. The grandfather is reluctant to give them any, and the mother is alarmed because she’s heard reports of two men molesting young girls of the neighborhood. Nevertheless, they sleep in the shed for the night. The graduation party begins the second act. The heroine has naturally fallen in love with one of the drifters. And they prove it by singing a 12-minute love duet. But there is something of a complication. You see, she associates him with freedom, and he associates her with settling down. Martin asks Laurie to run away with him, but in the middle of the night he decides that this kind of roving life is not for Laurie, so he silently steals off with Top. When Laurie discovers she’s been jilted, she decides to leave home anyway.”

Reviews of the opera’s initial performance praised the quintet and love duet, but found many faults with the production as a whole. Audiences gasped at not-so-veiled references to the McCarthy hearings and the Red Scare: At one point, after Martin and Top have been cleared of the molestation accusations, Grandpa Moss responds, “They’re guilty just the same.”

Copland and Johns reworked The Tender Land for an August 1954 Tanglewood performance, and again for a 1955 presentation at Oberlin College. “Soon after the original premiere in 1954,” Copland wrote, “I arranged an orchestral suite from The Tender Land. It does not represent a digest of the dramatic action of the opera, but it proceeds from the second act to the first in a three-movement sequence. … When I conducted it with the BSO in Boston (10–11 April 1959) and then New York (21 November), the reviews were far better than they had been for the opera.”

The opening movement of the suite stitches together the introduction to Act III with the love duet from Act II. The second movement consists of the party scene from the opening of Act II, leading without pause to the final movement, drawn from the quintet (“The Promise of Living,” performed this afternoon by full chorus) that closes Act I. For “The Promise of Living,” Copland drew upon a revivalist song (“Zion’s Walls”) that he had included in his second set of Old American Songs, here given new lyrics by Johns.

Eric Whitacre
Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine

This work for chorus (and, briefly, percussion) premiered in San Antonio on March 14, 2001, with the composer conducting the Kansas City Chorale.

On July 15, 1954, Boeing’s 367-80 (a prototype of what would become the 707, the first U.S. commercial passenger jet) took its first flight, soaring over Seattle. “She flew like a bird,” reported lead test pilot “Tex” Johnston, “only faster.” Nearly five centuries earlier, Leonardo da Vinci (a spiritual forefather of the Boeing engineers who designed the 707) had sketched various “flying machines” based on his studies of birds in flight, work that inspired American composer Eric Whitacre to collaborate with lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri on a piece to fulfill a prestigious Raymond C. Brock Commission from the American Choral Directors Association. The composer writes:

“We started with a simple concept: what would it sound like if Leonardo da Vinci were dreaming? And more specifically, what kind of music would fill the mind of such a genius? The drama would tell the story of Leonardo being tormented by the calling of the air, tortured to such degree that his only recourse was to solve the riddle and figure out how to fly. We approached the piece as if we were writing an opera brève. Charles (Tony to his friends) would supply me with draft after draft of revised ‘libretti,’ and I in turn would show him the musical fragments I had written. Tony would then begin to mold the texts into beautiful phrases and gestures as if he were a Renaissance poet, and I constantly refined my music to match the ancient, elegant style of his words. I think in the end we achieved a fascinating balance, an exotic hybrid of old and new.”

Stacey Philipps

This work, the winning entry in the 2014–2015 OSSCS Composer Competition, receives its world premiere this afternoon. In addition to chorus, Breathe calls for 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta and strings.

Composer Stacey Philipps writes music of close, lush harmonies and contrapuntal textures, exploring the timbre of voices and instruments in minute detail and sweeping gestures. A lifelong choral singer, Philipps is an early- and new-music devotee, and she currently sings with the Oregon Repertory Singers. Her vocal interests extend to a love for composing choral music and art song, as well as collaborating with solo instrumentalists and chamber music ensembles. A sometime pianist and frequent dabbler in playing under-appreciated instruments—she has an accordion, mountain dulcimer and ukulele on hand, and is pining for a harpsichord, banjo and viola da gamba—Philipps received her Bachelor of Music in composition from Portland State University and also holds a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and mathematics from St. John’s College, Santa Fe. She writes the following about Breathe:

“The lyrics for this work are excerpted from legal documents and from a book of poetry, two diverse styles of communication both driving to the heart of the problems of suppression, inequality and injustice. While these texts were written decades ago—Brown v. Board in 1954 and Paul Dunbar’s poem during the 1890s—they also feel surprisingly and sadly current as they speak to issues that persist.

“This music was written during the months following protests and civil disobedience in response to the deaths of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner of New York, and raises the continuing question of how this country, founded on the principles of equality, continues to struggle with questions of social justice. These ideas are declaimed in the text and explored and developed musically through conflicting key centers, unresolved cadences, and dissonance in the fanfare and resolutions. The final words of the chorus are spoken without instrumental accompaniment and represent the words of the U.S. Supreme Court urging action after its first ruling, the voices of generations past and present, and the sense that speaking clearly, in the end, is what must drive awareness and change.”

Ernő Dohnanyi
American Rhapsody, Op. 47

Dohnanyi was born in Pozsony, Hungary (now Bratislava, Slovakia) on July 27, 1877, and died in New York on February 9, 1960. He composed American Rhapsody in 1953 and conducted the premiere at Ohio University on February 21, 1954, scoring the work for 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, snare drum and strings.

Hungarian composer Ernő Dohnanyi—who often Germanicized his name as Ernst von Dohnanyi—taught at Berlin’s Hochschule from 1905 to 1915 before relocating to Budapest, where he exerted a strong influence on that city’s musical life over the next three decades as a conductor, virtuoso pianist, educator and (from 1934 to 1943) director of the Budapest Academy. In November 1944, he fled to Nazi-controlled Austria, a move that helped fuel rumors—now widely thought to be unfounded, although they would haunt Dohnanyi for the remainder of his life—that he had collaborated with the Nazis.

In Linz, after the Allies had defeated Germany, Dohnanyi befriended a young American soldier from Ohio, with whom he reunited in 1948 while conducting masterclasses at Ohio University, and through whom he met that school’s president. Shortly thereafter, Dohnanyi received job offers from both Ohio University and Florida State—while he opted for the “eternal spring” of Tallahassee, he continued to travel to Ohio for annual residencies. Both schools invited him to write an orchestral work, but the (unpaid) FSU offer required Dohnanyi to incorporate Stephen Foster’s “Swanee River,” while the OU commission included a stipend, more creative freedom and an honorary degree.

To commemorate the sesquicentennial of Ohio University, Dohnanyi initially considered using “college tunes” (in the manner of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture) but eventually opted to base his composition on five melodies he found in the Fireside Book of Folk Songs (“On Top of Old Smoky,” “A Wayfaring Stranger,” “The Riddle,” “Turkey in the Straw” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike”) plus two “country dances” of unclear origin. “[I]t was obvious that something American would be appropriate,” the composer wrote. “This led to the idea of using American folk tunes for the Rhapsody, much as Liszt did in his Hungarian Rhapsodies.”

Alexander Borodin
“Gliding Dance of the Maidens” from Prince Igor

For the stage musical Kismet, which debuted in Los Angeles on August 17, 1953, Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted music of Russian composer Alexander Borodin, following in the footsteps of their 1944 operetta Song of Norway, based on melodies of Edvard Grieg. (Their 1965 collaboration Anya, using Rachmaninov tunes, would close after 16 performances.) In advance of Kismet’s Broadway debut, the show’s producers lobbied Columbia Records for Tony Bennett to record “Stranger in Paradise,” based on one of the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. Bennett’s October 13 recording hit the Billboard charts in November 1953, remaining there for 19 weeks. (In 1955, it reached No. 1 in both the U.S. and the U.K. sparked by the release of a film version of Kismet.)

Charles Chaplin
Love Theme from Modern Times

Legendary filmmaker Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) taught himself to play piano, violin and cello as a child, but never learned to read music. This, however, did not prevent him from scoring his own films, beginning with City Lights (1931). Composer David Raksin (1912–2004), who would later score Laura and The Bad and the Beautiful, caught his first break in Hollywood serving as Chaplin’s musical assistant on Modern Times (1936), the actor-director’s final (nearly) silent film, and the last to feature his Little Tramp character. Although Raksin was integrally involved in the composition of the score, he merely received an arranger credit. (“There was no point,” Raksin said, “in making anything out of it, ’cause that’s how things were done in those days.”) For the film’s love theme, used quite sparingly in the picture for the relationship between the Tramp and an orphan (Paulette Goddard) he befriends, Chaplin suggested “a little Puccini would go very well here.”

“The tune we came up with was not Puccini by anybody’s means,” Raksin declared, “but you can certainly see what he meant: it had that kind of melodic, all-out expressiveness.” Some 18 years later, Englishmen John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons (who had added words to a theme from Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight) created lyrics for this Puccini-esque love theme to promote a 1954 reissue of Modern Times. On August 24 of that year, Nat “King” Cole recorded a Nelson Riddle arrangement of this song—now called “Smile”—that reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts.

Pat Ballard
“Mr. Sandman”

Pat Ballard (1899–1960) wrote his first song (“Little Lily Drives Them Silly with Her Cuckoo”) in 1919 and his first hit (“Any Ice Today, Lady?”) in 1926. Despite modest success with a dossier of nearly 250 songs over three decades, Ballard did not create his two biggest hits until he returned to his hometown of Troy, Pennsylvania. There he wrote “(Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely,” which charted in mid-1954, quickly followed by “Mr. Sandman.” Vaughn Monroe’s rather somnolent reading of this song (recorded on May 14, 1954, and released as a B-side the following month) failed to take off, so Ballard petitioned other labels to record an up-tempo version. When Archie Bleyer, founder of Cadence Records, cut a single of the tune in August 1954 with the female close-harmony quartet The Chordettes, he decided the faster reading was too short—Ballard, reached via long distance, dictated a third verse over the phone. The Chordettes’ single, released in October 1954, peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, remaining at the top for seven weeks.

Leonard Bernstein
On the Waterfront: Symphonic Suite from the Film

Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918, and died in New York City on October 14, 1990. He composed the score for the film On the Waterfront in early 1954 and conducted the Boston Symphony in the premiere of this suite on August 11, 1955, at Tanglewood. The suite calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano and strings.

Producer Sam Spiegel sought out Leonard Bernstein to score On the Waterfront as much for his star quality and widespread name recognition as for his prodigious compositional abilities. Bernstein had never before written movie music—Waterfront would be his first and last film score—but it was not the first time he had been invited to Hollywood. Warner Bros. had approached him to star as George Gershwin in 1945’s Rhapsody in Blue and in 1946 he was asked to “costar, conduct and compose the musical score” for a film to be based on the novel A Beckoning Fair One.

In the summer of 1953, the State Department refused to renew Bernstein’s passport due to his suspected Communist sympathies, forcing him to pen what biographer Barry Seldes called “a humiliating confession of political sin,” in order to travel to La Scala. It also served to get Bernstein off the Hollywood blacklist so he could score On the Waterfront.

While Bernstein initially rebuffed Spiegel’s offer, he reconsidered after viewing a rough cut of the film: “I thought it a masterpiece of direction,” he later wrote, “and Marlon Brando seemed to me to give the greatest performance I had ever seen him give, which is saying a good deal. I was swept away by my enthusiasm into accepting the commission to write the score, although I had thereto resisted all such offers on the grounds that it is a musically unsatisfactory experience for a composer to write a score whose chief merit ought to be its unobtrusiveness.”

Based on a series of articles detailing mob corruption in New Jersey dockworker unions, On the Waterfront concerns Terry Malloy (Brando), who unwittingly sets up the murder of an informant, then becomes attracted to the dead man’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), and eventually confronts—and testifies against—mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). The film received 12 Academy Award nominations, winning eight Oscars. (Bernstein’s score lost out to Dimitri Tiomkin’s music for The High and the Mighty.)

Film music historian Jon Burlingame calls “Leonard Bernstein’s music for On the Waterfront…unlike any Hollywood film score of its time,” reporting that Bernstein received $15,000 for his work on the film—the going rate for an A-list Hollywood composer—and also managed to negotiate the rights to create “an orchestral suite…based in whole or in part upon” his score.

The suite opens with the film’s main title cue: Terry’s theme, a noble, bluesy melody introduced by a lone horn to suggest his isolation. (“I really had to fight,” Bernstein later said, “for that solo horn; they wanted big, sweeping music over the opening credits.”) The suite continues with percussive music (alternating bars of 2/2 and 3/4) for establishing shots of the New Jersey docks and an agitated sequence for the violent confrontation between mob enforcers and would-be union informants. Woodwinds then introduce the love theme for the relationship between Terry and Edie. In the closing minutes of the suite (and the film), Johnny Friendly has Terry beaten within inch of his life. The protagonist makes a slow, agonizing walk toward a warehouse door, leading his union brothers in quiet revolt against Friendly. The opening theme—heard briefly only once in the film since main title—now returns triumphantly, building to one of cinema’s most brilliant climaxes.

Jeff Eldridge