This started out to be a diary about Antonin Dvorak's String Quartet #12, "The American Quartet," but it became too content heavy, so I'm going to leave it like this, as a prelude to next week, and talk in detail about Dvorak's quartet next week. The American Quartet's older nickname was, "The Nigger Quartet." The title gives us a clue to the baggage this fantastic piece of music carries.
This is going to be another of my connect-the-dots type diaries. We're going to wander from this famous spiritual song:
The Old Ark's A-Moverin' -- Clinton Utterbach Choir
... Through a discussion of early American folk music, both African-American and white Appalachian, the pentatonic music scale, playground jump rope music, big budget westerns' film music, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and the music of America's most successful early African-American composer, Harry Burleigh, who was also Dvorak's most successful student. We'll even have a little Mozart.
Dvorak was a Bohemian composer at the height of his powers and reputation in Europe in the 1890s. In 1891, wealthy philanthropist Jeanette Thurber offered Dvorak the huge salary of $15,000 if he would come to America and be director of the National Conservatory of Music. One of her stated goals for him was that he could help found an American style of nationalist music, at a time when nationalist musical styles were in vogue in all parts of Europe. Dvorak's fame was as a composer not just from Bohemia, but as composer of a Bohemian style of music based in part on his exposure and study of the native music of his country. At first reluctant to go to a country where he was afraid he would be scalped by Indians (as he wrote in letters), Dvorak couldn't afford to pass up the money. He packed up his family and moved to America for a few very eventful years.
If you ever attended a performance of his New World Symphony, you probably read an abbreviated version of all this in the program notes. He came to America, yadda yadda yadda... Let's flesh this out just a bit more than that.
Here's Mr. Dvorak in New York. Right off the boat, he is confronted with the task of figuring out what the hell American music is, if it even exists at all, this task given a guy whose scant knowledge of America and its history was limited to European rumors of Indian scalpings and shootouts.
As the big fish in the little pond, he became a popular figure in New York society. Many were eager to educate him what they thought American music was. Oh, listen to this, Mr. Dvorak, listen to this too, and oh, this, isn't it just sublime...
To the shock of some, Dvorak was less interested in the approved listening list of the wealthy and elite and more interested in the music of the poor and ethnic. Most dismaying of all, he found the music of American blacks to be more interesting and uniquely American than the more socially acceptable music. His curiosity drove him to listen to American folk music and to native American music, to soak in the different rhythms and musical vocabulary.
Charles Darwin, in his Origin of Species, theorized that new species emerge from older ones over time through evolution and isolation. Isolation is an important factor in that process; the finches of the Galapagos Island, for example, were able to diverge more quickly from their mainland counterparts because of their separation from the dilution of the broader gene pool. Cultural and social separation can likewise lead to unique styles of music, as Dvorak knew quite well from his work with native Bohemian music, which varies tremendously from region to region.
Jeanette Thurber's very brave letter to the New York Herald of 1893:
``The National Conservatory of Music of America proposes to enlarge its sphere of usefulness by adding to its departments a branch for the instruction in music of colored pupils of talent, largely with the view of forming colored professors of merit.... Tuition will be furnished to students of exceptional talent free of charge. Two young but efficient colored pupils have already been engaged as teachers, and others will be secured....Braver still, as the Herald reported:
"Dr. Antonin Dvorak, director of the Conservatory, expresses great pleasure at the decision of the trustees and will assist its fruition by sympathetic and active cooperation....''
"This institution has determined to add to the 800 white students as many negroes of positive talent as may apply. There will be absolutely no limit. I have the authority of Mrs. Thurber herself for that.''As you read further into this diary, feel free to speculate to yourself about the different course of history American music might have taken but for the branch in the road that was taken at that time. A very famous European composer comes to America to bring some of that chandelier culture to the rubes. But Dvorak was a proud Bohemian peasant at heart.
Dvorak's own letter to the Herald:
"It is to the poor that I turn for musical greatness. The poor work hard: They study seriously. Rich people are apt to apply themselves lightly to music, and to abandon the painful toil to which every strong musician must submit without complaint and without rest. Poverty is no barrier to one endowed by nature with musical talent. It is a spur. It keeps the mind loyal to the end. It stimulates the student to great efforts.Early on, Dvorak discovered and noted the ubiquity of the pentatonic scale music in the different types of American folk music. He was already familiar with that from Bohemian music.
"Could I have had in my earlier days the advantages, freely offered in such a school as the Natiional Conservatory of Music, I might have been spared many of my hardest trials and have accomplished much more.''
What is Pentatonic Music?
Music theory lesson time! I think you'll find this lesson interesting. You grew up with the pentatonic scale. All the schoolyard jump-rope and sidewalk skipping songs you sang as a kid were pentatonic, as were probably most of the songs you learned to sing in the first three grades. Songs like London Bridge is Falling Down, for instance. It's already very familiar to you, but you probably never had a reason to want to identify or name it.
Just to review, here is your normal seven-note Do-Re-Mi scale, shown in C major on a piano keyboard:
But Dumbo! I count eight notes! You're counting Do twice. There are seven notes in the normal scale, which we call the diatonic scale, because it can be played using just the white notes on a piano. Now, you might figure out that a pentatonic scale, because of the penta- prefix, has five notes rather than seven. You're right:
It's the same scale, but we stole two notes out of it. That's the pentatonic major scale. It's one of the common alternatives to the seven note diatonic scale, and it is very common in different types of ethnic music in all hemispheres of the globe. You might look at it and go, "Oh, but there are less notes, so it must make less sophisticated music." Eh, not so. It's all in how it is used. It manages to create its own kind of sound. To be real geeks here, look at which two notes were taken out of the C major diatonic scale: F and B, or fa and ti, if you prefer. The seven note C scale has two half-note intervals, one between E and F, and another between B and C. Half note intervals are lots of fun, but they tend to be just a little bit more dissonant. They are not necessarily unpleasant, but they aren't strong. Pentatonic music consequently has a feeling of strength to it.
Here's a traditional American pentatonic folk song of the 19th century that bursts with strength, piano arrangement by Harry Burleigh.
Shenandoah, sung by Paul Robeson
Pentatonic music by its nature is more harmonically stable. It's also easier for untrained people to sing, which is a good thing if you're teaching children. I suppose that's the reason children's rhymes are always pentatonic:
"Bella and Jacob, sitting in a tree,
K - I - S - S - I - N - G!
First comes love,
Then comes marriage,
Then comes Bella with a baby carriage!"
Shirley Ellis, The Clapping Song. There are many, many variations on this song, which was originally an old children's jump rope song.
Another funny thing about the pentatonic scale: So far, we have illustrated it using the white keys. The pentatonic scale fits very nicely onto the piano's black keys with no waste! For instance, if we change from C major to G Flat Major, we get the following:
(The above pic is really G-flat. Ignore the caption. I'm sloppy.)
When I was a young child, my father taught me my first song on the piano. It was called knuckles. Because you play it with your knuckles. You roll your knuckles right-to-left across the three black keys (starting at G flat, just as in the pic), and thump the next group with your thumb twice, then roll your knuckles back the other way, and thump the next group with your thumb twice. I could stand there doing that all day.
We've talked about the diatonic major scale (seven notes) and the pentatonic major scale (five notes). There is another critter we call the chromatic scale. Chromatic, a word that means all colors, applies in this case because it allows all twelve notes of the scale, all the white and black keys of a piano keyboard. Let's hear some chromatic music by Mozart so we can compare.
Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Menuetto
The first part theme mostly diatonic, firm and masculine. Wait for the gorgeous second theme, which comes in at 0:44. Notice how it slips and slides from note to note using those little in-between half tones. This is still major key, but Mozart uses those chromatic in-between notes here to make the theme more feminine, perhaps dainty, weak, if I can say that without offending anybody, in contrast to the swaggering of the first theme. Notice how different that is from the sturdy built-to-last character of pentatonic scale music.
Besides the pentatonic major, there's also a pentatonic minor scale. (In fact, there are five different ways of organizing the scale, but I'm only going to talk about the two traditional ones of American music.) Using just black keys again, it looks like this:
In the major pentatonic, we lost fa and ti. This time, we keep them but lose re and la. Life is a trade off! Looking at the two scales, pentatonic major and pentatonic minor, you would think they would sound very different. You can't just transpose from one to the other. Well, they're as different as major and minor ever are, but even the minor pentatonic scale has that characteristic sound of strength and stability for the same reasons as before: no half-tone intervals.
The traditional spiritual song at the very top of the diary, "The Old Ark's A-Moverin'," is in pentatonic minor. So is this song, a traditional Appalachian song that was used in the film Cold Mountain, here performed by Jack White:
You're free to point out that there is a whole lot of chromaticism in that, lots of slurs, lots of cheatin' going on with regards to our five note rule! True. Busted. But it's not a strict rule, not a rule at all. Just a musical tradition. You hear it in the basic structure of the melody. The ornamentation and the harmony, depending on the musical style, may be all over the place.
Wow, I love that song. There are probably fifty different versions of it on Youtube, and no two sound the same, or even close to the same. Some of them sound very pop music. I could do a long diary just about Wayfarin' Stranger.
Another old Appalachian traditional folk song, Am I Born to Die? This is about as distant from pop music as you can get.
Am I Born to Die?
Pentatonic is the usual scale for bluegrass music and most of Hank William's Jr. AND Sr. country music, to more or less strict degrees. It's also the scale of the cowboy western film. If you've ever wondered how cowboy film music manages to always have the cowboy film sound, that's the not-well-kept secret of it.
Shane. Title track
Now back to Dvorak and the New York Conservatory...
One of Dvorak's pupils was a young African-American by the name of Harry Burleigh who would become America's most successful early black composer.
Here is his first published song, Deep River.
Deep River, sung by Marian Anderson. Song by Harry Burleigh
We're all familiar with Harry Burleigh's songs, although we may not know them by his name. Songs like Ol' Man River are classics. Some of his less popular music was popularized in the past century by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.
Scandalize My Name sung by Paul Robeson, music by Harry Burleigh
Lest you think that Harry Burleigh only composed pentatonic negro spirituals, here is just one more Burleigh song from his art song cycle based on the poetry of Lawrence Hope. VERY different, in the romantic tradition.
Worth While, from The Five Songs of Lawrence Hope, original music by Harry Burleigh
We've talked about Dvorak's influence in Burleigh's education. Was their cross pollination? Notice the similarity between Burleigh's music and this song by Dvorak from his American period.
By the Waters of Babylon, sung by Paul Robeson. Music by Antonin Dvorak
I'm going to call it quits here. I think I have enough content already without launching into Dvorak's American Quartet, which was my original intent. I'll consider this a good first start!
Next week: Antonin Dvorak's American Quartet