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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....

"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....''

Braver still, as the Herald reported:  
"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.

"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.''

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.  

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:

Wayfarin' Stranger

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

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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

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Sep 27, 2012 at 07:48 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  OK...a quibble: That's not A Flat Pentatonic, (6+ / 0-)

    It's G Flat.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Thu Sep 27, 2012 at 08:07:54 PM PDT

  •  Dvorak didn't just use African American themes: (7+ / 0-)

    There's more Native American than African American in the New World Symphony.  The opening horn riff is pure Native.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Thu Sep 27, 2012 at 08:10:46 PM PDT

    •  There's a huge amount of debate (8+ / 0-)

      over the subject of where his American period themes came from, with many people, like Leonard Bernstein, arguing it's ALL Bohemian and that everything else is delusional.  I'm going to sidestep all that by taking the position that his themes may be just as American as Taco Bell is Mexican.  He was a Bohemian trying to soak up what he could and use it, but he wasn't a mimic.  

      On the other hand, American music seems to have soaked up a lot of Dvorak.  Without the New World Symphony, we might not have had Copland's music or the big budget western as we knew it.  And how much would Harry Burleigh have become the Harry Burleigh that we know today?

  •  The pentatonic scale... (11+ / 0-)

    ...is as close to a planetary musical universal as you can get.  In Hindustani music this scale is known as Raga Bhoopali (Bhoop means "king," so this is the "King of ragas").  Here is a fine short performance by the great singer Malini Rajurkar:

    Each of the five modes of this scale has at least one raga equivalent, but of course Hindustani tradition has a huge repertoire of other pentatonic scales which incorporate semitones.

    Freedom isn't "on the march." Freedom dances.

    by WarrenS on Thu Sep 27, 2012 at 08:18:17 PM PDT

  •  Major Pentatonic Might Come Closest to Humanity's (7+ / 0-)

    universal musical language.

    China and more of Asia, Lapland, much of Africa, Highland Scotland (home of rock's 8-to-the-bar and Irish riverdance reels), and Native North Americans all share it.

    Naturally when African slaves met Scotch-Irish and Highland Scot whites here, they had their major pentatonic tonality in common.

    Arguably the 2 best known English language songs are "Auld Lang Syne" and "Amazing Grace" both major pentatonic. I've lost count of the numbers of mid 20th century movies with "Auld Lang Syne" at or near the end.

    3 great major pentatonic pop songs from the early 70's:

    Possibly the last new folk song in the Euro/pentatonic tradition. By the lyrics, the song could be arbitrarily old.

    A great pentatonic disco melody

    A historic Motown introduction that opens with the most joyous half minute of music I ever heard.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu Sep 27, 2012 at 08:33:51 PM PDT

  •  Universal language... (8+ / 0-)

    I was reminded just now of this.  The film, Empire of the Sun, starring Christian Bale when he was a young boy, trapped in a Japanese prison camp in China during WWII.  

    The film begins with him singing a pentatonic English church song.  Later, he meets through the barbed wire a young Japanese boy who sings a very similar song in Japanese.

    •  The "Universal language" trope... (8+ / 0-)

      ...actually represents a confusion of category.  To say "music is a universal language" is akin to saying "speech is a universal language."  Music, like speech, is a universal behavior.

      We can make a case that the intervals of the overtone series and their derivations form part of the underlying substrate, perhaps occupying a position in human musicking roughly analogous to a Chomskian universal grammar.  

      Freedom isn't "on the march." Freedom dances.

      by WarrenS on Thu Sep 27, 2012 at 09:06:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well, I wouldn't go that far. (5+ / 0-)

        But pentatonic is, to use my word, instead of universal, it's ubiquitous.  You keep running into it.  It makes a certain kind of sense, a more streamlined musical scale that is easier for old people and kids to sing around the campfire.  

        •  a pentatonic here isn't necessarily the same (5+ / 0-)

          as a pentatonic there. The intervals may be similar, but aren't necessarily the same. For example, pentatonic scales used in a lot of Southeast Asian countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar) is closer to 5 tone equal temperament than the major pentatonic of Western music. Some African musical traditions use pentatonic scales derived from seven tone equal temperament. Try playing in 7 tone equal temperament with the 2nd and 6th removed-- what does it sound like? The blues.

          What interests me is why five and seven tone scales are so ubiquitous. Why are six or eight or nine or more so rare?

          Mitt Romney = Draco Malfoy

          by ubertar on Fri Sep 28, 2012 at 06:52:53 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, the theoretical study of language is (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dumbo, WarrenS, ER Doc, InsultComicDog

        a search for universals (a study still in its infancy). Last time I looked, the few universals that have been isolated seem rather mundane: no human language has a pattern in which the elements in a string are simply reversed to establish a new meaning, for instance. Syntactics is a lot more complicated than that, but describing the universals has been difficult for linguists. Imagine how challenging the study of music is for a real novice like me.

        Today, I made a new musical discovery, the pentatonic Frere Jacques in Brahms' Symphony 1, 3rd movement. But when I Googled that to refresh my memory, I found Frere Jacques in Brahms, too. Perhaps the pentatonic is a musical universal; it certainly pops up all over the place. The overlap factor nearly drove me nuts when looking at Dvorak, because he wrote Opus 96 and Opus 97 back to back, and the major difference is that one is a quartet and the other a quintet (has two violas), and both are called the "American." My fright/flight reaction set in, which prompted me to do a third, unrelated activity, and I discovered Jacqueline Du Pre playing "The Cello Concerto" by Dvorak, which is breathtaking, so I was going to settle for that as a new current favorite when I ran into a YT clip of his "Forgotten Cello Concerto!" Time to slow down, so thanks for this diary, which I will read in full tomorrow. Lots to digest here.

        W. H. Auden: "We must love one another or die."

        by martyc35 on Fri Sep 28, 2012 at 12:27:28 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yeah, I didn't realize that they (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          martyc35, ER Doc, InsultComicDog

          were calling Opus 97 the American Quartet and 98 the American Quintet.  That's quite confusing.  I suppose it would be even worse if Opus 99 were a Sextet.  

          I know Frere Jaques is in Mahler's Symphony #1.  Brahms Symphony #1 also...  Hmmm... I think I could see where it might be buried deep in the third movement first theme.

          I know about the Cello Concerto but not about the Forgotten Cello Concerto.  Must look that one up.

  •  I love your posts on music... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ER Doc, martyc35, InsultComicDog

    They remind me of Sunday mornings as a kid when my dad would cook breakfast and play either classical or jazz all morning long...

    No System of Justice Can Rise Above the Ethics of Those Who Administer It. (Wickersham Commission 1929)

    by No Exit on Fri Sep 28, 2012 at 06:24:33 AM PDT

  •  What chords? (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Garrett, Dumbo, martyc35, InsultComicDog

    I wonder what chords are typical with major pentatonic scales?

    Probably the majority of folksongs are played with three chords: I (tonic chord), IV (subdominant chord), and V7 (dominant seventh chord). In the key of C, the chords would be C, F, and G7. But the F chord has F (fa) in it, and the G7 chord has both ti (B) and fa (F) in it.  

    How do chords work in Pentatonic songs? Is it just the melody that's pentatonic?

    Join the 48ForEastAfrica Blogathon for the famine in east Africa: Donate to Oxfam America

    by JayC on Fri Sep 28, 2012 at 06:34:47 AM PDT

    •  Chords as obstacle? (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dumbo, martyc35, InsultComicDog

      I'm not a musician, or a musical theorist.

      But from reading about it, I suspect that thinking in terms of chords, for the old American pentatonic folk music, can get in the way.

      The grammatical rules of musical composition are just different.

      (Whole large swaths of American popular music have a hybrid style. "Backwoods folk goes to town." But there is a non-chordal roots to it. Or a least, what a chord is, or how notes go together, or how they progress, is just different than in a classical music sense.)

    •  That's an astute question. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      martyc35, InsultComicDog

      The traditional chords, like I-IV-V7-I, get all screwed up if you are strict with it.  In old traditional songs like Wayfarin' Stranger (one of the clips in the diary) when they are played very strictly just don't have chords.  

      Pentatonic minor seems to be less screwed up because it has a minor V chord.  

      The way some Wayfarin' Stranger performances do it is they just use whatever chords they want but they are stricter with the melody.  That's how Dvorak uses it, too.  In minor key pentatonic, he prefers the minor V chord until he gets to that final cadence, which is a major V7.

  •  Louis Moreau Gottschalk ... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ER Doc, Dumbo, martyc35, InsultComicDog

    ... another intriguing musical character, but a native of New Orleans instead of Bohemia like Dvorak. He undertook a similar mission, however, to incorporate the sounds of African, Creole, Caribbean and Latin American tunes into the accepted European classical music structures. I believe he was considered ethnically a "mulatto" as well. A child genius, he was rejected by the European musical academy establishment simply because he was American and therefore could not be bright or sophisticated enough in the opinion of the elites who prevailed. Almost the reverse mirror story of Dvorak's invitation to America. However, Gottschalk did receive private instruction by some of the greats but rejected the idolization and cult of genius prevalent in Europe. He later traveled extensively all over the world, wherever audiences were willing to pay, and was reportedly a virtuoso performer as well as composer. Although a southener, he took the side of the Union during the Civil War. Alas, he died young, collapsing during a concert after contracting malaria. But he did succeed in his mission to borrow musical ideas from a number of African and Latin cultures, and incorporate these into his compositions.

    Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me, "how good, how good does it feel to be free? " And I answer them most mysteriously, "are birds free from the chains of the skyway? " (Bob Dylan)

    by JKTownsend on Fri Sep 28, 2012 at 08:07:07 AM PDT

  •  Thank you, as always Dumbo (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ER Doc, Dumbo, martyc35, InsultComicDog

    I am looking forward to reading and "listening to" this diary.

    Finally people have gotten sick and tired of being had and taken for idiots. Mikhail Gorbachev

    by eve on Fri Sep 28, 2012 at 09:52:20 AM PDT

  •  Couple of quick notes: (5+ / 0-)

    Deep River is an anonymous spiritual that Burleigh arranged.

    Old Man River is actually by Kern/Hammerstein and is from Showboat. Burleigh's performance is certainly definitive.

    Enjoy your diaries!

  •  THANK YOU (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    InsultComicDog, Dumbo

    I like the Black Art Music. Very good to listen to.

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