NEW RELEASE FROM Zoho Classix Jeni Slothciver Solo Piano American Heritage FROM THE CIVIL WAR TO CIVIL RIGHTS
Following the success of the Busoni The Visionary series, Jeni is humbled to introduce something so intimately close to home. With Southern roots of her own, Ms. Slotchiver's debut ZOHO CD release American Heritage is her homage to the legendary composers preserving American folk music and creating anew. What was once familiar, is reborn.
Spanning 125 years, from Louis Moreau Gottschalk's The Banjo (ca. 1854-5) to Frederic Rzewski's Down by the riverside (1979), American Heritage presents piano compositions by composers of concert music, inspired by the melodies, dance rhythms, harmonic inventions and various stylistic elements evocative of the American experience. Of the eight composers represented, six are of African descent and two of these are women. There are quotes from spirituals, use of the African American pentatonic scale, the African call and response structure popularized in southern church tradition, polyphonic rhythms of jazz, and the rich, sultry harmonies of blues. With the exception of the rich musical heritage of Indigenous people, the largest and most important American folkloric body of work arrived on American shores with the first enslaved African people.
Spiritual songs, work songs, blues and secular dances evolved throughout plantation life and after emancipation, yielding a rich and ever expanding African American cultural experience. Songs are remembered, resurrected and born as enslaved African people worked together in factories, on levees and rivers, in the cotton fields and sugar plantations. Preachers and congregants, camp meetings, and the southern revivalist movement would yield a multiplicity of spiritual and secular songs as a consequence of shared worshiping experiences.
American Heritage features popular and traditional American folk songs such as Swanee River, once known as Mobile River, arranged by William Grant Still, and Shenandoah, formerly named Shenadore, arranged by Jeni Slotchiver and Keith Jarrett. Both originated as work songs known as African windlass and capstan shanties.
The origins of all American syncopated popular music can be traced to the enslaved African people. Through assimilation and transformation, the syncopated rhythms of enslaved people took the American popular dance forms by storm. Tango, ragtime, boogie-woogie, the wildly popular Charleston, bebop, as well as the complex polyrhythms of jazz improvisation, all owe their foundations and easily recognizable characteristics to enslaved people. They were not allowed instruments on plantations, thus the tradition of clapping hands and stamping feet began. Many of the dances involve the virtuoso alternating and combining of hand clapping hands and feet stamping, with polyrhythms and syncopations.
As early as 1844, Louis Moreau Gottschalk's visionary incorporation of the music and rhythms of enslaved African people, their descendants, and other indigenous popular music, indicated a path which would be rejected by other serious composers of concert music until fifty years later, when Dvořák's Symphony 'From the New World', gave American composers fresh interest in forging a truly nationalistic style. Gottschalk's use of the syncopated rhythms of Caribbean, Latin and African music foreshadowed the birth of ragtime and jazz.
Jeni Slotchiver features two of his best-known virtuoso compositions. Gottschalk performed his grand cinematic montage of the Civil War, Union, Paraphrase de Concert on the National Airs, Star Spangled Banner, Yankee Doodle & Hail Columbia wherever and whenever he safely could. Gottschalk's immensely popular The Banjo builds to a virtuoso finale referencing the African American work song Sing and Heave, and is premonitory of the great American minimalist composers, Philip Glass and Steven Riech, whose music explores repetitive musical figures and structures.
Half a century after Gottschalk first incorporated the music and rhythms of the enslaved African people, Antonin Dvořák formed a meaningful relationship with his assistant and copyist, the future renown baritone and composer, Harry Burleigh. Burleigh recalled the African American spirituals and plantation songs, learned from his grandmother, at the request of Dvořák, who encouraged him to preserve the material for use in his own compositions. Dvořák, celebrated for his Bohemian and Czech songs, incorporated Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Goin' Home in his Symphony 'From the New World'.
Harry Burleigh was the first composer to arrange and publish a solo voice and piano concert version of the spiritual, Deep River. Published in 1917, the hymn inspired other composers, and consequently, singers, worshippers, and congregations of all kinds would form relationships and become familiar with concert spirituals. Burleigh's arrangement of Deep River is his most widely recognized work, and its popularity inspired the publication of a dozen more spirituals the same year. With the rise in popularity of the concert spiritual, Burleigh established many legendary African American soloists on concert stages.
When the African American musicians retrieved their heritage of spirituals from the commercialism and distortions of vaudeville and minstrelsy, they had a powerful genre in which to cultivate a singular aesthetic. And by retaking this great art form, the expression of the spirituals gave voice to a new generation of African American artists, and this music eventually became synonymous with the message of freedom in the Civil Rights Movement.
Deep River has a rich and significant history that stretches past emancipation into the Civil Rights era. One of the most moving performances was given by legendary African American contralto Marian Anderson, who sang Harry Burleigh's famous arrangement of the spiritual on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing in Constitution Hall. 75, 000 were present and the recital was broadcast live.
From the Southland, Burleigh's only work for solo piano, is dedicated to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Lines blur elegantly between popular, plantation, and original—recognizable melodies emerge, including Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, Oh Lord What a Morning, and Swanee River.
Burleigh was one of the most fervent supporters of the internationally acclaimed Anglo-African composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a trailblazer in the cultivation and preservation of African American folk music. Coleridge-Taylor's first American tour in 1904 was a sort of 'homecoming' in the land of a father he never knew. It compelled him to compose his seminal collection, Twenty-Four Negro Melodies. On the score of Deep River, the composer notes, "In the author's opinion this is the most beautiful and touching melody of the whole series."
William Grant Still was motivated to compose concert music and operas by the career of Coleridge-Taylor, whose grand stature as an Anglo-African composer inspired many striving
African American artists. Still is referred to as 'the dean of African American music' with his myriad 'firsts', 200-plus orchestral works, copious fellowships, and honorary doctorates. The themes of his opera Sahdji, Afro-American Symphony, and Lenox Avenue center around Still's concern for the careers of African American people. TheBlues from Lenox Avenue, from a series of episodes for orchestra, chorus, and narrator, is built on Still's time in Harlem. Swanee River, arranged by Still, is based on the Mississippi capstan shanty, Mobile River.
Robert Nathaniel Dett’s artistic epiphany occurred when he heard the slow movement of a Dvořák quartet based on traditional melodies: “Suddenly it seems I heard the frail voice of my long departed grandmother calling across the years; and in a rush of emotion which stirred my spirit to its very center, the meaning of the songs which had given her soul such peace was revealed to me.” Dance—“Juba”, Dett’s most popular work, is inspired by the traditional Juba dance, known as Giouba in Africa and Djouba in Haiti. Brought to America by enslaved African people, it is considered a direct predecessor of the jitterbug.
American Heritage showcases the sparkling and elegant Dances in the Canebreaks by the preeminent African American composer, Florence Beatrice Price, the first African American woman recognized as a symphonist. Nimble Feet is structured on syncopated dance rhythms, Tropical Noon celebrates the rhythms and harmonic atmosphere of a tropical dance, and Silk Hat and Walking Cane follows a cakewalk rhythm—a direct precursor to ragtime.
Margaret Allison Bonds, the brilliant young piano prodigy and composition student of Florence Price, composed and performed in both classical and popular fields. A classically trained virtuoso and a formidable improviser, Bonds’s concert music compositions have, at their foundation, a European Romanticism, layered with various elements of her African American heritage. Troubled Water embraces all of these stylistic elements and pays homage to the great spiritual, Wade in the Water.
Frederic Rzewski’s Down by the riverside, 1979, from his North American Ballads, represents a culmination of these 125 years of American piano compositions. In the style of Liszt’s operatic paraphrases, Rzewski features this iconic work song in a complex virtuoso, contrapuntal and polytonal composition, structurally based on Bach’s Choral Preludes for Organ. Down by the riverside originated before the Civil War, but was not published until 1918. It became strongly associated with the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests of the 1960’s. The song is a rousing and inspirational cry for freedom and social justice. It remains as powerful as ever, as timeless and perfectly at home as a hymn, in this avant-garde setting, or as the subject of Rzewski’s coda finale, a grand and brilliant celebration of gospel piano improvisation.
Composers’ improvisational skills go to the heart of successful folk, jazz and blues influenced compositions, as the styles often sound stilted and artificial when incorporated into concert music. The composers featured on American Heritage have a strong affinity for the transformative nature of transcription; they are not resurrecting, they reinvent and create anew. With their deft incorporation of stylistic elements, we are drawn into their craft. Their unique processes lead the listener deeper into the very nature of composing. What was once familiar, is reborn, and we can marvel at the composers’ skill and imagination.
© Jeni Slotchiver 2020
Jeni Slothciver "American Heritage" (Zoho Classix ZM 202008)
Street Date: October 9, 2020
Jeni Slothciver-Solo Piano
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