Over the course of the season, we will explore how each of the pieces operates at the intersection of classical and folk musics. In each instance, we will start with a classical construct–that is, a concerto, a symphony, a solo piano piece, and the like–and we will investigate how and to what extent folk idioms are infused into each construct. Together, we will consider each piece as a function of the composer’s unique soundscape comprising all the musics with which he or she was familiar. To do that, I will introduce a number of primary (archival) resources that can be used to contextualize these pieces and nuance our understanding of them beyond what has been the subject of musical biographies and histories. Many of these primary resources are available at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center, but I will include others to facilitate our efforts. Some of them can be consulted online, while others may be used onsite at the Library. But all of them, singly and collectively, document the variety of cultural expressions and lived experiences that have been, in some way, referenced by the composers in their works.
On this site, you will find links to manuscripts, unique images, archival repositories and their finding aids, sound recordings, and more. Explore as much as your time permits. Start with the four “quantitative interrogatives”: who? what? when? where?
Use these questions to guide your examination of the resources, individually and in combination with each other. Then, leverage your new (or nuanced) understanding of a particular folk idiom–a dance, a concept, a tune, a rhythm–to expand your knowledge of the piece in which this idiom appears.
Before and after each concert, we will have opportunities to discover new resources, hone our research skills, discuss our findings, and address any lingering questions. With each exchange of ideas comes the opportunity for discovery. May this be the beginning of an exciting musical journey—for all of us!
— Dr. Melanie Zeck
Phenomenal Women, by Valerie Coleman, was originally conceived as a piece for woodwind quintet and chamber orchestra. Commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, its 2018 debut in Carnegie Hall featured the composer’s own quintet, Imani Winds. Another version of the piece, this one for chamber orchestra, was commissioned by the Library of Congress and premiered by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2019. On February 10, 2024, National Philharmonic is excited to present the original version, featuring Coleman on flute in a quintet assembled for the performance.
In this fuller form, Phenomenal Women: Concerto for Wind Quintet Soli and Chamber Orchestra divides into six movements. The title references the 1978 poem and subsequent book, Phenomenal Woman, written by Maya Angelou, after whom Coleman named the first movement. Here is Coleman’s own description of the concerto:
“Musical motifs are drawn from Angelou’s sensuous and peppery verses, carrying emboldened harmonies and improvisational-stylized riffs from the soli, evolving into virtuoso exchanges between forces.
Each movement contains an overview of pivotal moments and characteristics found within the lives of each ‘shero’, that serve as catalysts from which main movements emerge and develop. The spirit and process behind the movements are informed by the efforts of phenomenal women who have energized me through their transcendental efforts:
the struggles that poet Maya Angelou faced her life and her impact in the lives of women globally [Movement 1: Maya];
how Olympic Gold medalist Boxer Claressa Shields is making a difference in her hometown of Flint, Michigan—a town ravaged by contaminated water [Movement 6: Claressa];
athlete Serena Williams’ ongoing perseverance on the tennis court to become one the greatest athletes of all time [Movement 4: Serena];
Michelle Obama’s grace under pressure as the First Lady, mom and advocate for families and children [Movement 5: Michelle];
and the courage of immigrant mothers who have risked their lives to enter the United States and are fighting to reclaim their children [Movement 3: Caravana].
The segments are written with the capabilities and personalities of each Imani Winds member in mind.”
In addition, Movement 2 portrays the struggles and achievements of mathematician Katherine Johnson (pictured), whose precise calculations made space exploration possible, beginning in the late 1950s. As an employee at NACA (National Advisory committee for Aeronautics), which became NASA, Johnson completed “trajectory analysis” by which she would identify, through a series of complex equations, where a spacecraft would land.
Coleman’s piece gives rise to a centuries-old question pondered by composers and listeners alike: How do you convey a non-musical concept through music?
This season, we’ve already heard National Philharmonic perform pieces designed to evoke a non-musical concept. During our first concert this season, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “The Pastoral” depicted scenes and figures from nature—including a babbling brook, a storm, and tweeting birds.
If you recall, no one was singing or narrating, nor were there any live cuckoos or nightingales flying around Strathmore! Thus, without words or stage props, we, as listeners had to rely on Beethoven’s ability to convey these scenes and figures through recognizable musical symbols. Indeed, after listening to the symphony even once, one would be hard-pressed to confuse Beethoven’s writing for thunderous weather with the cheerful whistling of our fine feathered friends.
In contrast, December’s National Philharmonic season featured Handel’s Messiah—an oratorio—which, by definition, featured text. With a full chorus and four soloists, we were treated to multiple Biblical stories that, collectively, told the story of Jesus Christ. In this case, Handel played around with musical techniques to emphasize certain words.
For example, in the well-known tenor aria “Every Valley Shall be Exalted,” the pitches underlying the word “valley” are much lower than those used for “exalted,” which is an extended flourishing that stretches out the word while the pitches reach higher and higher toward the next phrase.
It is against the backdrop of these two examples from previous concerts that we can contextualize our hearing of Valerie Coleman’s Phenomenal Women. Like Beethoven and Handel, Coleman employs a technique known by various names—“tone painting,” “word painting,” “programmatic writing.” As such, we can expect to hear musical depictions of non-musical concepts associated with the namesakes of each movement. But how does she do it?
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) was born in the Bohemian village of Nelahozeves, which is situated northwest of Prague along the Vltava River. From a young age, he demonstrated musical aptitude on both strings (violin and viola) and keyboard instruments (piano and organ). Early in his career, he performed in ensembles and worked as a church organist in Prague. Over time, however, he dedicated himself to composition, ultimately securing an international reputation.
Dvořák wrote extensively for orchestra, and his compositional output spanned multiple genres, including symphonies, overtures, serenades, suites, and concertos. He also composed operas and choral works, chamber music, and solo piano pieces.
In many of his works, Dvořák drew inspiration from the folk and vernacular musical traditions. For example, each of the sixteen orchestral pieces collectively titled The Slavonic Dances (1878–1886) was given a subtitle corresponding to specific dance genres from the region, such as dumka, furiant, kolo, odzemek, polka, skočná, sousedská, and špacírka. Three of these—polka, sousedská, and furiant—are also infused into another symphonic piece, Czech Suite (1879).
In 1892, Dvořák moved to New York City to assume the directorship of the National Conservatory of Music of America. During his three-year stay in the United States, he became interested in American musical traditions—most notably those of Native Americans and African Americans—and his compositions from this era reflect such inspiration. Two such examples—
Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and Quartet No. 12 “American Quartet” (both from 1893) showcase the composer’s ability to nuance European forms (symphonies, string quartets) with the sounds he encountered in the United States. In the second movement of the symphony, Dvořák’s slow, lyrical writing resembles an African-American spiritual, whereas the steady pulsations and cross rhythms in his quartet evoke the trains he rode during his travels.
The aforementioned pieces are examples of “program music”—that is, they are instrumental works designed to tell a story and / or convey something specific without the use of words. Earlier this season, we heard National Philharmonic perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “The Pastoral,” which was one the composer’s few programmatic works for orchestra. With its musical portrayal of a babbling brook, birds, shepherds, and thunder, the symphony lives up to the expectations set forth by the subtitle.
In contrast, instrumental works with no such explicit program are known as examples of “absolute music.” Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1885) falls into this latter category, as do the majority of Beethoven’s other symphonies. In some ways, absolute music can be considered music for music’s sake, emerging from the composer’s imagination or subconscious. Even so, nineteenth-century symphonies—regardless of the presence or absence of a program—share common features, including the general instrumental configuration and overarching structure (within, between, and among movements).
Featuring traditional orchestration (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings), Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 follows the standard four-movement pattern of the era.
The first movement “Allegro maestoso” is written in the expected sonata-allegro form, which divides into three main sections—exposition, development, and recapitulation—and a coda. Listeners will note the dark intensity that opens the movement and returns periodically throughout. Interplay between the strings and winds propels the movement forward and keeps the restatements of the original theme fresh and interesting. The recapitulation recalls the exposition but with a greater brass presence and more prominent use of timpani, adding dramatic flair and a sense of urgency. The texture thins at the end, with the coda drawing the movement to a somber close.
Movement 2 “Poco Adagio” is slower and lyrical, opening with chorale-like writing in the clarinet and bassoon. Its tranquil nature is pierced by a sudden outburst, but French horns relieve the tension by evoking, albeit briefly, a pastoral scene. This pattern of calmness and intensity characterizes the movement, but not in a way that detracts from that of the earlier “Allegro maestoso.” At the close of the movement, the chorale-like writing returns in the winds, undergirded by the strings.
The third movement “Scherzo. Vivace” offers a stark contrast to the “Poco adagio,” as it opens with a spritely dance-like spirit. There are contrasts within the movement, too, as more densely-textured writing is interspersed, most notably in the middle section. The movement concludes with a return of the dance-like spirit and ends with a dramatic flourish.
The final movement “Finale. Allegro” is structured similarly to the first movement. Opening with a brooding sentiment, the movement changes character frequently, but it always moves toward the next, increasingly exciting and dynamic exchange. Flourishes in the upper winds add a bit of whimsy here and there, but rather than detract from the overall seriousness, they add sparkle to otherwise intense moments. The heroic conclusion offers a resolution to both movement and to the piece as a whole.
As you listen to Symphony No. 7, consider the extent to which the piece is Bohemian, even without the types of clear references to Bohemian, Czech, and Slavonic idioms evident in some of Dvořák’s other works. Consider also how this piece compares with some of the other nineteenth-century symphonies you have heard. In what ways could this symphony be revered among the most important of the genre? In what ways were your expectations of the piece met, exceeded, or left unfulfilled?
National Philharmonic relies on the generosity of its donors to continue bringing you the music. Your contribution is critical to our continued success.