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Gershwin, Price & Beethoven


Notes from Dr. Melanie Zeck 

The Library of Congress American Folklife Center

This program features three pieces that emerged under vastly different circumstances.  On the surface, these pieces –Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ‘The Pastoral,’ Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and Price’s Concerto in One Movement for Piano,–would seem to share little in common beyond having been scored for orchestra. Yet, these three pieces, like many of those that will be performed by the National Philharmonic during the 2023-2024 season, employ folk idioms in fascinating ways.

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

Meet Dr. Melanie Zeck

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

Library of Congress, National Jukebox. 

Rhapsody in Blue features two contrasting bodies–solo piano and instrumental ensemble–in a manner reminiscent of a piano concerto. Yet, the piece was originally scored for a jazz band, whose instrumentation differed greatly from that which had become standard in early twentieth-century symphony orchestras. Gershwin infused his piece with several idioms commonly associated with popular musics of the day–including the presence of a banjo, the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, the style of stride piano, and the melodic idiosyncrasies of the blues.

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Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement

Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries

Price’s Concerto in One Movement for Piano contains the hallmarks of a contemporary piano concerto—two contrasting bodies (solo piano and orchestra) and three major sections, each with its own style. Although the piece only has one movement, its three sections embody the characteristics associated with those in the standard form:

  • a grand, majestic first section (or movement)
  • a lyrical, sonorous second section
  • a dance-like third section.

However, Price thwarted audience expectations by referencing the “juba” instead of a minuet, rondo, or other European dance form in the third section. in his memoir Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup described the juba as follows: “The patting is performed by striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other—all the while keeping time with the feet, and singing . . .”

Music historian Samuel A. Floyd Jr. offered additional context in his book The Power of Black Music: “When folk-made or makeshift instruments were not available to accompany song and dance, individuals and groups patted juba. ’Patting juba’ was an extension and elaboration of simple hand clapping that constituted a complete and self-contained accompaniment to the dance . . . patting juba is only one form of patting that prevailed in the African-American folk community, the ‘hambone’ pat [is] one of the few still extant.”

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Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6

The Pastoral Symphony

Terry Eiler, photographer. Morning mist rising from the coves. Coal River Folklife Project collection (AFC 1999/008), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Beethoven provided descriptive subtitles for each of the five movements in his Symphony No. 6, ‘The Pastoral’ as follows: 

Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande 
Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside               
Szene am Bach 
Scene at the brook          
Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute    
Merry gathering of country folk 
Gewitter, Sturm               
Thunder, Storm              
Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm             
Shepherd’s song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm 

Despite writing these subtitles, Beethoven did not include any sung text within the symphony (as he would later do in his Symphony No. 9). Rather, he depicted each of these references to nature solely through instrumental means—a technique that had been employed by earlier composers, such as Antonio Vivaldi in The Four Seasons.

As you listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, consider the extent to which you feel Beethoven was successful in conveying pastoral concepts without using lyrics. Then, compare Beethoven’s symphony with examples of folk songs, whose references to nature may be conveyed only through the lyrics.  You can search the American Folklife Center’s early sound recordings for songs about nature using the  Traditional Music and Spoken Word Catalog.

Some of these songs have been recorded widely; others can be heard onsite at the American Folklife Center.

Keep in mind that the depiction of nature is not limited to sound.  As you reflect on what you hear in Beethoven’s symphony and these folksongs, take the comparison one step further by exploring the visual representation of nature in landscape photography.  

The American Folklife Center also holds several collections that include examples of landscape photography.  You will find a few examples on the next page.

Consider browsing other digital collections at the Library of Congress here.  

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