WILLIAM GRANT STILL
Piano Quintet No. 1 (1952)
Tessa Lark, violin, Axel Strauss, violin, Dimitri Murrath, viola, Edward Arron, cello, Jeewon Park, piano
Suite Italienne for Violin and Piano
Axel Strauss, violin, David Fung, piano
String Quartet in F Major
KNOWN AS THE DEAN of African American composers, William Grant Still was a prolific composer with an oeuvre of nearly 200 works, ground-breaking compositions that included five symphonies, nine operas, and four ballets, as well as numerous choral works, art songs, and chamber music. Still was the first African American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera and subsequently televised. Born in Mississippi, Still was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas by a supportive family that hoped he would become a medical doctor. However, Still chose to study music at the Oberlin College Conservatory with the avant-gardist Edgard Varèse and later at the New England Conservatory with George Chadwick, a classically grounded composer with a penchant for musical theater. Because of his close association with significant African American writers and artists during the 1920s and 1930s, Still is considered part of the Harlem Renaissance.
GRAŻYNA BACEWICZ, POLAND’S most famed twentieth-century woman composer, is honored in Warsaw with public statues and streets that bear her name. A violin prodigy, Bacewicz from a young age wrote sonatas for her instrument. Composition studies at the Warsaw Conservatory and, most significantly, with Nadia Boulanger in Paris shaped her as a neoclassicist. Stalin’s death in 1953 freed Poland from the restrictions of Socialist Realism, but Bacewicz, guided by her compatriot Witold Lutosławski, had already entered an experimental phase. She then focused on twelve-tone techniques and Sonorism, an avant-garde approach that prioritizes tonal qualities of timbre, texture, and dynamics over melody and rhythm. After becoming a founder of the annual “Warsaw Autumn” Festival of Contemporary Music in 1956, Bacewicz envisioned the establishment of a Polish school that merged twentieth-century techniques with folk elements.
STRAVINSKY ENJOYED A LONG collaboration with the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, whose company Ballets Russes premiered such successes as The Rite of Spring in Paris. Searching for a simpler post-World War I project, Diaghilev showed Stravinsky scores attributed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, the short-lived Italian who crafted ingratiatingly lyrical comic operas in the early eighteenth century. Although initially cool to the idea, Stravinsky was persuaded to write a ballet based on “Pulcinella,” the story of the long-nosed stock figure of Neapolitan puppetry. This twenty-movement ballet score (1920), equipped with sets and costumes designed by Picasso, gained additional popularity as an eleven-movement orchestral suite. In both scores Stravinsky retained the eighteenth-century melodies, but transformed the original framework with rhythmic ostinatos, pungent harmonies, and brilliantly colorful orchestration. He wrote: “ ‘Pulcinella’ was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror too.”
RAVEL COMPOSED HIS ONLY string quartet during his affiliation as a student auditor at the Paris Conservatory. Two years previously he had been expelled from the formal program because of his unwillingness to write fugues; however, Gabriel Fauré continued to welcome Ravel to his composition class. Ravel dedicated his F Major Quartet to Fauré and with his encouragement submitted its first movement to the Prix de Rome jury. Three times previously the jury, comprised primarily of conservatory professors, had rejected Ravel’s application for this important prize, which included three years of financial support. In his latest attempt he was eliminated in the first round—an outrage that touched off a scandal in the artistic community.