Sorrow Song and Jubilee


During Antonin Dvořák’s years in America (1892-1895) as director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City, composer Henry Thacker Burleigh, who was enrolled in the school at the time, introduced Dvořák to African American spirituals and dances, deeply influencing Dvořák’s American works. Just as Dvořák used “Going Home” as the basis for the largo theme in his symphony From the New World, in my new composition for the Apollo Chamber Players, Sorrow Song and Jubilee, I’ve based the music on the “sorrow song” (now known as spiritual) “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”. It’s a short piece, a miniature dumka and furiant or introduction and dance, composed as an homage to the creative partnership of Burleigh and Dvořák.


– Libby Larsen


Plantation Melodies, Old and New


Henry Thacker Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1866. Burleigh was surrounded by music from the start - his mother began his musical training at an early age and his grandfather taught him old ‘sorrow songs’ (now known as spirituals). When his mother’s employer heard him sing and was impressed with his talent, she made it possible for him to have access to many musicales she hosted in her home by employing him as a doorman. In this capacity he heard many prominent performers of his time.


In 1892, Burleigh received a full scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music. He met Czech composer Antonin Dvořák at St. George’s Episcopal Church where he was working to make ends meet. Dvořák soon became Burleigh’s most influential mentor, their relationship blossoming into one of mutual admiration and friendship over time. Burleigh began assisting Dvořák - copying scores and running errands - and he would sing the spirituals he had learned from his grandfather when he dined at the Dvořák home. Dvořák was so moved by Burleigh’s renditions of the spirituals that he urged him to arrange and notate the folk traditions of his ancestors. According to Burleigh, he tells that he “..sang our Negro songs for him very often, and before he wrote his own themes, he filled himself with the spirit of the old Spirituals." Dvořák famously professed: "In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”


Particularly unique to Burleigh’s work was his arrangement of spirituals for the solo voice. By arranging spirituals in the form of fine art songs, Burleigh made African American music accessible to concert singers for the first time. G. Schirmer published three of Burleigh’s early songs between 1899 and 1900, and soon after Burleigh became an editor for G. Ricordi. The prosperous New York synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, hired him in the coveted position of soloist: He was the first African-American to hold such a position and sang there for 25 years. Burleigh also served on the faculty of his alma mater, the National Conservatory, for several years and received honorary degrees from both Howard and Atlanta Universities. Burleigh was a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and he had a successful career as a touring artist, composer, arranger, teacher, and editor.


In his lengthy career, Burleigh wrote 265 vocal works and made 187 choral arrangements.  In 1916 he published Jubilee Songs of the United States of America, a book of arrangements of spirituals for solo vocal performance. Henry Burleigh entered a nursing home in 1946, and died in Stamford, Connecticut on December 12, 1949.


Plantation Melodies, Old and New represents Burleigh’s earliest arrangements of spirituals for solo voice and piano. Published in 1901, they stand nearest to the influence of his dear friend Dvořák. Apollo presents original arrangements, for string quartet, of two of these spirituals – "Negro Lullaby" and "An Ante-bellum Sermon" (Joshua fit de Battle ob’ Jericho) - dedicated to the memory and lasting influence of Henry T. Burleigh.


– Apollo Chamber Players


Five Folksongs in Counterpoint


In her career, Price appears to have written two string quartets. One quartet was titled “Negro Folksongs for String Quartet”, composed in ca. 1949 or 1951, and included settings of four familiar spirituals: Go down, Moses; Lil’ David play on your harp; Somebody’s knockin’ at yo’ door; and Joshua fit de battle of Jericho. Her quartet “String Quartet on Negro Themes” was premiered at Carey Temple Church in 1951 but its contents were not indicated in any program. It may well be that these two works are one and the same quartet.


The other string quartet, ultimately titled “Five [Negro] Folksongs in Counterpoint” may have been written as early as 1927, though the manuscript includes a final date of 1951. The work seems to have changed names at least three times and it is likely that its contents changed over this span of time as well. The work various appears as “Five Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint,” “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint,” and “Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint.” It appears that the original title of the present work was “Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint” and probably included only the three spirituals: Calvary; Shortin’ Bread; and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. When the American folksongs not of African American origin, “Clementine” and “Drink to me only with thine eyes” were added, the word “Negro” was erased on the manuscript, or nearly so. It is still legible and included in the title in quotation marks. That the word “Negro” was included is a testament to the Price’s ode to her African American heritage and roots in the south.


Five Folksongs in Counterpoint is a work for accomplished players. Technically challenging, the texture throughout the work is contrapuntal, that is, voice against voice, and conveys to the listener the serious treatment of these songs. The familiar melodies are shared between the instruments equally; in between thematic phrases is freely interpolated material. A convincing interpretation of these folksongs requires a flexible approach to the execution of the rhythms and an understanding of the subtle, but fluid, phrasing (now detached, now slurred even though it may not be marked in the score).


Referring to the site of the Crucifixion, the tune "Calvary" is often sung during the season of Lent. Price states the ominous tune at the outset in the violins and it is woven throughout the quartet’s voices, sometimes in fragments, but it always audible. The spiritual is at its most poignant when in the lower strings.


"Clementine," the tongue-in-cheek American ballad, in a lively arrangement, is about the unfortunate demise of a girl who gets a foot splinter, falls over, and drowns. Seemingly simple in the beginning, this movement is anything but straightforward. The shimmering strings at the end humorously capture love lost and quickly forgotten.


"Drink to me only with thine eyes" is given hymn-like treatment, a familiar texture that Price uses in many of the slow movements of her instrumental music. This lovely arrangement includes rich texture and quite distinct glimpses of her interest in Impressionistic composers.


In "Shortin’ Bread," Price reveals that her music never strays far from her southern roots. In this case, she captures the inherent dance rhythms in the plantation folksong’s lyrics “Mammy's little baby loves short'nin', short'nin', Mammy's little baby loves short'nin' bread.” “Shortnin’ Bread” is the quartet’s shortest and most contrapuntal movement.


It is commonly thought that the lyrics of this spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home,” refers both to the Underground Railroad, the freedom movement that helped blacks escape from Southern slavery to the North and Canada and, alternatively, to the slaves escape from slavery through death and heaven’s deliverance. Dramatically, Price gives to solo cello the weighty tune. It is then treated in turn by the viola, violin II and finally violin I. Ultimately, the tune is given contrapuntal and rhapsodic treatment during which the spiritual is obscured completely. The movement concludes with an expansive rendition of the well-known tune, sometimes suggesting the minor mode, but triumphantly ending in the major key.


– Rae Linda Brown, Ph.D.  Associate Provost, Loyola Marymount University Los Angeles, California


Thracian Airs of Besime Sultan


Thracian Airs of Besime Sultan (2015) is my free improvisation on the folk and ethnic music of the Thracian region. This six-movement, through-composed piece explores folkloric dances and styles from a large geographical area, including Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.


The work was written for Apollo Chamber Players and Roma clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski, and it is dedicated to my late grandmother, Besime Civelek. My grandmother was the only member of my family who was from the Balkans, and in our last phone conversation, she expressed how much she loves my music. During the summer of 2014, she and I listened to my entire catalog of works. As the sultan of the family, we affectionally called her 'Besime Sultan'.


Thracian Airs of Besime Sultan was composed as a result of winning Apollo’s 2014 International Commissioning Contest, which drew 254 total entries from 30 countries and 36 US states. The work exists in two versions: string quartet and chamber ensemble (clarinet, percussion and string quintet).


– Erberk Eryılmaz


Four Japanese Folk Songs


Four Japanese Folk Songs (Suite No. 2) is a collection of folk songs arranged for string quartet by Japanese composer Hajime Komatsu. Komatsu pursued private studies in violin, conducting, and composition while working towards a business degree at Waseda University.  He later became a producer for Toshiba/EMI, specializing in string quartet recordings. His settings of traditional Japanese folk music for Western style instruments and with Western notation evokes the folk songs in their original form. Komatsu stays true to the original folk song material in his arrangements, and uses extended techniques such as pizzicato, snapping the string on the fingerboard, finger slides, and slapping the side of the instrument to better imitate the sonic capabilities of traditional Japanese instruments.


The first song, "Yagibushi," is a popular folk song and dance performed at Japanese festivals and sporting events. Dancers with broad hats called ‘kasa’ circle counter-clockwise around a portable Shinto shrine. The dance is very energetic and ends with the dancers throwing their hats in the air. "Nanbu Ushioi Uta" is a melancholy cattle herding song that was sung by farmers as they plowed the soil with oxen and horses. "Otemoyan" was originally performed during parties that involved geisha girls and alcohol consumption, usually accompanied by shamisen, taiko drums and other percussion. "Aizu Bandaisan" is a well-known folk song about a famous Japanese volcanic mountain in the Fukushima prefecture.


– Apollo Chamber Players


Splash of Indigo


Inspired by a workshop in indigo design and resist-dyeing taken in Japan, Splash of Indigo is a dynamic musical work that explores the intersections between Japanese folk and French Impressionist music filtered through a distinct American sensibility. A hybrid soundscape that seeks to transcend and blur musical boundaries, it celebrates the similarities and potential correspondences between these seemingly disparate musical traditions in a whirlwind of musical vitality.


Saturating a piece of fabric in a vat of indigo ten or more times – which is necessary for achieving dark, rich colors – slowly removing it and then twisting/wringing it to remove the excess indigo results in the indigo gently splashing back into vat. I immersed myself in indigo dyeing for two weeks during the summer of 2014 when I began thinking about this work, and this "splashing" became one the most distinctive stages of the process for me. The workshop was held in an extremely meditative, quiet environment, an isolated mountain village where I could go for long periods of time hearing hardly any sounds at all except for that moment where I wrung out a new piece of fabric. The term “splash” in the title refers to the energetic character, through-composed form and sometimes unpredictable, improvisatory, and fluid nature of the music. I am not literally trying to musically evoke a color, but rather chose a title that referenced the conditions by which the piece evolved.


The opening nine measures establishes a dialectic that characterizes the work. The second violin presents the primary motivic material, an imagined/constructed Japanese folk tune based on the representative pentatonic scale found in many genres of Japanese music, the hirajōshi, or miyako-bushi scale. The motive is immediately developed in an impressionistic context reminiscent of Debussy or Ravel, re-harmonized through diatonic planing. This motive reappears in a variety of guises as the work progresses through a dazzling array of key areas. The modulation techniques in the work shift between simply adding one “color” note to the pitch collection, which is characteristic of “modulation” techniques found in sankyoku (19th-century Japanese chamber music) and more expressive harmonic shifts to distant key areas via common tone modulation. A grand pause marks the beginning of a more ruminative section, which provides dramatic contrast. This section is characterized by sustained melodic passages cast in imitative counterpoint reminiscent of shakuhachi honkyoku, sacred repertoire for the end-blown Japanese bamboo flute performed by mendicant monks. This section leads into the “recapitulation,” where previously heard motivic material is rapidly juxtaposed before the final coda, where the “imagined/constructed” Japanese folk tune reappears, played by all four instruments in rhythmic unison with a jaunty, dance-like character. As the piece races to a brilliant finish, the Japanese, French, and American musical sources fuse seamlessly into one synergetic musical vision.


Indigo design and resist-dyeing are traditional art forms that have stood the test of time and managed to find their place in contemporary fashion and design all over the world. In this sense, it is a "hybrid" that has managed to transcend time and geographic place, which is one of my aims in this musical work. Commissioned by Apollo Chamber Players, Splash of Indigo was premiered at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston, TX on January 11th and 13th, 2015. Since the premiere, it has been featured regularly on American Public Media’s nationally-syndicated program, Performance Today.


– Marty Regan



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