Chamber Music: Our Jazz Lineage: Music of Coleridge-Taylor, Chick Corea, & Dvořák
Of the two composers named Leo Smit, this is not the one who was American and was perhaps more famous as the first pianist to record the complete piano works of Aaron Copland, with whom he was closely associated. The Leo Smit (1900-43) whose Sextet for Piano and Winds receives here a rare and much merited performance was Dutch, a 1924 graduate of the Amsterdam Conservatory. His musical tastes ran in the Francophile direction, which in the Roaring Twenties meant the Stravinsky-inspired, jazz-inflected, optimistic style of Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and their colleagues. He moved to Paris in 1927, on a whim. “I studied with no one in Paris,” he recalled in a 1934 interview with the Haagsche Post newspaper. “I spent my time looking and walking around. Material circumstances forced me to take on certain jobs about which I would prefer not to enlarge.” He remained for nearly a decade, growing especially friendly with Milhaud and partaking of the convivial new-music scene.
He left to spend 1937 in Brussels before settling again in Amsterdam at the very end of that year. “It’s extremely valuable in one’s early years to explore beyond one’s own boundaries,” he explained, “but it’s just as important to realize when it’s necessary to return to one’s roots. That’s why I have come home for good and am working as a composer and teacher of composition, theory, and piano.” But the homeland to which he returned underwent a sea-change when it was occupied by German forces in 1940. Along with all other Dutch Jews, Smit was increasingly restricted in his activities. He was soon limited to teaching in specifically Jewish institutions and his music could only played in a single Amsterdam theater where “Jewish works” were still allowed. As the situation went from bad to worse, he entrusted his music manuscripts to loyal friends. On April 27, 1943, he and his wife boarded a transport train to Sobibór extermination camp in Poland, where (following typical Sobibór protocol) the Nazis murdered them in a carbon monoxide chamber within minutes of arrival.
If Smit had not had the foresight to deposit his manuscripts with friends, we would know him only through the very few of his pieces that were published. As it is, a rediscovery of his music began in the 1990s, yielding an especially high-quality repertory of chamber and orchestral music. Smit’s Sextet for Piano and Winds (1933) was among the works preserved by friends. A product of his Paris period, it was likely inspired by Poulenc’s similarly scored Sextet, which had been premiered (in a preliminary version) just six months before Smit unveiled his own piece. The first and last movements are filled with buoyant vigor, the textures being relatively dense (more like Milhaud than Poulenc), the rhythms spiky, and the melodic material flitting from one instrument to another. These surround a middle movement whose languorous phrases and rich harmonies flirt with the realm of Gershwin, although the movement’s central expanse offers contrast through some lively imitative counterpoint.
Chick Corea was born in 1941 into a music-loving family, his father being a jazz trumpeter. He began playing piano at four and percussion at eight, with the latter very much influencing the strongly punctuated mode of his eventual style as a jazz pianist. A month at Columbia University and a brief spell at the Juilliard School clarified that academic training did not agree with him. He moved directly into a performing career, appearing in the 1960s with such figures as Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Herbie Mann, and Stan Getz, and in 1966 he released his own debut album, Tones for Joan’s Bones. In 1968, he assumed the spot in Miles Davis’s band that had previously been occupied by Herbie Hancock, and he began to draw on the possibilities of electric pianos in addition to standard acoustic instruments.
He became a leading presence in the movements of free jazz and jazz fusion. He appeared in solo concerts, in jazz ensembles, and in a number of duo formations, including (for the last) with bassist Dave Holland and vibraphonist Gary Burton. He appeared in duo recitals—and made a pair of albums—with pianist Herbie Hancock; they would characteristically play each other’s compositions as well as “classical” pieces by Bartók. (The two reunited for “dueling piano” concerts in 2015.) Other classical/jazz fusion projects included his collaborations with classical pianist Friedrich Gulda. In the late 1990s he adapted his famous composition Spain into a piano concerto, which he performed with the London Philharmonic, and in 2004 he composed a string quartet, his first piece that did not include a piano.
He had already been producing “classical concert compositions” for years. When, in 1983, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center programmed several of his chamber works, he said in a New York Times interview: “I’ve worked with formal composition in the past. In the mid-’60s I wrote a trio for flute, piano, and bassoon, as well as several works for flute and piano. But these were sporadic, isolated instances, and distinctly separated from the mainstream of my work. But now, I have made a conscious decision to become serious about playing classical music again. This will be a great expansion for me.”
On another occasion, Corea stated that the Trio for Flute, Bassoon, and Piano “was my first attempt to write a kind of chamber music. At that time, I thought that ‘chamber music’ was just written music played acoustically but with no drums. It has since become one of my favorite forms of music.” He recorded the Trio in November 1968 at the Atlantic Recording Studios in New York City (joined by flutist Hubert Laws and bassoonist Karl Porter), and the track was included on his 1973 two-LP compilation Inner Space. The work is imbued with Corea’s characteristic clarity, rhythmic point (drawing heavily on ostinato patterns), and rich piano voicing—with that instrument’s timbre selectively expanded when the pianist mutes the strings while playing from the keyboard, to create a sound like drumming.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was born to a father from Sierra Leone and a mother from England, who raised him as a single parent after the father returned to Africa. Coleridge-Taylor entered the Royal College of Music as a violinist in 1890, composing an accomplished Te Deum setting the same year. He composed prolifically, at first producing a stream of chamber music, much of it redolent of Brahms (a favorite composer of his teacher, Charles Villiers Stanford), and by the turn of the century he produced imposing works for orchestra, chorus, and the stage.
At the age of seventeen he became impassioned by the music of Dvořák, which led to an interest in American and African-American music, which Dvořák promoted. In 1898, he composed the cantata Scenes from “The Song of Hiawatha,” portions of which became very famous. “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” was a particular success, although today it is known more by reputation than through actual performances.
Coleridge-Taylor was also an admired conductor, leading the Westmoreland Festival from 1901 to 1904 and London’s Handel Society from then until his death. He taught composition at Trinity College of Music (London) and the Guildhall School of Music. He encountered many luminaries of African-American culture when they passed through England. The poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was perhaps the most influential; after meeting him in 1896, Coleridge-Taylor began turning out such works as his African Romances (1897), African Suite (1898), and Toussaint L’ouverture (1901, celebrating Toussaint Louverture, the freed slave who played a prominent part in Haiti’s gaining independence from France).
He made three visits to the United States, in 1904, 1906, and 1910. He impressed musical connoisseurs during these trips; the orchestral musicians of New York reportedly complimented his ability on the podium by dubbing him “the Black Mahler.” In connection with his first tour, the Boston firm of Oliver Ditson invited him to compose concert-style piano arrangements of twenty-four African-American songs. It published them in 1905 with a lengthy, glowing preface by Booker T. Washington as well as a foreword by Coleridge-Taylor. “It is given to but few men in so short a time to create for themselves a position of such prominence on two continents as has fallen to the lot of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor,” wrote Washington. “It is especially gratifying that at this time, when interest in the plantation songs seems to be dying out with the generation that gave them birth, . . . that the most cultivated musician of his race, a man of the highest aesthetic ideals, should seek to give permanence to folk-songs of his people by giving them a new interpretation and an added dignity.” Such was the collection’s success that Coleridge-Taylor went on to recast five of his arrangements for a trio of violin, cello, and piano, each of the five being published separately and not until recently as the collection he probably envisioned. Four of these are African-American spirituals, but “They Will Not Lend Me a Child” is a lament from southeastern Africa.
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) started his musical career playing in a dance orchestra and then as principal violist in the orchestra of the Provisional Theatre in Prague. In 1871 he left the orchestra to devote himself to composing “full-time.” This entailed considerable financial risk, but in 1877 the influential Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick encouraged him to send some scores to Johannes Brahms. Brahms recommended Dvořák to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock, who immediately published two collections of Dvořák’s pieces.
It was in the midst of these make-or-break years that Dvořák composed his G major String Quintet. He envisioned it as a five-movement piece, with an Andante religioso (based on material already used in his E minor String Quartet of 1870) inserted to provide some relaxation between the vivacity of the opening Allegro con fuoco and the Scherzo. It is unclear whether dropping the movement was Dvořák’s wish or an unauthorized act by Simrock, who brought it out as the composer’s Opus 18. What is certain is that Dvořák did go on to rework that movement yet again, in 1882, as his Nocturne for String Orchestra (Opus 40), in which guise it is still heard on rare occasions. To confuse matters still more, when Dvořák slightly revised the G major String Quintet in 1888, Simrock re-published it with a new opus number, which is why today the piece carries the deceptively late number of Opus 77—a change that annoyed the composer.
This quintet may puzzle the listener who hears it expecting the maturity of such a masterpiece as, say, the A major Piano Quintet, Opus 81 (which the opus number would suggest to be a neighbor). Instead, this should be enjoyed as a transitional work in which Dvořák adheres to certain classical procedures while conveying something of the folk-inflected flavor that he would later master, particularly in the high-spirited Finale. Taken on its own terms, rather than in comparison to what aficionados know would follow, this quintet offers abundant delights. Certainly it struck its first hearers that way. A product of a decisive moment in Dvořák’s career, the G major String Quintet tilted the scale from “break” to “make”—decisively so, since shortly after its premiere in 1875 it was honored with a prize from the Prague Artists Society, a sure sign that Dvořák’s was a talent to contend with.
This is the second of three string quintets by Dvořák. The first (1861) and last (1893) employ the common disposition of two violins, two violas, and a cello. In this work, however, Dvořák uses a standard string quartet plus a double bass. Given this unusual choice, one might expect the composer to spotlight that resonant instrument in some way. In fact, the double bass remains somewhat in the background, and if one had to cede pride of place to any instrument in this work, it would probably be the cello. —James M. Keller
James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.