Skip to main content

Concert II, 2023-2024 Season

Song & Dance Music from Around the World


"Danza final" (Malambo) from Danza Estancia, Alberto Ginastera

Huapango, Jose Pablo Moncayo

Libertango, Astor Piazzolla

Western classical training has been part of Central and Latin American culture since the nineteenth century, and, in the twentieth century especially, many composers emerged fully steeped in the music of European and North American classical styles. Ginastera, an Argentinian, was among the most prominent of these. However much Latin American music, and certainly the works now most played across the world, incorporate or rely on material—especially dance rhythms—from local folk or popular traditions.

Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera wrote his ballet Estancia (Ranch) in 1934; its final movement is based on the rhythms of the malambo, a virtuosic folk dance typically done by (male) gauchos. Astor Piazzolla was also Argentinian and a famous performer on the bandoneon (similar to an accordion); his works are almost all based on the tango, which is often called Argentina’s national dance. They have achieved enormous popularity, and have been arranged for every conceivable ensemble, including full orchestra. Jose Pablo Moncayo was Mexican, and wrote a huge diversity of works. Today’s "Huapango" is based on the Mexican dance of the same name, which is a couples dance often involving rhythmic stamping as well as complex turns and spins. A rhythmic feature common to all these dances is the "hemiola," which is the alternating (and sometimes simultaneous, in different instruments) dividing of six fast notes into either two groups of three, or three groups of two (123 456 or 12 34 56). This combination gives the music an irresistible tugging feeling. The song "America" in Bernstein’s West Side Story is the most familiar example, and we’ll hear that later in the concert.


Old American Songs, Aaron Copland

The mid-twentieth century interest in paying homage to, and incorporating other local musical material into orchestral scores was not confined to Latin America. Indeed, the idea of "national style" is as old as classical music itself. And in the nineteenth century, as German music got to be the yardstick by which almost all concert music was judged, composers from "the peripheries" started to assert their own national identities while also working within the basic aesthetic framework of Germanic music. Antonin Dvořák was among the most successful at this, and he served as an inspiration to many American composers in the early part of the twentieth century.

Aaron Copland, who studied in France as a young man, was as keen as anyone to assert his "serious (i.e., European) composer" bona fides, but on his return to the US, and in line with both FDR’s Depression-era promotion of American public art, and the contemporaneous left-wing interest in celebrating the cultures of rural and working-class Americans, he developed an accessible, assertively "American" style. The Old American Songs that we’ll hear today are an example of that. The songs themselves—words and tunes—are from various US sources, including hymn tunes and folksongs. Copland’s contribution is his lively orchestral accompaniments.


Thunder and Lightning Polka, Johann Strauss, Jr.

Three Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn), Gustav Mahler

Johann Strauss was one of the most popular composers in the late nineteenth century, writing over 500 social dances (especially waltzes and polkas) and a variety of other music. Whereas waltzes are in triple time, polkas are in two, and can sound much like marches. This one has a particularly active percussion section, illustrating the exciting weather of its title.

Strauss worked within, but was not especially concerned to project, a self-consciously "Germanic" style. However, Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano’s poetry collection "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (1805-08), from which Mahler chose his texts, was part of a Romantic move to celebrate ancient German culture through its legends and verses. The poems are actually old, but von Arnim and Brentano edited them. They are typically short and often project a kind of pastoral innocence that can also include grief and humor, often with an undertow of irony.

The three songs we’ll do today illustrate that mix. "Rheinlegendchen" ("A Little Rhine Story") is narrated by a spurned lover who imagines throwing his ring into the river, a fish eating the ring, a king eating the fish and finding the ring, and the sweetheart (who apparently works for the king) recognizing it and rushing back to the lover. "Tambourgesell" ("Drummer Boy") is narrated by a young man who is about to be executed, who regrets not still being in his station as a drummer, and who bids the world farewell. "Lob des hohen Verstandes" ("In Praise of High Intellect") describes a song competition between a cuckoo and a nightingale, judged by a donkey, whose large ears are supposed to help him hear. The cuckoo wins.


Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein was one of the most multi-talented and celebrated musicians of the twentieth century. As a pianist, conductor, composer, and educator, he straddled the divide between European and American classical music, bringing them closer. His 1957 musical, West Side Story, whose lyrics were by Stephen Sondheim and initial choreography by Jerome Robbins, has become an enduring classic of the American stage and screen, not to mention the source of some of the most popular songs in the "Great American Songbook."

This orchestral suite is extracted from the original film version; it includes the music from both dances and songs in the original and follows the musical’s narrative arc. Many arrangers in addition to Bernstein had a hand in putting this together, but Bernstein’s compositional vision of incorporating elements of both jazz and Latin American styles into an orchestral context remains. This combination is distinctively American and closes the stylistic circle of today’s concert.


© Mary Hunter 2023