Fake blues

If you’ve got to reading this far, then the title has served its eye-catching purpose and needs to be mitigated somewhat, for nothing can question the integrity of jazz. Let’s instead call this Thought for the Week ‘a muse on the blues’, and take a listen to how classical music has taken on board the essence of jazz as a means of enrichment.

Think of the blues, and you think of the soulful music of early jazz in the US. Its make-up was quite simple: usually built on a formulaic assembly of just a few chords; a slow, sad, often frivolous tale; and melancholy, chromatic notes giving poignancy to a basic scale. To get our bearings, let’s listen to Bessie Smith crooning the first part of The Haunted House Blues (8.120691):

Don’t bring no ghosts in the front, hurry ’em round to the backdoor!
This house is so haunted with dead men I can’t lose
And a sneaky old feeling gives me those haunted house blues
I can’t sleep no more, done lost my appetite
’Cause my mistreating daddy hangs around me day and night

Our first example of crossover into a classical framework comes courtesy of William Grant Still, often referred to as ‘the dean of African-American’ composers. Born in Mississippi on May 11, 1895 to a family of Negro, Indian, Spanish, Irish and Scotch blood, it’s no wonder that a feeling for eclecticism was second-nature to him. Of his nearly 150 works in various media, it was the ‘Afro-American’ Symphony (8.559174) that established Still’s reputation worldwide. First performed in 1931, it rapidly established itself in the repertoire.

Still succinctly described his goals in writing the work: ‘I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.’

The first movement, Longing, begins with the principal melody, an original twelve-bar blues melody stated by the English horn. Throughout the movement, the essential three-chord harmonic structure of the blues acts as a powerful underpinning of the moods of brooding and exultation.

Fellow American Morton Gould (1913–1996) wrote four compositions with the title American Symphonette (8.559715) over the course of his career. The second of those works dates from 1938. It has long been one of Gould’s most popular works, largely because of its second movement, Pavanne. That title and its reference to a stately old dance notwithstanding, his music is no exercise in nostalgia, à la Ravel. A muted trumpet and a tune in “swinging” triplet rhythms instead give the piece a jazzy insouciance.

That mention of Ravel brings us to the French composer’s compelling, unsettling Violin Sonata in G major (8.572093). Written between 1923 and 1927, it was his second sonata for violin and piano, and his final chamber work, composed in the aftermath of both the First World War and his mother’s death in 1917. The second movement, entitled ‘Blues’, is (as one might expect) infused with the rhythms and harmonies of the genre. The violin intersperses pizzicato chords with long, sinuous melodies and playful glissandi above dotted rhythms in the piano part. The movement was prescient: a year after the sonata’s completion, Ravel took the work with him on a hugely successful tour of America, the birthplace of its inspiration.

Our next piece is by a rather unusual musical personality, the composer Rolf Liebermann (1910–1999), who was a great nephew of the painter Max Liebermann. He studied music privately, and was subsequently a pupil and then assistant of Hermann Scherchen. When he received a commission for a new work from South West Radio Baden-Baden in 1954, Liebermann asked himself: “Why should it not be permissible to arrange, in the form of the Italian concerto grosso, where a group of soloists is set against a full orchestra, a work that contrasts and combines jazz soloists and a symphony orchestra?

“The jazz orchestra will be used as the equivalent of the pre-classical concertino,” Liebermann stated, “while the symphony orchestra takes on the function of accompanying and providing intervening episodes.” The result was Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra (8.555884). Here’s the fourth of the work’s eight movements—Blues.

Shostakovich immersed himself in popular theatre and vaudeville during the late 1920s and early 1930s, but it wasn’t until 1934 that he attempted a specifically jazz orientated work. He entered a competition in Leningrad that aimed to elevate jazz from café music to a more serious status, and his Jazz Suite No. 1 (8.555949) deftly achieved that purpose. The 3-movement suite ends with Foxtrot (Blues) in which the bluesy harmonies, suitably ambivalent, succeeded in investing the jazz idiom with altogether more serious emotions.

There’s room for one more example of classical-jazz synthesis, and who better to provide it than the master of the art, Leonard Bernstein. Let’s hear part of his Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety” (8.559790). The extended set of variations at its core is encased in a Prologue, an Epilogue, a Dirge and a Masque, with the latter representing the symphony’s most individual feature, completely and unabashedly Bernstein: a jazz frolic for piano, bass, timpani and percussion based on an unused song from his On the Town. Following the première, the music critic of The Boston Globe declared it “a triumph of rhythmic interplay, subtle and unexpected accents, a marvelous distillation of the movement of jazz.”

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