For composers, July holds two main sources of inspiration, being both the warmest summer month in the Northern Hemisphere and that which marks the occasion of America’s Fourth of July, or Independence Day. I’ve chosen seven pieces that reflect this, a number of which may be new to many and, I hope, an interesting discovery.
Jonathan Dove Photo: Andrew Palmer
We start with a choral work by the English composer Jonathan Dove
(b. 1959). His song cycle The Passing of the Year was a commission from the London Symphony Chorus and is dedicated to the memory of his mother. It’s cast in three sections, the first of which looks forward to summer. This is reached in the third movement, Answer July, that sets the rapid questions of Emily Dickinson’s (1830-1886) poem of the same title with suitably slick music, suggesting the quickening senses, the excitement of everything bursting into life, and summer’s triumphant arrival.
Answer July Answer July —
Where is the Bee —
Where is the Blush —
Where is the Hay?
Ah, said July —
Where is the Seed —
Where is the Bud —
Where is the May —
Answer Thee — Me —
Nay — said the May —
Show me the Snow —
Show me the Bells —
Show me the Jay!
Quibbled the Jay —
Where be the Maize —
Where be the Haze —
Where be the Bur?
Here — said the Year —
A similar pulsating optimism is felt in July, a work by the American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961) for saxophone quartet. As with other pieces in his catalogue, the original impetus came from hearing a particular rhythmic groove from a pop song that caught his ear:
“I scratch my head and think: I like that, how could I use it? I’ve found that if I take a small part of the drum track and assign it to non-percussion instruments, then interesting things happen. What fascinates me is that this act of translation seems to completely remove the original reference from my music; sometimes I can’t even remember what the original song was that inspired me and, if I do, it’s hard even to hear the connection. But what remains is the energy. I’m trying to incorporate contrasting themes and moods together in a single-movement work. To me this evokes a wider range of impressions. Instead of single-mindedly exploring one color, as in earlier pieces of mine, the music now corresponds to an experience of time — the energy and heat we find in the month of July, as well as cooling breezes of repose that come, perhaps, in the evening.”
Now to a short song by another American Composer, Lori Laitman (b. 1955). It’s the final movement in her song cycle Five Lovers, that sets five autobiographical poems by Jāma Jandroković documenting her journey as a newly divorced woman in New York City. July, 95 Degrees uses a sustained pedal and duelling rhythms in the accompaniment to create a blurred sound, which suggests not only water, but the haziness associated with a hot July day.
Two more short pieces now, both for piano solo. The first is by Tchaikovsky, who throughout his life wrote music for the instrument, much of it to supply the demands of an amateur market. The Seasons, Op. 37b, consists of twelve pieces written between December 1875 and November 1876 in response to a commission from Nikolay Bernard, editor of the periodical Nouvelliste. Each monthly issue was to contain an appropriate piece by Tchaikovsky, who had instructed his servant to remind him when each piece was due, an indication of a certain reluctance towards the commission on his part. Whatever Tchaikovsky’s attitude may have been towards a bread-and-butter project, the work has much charm. The series of pieces takes the listener through the year, from the fireside in January to the sleigh-bells of the November troika and to Christmas. July portrays hay-cutting in Song of the Reaper.
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847) was Felix Mendelssohn’s elder sister and, like her younger brother, was prodigiously talented both as a pianist and a composer. Sadly, her career was restrained by early 19th-century attitudes toward women. Felix Mendelssohn wrote that publishing her music “would only disturb her in her primary duties” of managing her home. Nonetheless, she wrote over 250 lieder, 125 piano pieces, a string quartet, an overture, a piano trio and four cantatas.
Among those works for piano is a set of 12 characteristic pieces, Das Jahr (The Year). No. 7 is July, and I’ll leave it you to decide on your own picture behind the pianism.
Back to America for our final two pieces, the first being a movement from A Calendar Set by Judith Lang Zaimont (b. 1945). As the title implies, the collection of twelve short pieces is a musical commentary on the months of the year, with each prelude being written during the month it depicts. While Zaimont wrote the collection initially for her own personal use, critical acclaim and publication came in 2005 when the piece was selected as the winner of the Jabez Press Composition Invitational Competition. The work places a high priority on contrasts of mood, temperament and character. The July prelude also specifically hints at her home country’s national day in the subtitle The Glorious Fourth!
Having touched on that nationalist wavelength, there’s no better way to conclude this edition than with Charles Ives’ Holidays Symphony (1911-12), specifically the third movement titled The Fourth of July. In it, we hear Ives marshalling his self-taught techniques (that he would later refer to as polyrhythm, polytonality, collage, and so on) to fashion an uproarious impression of a holiday parade that ends in transcendent pandemonium with a final skyrocket.
“I remember distinctly, when I was scoring this,” Ives recalled, “that there was a feeling of freedom as a boy has, on the Fourth of July, who wants to do anything he wants to do, and that’s his one day to do it.”
The opening stream-of-consciousness haze is increasingly punctuated by scraps of marches, including trumpets and a fife-and-drum corps that seem to be warming up in the distance. There’s a sudden firecracker, apparently not an official one, and as the climactic parade approaches, Ives presents a film-like montage. Suddenly the fife-and drum corps is marching by, its piping drowned by the first skyrocket explosion (which Ives depicts in intricate polyrhythms). From there the music builds to the final brass-band peroration on Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, the effect extravagantly rowdy with the crowds whooping it up, and some not very sober bandsmen playing in the wrong key(s).
“They didn’t always play right and together,” Ives wrote of the amateur bands of his childhood, “and it was as good either way.” Then the big boom, the Aaaahs of the crowd and the dying fall of sparks as the music evaporates.