Our latest digital residency is all about learning and sharing music by diverse musical voices. Too much incredible music has been overlooked in our history, and as young people passionate about diversity in our art-form, we want to educate ourselves and learn about how we can find a more equal way forward. Listen to these six pieces recommended by NYO and NYO Inspire musicians and find out why they are favourites…
Poem for Orchestra, William Grant Still
William Grant Still is one of my favourite composers, and I was particularly fascinated by the inspirations behind this specific piece. His wife, Verna Arney, said that this piece was 'inspired by the concept of a world being reborn spiritually after a period of darkness and desolation.' The Poem for Orchestra was written in 1944, in the midst of the Second World War. It amazes me that Still was able to write a piece functioning as a mechanism to instil hope in others, especially because as a Black man at the time, he would have experienced regular and extreme racism. However, on a musical level, I love the string section's melodies (I am slightly biased as a violinist!) and the overall harmonies of the piece. The final chord is left unresolved!
I also really enjoy this piece because Still retains his African identity through the use of blues features - these included blues notes and modal harmonies. William Grant Still composed nearly 200 works that sadly so many people don't know about, so you should definitely look at more of his music and educate others so that they know about it too!
Betania Johnny, violin
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Florence Price
Florence Price lived at a time where the Jim Crow Laws, which were laws that enforced racial segregation, were still in place. She fought against the prejudice towards African Americans as well as the prejudice towards women to become the first African American woman to be recognised as a symphonic composer. This piece is structured like a traditional European symphony, but the melodies are based on spirituals, folk songs and church music. I especially like the third movement – the Juba Dance, which is a lively, upbeat dance movement based on a dance that originated in West Africa and was brought over to the United States by African slaves.
I like this movement because it is joyful and the sounds are really unusual and fun. Keeping inspired during these Covid times has been difficult, but finding inspiring people during these times and throughout history, like Price who fought against all the odds placed against her and composed a piece that fused together two very different worlds of music, is so motivational and really inspires me.
Sakura Fish, violin
Treemonisha, Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin was an African-American pianist who was born in the late 1860’s. He was one of the foremost ragtime composers of his time, being viewed as the ‘King of Ragtime’ with his tunes such as The Entertainer and Maple Lead Rag. In the early 20th century, as a genre of music, ragtime was seen as the Afro-American version of the polka, which explains its upbeat and lively character. Joplin wrote his second of two operas, called Treemonisha, in 1911. It’s set in a former slave community in 1884 and tells the story of an rural African American community near Texarkana. The opera celebrates African American music and culture whilst stressing how education is their salvation moving forward in a post-slavery America.
I chose this piece because I’ve always loved Joplin’s piano music and was intrigued to discover more of his compositions. What makes Treemonisha different is that, like all operas, the relationship between the music and the acting is shown through visuals and dialogue which allows for a powerful and clear message to be conveyed. Musically, I loved listening to the different genres within the this piece (it fuses classical, folk, gospel and ragtime) and it was eye opening to explore different styles of music.
Isabella Azima, violin
Butterfly Lovers, He Zhanhao and Chen Gang
I’m proud to be part of NYO’s ambition to erase the social privilege of classical music, reflecting true heritage and variety. Thus, introducing Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto composed by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang (who were only students at the Shanghai conservatory)! Binding traditional east-Asian harmony of the pentatonic scale and native Chinese timbre with western instrumentation of the orchestra, it’s quite the classical hit in the east. It was composed in 1959, but only gained popularity after the cultural revolution in 1970, marking the end of one of the bloodiest eras of Chinese history. Some say it therefore represents hope and cultural liberation.
The concerto follows the ancient legend of ‘Liang Zhu’- a beautiful, tragic love story. It examines the burden of societal division and conformity- the constriction it bears upon us as the protagonists Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai find themselves unable to confess their love to each other. Their social differences drive them apart and subsequently Liang dies of illness. Zhu later stumbles across his grave and weeps. Thunder suddenly strikes the grave open and she instinctively jumps in to be with him. Moments later, two butterflies fly into the distance.
A beautiful story with even more beautiful music. I implore you to listen to this music. It has been too often neglected in the Western world.
Kynan Walker, violin
Symphony No. 1, William Grant Still
I came across this work whilst listening to a playlist of William Grant Still’s compositions and its fusion of musical traditions instantly caught my attention.
As a child, William Grant Still’s family encouraged his musical upbringing and the spirituals his grandmother sung to him later resurfaced in his future compositions. However, concerned that the societal limitations of the early 1900s would prevent him from enjoying a successful career as a Black composer, he studied medicine at university, where he instead spent his time composing, before dropping out.
A prominent theme in the Afro-American Symphony is its recurring blues melody, despite the fact that - at the time - its inclusion could cause some of the audience to perceive the work as unrefined. However, Grant Still’s writing is daring: the whole piece exhibits a fierce defence of emblems of African American culture, through use of syncopation, the influence of the pentatonic scale, spirituals and gospel music, as well as numerous allusions to the ‘call and response’ style found in much African music.
However, a century later, the idea that musical genres are mutually exclusive - especially amongst teenagers - still prevails. William Grant Still’s music proves that African American culture can co-exist beautifully with European musical tradition, and I believe that we can take inspiration from how he risked his reputation to integrate elements of his culture that were looked down upon.
Chloe Rayworth, violin
Adoration, Florence Price
When I first came across this piece, I sat at the piano and played it over and over again, about 10-15 times, because it brought me so much comfort! The piece was originally written for organ, but has been arranged for many different combinations of instruments. Its versatility as a beautiful piece of music is really shown off in the variety of arrangements.
Florence Price is noted as the first African American woman to be recognised as a symphonic composer and the first to have her work performed by a professional symphony orchestra. Despite the disadvantages she faced from society, due to being both Black and female, she managed to overcome all odds and has become an inspiration to many musicians today, including myself. Her music is very expressive and comforting, and it is clear to me that she was a respectful and loving person. She is definitely a composer I wish I could have met and gotten to know. Having listened to her music, I have managed to get know her to an extent and I look forward to continuing to explore her music and life.
Danushka Edirisinghe, cello
We’ve been creating musical responses which reflect on the topics covered during our digital residency and celebrate this music further, to watch the performances follow the hashtag #NYOMightyRiver.