The next concerts in the National Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven & American Masters series will take place at the Kennedy Center on Friday, May 19 and Saturday, May 20: Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony paired with the Symphony No. 2 in G Minor, “Song of a New Race” by one of the most fascinating figures in twentieth-century music, American composer William Grant Still (1895-1978).
William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 2 had its first performance in Philadelphia in 1937. The composer regarded it as a kind of musical sequel to his Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American”, completed half a dozen years earlier, which musically evoked a Black American past with its blues idioms. This Second Symphony looks to the present and the embraces the possibilities of transformation as it looks to the future, as Still explained:
[The] Symphony [No. 2] in G minor is related to my Afro-American Symphony, being, in fact, a sort of extension or evolution of the latter. This relationship is implied musically through the affinity of the principal theme of the first movement of the Symphony in G minor to the principal theme of the fourth, or last, movement of the Afro-American.
The Afro-American Symphony represented the Negro of days not far removed from the Civil War. The Symphony in G minor represents the American colored man of today, in so many instances a totally new individual produced through the fusion of White, Indian, and Negro bloods.
Beethoven completed his Symphony No. 6, “Pastorale”, in 1808; its premiere (at the same concert as the first performances of his Fifth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto) was at the end of that year. The climax of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony is a terrifying storm; its dénouement is a sweeping, joyous song of communal thanksgiving (perhaps contrasting with the “Heiliger Dankgesang” of the 1825 A Minor String Quartet, which seems more an individual expression of gratitude). Is Still’s Symphony in G Minor the musical expression of a view of life after the tempests of enslavement, the Civil War and Jim Crow, looking toward a “totally new individual” forged from the indestructible iron of the Black American experience, gratefully embracing a newfound liberation that is at once particular and universal? In a letter to his friend and steadfast supporter Irving Schwerké, Still remarked: “It may be said that the purpose of the Symphony in G Minor is to point musically to changes wrought in a people through the progressive and transmuting spirit of America.” It is a work expressing optimism in the self-empowerment of a people.
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