Tina Davidson: “LEAP”

for Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano (World Premiere)

Tina Davidson (1952- ) was born in Sweden and was raised in Oneonta, NY, and Pittsburgh, PA. She received her BA in piano and composition from Bennington College in 1976. She has been active in promoting new music and women in music (notably composers). Over her forty-year career, Davidson has been commissioned by well-known organizations and ensembles, notably, the National Symphony Orchestra, OperaDelaware, Roanoke Symphony, Orchestra Society of Philadelphia, the Kronos Quartet, and the Mendelssohn String Quartet. In 1992, Davidson wrote a widely circulated article on women in music for Ms Magazine.

As with several other prominent American composers, grants and residencies have played an important role in her career as composer. We might mention only one prestigious award: the Pew Fellowship, which included a 5-figure stipend. One of the most fruitful residencies was part of the “Meet the Composer” series, in which she composed the full-length opera, Billy and Zelda.

Over her forty+-year career, Davidson has received commissions from several prominent organizations mentioned above and public television (WHYY-TV). Her music has been widely performed by many orchestras chamber ensembles, and opera companies. She was commissioned in 2011 by violinist Hilary Hahn for a work she recorded on the Deutsche Grammophon label. The compact disc won a Grammy Award in 2015. Davidson’s music can also be heard on several dependent labels

Leap was composed for pianist Natalie Zhu and the Kingston Chamber Music Festival by a commission from Shoko Nioka. The composer informs us that the word ”leap” comes from the Middle English lepen and the Old English hleapanwhen, defined as to make a large jump or sudden movement, usually from one place to another. She writes further, “When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves having leapt into a world unrecognizable, but not without its gifts.”

Leap is cast in two movements:

  1. Uncertain Ground
  2. Sudden Passage

Tina Davidson

Florence B. Price

Price, Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet

Florence B. Price (née Smith) (1887-1953) is a significant Black composer of concert music. Among her many other honors, Price was the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra.

She hailed from the area of Little Rock, Arkansas, where she graduated high school (as valedictorian) at the age of 14. Moving on to Boston’s New England Conservatory, she studied piano and organ, composing her first symphony and graduating with honors (1906) with a double major in organ and music education. Professor/Composer George Whitefield Chadwick continued to be a mentor to Price for many years. Returning to Arkansas, Florence taught at the college level, and in 1912, she married Attorney Thomas J. Price. Together they had two daughters and a son.

To escape racial oppression, the Price family moved to Chicago in 1927. There Florence began a long period of compositional activity. Notably, her Symphony in E minor won a major award and was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, conducting.

In 1931, the Prices divorced, and Florence soon moved in with her close friend, Margaret Bonds. At that point, Price’s most productive creative period began. In addition to orchestral, chamber, and piano music, she composed widely for the voice, leading to warm, valuable friendships with black singers Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes. (Anderson would usually end her recitals with a Black spiritual as arranged by Price.) In 1964, Chicago honored Price (posthumously) by naming an elementary school after her.

Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint were discovered some time after her death, but scholars place them in the 1930s. “Counterpoint” is the combining or interweaving of two or more different melodies at the same time. (Sometimes, as here, one melody predominates.) This produces a unique texture that was predominant in instrumental and vocal music from the 15th to the mid-18th century. It was J.S. Bach’s favorite texture in both his vocal and instrumental music. In the 20th century, counterpoint experienced a revival, especially among so-called “neo-classic” composers.

The music of Florence Price cannot be so easily pigeon-holed. For example, the Five Folksongs in Counterpoint . . . cut across dissimilar cultures to achieve a unique musical blend and listening experience:

Nos. 1 (“Calvary”) and 5 (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”) form a frame of African-American Spirituals (technically, not “folk songs,” but in essence they are.) No. 2 (“Oh My Darlin’, Clementine”) was a song partially about a gold-rush gold miner and his lady with a melody that also became popular in Spanish-speaking countries. No. 3 (“Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”) is a song with a long history dating back to British poet Ben Johnson and first published in 1616. No. 4 (“Shortnin’ Bread”), dating back to the 19th century, is the only true African-American folksong in the group. There are many verses and variants of the text, but the melody has remained basically the same.

Amy Marcy Cheney

Beach, Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 67

Amy Marcy Cheney (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) (1867-1944) was the first successful American woman composer. In Germany, there had been Clara Schumann; in England, it was Dame Ethel Smyth; and in the United States, it was Amy Beach. However, aside from her distinguished position in the Women’s Movement, Beach was such an accomplished composer that she has rightfully been placed in the New England School alongside the likes of Paine, Foote, Carpenter, and Chadwick. A child prodigy at the piano, Beach was educated privately in Boston, and as a teenager, she became a self-taught composer, making her first appearance in print at the age of 16. She was equally successful as a performer in both recitals and concertos. However, when Amy married Dr. H.H.A. Beach (who was older than her father), her social obligations required her to restrict performing to an occasional charity event. Dr. Beach encouraged her composing, however, and she later wrote, “My compositions gave me a larger field. From Boston, I could reach out to the world.” When her husband died in 1910, Beach was again free to perform publicly, which also boosted her reputation as a composer, especially in Germany. Living in New York from 1930, Beach managed an active career, collecting various honors, including two performances at the White House. Continuing to compose in a turn-of-the-century musical style, Beach’s music became dated and for a time nearly forgotten. However, the revival of music by women composers in recent years has re-established her prominent position in American music.

According to Leading biographical sources, The Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor is one of only three chamber music work composed by Beach (the others being a string quartet (1929) and a piano trio, (1936)). This state lends more value and dimension to the Piano Quintet (1907) as a Beach work. 

The atmospheric introductory Adagio soon leads to an energetic main first movement. Its themes and transitions show a variety of moods ranging from reflective to stormy. A quiet transition brings us the development of themes: contrasting dramatic moods next to quieter, reflective passages. The piano frequently occupies the spotlight until a soft, sentimental re-transition brings us to a restatement of chief themes and an echo of the opening Adagio.

Marked Adagio espessivo, the second movement, with its long, Romantic phrases is like an art song for instruments. Clearly atmospheric in its effect, we hear occasional solo passages from the strings backed by a quasi-virtuosic piano accompaniment. The ensemble pours out theme after Romantic theme. The whole ensemble becomes more passionate for a few moments, leading to a mini-concerto for the piano. In turn, this brings the listener back to restatements of earlier musical ideas in conclusion.

The Allegro agitato that follows, constitutes the finale. Centrally comes a significant, slow cello solo to which the other strings and piano then add passionate exploratory lines. A busy-sounding tutti passage leads to a reprise of ides from the middle movement focusing strongly on the piano and first violin. The whole ensemble, now becoming passionate, restates the main theme in conclusive fashion to bring the Piano Quintet to a rousing finish.

Epilogue . . .

This program of music is something of a panoply of American women composers. Amy Beach represents he early Women’s Movement, when “the vote” was the biggest issue. Her work echoes strongly the dominant influence of Late-Romantic Central European composers on American composers around the turn of the 20th century. Yet she broke new ground in the concert hall with performances of orchestral and vocal music by a female composer.

Florence Price was a pioneer among both women composers and Black classical-music composers. Her Piano Concerto and four Symphonies attest to her seriousness regarding concert music, which won contest prizes. Her orchestral music was performed frequently, chiefly by The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

After the end of World War II (1945), women made great strides in contemporary music. The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music was Ellen Taaffe Zwilich in 1983. The youngest recipient of the Prize was Caroline Shaw in 2013 at the astonishingly young age of 31. Since then, four other women have won the Prize. (Shaw was also the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer in Music up to that time.)

Ultimately, the most usual profile of American composers overcame the “university composer” (who serves on a university/college music faculty). Tina Davidson has been able to work around this time-consuming occupation, supporting herself chiefly from lucrative commissions and residencies. Only a few of her residencies have involved teaching, and those have usually been with non-traditional education. Her compositions are fresh and original, and most come from deep inside her.

Program notes by Dr. Michael Fink

Ellen Taaffe Zwillich