In Ken Burns’ Jazz, a documentary film series on the history of jazz music, we learn how this music form is truly “an improvisational art.” It is “America’s music,” as restless and yearning as the country itself since its beginnings and as much a multicultural melting pot.
Jazz is filled with contradictions: both self-expressive and collaborative, anchored deep in the blues of the 19th century but always changing, steeped in its own particular traditions but reborn as something different every night, on every stage. Simple and complex, dressing up or dressing down depending on the moment, losing everything but still reveling in the power of love.
Jazz also gave America its own collection of royalty: a king (Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing”), a duke (Duke Ellington), a count (Count Basie), a lady (Billie Holiday, “Lady Day”), a prince (Miles Davis, the “Prince of Darkness”), and many more. The new sound produced by these distinct personalities caused the entire world to get up and dance.
Jazz remains one of the few uniting commonalities among Americans across multiple ages, backgrounds, and points of view.
Telling the story of an American art
From the ragtime tunes played at the turn of the 20th century, through the “hot” jazz of a generation later, to the cool fusion of recent years, jazz is truly, as the documentary’s trailer says, “America’s soundtrack.”
Exploring Burns’ beloved 10-episode documentary series Jazz is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the rich and varied history, the sheer artistry, and the moving human stories of this uniquely American musical form. As the New York Times’ review of the documentary noted at its debut, it is not too far-fetched to claim that, through its ability to mingle and blend a diverse group of people and cultures over the past century and more, jazz has given us a way of “mirroring the ideals of democracy.”
Now, Burns and PBS have made full-length episodes of Jazz available for free on the PBS website, bringing the documentary within reach of home educators everywhere. Fans can also purchase the DVD or Blu-ray set or the accompanying richly illustrated book Jazz: A History of America’s Music, by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns.
A rich mixture of everything good
The first episode of Jazz, “Gumbo,” introduces us to jazz’s origins. With deep roots in the African American spirituals and work songs dating from the days of slavery, amplified by soul-stirring New Orleans blues, jazz came into its own as a distinct musical voice in the 1890s. In this chapter, we meet the Black musicians who took these elements, mixed in the vibrant local sounds of marching bands, Caribbean beats, Italian opera masterpieces, and minstrel show tunes, and set it all to the quick-time syncopation of ragtime—this was a gumbo unlike anything American had seen.
They named a decade after it
Episode 2, “The Gift,” tells the story of the 1920s Jazz Age as jazz spreads far beyond New Orleans. Paul Whiteman develops a symphonic style of jazz, slower and sweeter, with a new appeal to “mainstream” white listeners. Louis Armstrong comes out of the streets of New Orleans to Chicago and assembles a powerhouse band of both Black and white musicians whose swing style electrifies a new generation, as Duke Ellington sets up his ensembles in New York’s Harlem and introduces his smooth blue style.
Episode 3, “Our Language,” takes us through the rest of the Jazz Age when voices of solo singers like Bessie Smith take the spotlight, and as jazz proves to be the ticket out of limited circumstances for clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, both sons of Jewish immigrants, while Duke Ellington begins his storied tenure at the Cotton Club.
Swing tunes and roadhouse stomp
In “The True Welcome,” Episode 4, we learn how jazz proves one of the few joys left to a nation sunk in the depths of the Great Depression. Swing music and dance take center stage in Episode 5, “Swing: Pure Pleasure.”
Episode 6 shows us “The Velocity of Celebration,” as the 1930s move into the ‘40s, bringing with it a new sound: the pounding, stomping, blues-laden sound that starts in Black American juke joints and roundhouses, soon wildly popular as played by Lester Young and Count Basie. Benny Goodman delivers a legendary performance at Carnegie Hall, Billie Holiday makes the grim lyricism of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” her signature, and a young unknown singer named Ella Fitzgerald steps in front of a mike for the first time. Plus, Duke Ellington takes a triumphant tour of Europe as the events unfold that will soon ignite World War II.
The soundtrack of modern American life
Episode 7, “Dedicated to Chaos,” demonstrates the powerful role of jazz in lifting the morale of the troops overseas as it embodies the spirit of individual freedom and democracy in every irreverent, improvisational note. Arranger Billy Strayhorn joins Duke Ellington’s band, lifting its performances into a new level of sublimity. And Charlie Parker on saxophone and Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet join virtuoso forces on the now-iconic “Koko,” which opens the floodgates of bebop style.
In “Risk,” Episode 8, jazz changes as the world does. The Cold War brings undreamt-of peace and prosperity in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, as well as a new dissonance, broken rhythm, and sense of tension to America’s favorite musical form. In Episode 9, “The Adventure,” we see how widespread access to the trappings of popular culture and television, along with the other amenities of a comfortable suburban existence, overlay a growing sense of crisis in the music as well as in everyday life.
And in “A Masterpiece by Midnight,” the series concludes in the 1960s and early ‘70s, with jazz quickly losing ground to rock-and-roll. We lose legends John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, while numerous surviving jazz greats struggle to make ends meet. Miles Davis takes his gifts as trumpeter and composer in a new direction, creating fusion, a blend of jazz and rock, and a flurry of blended styles emerge.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, whose commentary and reminiscences as senior creative consultant expanded and enriched Burns’ series, said in a 2001 interview that jazz is a reflection of the totality of the Black American experience in its ability to improvise, to take a theme and shape and change it, and to expand boundaries and create new possibilities in ways that no one had ever thought of before.
This Is What You Need to Know about African-American Spirituals and Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák is among the world’s great masters of 19th century symphonic form. His Ninth Symphony has achieved lasting popularity among the professional musicians who appreciate its technical achievements, as well as among generations of listeners who love it for its captivating melodies, grandeur of expression, and echoes of American—notably African-American—folk music themes.
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, is specifically entitled “From the New World.” Here’s what you need to know about the composer, his Ninth Symphony, and its connection to African-American spirituals:
Dvořák’s Immigration to New York
Dvořák arrived in the United States in September 1892, wife and children accompanying him. He was taking up a position as music director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, hired away from Prague by wealthy patron of the arts Jeannette Thurber.
The salary was 25 times what Dvořák earned back home, and even came with a perk: he would have summers off. The composer remained in New York until April 1895, working on composing music that incorporated American themes.
He finished an “American” string quartet while on summer vacation in the Czech-American town of Spillville in Iowa. Dvořák also conducted a special “Bohemian Day” at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. And he composed the New World Symphony.
The “New World” Symphony
He completed the score for the “New World” Symphony in May 1893. One of the reasons Dvořák may have felt a strong connection with African-American folk music was his own Czech cultural nationalism. The Bohemian lands of what would become the Czech Republic were then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
A Czech nationalist revival gathered force throughout the 19th century, promoting Czech as an alternative to the German language, and elevating Czech folklore themes in literature, art, and music. Dvořák was among the leading exemplars of this Czech national pride.
The New York Philharmonic debuted the Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893. The now-storied venue had only been open for 18 months. Dvořák himself, who had previously conducted at Carnegie Hall on four occasions during his sojourn in the United States, was present in the audience, with the Philharmonic under the leadership of Anton Seidl.
The Influence of Harry Thacker Burleigh
The National Conservatory, in a rare decision for its time, opened its doors to talented music students regardless of ethnic background or family connections. This included many Black students. Several of the professional connections Dvořák made during his tenure brought African-American music to his attention.
One such connection was Harry Thacker Burleigh, the son of an Erie, Pennsylvania, domestic worker. Although Burleigh’s mother had a classical education and knew Greek and French, no other employment was available to her. Always musical, the young Burleigh took a number of clerical jobs, including that of librarian for the National Conservatory’s orchestra while he was studying there on scholarship.
Conductors typically work closely with an orchestra’s librarian. This was certainly true of Burleigh and Dvořák. Operetta composer Victor Herbert later noted that Burleigh provided Dvořák with a number of themes used in the Ninth Symphony. This contemporaneous evidence is particularly notable in light of the fact that, even today, some sources discount the influence of African-American musicians on the symphony.
Burleigh often sang the spirituals he had learned from his blind grandfather—an enslaved man who later purchased his freedom—for the Czech composer. He, in turn, was a defining influence on Burleigh’s later career as a singer, teacher, and composer.
The Influence of Will Marion Cook
Will Marion Cook, a young violinist and Dvořák’s student at the conservatory, also deepened the great composer’s knowledge of the rich heritage of what were then called “Negro spirituals.” Cook, born in Washington, DC to a middle-class family, would go on to become a noted conductor, composer of Broadway musicals, and teacher of a young Duke Ellington.
The Library of Congress lists Cook among the greatest African-American musical talents before the Jazz Age. Cook himself first encountered African-American folk songs when he, at age 12, was sent to visit his grandfather in Tennessee.
Dvořák himself later wrote, using the language of the day, that any truly American music would need to draw its main inspiration from “Negro melodies or Indian chants.” He went on to say that “the most potent as well as most beautiful among them” were the “plantation melodies and slave songs,” with their “unusual and subtle harmonies.” Harry Burleigh recalled Dvořák once remarking that the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” was equal in greatness to any of the works of Beethoven.
The New World Symphony uses numerous elements that distinguish the spirituals anchored in the lives of enslaved Americans: pentatonic scales, syncopation, and flattened sevenths. While musicologists still debate whether or not Dvořák literally transported traditional spirituals into the work note-for-note, there is no doubt that it was heavily influenced by them, as the composer himself attested.
Music scholar Joseph Horowitz told NPR in 2019 that the African-American influences on classical music—on Dvořák in particular—are part of “buried history.” The Czech composer, said Horowitz, became “consumed” by a desire to show America a truer musical portrait of itself by highlighting this contribution to a renewed and more authentically American style.
In the first movement of the New World Symphony, the second theme echoes the melody of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” In the lyrical Largo second movement, Dvořák developed what is now called the “Goin’ Home” theme, played by English horn. Beloved by generations of Americans, this theme is Dvořák’s creation, although it certainly references traditional African-American melodies and harmonies he had picked up.
The theme only acquired words in 1922. William Arms Fisher, one of Dvořák’s white students, wrote the lyrics. They referenced the beauty and power of traditional spirituals. African-American churches, along with many others, have adopted the melody into numerous hymnbooks.
Notable Performances of “Goin’ Home”
“Goin’ Home” was played in tribute by an African-American US Navy accordionist, Graham W. Jackson, in Warm Springs, Georgia, after President Franklin Roosevelt died there. In 1949, Black pianist Art Tatum composed the “Largo” swing, referencing Dvořák’s tune, and in 1958, Paul Robeson famously performed “Goin’ Home” at Carnegie Hall.
The haunting, transformative power of this piece of music has moved people all over the world. In one recent notable performance, the Silk Road Ensemble recorded it under the direction of Yo-Yo Ma. The performance featured a Chinese sheng and an American banjo, with a singer performing in both Mandarin and English.
In 1904, Dvořák died in Prague at age 63. One of his obituaries noted the sorrow of so many music lovers, saying specifically that “Afro-American musicians alone could flood his grave with tears.”
Music and literature have met and mingled countless times, as composers have taken inspiration from poems, plays, novels, and stories to create listening experiences that bring out new dimensions of original literary works. Many of these musical pieces have become classics in their own right, part of the lasting cultural heritage of humanity.
One of the great American poets, Langston Hughes (1901 or 1902 - 1967), is today remembered as a writer who gave voice to the hopes, dreams, and common experiences of African Americans. A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance in New York, Hughes wrote in numerous genres, but is best-remembered today for his lyrical poems that contain a sense of both the joy of living and the painful path of history within their sinuous lines.
Hughes drew enormous inspiration from music to feed his creative process throughout his life. Composer Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes developed an enduring personal friendship that began a decade after she discovered his poems as a teenage music student at Northwestern University in 1929.
Their Friendship Began with His Poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” shortly after his high school graduation. The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, published the poem in 1921. Hughes went on to study at Columbia University, becoming immersed in New York’s vibrant cultural scene, which he soon helped shape.
“I have known rivers,” the poem opens. Its lines wind down through history, as Hughes’ voices speaks on behalf of the millions of voiceless Black and Brown men and women over centuries who lived, loved, dreamed, and died beside the world’s great rivers, from the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Congo, to the Mississippi.
Margaret Bonds (1913 - 1972) was an accomplished musician and composer who had begun composing at age 13. According to Bonds, Northwestern University was a “terribly prejudiced place.” She had made enormous sacrifices to be able to study at a well-known school, and she won prizes in piano and composition during her time there. Yet, due to the practice of segregation, she was not even allowed to use the Northwestern swimming pool. Restaurants in the area refused to serve her.
Then one day, going through books at her neighborhood public library outside Chicago, Bonds began reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” from Hughes’ first poetry collection, The Weary Blues. Reading it gave her a sense of security, a belief that she, as a young, African American woman, had a rightful place in the world. “I know that poem helped save me,” she said.
After They Met, They Began a Long and Fruitful Collaboration
Bonds’ discovery of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was the touchstone that led her and Hughes to a decades-long artistic collaboration. She finally met him after she finished her university education, at the home of a mutual friend. They became inseparable, “like brother and sister,” Bonds later said, getting to know each other’s families and becoming comfortable in one another’s homes.
Bonds even often sent Hughes melodies she had composed, asking him to write lyrics for them. By the mid-1930s, she had set numerous Hughes compositions to music, including “Poème d’Automne,” “Winter Moon,” and “Joy.” Bonds’ interpretation of Hughes’ “Love’s Runnin’ Riot” went on to be performed and recorded by Duke Ellington. In 1940, Hughes and Bonds worked on the revue Tropics After Dark, collaborating with Arna Bontemps, another writer who played a key role in the Harlem Renaissance.
Bonds set “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” to music in 1941. Bonds’ music unwinds Hughes’ words at a stately and sonorous pace as it sets to music the historical events in which Black people moved through the world through deliberate or forced migrations. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” remains perhaps Bonds’ most often-performed art piece, and she always remembered it as among her favorites.
Their Collaboration Culminated with the Now-Famous Three Dream Portraits
The 1959 Three Dream Portraits is a song cycle of three Hughes poems set to music by Bonds. “Minstrel Man,” once notably recorded as a poem read by legendary African American bass-baritone Paul Robeson, is a soliloquy juxtaposing the speaker’s outward mask of frivolity with his inner pain. The irony lies in the fact that this pain went largely unnoticed by the white audiences that typically attended minstrel shows.
“Dream Variation,” the center movement, speaks of “a place in the sun.” It is filled with harmonies gathered from world cultures beyond American borders, and has a joyous sense of movement through dance.
The concluding movement, “I, Too,” uses Hughes’ poignant yet ringing words, “I, too, sing America.” Even as the speaker, the “darker brother,” is banished and forced to eat in the kitchen, he feels that when others “see how beautiful I am,” they will invite him to the table, ashamed that they ever excluded him. Critics note that Bonds’ music becomes more self-assured with each of the three movements. It reaches a crescendo of confidence toward the end of “I, Too” that winds down into wistful uncertainty by its concluding notes.
This artistic choice by Bonds in the late 1950s mirrored the world around her. The Civil Rights struggle was beginning to gain momentum, with enormous struggle and loss ahead. When Bonds wrote her music for Hughes’ words, the outcome of this struggle was still unknown. Three Dream Portraits remains a deeply meaningful work more than half a century later.
Music has a way of strengthening a sense of community as it uplifts people’s spirits and brings them together to enjoy an experience transcending the borders of language. Today, as the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the world, people sheltering in place are rediscovering how music can create a joyous shared event even when they are physically apart.
With about half of the world’s population under lockdown or quarantine by the beginning of April 2020, professional musicians and singers—and everyday people of all ages and backgrounds—have found joy in using Zoom, Skype, and other types of video and audio technology to make music together while safely socially distanced.
As Italy went under lockdown orders, citizens began to sing to one another across their balconies, leaning out their windows, or standing on their roofs. More and more viral videos showed these scenes repeated across Spain, France, India, Israel, the United States, and many other countries.
Online orchestras and ensembles that are unable to perform together in the same space have harmonized online through the medium of 21st-century technology, while star-studded benefit galas featuring socially distanced performers raised money to help first responders, patients, and those who had lost jobs and homes in the lengthening shadow of the pandemic.
Why we need music now
Musicologists and psychologists point to the desire to bond with other people through music as a central human attribute. Human beings seem to possess an innate need to make connections with others—the kind of face-to-face connection that social media, phone calls, and even video chats can’t provide.
Yet when you add music to the online mix, people tend to feel closer. Music can be a powerful counterweight to the widespread feelings of social isolation and alienation, particularly in the present crisis.
Research has demonstrated that humans produce more oxytocin, known as a “bonding” hormone, during choral singing or when otherwise sharing music. And with increased oxytocin levels come increased feelings of comfort, safety, and peace.
Popular music unites the world
One World: Together at Home was one of the most-watched—and most moving—benefit concerts in recent memory. While raising money to support food banks and affordable housing, as well as treatment and vaccine development at the World Health Organization, the live-streamed April 18 concert touched the hearts of people all over the world.
Favorite artists such as Lady Gaga, Elton John, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Lopez, John Legend, Billie Eilish, and Lizzo created moving moments for viewers, who saw them in a
new and personal way as they performed from their homes.
The eight-hour production, curated by Lady Gaga and produced by the group Global Citizen, is thought to be the largest musical fundraiser held since 1985’s Live Aid, which supported African famine relief. One World: Together at Home ended up raising more than $127 million for coronavirus relief efforts.
Technology democratizes great opera
The Metropolitan Opera in New York, shut down like all other performing arts venues in the city, held its virtual At-Home Gala concert on April 25. The four-hour event featured more than 40 of the biggest names in opera performing via Skype. The event supported the Met’s fundraising campaign to keep its company’s future secure.
Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted and performed on the piano from his Montreal home. Performers included American soprano Renée Fleming, who sang “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s Otello, with her Virginia garden visible in bloom in the background.
Soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Yusif Eyvazov performed from Vienna, with Netrebko delivering a passionate version of Rachmaninoff’s reworking of Georgian folk melodies. From her warm yellow-walled living room in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, soprano Lisette Oropesa performed “En vain j'espère” (“I hope in vain”) from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, with pre-recorded accompaniment by renowned pianist Michael Borowitz.
In addition to its artistic quality, the entire production drew rave reviews for the high quality of its technical support, showing how some of the best minds today are stepping up to creative challenges that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.
Alone, a beloved singer brings people together
Another remarkable performance set a record for the largest audience to simultaneously view a classical music live stream on YouTube. On Easter Sunday, tenor Andrea Bocelli gave a Music for Hope concert from Milan’s Il Duomo cathedral. Alone except for his socially distanced accompanist at the organ, Bocelli sang sacred pieces composed by Gounod, Mascagni, Rossini, and others, and concluded by standing alone outside on the cathedral steps.
As Bocelli sang the hymn “Amazing Grace,” the camera soared up and out over the architecturally stunning cathedral and across the cityscape of Milan. Bocelli said that he believed in the power of music to bring people together, and his performance touched millions around the world, particularly those in northern Italy enduring some of the most sobering days of the pandemic.
There is a variety of jobs for music teachers out there, from band and choir directors, to academy and university instructors, to vocal coaches, just to name a few. One thing all these types of music instructors have in common is the variety of professional organizations available to support them in broadening their networks and keeping their skills sharp. Here are a few of the best known and most respected.
1. MTNA – Close to 150 years of networking and advocacy
The Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) is one of the oldest professional groups for music teachers. Established in 1876, MTNA aims to make music study more accessible while highlighting the value of music to the general public.
The organization’s 20,000+ members have access to extensive professional development programs, conduits to new performance opportunities for their students at every stage of proficiency, and numerous opportunities to meet fellow teachers, leaders in the field, and potential mentors. Members may also join active forums meant for specific group subsets, such as college professors or independent instructors.
Membership includes a subscription to the organization’s flagship publication, American Music Teacher, as well as an online journal and access to a professional certification program. Members can additionally take advantage of discounted
conference and programming fees.
Though MTNA works in-depth at the local, state, and national levels, members must typically join at the state or local tier to participate in national programs.
Any state chapter may request MTNA funding to pay for the commission of new work from a specific composer. From among these commissions, the national organization selects a recipient of its annual Distinguished Composer of the Year award. Also, the MTNA Foundation Fund accepts donations in support of programs that foster the study and teaching of music, as well as its appreciation, creation, and performance.
2. NAfME – A comprehensive teaching and learning resource
Like MTNA, the National Association for Music Education, or NAfME, is more than a century old. Founded in 1907, the group has grown to become one of the largest arts-centered nonprofits in the world. NAfME’s focus is comprehensive, making it the sole organization of its kind devoted to every aspect of music teaching and learning.
NAfME works to ensure that music students at every level have the resources and access to instruction with highly trained and responsive teachers while promoting rigorous standards for the teaching and learning of music. Like MTNA, NAfME works at multiple regional levels—local, state, and national—and has built a depth of experience and engagement among its members.
Members have access to numerous professional development opportunities, and membership is open to teachers working in any type of organization and in any capacity. Teaching Music magazine is only one of NAfME’s publications aimed at working instructors.
NAfME’s members share a concern for diversity, inclusion, and access in the music profession. The organization’s noteworthy advocacy efforts include its regular visits to lawmakers to educate them on the importance of music funding.
NAfME’s wealth of online resources, such as webinars and other Internet-based development content, is especially useful as the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the teaching and learning of all subjects.
In addition to its value to professional instructors, NAfME offers several resources for students and parents, many of them freely available on the NAfME website.
3. ISME – Promoting music as everyone’s cultural heritage
The International Society for Music Education, or ISME, is the leading global organization devoted to music education. It works to enhance the appreciation of the role of music in creating a vibrant, meaningful cultural life for all the world’s people.
Affiliated with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and its non-governmental organization, the International Music Council, ISME maintains a presence in more than 80 nations. A significant part of its mission focuses on championing the right of every person to an enriching and accessible music education, promoting wide-ranging scholarship in the field of music, and upholding the values of diversity and respect among all cultures.
ISME traces its beginnings back to a UNESCO conference in 1953, which ended with participant representatives pledging to promote music education over the long term. Today, the organization, headquartered in Australia, continues to emphasize this mission, functioning as a global networking site for music teachers looking for ways to celebrate the diversity of the world’s music and preserve it as a valuable part of humanity’s cultural heritage.
Members can join ISME under any of several categories that meet the needs of individuals, students, current and retired instructors, and groups.
The 2020 World Conference was slated for Helsinki in August, but due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the event has been canceled. Even in the face of this unavoidable outcome, organizers are committed to publishing all previously accepted full papers as part of its conference proceedings and repurposing the content of accepted presentations as virtual educational opportunities.
Folk songs serve as a repository of musical and cultural history in countries around the world and are among the favorite ways for children and adults to learn music appreciation. In addition, it holds a place in music education through approaches like the Kodály Method, a system of music instruction named for its founder, the renowned 20th century Hungarian composer and musicologist Zoltán Kodály. It relies heavily on folk songs as teaching instruments for musical concepts and basic skills. The idea is that teaching children folk songs from their native lands and those of people throughout the world transmits a rich cultural heritage, along with a knowledge of rhythm, lyricism, structure, and form.
Folk songs encompass rural and traditional music that originated in a particular region and that were passed down orally from one generation to another. They have also been collected by musicians and music historians, such as Kodály and his colleague, composer Béla Bartók. They devoted years of their lives to traveling the Hungarian and Romanian countryside to collect thousands of traditional ballads and songs.
Similarly, the collection known as the Child Ballads is an anthology of English and Scottish folk music dating from the 17th and 18th centuries and amassed by Harvard professor and folklorist Francis James Child. It features numerous pieces, and modern musicians have adapted many for contemporary audiences. One example is Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.”
Here is a look at a few traditional folk songs that continue to be appreciated to this day:
The haunting English folk song “Greensleeves,” which dates from sometime in the 16th century, first became a registered ballad in 1580. Its simple and expressive lyrics proclaim the singer’s longing for “Lady Greensleeves,” and he laments that she spurns his affections. For the past four centuries, scholars and the general public have been fascinated by and have speculated over the song’s origins.
One theory ascribes the composition of its lyrics, tunes, or both to King Henry VIII, in reference of his mistress and later queen, Anne Boleyn. Most historians and musicologists dispute this idea and instead date the song to the later Elizabethan era. This is in part because “Greensleeves” contains Spanish or Italian musical elements that were unlikely to have reached England until the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
Patriotic Irish musicologist and historian William Henry Grattan Flood included the song in his 1905 book on the history of Irish music, in which he claim that it was of Irish origin. However, Flood was known for attributing numerous elements in anything that he fancied to Ireland, often with no supporting evidence.
“Greensleeves” is a unique tune, and its reprise is grounded in a melodic and harmonic formula called romanesca. This composition uses a descending descant musical formula built on sequences of four recurring bass chords that create a fluidly-rolling tune. Romanesca was common for singing poetry in the 16th and 17th centuries.
2. “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”
“Sur le Pont d’Avignon” (“On the Bridge of Avignon”) is among the best-known French folk songs and a staple of French children’s music programs. The repetitious lyrics tell of a dance on the Saint Bénezet bridge in Avignon, during which “handsome gentlemen” and “lovely ladies” dance all around while moving in the opposite direction from one another, then reverse direction. Scholars trace the song to the 15th century.
The bridge itself is named for a young shepherd who purportedly received a call from heaven to build it, and it was created over the River Rhône in the 12th century. In the late 1600s, a flood swept most of it away, although four arches still stand. These remains are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Sur le Pont d’Avignon” and its idea of dancing on a bridge has been discredited by historians, who point out that it was more likely that people danced under it on an island in the middle of the river. Scholars state that the song was first titled “Sous le Pont d’Avignon,” meaning “under the bridge of Avignon.”
3. “A Csitári Hegyek Alatt”
“A Csitári Hegyek Alatt” (“Under the Csitári Mountains” in English) is among the most popular Hungarian folk songs and composed in a style that approaches a traditional mode structure. The song’s lyrics relay a sad tale grounded in themes of love and jealousy.
Kodály included “A Csitári Hegyek Alatt” among his special arrangements of key Hungarian traditional pieces, although he added an additional verse. Additionally, the enduring popularity of the song is evident through its frequent covers by contemporary artists who perform it in various styles, such as the British band Oi Va Voi in their album Laughter Through Tears. Andor Kovács and Gyula Kovács made a jazz version of the song’s tune for their 2000 album Guitar-Drums Battle.
The artistry shown in a violin performance is highly individual and subjective. Most musicians can achieve competence in playing the instrument. However, if you have shown the interpretative sensitivity, technical virtuosity, charm of personality, or striking originality of expression that moves them into a class by themselves.
Here are short biographies of four outstanding performers whose dedication and talent have moved audiences over the centuries.
1. Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini (1782 - 1840) is perhaps the first musician who can be considered a virtuoso of the instrument. He remains venerated by violinists and the general public alike. His charisma garnered him a cult-like following during his lifetime. His impact on the entire later history of how the violin is played, and how violinists perform on stage, cannot be overestimated.
Born in Genoa, Italy, Paganini debuted as a performer the year he turned 11. As a young man, he toured Lombardy while also getting entangled in a number of romantic escapades. At one point he pawned his violin to settle his gambling debts. Biographers record the story that a French merchant then gave him a Guarneri in recognition of his talents.
Paganini was also a gifted composer. His 24 Capricci for Solo Violin remain staples of the classical repertoire. From 1828 onward, he undertook tours of England, Scotland, and the Continent, amassing a personal fortune in the process. It was Paganini who commissioned the great French composer Hector Berlioz to create the symphony Harold in Italy, although the virtuoso considered the work unchallenging and never performed it.
Paganini’s technique called on a wide-ranging scheme of harmonics and his talent for playing pizzicati. He made up his own innovative methods for tuning and fingering, and displayed a genius for improvisation. A whole raft of legends grew up around this Romantic-era figure, including one that says he got his extraordinary musicianship thanks to a deal with the devil.
2. Jascha Haifetz
Jascha Heifetz (1901 - 1974) started his career as a violinist when he was 5 years old. He was soon playing in Berlin, Prague, and Warsaw and performing complex works that included Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. At age 16, he enjoyed a spectacular debut at Carnegie Hall.
The young refugee from Lithuania gave a performance that one music historian has called “like electricity.” Heifetz showed not only an almost unbelievable level of technical proficiency in his instrument, but an immense warmth of feeling and interpretation to match.
Heifetz obtained United States citizenship at age 24 and thereafter toured the world. He commissioned a number of violin concertos and himself became a noted transcriber of great works by Bach and Vivaldi into pieces for the violin. Later in life, he taught at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Heifetz was one of the undisputed 20th-century masters of the violin. PBS showcased his legacy in a special broadcast in its American Masters series that called him “God’s Fiddler.”
3. Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman, born in 1945, often tops critics’ lists of the greatest living classical violinists. He has an instantly recognizable bold and exuberant technique. He has remarked that the best technique doesn’t reside in the ability to elicit notes rapidly from the instrument, but in the capacity to evoke rich and surprising tone and color.
A renowned teacher and composer as well as a performer, the Israeli-born Perlman has become a pop culture icon. Between the years 1977 and 1995, he racked up 15 Grammy Awards. He is also the recipient of a U. S. Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor, and numerous other accolades.
Perlman has also made appearances on the children’s educational television show Sesame Street. In a 1981 segment, he movingly demonstrated the difference between “easy” and “hard,” walking onto the stage using crutches (the result of childhood polio) before taking up his violin to play a lively passage.
Perlman’s focus on teaching and philanthropy is exemplified in the Perlman Music Program he and his wife established in the 1990s. The program provides training and support to teen string musicians of exceptional promise.
4. Hilary Hahn
Hilary Hahn, born in 1979, is known for her dynamic, sensitive interpretations of works by a varied list of composers from Bach to Stravinsky. She began studying the Suzuki method at age 4, made her orchestral debut at age 11 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, performed on her first classical recording at 16, and has gone on to receive numerous international awards, including two Grammys before she turned 30.
In 2015, she received her third Grammy for her album In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. In hundreds of live solo performances, she has been accompanied by the world’s premier orchestras.
Hahn has spent her career making classical music accessible to younger audiences. She has performed for films and with alternative rock groups, and has cut a string of successful classical albums, always with a warm and personal approach. Hahn’s popular social media accounts, a signature component of her educational mission, feature running commentary from the point of view of her violin case as it travels with her around the world.
In 2010, American composer Jennifer Higdon received a Pulitzer Prize for the violin concerto she wrote specifically for Hahn. Higdon created a piece combining technical virtuoso flourishes with deep, meditative flow, which she tailored to Hahn’s immense lyrical range and ability to negotiate complex changes in meter.
Music therapy has long been recognized as a way to help patients heal from trauma. Music-focused therapy offers multiple benefits: it can foster positive social relationships, reduce feelings of anxiety, modulate the intensity of emotionally fraught memories, and bring about emotional catharsis as patients work through painful events.
Music therapists have assisted people who have experienced some of the most terrifying natural disasters and terror attacks in recent history. For instance, therapists have brought the healing powers of music to survivors of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, mass shootings, and war and conflict zones around the world.
A tested healing profession
The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) offers a concise definition of its field: Music therapy is anchored in clinically verified and evidence-based practices designed to help patients achieve their therapeutic goals in collaboration with professionals credentialed through an approved music therapy program.
A professional qualified in music therapy can assist clients in a variety of settings, including private practice, public hospitals, mental health clinics, substance abuse treatment facilities, and more.
A century-old treatment for trauma
Music therapy as a means of healing after trauma first gained currency in the United States after American physicians began treating soldiers who developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during service in the First World War. Today, music therapy and its practitioners are part of a well-established medical and psychiatric tradition.
Building multiple types of resilience
Music therapy is not a “cure” for the aftermath of trauma, but it can help patients of all ages strengthen their understanding of their emotions and acquire positive skills for coping with long-term symptoms.
The AMTA’s principal findings on the efficacy of music therapy note that it can be effective in strengthening patients’ ability to function successfully in terms of their emotions, reasoning capacity, relationships, and overall behavior.
When successfully practiced, music therapy can also ease muscle tension, and it can be conducive to promoting greater relaxation and increased openness in interpersonal relationships.
Going where words cannot
For people who have experienced trauma, music can provide a deeply important means of communicating what they urgently need to express—without words. Music therapists often point out that their patients need to be reassured that the often-overpowering emotions they may feel in response to trauma are normal and valid. Patients also sometimes need “permission” to explore what are often threatening or negative emotions surrounding the events of their trauma, in a safe environment.
Music therapy has shown the ability to provide a wordless way for patients to express fraught or uncomfortable emotions about traumatic experiences. The non-invasive, non-judgmental aspect of music therapy is particularly important to note here. Patients can pour their feelings into listening to or performing highly expressive, artistic creations without fear of the negative reactions or judgments of others.
While talk therapies are often very helpful to patients, experts point out that music therapy offers the advantage of providing clients with a quick resource for tapping into previously ignored or threatening feelings and memories. In certain instances, music therapy has even been shown to lead to shorter inpatient stays and a better fulfillment of clients' larger goals for treatment.
Increasing confidence and control
Music therapy can also help patients to feel more in control of their own emotions and can give their self-confidence and feeling of personal empowerment a much-needed boost. For people who have undergone traumatic experiences, this is especially needed. Many people who have been traumatized feel confused, bewildered, and powerless. They may feel as though life has become chaotic and that nothing—and no one—can be trusted.
In addition, music therapy can assist people in reconnecting with their loved ones in positive ways, reestablishing bonds of intimacy that may have been strained or broken under the strain of the trauma.
Stress reduction is perhaps one of the most meaningful and most studied benefits of music therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, a study of pre-term babies in a neonatal intensive care unit suggested that lullabies may have the power to soothe infants and their parents, who find themselves in the midst of a bewildering array of medically necessary, but intrusive and noisy machinery. The researchers in this 2013 study also surmised that the soothing music might have the ability to regulate the babies’ sleep habits.
Interestingly, of all the methods of delivering the music to the babies, singing was the most effective at slowing their heart rates and lengthening the amount of time they remained in a state of calm alertness. According to the study’s lead author, live music in particular shows the most potential to appropriately stimulate and activate the human body, elevate a patient’s quality of life, and promote recovery.
Choral music has held a revered and beloved place in human societies since the beginning of recorded history. From medieval times to today’s children’s choirs, here are four things you need to know about choral music:
1. Choral music has its roots in religious music.
Most of today’s choral singing groups can trace the roots of their practices back to sacred music. The most popular example is probably the Gregorian chant that was a familiar part of medieval church services.
In Gregorian chant, groups of monks would participate together in singing the various passages of sacred music. The conscious blending of their individual voices created the powerful sound of a single musical presence. It still serves as the model for much modern-day choral music.
Gregorian chant, a form of the monophonic “plainsong” or “plain chant,” accompanied the recitation of the mass and the divine office of the canonical hours. It derives its name from the fact that it developed during the rule of Pope (later Saint) Gregory I, at the turn of the 7th century of the Common Era.
The development of polyphony, the use of more than one voice or tone heard in a composition, brought composers the opportunity to expand on the range and types of compositions they wrote. When creating contrasting vocal parts, composers often drew on the talents of young boy sopranos to sing the contrasting trouble notes. This is because during this period in history, women’s voices were often forbidden in public performance.
2. Choral music eventually found a secular audience and begin to include lyrics and instruments.
As religious reformation and social secularization progressed, audiences outside sacred spaces enjoyed greater opportunities to hear choral music in performance. Once it flowed outside the monasteries and into the streets, its composers experienced greater creative freedom. They began to abandon the formalized structures common to sacred choral music, and to add instruments into the mix.
Composers also began to bring in human voices singing in chorus to enhance and add texture to familiar types of instrumental pieces. The addition of words enabled composers of instrumental music to address their audiences in new ways.
The Baroque period saw Italian composer and singer Claudio Monteverdi creating “polychoral” sacred pieces with multiple choirs and increasing numbers of instruments. The 16th and 17th century choral tradition also included the development of numerous motets, a form that evolved during the Middle Ages into a variety of types of religious and secular compositions.
3. Choral music was integrated into the oratorio and symphonic traditions.
The oratorio, a larger composition for orchestra, chorus, and soloists and typically based on stories from scripture, was born as composers expanded on the form of the motet. The oratorio form reached its apogee during the 1600s. The German composer George Frideric Handel, who worked extensively in England, perfected this type of music. Handel became, in fact, the father of the particularly English style of oratorio.
One exceptional 19th-century example of the integration of choral music into the symphony is the “Ode to Joy” sequence of the 1824 Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. The large-scale choir’s singing of text by the lyric poet Friedrich Schiller lifts the mood into a soaring affirmation of humanity’s potential.
For many lovers of classical music, Gustav Mahler’s use of choral performance in his titanic symphonies represents the pinnacle of the form. Mahler’s Second “Resurrection” Symphony, as well as his Third and his Eighth, offer powerful musical interpretations of the nature of love, life, and fate enhanced by the voices of their choruses.
The Austrian composer, whose creative period straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, became known for his thundering, multi-layered sound. His Eighth Symphony earned the title of “Symphony of a Thousand” thanks to its gargantuan cast of voices and instruments. It is written for performance by a massive orchestra, a double chorus, a boys’ choir, and eight single solo voices.
4. Today, children's choral groups continue to delight performers and audience members alike.
Today, choral music in the United States continues to flourish, performed by a wide range of ensembles of all ages. Children’s choruses offer opportunities for young people to engage with music education, learn performance skills, and develop friendships based on a common commitment to creative work.
The Children’s Chorus of Washington is one group that represents the nation’s capital. Over the past 24 years, it has provided choral training and experiences to 2,500 youth and toured internationally.
The Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas is a mosaic of six individual groups of some 450 singers total. Under the auspices of the Deloitte Concert Series, it performs seasonal concerts at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.
The Boston Children’s Chorus is composed of about 500 students from all over the greater Boston area. Almost half of them live in the city of Boston.
Children’s choruses typically hold auditions at designated times of year, and work hard to open opportunities to as many talented young people as possible. The BCC’s students, like those in Washington DC, Dallas, and many more communities around the country, are eligible to receive need-based scholarships to support their participation. In fact, about 80 percent of the BCC’s performers attend its musicianship programs on scholarship.
When students of any age are learning about music, they will find their studies enriched by learning about the history of different musical forms. The following survey of medieval Western music can serve as one doorway into this topic for young musicians, as well as for adult learners interested in the musical history of Europe.
Defining an era beyond the stereotypes
The stereotypical view of anything “medieval” conjures up images of dank, fusty monasteries, brutal warfare, and stagnation in the arts and sciences. However, this is far from the truth. The Middle Ages in Western Europe were years of great creativity in the arts, sciences, and exploration.
Authorities differ on which time span precisely defines the Middle Ages. The most generous reckoning begins the period at the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century and ends it in the late 15th century AD.
A world centered on prayer
The medieval period was characterized by the central place of liturgical music as both high art and a daily companion for the nobility and common people alike.
The practice of singing psalms and setting prayer to music dates back much earlier than the Middle Ages, into the beginnings of human history. While much of this ancient religious music was performed a cappella, instruments often lent their voices to the mix, enhancing the sound.
The medieval Christian church took many of its cues from ancient Jewish sacred music, in forbidding the participation of women’s voices after the late sixth century AD and limiting or curtailing instrumentation.
In the church, mass was the chief occasion for the performance of this music, sung by priest, congregation, and choir. The choir typically filled an “answering” function, responding to the themes of the main part sung by the priest.
The human voice as instrument
The long tradition of prayer through song reached a pinnacle in the development of Gregorian chant, a variety of plainchant, during the ninth century AD. Gregorian chant is still often used today in Catholic ritual. This style of plainchant puts the religious text at the heart of the composition. The human voice is the only instrument used.
The music of Gregorian chant is described as monophonic—it consists of one melody, sung in unison. The chant serves to frame the words of the prayers, rather than to overpower them. The majority of Gregorian chants originate in the Latin Vulgate, the version of the Bible in widespread use in medieval Europe.
Although most Catholic congregations today celebrate mass in the community's vernacular language, traditional Gregorian chant holds an honored place, both esthetically and liturgically, in modern Catholic culture. Its popularity with both religious and secular audiences is attested by the many recordings now available.
Hildegard von Bingen – a composer of mystic devotion
Hildegard von Bingen, later Saint Hildegard, was born in Germany at the close of the 11th century and died near the end of the 12th. This abbess, mystic, and prophetic visionary is considered one of the first and most talented female composers. Her monophonic works are characterized by soaring lyricism and a deeply felt spirituality.
St. Hildegard set dozens of her own poems to music, assembling them into a collection entitled Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. She was also a scholar who wrote widely on science and medicine and traveled as an itinerant preacher.
Numerous musical ensembles have produced recordings of St. Hildegard’s surviving compositions in recent years, and contemporary audiences continue to find them musically and spiritually rewarding. Contemporary collections of her music have titles that reflect her mysticism: Canticle of Ecstasy, Music for Paradise, and A Feather on the Breath of God are only a few examples.
Moniot d’Arras – exemplar of the trouvère esthetic
One enduring tradition that flourished particularly in the later Middle Ages was that of the secular romantic balladeers and traveling entertainers known as troubadours and trouvères. Lutes, citterns, and other stringed instruments frequently accompanied these musicians' compositions, although their vocals often stood alone.
The city of Arras, France, in northern France was noted as a center of the delicate and refined trouvère style. The trouvères’ style evolved roughly in tandem with that of the troubadours, although the trouvères typically composed lyrics in their northern French dialect, and the troubadours drew from the vernacular native to southern France, the langue d’Oc.
One monk, Moniot d’Arras, earned widespread recognition as a composer in the early 13th century. While much of his output was focused on liturgy, many other pieces extol the culture of chivalry and courtly love between a nobleman and his lady. These were often the main subjects of troubadour and trouvère compositions.
The sacred and the secular
The traditions of the troubadours and trouvères were part of the larger growth of non-sacred medieval music from about the 13th century onward. The ballade, the rondeau, and the virelai were the three leading types of secular compositions in France at this time.
Guillaume de Machaut – lyricist supreme
Guillaume de Machaut, considered today one of the towering figures of medieval European music, was born at the beginning of the 14th century and is thought to have lived well into his 70s. He wrote in both French and Latin.
Machaut composed one of the first polyphonic treatments of the mass, a development moving away from the monophonic plainchants. Polyphonic music features two or more independent melodies. Machaut's dozens of motets demonstrate the full flowering of this type of music.
In 1337, Machaut became the canon of the cathedral at Reims. He wrote poems and musical compositions, with experts today viewing him as a master lyricist and versifier working in the then-current Ars Nova (polyphonic) style. Machaut also used and reworked the courtly love theme, creating beautifully constructed poems that blend technical virtuosity with lyricism.