July 2011

El Rancho Grande

July 23, 2011 08:29

“El Rancho Grande,” more completely “Alla en el Rancho Grande,” is a traditional Mexican ballad in the style known as Musica Ranchera or “ranch music.” Ranchera is a type of song featuring themes of love, patriotism and nature typically sung on Mexican ranches dating back to the time of the Mexican Revolution in 1800. “Alla en el Rancho Grande,” a Spanishlanguage song, has become one of the best-known cowboy songs in the Southwestern United States largely popularized by the 1936 Mexican film by the same name. It has been sung by well-known recording artists from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley.

People living in the area of today’s Mexico have a rich tradition of musical culture. During the Mayan civilization, ocarinas (flutes) and percussion instruments similar to maracas were used. The Aztec civilizations sang various kinds of hymns. When the Spanish defeated the Aztecs to conquer Mesoamerica (central region of Mexico), they imported a mix of Spanish violin and guitar music and the music of African slaves that traveled with them to Mexico.

When Mexico became independent from Spain at the turn of the 19th Century, Bohemian immigrants from Central Europe began to settle Northern Mexico (today’s Texas) bringing the waltz and polka dances to that area. In the 1830s, German immigrants established the first settlements from the Texas coastal plains into the hill country. This area became known as the German Belt. Bringing with it the accordion along with its waltzes and polkas, this culture mixed with the indigenous, Spanish, African and Cuban musical cultures already there to form the Ranchera style and the Nortenos music (a similar style found in the Northern Mexico).

Before the Mexican revolution, the musical regions of Mexico could be differentiated by what was termed “the nine sons.” Ranchera is an outgrowth of “son jalescenses.” “Son Mariachi” - (dancers on a wooden platform), is the most familiar son in the past. Today, Mariachi is closely tied to the style of Ranchera and has become the best known music of Mexico. Although smaller groups are common, Mariachi music is most authentically played by a band of eight performers consisting of three guitarists (Spanish guitar, vilhuela and guitarron), three violinists and two trumpets.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

1 reply


From The New World

July 21, 2011 20:03

Antonin Dvorak, the famous 19th century Czech composer, was born near Prague and studied music at an early age in a village school. He later studied violin, viola, piano and organ in Prague eventually playing viola professionally in the Provisional Theatre Orchestra. He soon became one of the most successful composers of his time. In 1892, at the age of 50, the already celebrated composer left his native Czechoslovakia and traveled across the Atlantic to New York City. He had been asked by Jeannette Thurber, the director of the city’s National Conservatory of Music, to come and direct the school and, perhaps more importantly, to help Americans find a pathway to their own classical music.

Dvorak wrote to his friends in Prague about his new post: “The Americans expect great things of me and the main thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a national music. If the small Czech nation can have such musicians, they say, why could not they, too, when their country and people are so immense? It is certainly both a great and a splendid task for me and I hope that with God’s help I shall accomplish it. There is more than enough material here – another spirit, other thoughts, another coloring – something Indian – and plenty of talent.”

Knowing nothing like it in his native Bohemia, Dvorak was fascinated by Native American culture. He had read Longfellow’s Hiawatha (in Czech) and was inspired by the “Song of the Hiawatha.” Also, people of African descent were rare in his country and the sounds of the African American melodies and plantation songs (spirituals) caught his attention and were deeply inspiring to him. Harry Burleigh, a pupil of Dvorak’s in New York, an African American, was instrumental in introducing Dvorak to this music.

In 1893, Dvorak told the New York Herald that songs like “Deep River,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Goin’ Home” were the necessary foundation for “the future of music of this country.” On another occasion he said: “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”

Knowing of Dvorak’s interest in Hiawatha and his well-known ambition to be a successful opera composer, Ms. Thurber supposedly presented Dvorak with a proposal to compose an opera on this theme. However, evidence suggests that Dvorak decided instead to use the Native American and African American material in his Ninth Symphony, a great expansive work conceived through the prism of a master Czech composer about a new country and its people.

While in America, Dvorak spent some time in the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa, where he composed chamber pieces including the “American” String Quartet. He also traveled to Omaha, Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul before returning to New York, the period that produced his famous Cello Concerto. Dvorak was admittedly homesick after spending just three years in America and, in 1895, he returned to his homeland. However, the music he composed in his relatively short time in America remains among his most popular, and some say his best, work. Presented here are two arrangements of excerpts from the 2nd and 4th movements of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony which he himself titled “From the New World.”

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

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Stepp Down Hoedown (the Hoedown used in Copland's 'Rodeo')

July 20, 2011 20:53

In 1937, an American folklorist and musicologist named Alan Lomax recorded the music of old-time fiddler William Hamilton Stepp on acetate, an early medium for capturing music for posterity. Little did Lomax know at the time, but he was recording a tune that would become one of America’s most recognized classical music themes.

Lomax was Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress from 1937 to 1942. In his first year of field recording, he documented Stepp playing solo fiddle in Kentucky. The tune recorded and logged for the Library was “Bonaparte’s Retreat Across the Rocky Mountains” or as Stepp called it and then Lomax wrote down phonetically - “Bonyparte.” Lomax hired the mother of famous folk musicians Pete and Mike Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger, to be music editor and transcriber for a publication entitled Our Singing Country, and it included “Bonaparte.”

In 1941, just after the publication was released, a request from legendary classical composer Aaron Copland was made to the Library of Congress to look at some traditional American folk music. Lomax steered him to “Bonyparte” and Copland transcribed the printed version of Stepp’s performance nearly note-for-note into his score as the “Hoedown” in his soon-to-be American hit, Rodeo.

William Stepp, like many fiddlers of his day, personified the mysterious creativity in American fiddling. He knew his craft and perhaps only his peers (other fiddlers) would know how to fully appreciate his way of handling folk music material. What Stepp had labeled ‘Bonyparte’ on that important recording was perhaps not the tune the archivists had thought, nor was it the traditional tune commonly known as “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” but original music created by Stepp from some of the elements of these tunes and personalized by his own playing and creativity. Stepp’s contraction of each phrase of the “Bonaparte’s Retreat” (something rarely done in fiddling traditions) and his melodic and rhythmic development of these newly created phrases resulted in producing an original idea that was documented in 1937.

Copland did not credit Stepp for this music on his score. He no doubt thought he was using purely a traditional tune from the public domain and, in fact, it wasn’t stated otherwise on the original transcription, nor from Stepp’s own words. Within folk traditions, confusions owing to the naming of tunes usually sort themselves out through the generations, but here we have a documented cultural misinterpretation of Stepp’s view of himself. Many fiddlers will call their re-workings (variations) of a tune by the old familiar name for one of several reasons – perhaps bragging rights to fellow fiddlers about how much of a departure he can invent. Another reason could be simply that a well-known name of a tune would often be called for at a dance or show and keeping the original name would give a fiddler an “excuse” to play his own creation. In the case of Stepp “Bonyparte,” unintentional oversights could have been mere blips on the screen if it weren¹t for the fact that Stepp’s variation (or tune) not only became a classical music piece by America’s foremost classical composer, but also became arguably one of the most recognized themes in American classical music history.

While we can’t know for sure that it was Stepp’s creation by himself, or if the tune came out of the environment of folk fiddlers around him, what was perhaps missed ironically was a fantastic example of significant complexity in the fiddling tradition in the case of this tune! Although the two men never met, this most unusual collaboration of Copland and Stepp produced a masterpiece of American music. With Copland arranging and orchestrating the actual composition of his folkmusic counterpart and contemporary, a result came about that no one could have planned or predicted.

Because of the geographic and cultural separation of Stepp’s Kentucky and Copland’s New York City in the 1940s and the fact that Stepp and many older fiddlers did not care to copyright their work, Stepp never knew what had happened to his tune. William Hamilton Stepp died in 1947, five years after the first production of Copland’s Rodeo, never having heard the glorious sound of his music being played by a full symphony orchestra.

As evidenced by the 1937 recording and transcription, Stepp used a less common fiddle cross-tuning DADD to create and play this tune. Transcribing the tune a further time, bringing it note-for-note into the standard tuning for the orchestral violins as Copland did, alters the authenticity of what a folk fiddler would have played without some further adaptation. The variation (and adaptation) in this book honors the Stepp/Copeland version and is better suited to the authentic style of playing - having the left hand remaining in first position as it did on Stepp’s cross-tuned fiddle, but with the string crossing and fingering more natural to the fiddling style.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

5 replies


Florida Blues

July 19, 2011 21:41

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: This week violinist and educator Mark O'Connor is sharing online a number of the excellent essays he wrote to go along with the music in his O'Connor Method, for which Books 1 and 2 are in print and Book 3 will come out this fall. At the beginning of August about 100 teachers, teacher-trainers and young students will gather for the O'Connor Method Camp in Charleston, S. C. That's in addition to 300 students of many ages (the range has been 10 to 91!) who came to camps at Berklee College in Boston, and at ETSU in Johnson City, Tenn. to explore various genres such as folk fiddling, jazz, rock, classical world music and more this summer. There are some real revelations in these histories, enjoy!

* * * 

Florida Blues

“The blues” is a music style that developed in the late 1800s among African Americans living in areas like the Mississippi Delta plantations in the American South. Black musicians combined their own African traditions with their slave work songs and field hollers, ring shouts (spontaneously singing or praying in a circle while clapping hands) and Negro spirituals to create a new form of musical expression - a new style of music that would become one of the most influential in the world.

There are many different types of African American blues music. The many traditional forms and variants can be grouped, however, into a few general categories: “classic blues” and “rural" or “delta blues” from the turn of the 20th Century and “urban blues” and “rhythm and blues” dating from the 1940s. In the earliest era of blues music, subgenres included: “barrelhouse blues,” “gut-bucket blues,” “hokum blues,” “piedmont blues,” “reels/breakdowns,” “blues rags,” “boogie-woogie blues,” “risque blues” and “up-tempo jump blues” - just to name a few.

The archetypical blues form is defined by a pattern of 12 measures in 4/4 meter divided into three lyric phrases. Many tunes exhibit the blues spirit but deviate from the fundamental 12-bar format. The improvisational tradition that developed with the early playing of the blues allows for self-expression within the context of communal participation - call and response. This spontaneous dialogue of improvisation between players established a brand new musical tradition and is one of the foundations of jazz.

Although other chromatic “passing tones” are often used, the basic sound of the blues centers around a “blues scale” which involves flatting the 3rd and 7th degrees of a major scale. In the language of the blues, these notes are characteristically played by sliding up to the desired pitch. The gliss or portamento from one specified pitch up to another, and down from from one specified pitch to another can also be applied to any note of the blues scale. The technical vocabulary of “bending” notes thereby accentuating microtones (pitches between the semitones of the Western scale) adds a provocative emotional dimension to this music.

“White” Appalachian fiddlers have long admired African American folk music. The intertwining of these musical cultures produced the American “hoedown” among other forms. Much “Black” music - especially ragtime tunes and religious pieces as well as many other vocal and instrumental techniques - was easily absorbed into the “White” repertoire. The blues music was no exception, however the “pure” blues styles had a more difficult time assimilating into “white” music culture. Slow-tempo blues ballads were the result of early cross-pollination, and faster-spirited versions of the blue became an integral part of the old-time fiddling of the early 1900s.

Enter Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith of Tennessee (1898-1971). Smith was an Anglo-American old-time fiddler and an accomplished composer and songwriter. He made his solo debut as a fiddler on the Grand Ole Opry in 1927. Smith was very influential and an inspiration to many fiddlers because of his “long bow” style which electrified radio audiences for years. Even though he had many opportunities to become a full-time professional musician, Fiddlin` Arthur Smith worked as a linesman for a railroad company in Dickson, Tennessee, for most of his life.

Although the evidence is not conclusive, Smith has been credited with composing the famous “Florida Blues.” We do know for certain, however, that he wrote many great fiddle tunes and played up-tempo blues tunes often helping to establish this fiddle blues style.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

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