Concerto On Old English Rounds

for Viola, Women's Chorus and Orchestra

William Schuman

Publisher: Merion Music, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

The existence of this concerto is due to the persistence and outstanding abilities of Donald McInnes. Early in 1972, Mr. McInnes, who was then unknown to me, telephoned and asked whether I would accept a commission from the Ford Foundation to compose a work for solo and orchestra that he might introduce. McInnes explained that he was one of several young American performers who had been selected by the Ford Foundation for its program promoting the careers of promising young artists. The Foundation?s scheme is to attain major engagements for these young artists by commissioning works especially for them by established composers. In 1961, I had composed ?A Song of Orpheus?, Fantasy for ?Cello and Orchestra, under this program. I told Mr. McInnes that my schedule would not permit the acceptance of another commission. His answer was the flattering assurance that he would wait until my schedule was free. I then had to confess to him that composing a major work for solo viola really did not hold great interest for me. He asked if I would listen to a tape of his performances of a variety of works for viola.

Mr. McInnes wasted no time in sending me his tape. What I heard convinced me that this young man was an artist of unusual sensitivity and aesthetic insights, with a complete technical command of his instrument. I asked Michael Tilson Thomas his opinion of McInnes, since they had been fellow students at the University of Southern California. Mr. Thomas was most enthusiastic and hoped not only that I would compose the work but that he might introduce it.

My admiration for McInnes did not in and of itself convince me that I wanted to write an extended work for viola, but all that changed when McInnes journeyed from Seattle to visit me in Greenwich and to play for me. Through his demonstration I became converted to the special qualities of the solo viola in general and Donald McInnes in particular. Now I was completely intrigued by this instrument: so like a violin, so like a ?cello, so unlike a violin, so unlike a ?cello.

As I began to think viola, the sounds I imagined were not limited to the usual solo performer-orchestra juxtaposition but included a chorus of women?s voices. In practical terms, what was I doing to the young performer? It is extraordinarily difficult for any artist to have a career as solo violist. This is due not only to the comparative paucity of music for solo viola and orchestra but the fact that an orchestra normally gives its own first violist the solo opportunities. With the addition of a chorus, the difficulties are compounded. I expected that when I told McInnes my idea he would decide that he had better work with someone else. Clearly, I didn?t know my man, for the proposal was received with great enthusiasm for the artistic potential despite the practical problems.

My next task was to find a suitable text. After many months of wide reading I had not found one, until I recalled rounds that I had arranged and performed several decades ago when I was the conductor of the chorus of Sarah Lawrence College.

The four rounds that form the basis for the Concerto were sung to me by the late Maria Jones Farquhar. Until I employed them in this work I had never thought of their authorship. Allan Jabbour and Edward Waters of the Library of Congress have kindly supplied information on three of the rounds. To date no one has been able to trace ?Amaryllis?. ?Great Tom Is Cast and Come, Follow Me? were composed by Henry Aldrich, 1646-1710, and John Hilton, 1599-1657, respectively. Mr. Jabbour was unable to locate ?Who?ll Buy Mi Roses?? ?It is,? he says, ?one of the many catches built out of street cries, and it sounds British, all right (that is, not American). The tune is the well-known British and American folk tune ?Jennie?s Baby (Polly Put the Kettle On)? or a variant of it. That tune dates at least from the eighteenth century and was certainly widely used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. But I have not located the round itself yet.?

All the music of the Concerto stems in one way or another form the impetus engendered by these rounds. The listener will observe without explanation that the rounds are treated in a variety of ways, sometimes far from their original simplicity, other times virtually in their original forms, and in still others with musical concepts that might seem to the listener to have no direct bearing on the rounds at all, but to the composer the seminal relationship was ever present.

The Concerto opens with the solo violist playing the ?Amaryllis? melody, with comments between phrases in the woodwinds and horns. As the viola continues a free melodic development, the ?Amaryllis? melody is heard in the woodwinds, and the chorus humming. The introduction concludes, as it began, with the solo viola alone, and leads to the main body of the movement, which, in contrast to the introduction, is fast and spirited. The chorus, singing la?s, echoes paraphrased characteristics of the ?Amaryllis? melody. There follows an extended melodic paraphrase in the solo viola, accompanied first by strings, and as the music progresses, full orchestra. A few measures of solo viola lead to an extended section for orchestra in which the strings take up the paraphrased ?Amaryllis? melody with a variety of developments, extensions and new materials. The solo viola reappears, as does the chorus, and an orchestral accelerando leads without pause to the second movement, ?Great Tom Is Cast.?

Solo chimes introduce ?Great Tom? vigorously and at full force, but gradually diminish to a quiet sound and engage in a brief dialogue with the solo viola pizzicato. There are brass outbursts with the chimes, followed by a long, contemplative section with strings underpinning the solo viola with interruption by brass and chimes, followed by a return of the strings and solo viola, and leading finally to the chorus singing the round set against the solo viola. The development of this round by the chorus, with re-enforcing woodwinds, continues for some time, with the viola playing fast contrasting music leading to orchestral interludes?woodwinds, strings, trumpets and then full orchestra, climaxed by the chimes marked ?wild,? in which the rhythm is written but the pitches themselves are ad lib.

The ?Great Tom? movement culminates in a long, quiet, retrospective section in which the chorus hums a melodic line reminiscent of the opening chimes section, and against which the viola, with the support of strings and other instruments, comments in a freely expressive and rhapsodic manner. The movement ends quietly and proceeds without pause to ?Who?ll Buy Mi Roses??

After an introduction with the chorus singing ?Who? with orchestral comments and an orchestral interlude, we hear the round in a freely harmonized version with interruptions in its rhythmic flow. Before ?Who?ll Buy Mi Roses?? is developed, ?Come, Follow Me? is introduced and first heard in a harmonized version and then as a round. The orchestra presents a paraphrased ?Who?ll Buy Mi Roses??, after which the round is developed by the chorus, first with instruments and then a cappella. There is a reprise of ?Come, Follow Me?, which leads directly into Combinations.

Following a brief a cappella introduction, the chorus proceeds to sing ?Who?ll Buy Mi Roses??, ?Come, Follow Me? and ?Great Tom Is Cast? in a simultaneous version. The extended viola cadenza that follows is also based on a combination of these rounds in addition to the ?Amaryllis? theme and references to materials previously heard. Finally it is the orchestra?s turn. After music recalling ?Great Tom Is Cast?, a fugue theme based on elements of the different rounds is introduced by the horns. All this material is developed at length and in a variety of ways in the orchestra, leading eventually (heralded by the solo chimes) to the final movement.

The ?Amaryllis? melody, in a harmonized version, scored for trombones and ?celli divided into three sections, taken over by oboes, English horn and trumpets, leads to the entrance of the chorus, wherein the words of ?Amaryllis? are now heard for the first time. The chorus sings a harmonized version of the melody, leading to the entrance of the solo viola and the rendition of the round in its original form as the viola makes its melodic embellishment. As the round concludes, first violins, supported by the other strings, are assigned the ?Amaryllis? melody as the viola continues its obbligato comment. The chorus returns with freely devised materials on ?Amaryllis?, and the last pages consist of a solo horn playing the ?Amaryllis? them over a consistent harmony in the chorus (re-enforced by lower strings and woodwinds) while the viola sings its own song. This extensive coda leads to a quiet ending.

Turn, Amaryllis, to thy swain,
Thy Damon calls thee back again.
I know a pretty arbor neigh,
Where Apollo dare not hide.
Come to me and whilst I play,
Sing to my love a rondelay.

Great Tom Is Cast
Great Tom is cast,
And Christ Church bells ring
And Tom comes last.

Who?ll Buy Mi Roses?
Who?ll buy mi roses?
Who?ll buy mi posies?
Who?ll buy mi lilies, ladies fair?
Taste and try before you buy
Mi fine, ripe pears.
Clo- clo- any old clothes to sell?
Hair skin, rabbit skin, any old clo-?

Come, Follow Me
Come, follow me.
Whither shall I follow thee?
To the greenwood
Follow me.

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Scores & Parts

Concerto On Old English Rounds - Full Score - Study

Additional Information

Commission Commmissioned by the Ford Foundation for Donald McInnes
Composition Date 1973
Duration 00:40:00
Orchestration Solo Vla., SSAA Choir; 3 3 3 3 - 4 3 3 1; Chimes, Str.
Premiere 29th, 30th November, 3rd December, 1974. Donald McInnes, Viola, Radcliffe Choral Society (F. John Adams, Director), Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.