Dana Suesse: Concerto in 3 Rhythms

Context

Dana Suesse was born in 1909 in Kansas City. There is not much information on Suesse’s earlier life, but we know that whilst she was still young she travelled around the Midwest Vaudeville circuit, performing both on the piano and as a dancer. In 1926 she and her mother moved to New York City. She was interested in combining different techniques from genres like jazz and classical to create hybrid works which were creative but also virtuosic and complex. Suesse was often found improvising on stage, where she would ask the audience to suggest a theme which would then improvise around.

Once in New York, Suesse learnt piano with Alexander Siloti. Exposed in New York to the jazz world, Suesse began studying the art of jazz composition with one of Gershwin’s teachers, Rubin Goldmark. She is known for being able to churn out compositions at a very fast pace, and this began after she started studying with Goldmark. Her works filled a void in New York City that was built for classical and jazz fusion works. In 1928, age 19, Suesse published her first instrumental work Syncopated Love Song. It was received positively and many orchestras recorded it, and Suesse slowly became a household name. She composed a range of songs in her lifetime, as well as instrumental compositions, which are perhaps more well-known today.

After the birth of tin pan alley, Paul Whiteman (a very influential orchestra leader), commissioned Suesse to compose her Concerto in Three Rhythms, which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1932. She also worked in Broadway and she wrote “Moon About Town”, which was featured in Ziegfeld Follies. Suesse collaborated with many people in both the classical and popular domains, which made her an incredibly wealthy woman at a very young age – a big achievement for anybody at this time. She also wrote incidental music for plays, as well as compositions for theatre, the concert hall and for live gigs.

Suesse travelled to Paris for three years to study with the influential Nadia Boulanger. Upon her return to New York, Suesse devoted a large amount of her time to orchestral music. Her orchestral works have been featured in Carnegie Hall programmes and at Madison Square Garden. She is the only composer other than George Gershwin to have been invited to perform on the General Motors Symphony national radio broadcasts. Suesse never stopped composing, writing and educating throughout her whole lifetime. She was halfway through a new musical when she passed at age 76 in 1987.

 

The Music

Suesse said this about her popular Concerto in Three Rhythms:

“I locked myself in my apartment and wouldn’t see anybody for ten days. I wrote the Concerto in Three Rhythms. It has three different styles blending together. First, there is the foxtrot, basically a sonata. Then, there is the blues style, basically an adagio. Finally, there is the jazz, the Italian fugue. You can imagine how I rushed to get through it in ten days…and it takes twenty minutes to play.”

The concerto was premiered in an annual experimental concert put on by Whiteman, which highlights some of the best American composers at that point. Other composers such as George Gershwin and Ferde Grofé also appeared in the 1932 programme. The reception of this concert focused a lot on Suesse’s Concerto in Three Rhythms, which seemed to steal the show. 

Larry Spier, who was Suesse’s publisher, told her to go to Chicago to participate in this concert. Once Suesse had made it to Chicago, she was greeted by Whiteman, who was pleased with the music she had offered for the concert. For the purposes of the concert, the concerto was named into three sections: 1. Allegro 2. Adagio and 3. Scherzo.

The work is reminiscent of the Broadway style, as well as introducing the jazz-classical fusion that Suesse was aiming for. When asking for the commission Whiteman asked if Suesse would compose a “Rhapsody in Blue-like work” – which then earned her the “Girl Gershwin” nickname that stuck with her for the rest of her career. 

Suesse composed the solo piano part and then Ferde Grofé orchestrated it. Grofé initially orchestrated the work as he was Whiteman’s chief orchestrator. However, Suesse went back and orchestrated it herself and premiered the work once more in 1974, without the musical restraints of Whiteman’s orchestra.

She was featured performing Concerto in Three Rhythms at her Carnegie Hall debut on 4th November 1932. The work was generally very well received. 

 

I. Fox Trot – Allegro

 

The opening movement, labelled as a fox trot, sets the scene for this jazz-inspired concerto. The pulsating rhythms and shrieks from the upper strings gives enhance the atmosphere to create an exciting build up. There are two slower themes embedded within this movement, both of which seem inspired by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. 

The col legno (play with the wooden part of the bow) technique that is used at the start here adds an interesting timbre to the work. After the first theme is laid out by the orchestra, the solo piano enters and reflects the melody before beginning to develop it. The texture thins here to let the soloist come forward in the mix. 

The first movement has two slower themes which are very reminiscent to Rhapsody in Blue, and could even be considered as a parody of Gershwin. The luscious orchestration here makes the quick changes in tempo even more dramatic as the music bounces around from slow and lyrical and bubbly and fast. 

The orchestra and soloist are often in call and response, which further supports the melodic development of the two main themes. This movement is masterful in its handling of repeated themes and how they are developed. Suesse writes convincing melodies that are instantly recognisable in the work. The bold cadenza-like sections for the soloist are the most striking of the whole work, as they showcase the soloist’s virtuosity and style.

 

II. Blues – Adagio

Opening with a steady syncopated rhythm by the soloist, the second movement flourishes into a sultry blues number. It is noteworthy that Suesse’s use of the orchestra is much less than the previous movement, with a large proportion of this movement being a piano solo. There are short orchestral phrases, which inevitably grow into a climax by the end of the movement. 

The use of muted brass in this movement create an interesting timbral dichotomy between the luscious strings and more ‘pointed’ sounding brass. The atmosphere begins to change by the end of the movement, where final climax flourishes and the music begins to come down in tempo dynamic before the final movement.

 

III. Rag – Scherzo

After the opening fanfare from the brass this four bar theme is then passed around the orchestra and the soloist. This movement is in the style of ragtime, and the communication between the orchestra and soloist supports this. 

The soloist plays virtuosic pages which drive in rhythm and tempo due to the number of scalic passages. The orchestra act as a rhythmic, melodic and harmonic support throughout as the soloist takes centre stage.

The bubbling excitement throughout this finale movement adds to the charm of the whole work. Suesse’s use of dynamics is also pertinent in this movement as she quickly moves between loud and bold passages to soft and peaceful sections. 

The main theme is repeated many times throughout the movement, with the work ending after a harmonic build up of the theme until a final tonic note is played at the end. All three movements encompass the core style of Suesse, which always firmly laid between that of classical and jazz.

 

Happy Reading!

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