On her stunning, deeply felt debut ZOHO CD release, American Heritage, New York classical pianist Jeni Slotchiver presents compositions that honor the vast African-American musical tradition, as well as Union army hymns. There are contemporary arrangements of sea shanties, songs of enslaved people, secular dances, plus arrangements of spirituals. Several compositions recall the strong, Southern voices of gospel and blues. Of the eight composers, six are of African descent and two of these are women.
Deep River, Op. 54, No. 10
From Twenty-Four Negro Melodies 1904
This melody echoes through the annals of history. In 1939, Marian Anderson performed this spiritual at the Lincoln Memorial, after the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from Constitution Hall. The recital was broadcast nationally; 75,000 people attended.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) London, England
In 1904, Booker T. Washington wrote, “It is given to but few men in so short a time to create for themselves a position of such prominence on two continents as has fallen to the lot of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.” The classically-trained prodigy was embraced by the British elite. His setting of Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, secured his international musical prestige for life. The piece’s Indigenous hero proved an iconic choice to aspiring non-white artists. He trailblazed the cultivation of African American folk music, and when the Coleridge-Taylor Society formed stateside, they brought him over for three tours. In 1904, he conducted the U.S. Marine Band and met President Theodore Roosevelt. Coleridge-Taylor’s life was cut short by pneumonia at age 37, but the Anglo-African composer’s grand stature inspired countless musicians to build upon his legacy.
Troubled Water 1967
Based on the spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’
This spiritual is thought to be coded advice on avoiding capture and eluding Bloodhounds for those fleeing enslavement. Bonds’ variations blend jazz techniques and classical blues, and demonstrate her formidable skill as a virtuoso artist.
Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) Chicago, Illinois
“Jazz and bluesy, and spiritual and Tchaikovsky all rolled up in one...No wonder Boulanger didn’t quite understand what my music is all about.”Bonds learned from her mother during the Chicago Renaissance. Artists gathered at their home for Sunday salons, where Bonds met the greats. She completed her first composition at age five. Her early influences include: Harry Burleigh’s spiritual arrangements; Langston Hughes’ poem, The Negro Speaks of Riverswhich she set to music. She recalled: “I was in this prejudiced university”in the basement of the Evanston Public Library“and I know that poem helped save me.” Hughes and Price formed a profound friendship, collaborating for forty years. Bonds collected awards and prestigious “firsts” in Chicago, then moved to Harlem at Hughes’ urging. She became integral to the Harlem Renaissance, establishing programs to support African American artists, students, and nonprofits. Bonds died shortly before her piece, Credo, premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The concert memorialized her.
From the Southland, Suite, 1907
Burleigh’s only work for solo piano is dedicated to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Lines blur elegantly between popular, plantation, and originalrecognizable melodies emerge, including Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, Oh Lord What a Morning, and Swanee River.
Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) Erie, Pennsylvania
Harry Burleigh learned spirituals from his blind grandfather, Hamilton Waters, who young Burleigh accompanied on his rounds as lamp lighter and town crier. Hamilton bought his and his mother’s freedom in 1835. He trained at home, then left for the National Conservatory of Music in New York in 1892. Director Antonín Dvo?ák invited Burleigh to his home for listening sessions, encouraging him to preserve the songs his grandparents sang. Burleigh brought concert arrangements of spirituals to the professional stage, where they returned to their power and dignity. Reclaiming these sounds from vaudeville and minstrelsy created a powerful genre and cultivated a singular aesthetic. New generations of artists found their voice. Burleigh was hiredover protests and the entire choir quittingas baritone soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church. His position was secured by J. P. Morgan, who compensated the church for those who left. Burleigh held his appointment for over 50 years, and paved the way for the church’s desegregation. He was also a soloist at Temple Emanu-El for 25 years. Two-thousand mourners attended his funeral.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) New Orleans, Louisiana
Born to a British Jewish father and French Creole mother, Louis Gottschalk adored Louisiana, but rejected its principles. He became an Abolitionist and Unionist, abhorred minstrelsy as a corruption of the African American identity, and fought for democracy and public education. Gottschalk grew up immersed in Creole music, and his work preserves its character in formal structures. His incorporation of Caribbean, Latin, and African syncopations foreshadowed ragtime and jazz, but was rejected by other composers until 50 years later, when Dvo?ák’s ‘New World Symphony’ changed their tune. The young prodigy cut quite the romantic figure with European audiences. His charismatic stage presence and dreamy countenance catapulted him to superstardomsomething no American composer and virtuoso had known before. His final years were spent touring South America, where he died a few weeks after collapsing, having just finished playing ‘Morte!!’“She is dead!!”.
Union, Paraphrase de Concert on the National Airs, Star Spangled Banner, Yankee Doodle & Hail Columbia, Op. 48 (1862)
Gottschalk performed this composition wherever and whenever he safely could during the Civil War.
The Banjo, Grotesque Fantasie, American Sketch, Op. 15 (1854)
The lively pace of this piece builds to a virtuoso finale referencing the work song Sing and Heave.
Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953) Little Rock, Arkansas
Florence Price studied music at home and graduated high school at 14. When she was admitted to the New England Conservatory of Music, she hid her African lineage, at her mother’s behest. Price moved to Chicago, becoming the first recognized, African American, female symphonist. She incorporated African rhythms, African American melodies, and subtly quoted spirituals. Her heritage shone with each elegant musical motif, evoking her southern roots.
Price openly discussed her influences, describing her Symphony No. 3 as, “intended to be Negroid in character and expression,”but not “in the purely traditional manner.” She confronted gender discrimination, lamenting “...the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility.”
In 1931, she ended an abusive marriage, moved in with Margaret Bonds, and supported her daughters by teaching and creating music. Her award winning Symphony No. 1, in E minor, inspired by Dvo?ák, was featured by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Dances in the Canebreaks 1953
Based on Authentic Negro Rhythms
1. Nimble Feet is structured on syncopated dance rhythms.
2. Tropical Noon celebrates the rhythms and harmonic atmosphere of a tropical dance.
3. Silk Hat and Walking Cane follows a cakewalk rhythma direct precursor to ragtime.
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) Drummondville, Ontario
Dett’s life began at a major conduit of the Underground Railroad. His musical talent brought him to America: Oberlin, Harvard and the American Conservatory.
He took a job at a Historically Black University, Hampton Institute, and won the choir international acclaim and tours. He was the first African American to direct the school’s Music Department and to receive an honorary Doctor of Music.
At the time, spirituals had lost African American listeners due to painful associations, but Dett’s touring widened appreciation for the songs. While listening to a Dvo?ák quartet, he heard “the frail voice of my long departed grandmother calling across the years ... the meaning of the songs which had given her soul such peace was revealed to me.” Ultimately, he sought unity in music: “We have this wonderful store of folk musicthe melodies of an enslaved people...we, too, have national feelings and characteristics, as have the European peoples whose forms we have zealously followed for so long.”
From the Suite In the Bottoms 1913
Dett’s most popular work, inspired by the traditional Juba dance, known as Giouba in Africa and Djouba in Haiti, was brought to America by enslaved African people. It is considered a direct predecessor of the jitterbug.
William Grant Still (1895-1978) Woodville, Mississippi
Still taught himself to play various instruments as a child, and his prodigal talent was nurtured by his stepfather. He went to Wilberforce University and Oberlin College, inspired by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s legacy. After working in Ohio’s commercial music scene, Still studied in New York City and trained with avant-modernist French composer Edgar Varèse, who became his major advocate and influence. Still arranged for Paul Whiteman, Artie Shaw, and other stars, then moved to Los Angeles, working prolifically. Pennies From Heaven is among his long list of uncredited film scores. His music is often distinctly African, incorporating his southern rootsspirituals, jazz, and bluesin classical forms. Many songs are set with Harlem Renaissance poetry. The themes of his opera Sahdji, Afro-American Symphony, and Lenox Avenue center around Still’s concern for the careers of African American people. Still is remembered as ‘the dean of African American music’with myriad “firsts”, 200-plus orchestral works, copious fellowships, and honorary doctorates.
The Blues from Lenox Avenue 1937
From a series of episodes for orchestra, chorus, and narratorcommissioned by the Columbia Broadcasting System and nationally broadcast in 1937 built on Still’s time in Harlem.
Arranged by William Grant Still 1939
This well-known song is based on a Mississippi capstan shanty, Mobile River.
Keith Jarrett (b.1945) Allentown, Pennsylvania
“When I was a little kid and I was studying piano ... I remember saying to my mother, ‘I don't think I can play this piece.’ And she would say, ‘Can you play the first note?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Can you play the second note?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, then you can probably play the piece’.” Jarrett took up piano at age three. He received scholarships to Berkeley College of Music and was invited to study with Nadia Boulanger, but instead moved to New York City to pursue jazz. Weekly jam sessions at the Village Vanguard led to touring and recording with Miles Davis and other legends. Jarrett emerged as one of the most prolific, versatile jazz artists of his time. His style is originalseamlessly blending in classical music and transitioning with perfect authority from classic rock to gospel, cocktail, avant-garde, and beyond. His groundbreaking improvised solo concerts created a new genre.
Shenandoah Traditional folk song
Arranged by Keith Jarrett, Jeni Slotchiver
The songs of African rivers endured on American riverboats and clipper ships in the form of canoe songs and shanties. Shenandoah originated as the windlass shanty, Shanadore.
Frederic Rzewski (b.1938) Westfield, Massachusetts
Arguably the most important living composer of piano music, Rzewski attended Harvard, Princeton, and received a Fulbright to study in Italy. His works are often inspired by historical events pleas for social change in Chile, prisoners’ uprisings, Oscar Wilde’s incarcerationand a commitment to humanity. They warn against oppressive regimes and utilize anti-Fascist songs. Several are iconic classics of their genres. Rzewski’s formidable North American Ballads, 1978-1979, modeled on Bach’s Chorale Preludes, are political statements concerned with workers’ conditions. All materials relate to the original tune, save for an occasional, unifying Ballad reference. Rzewski wrote: “... you can change them a lot and the folk tune is still audible.” Although Rzewski is wildly popular, he remains independent, rejecting self-promotion and commercialization. Most of his scores are available free, online.
Down by the riverside 1979
From North American Ballads 1978-1979
Based on the spiritual and work song, Down by the Riverside, also called I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More, this piece rang out at 1960s nuclear protests and anti-war demonstrations.
“Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep River, Lord I want to cross over into camp ground.”
From “Jubilee Songs”
Wade in the Water
Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water.
See that host all dressed in white
God’s gonna trouble the water
The leader looks like an Israelite
God’s gonna trouble the water.
Down by the Riverside
Gonna lay down my sword and shield,
Down by the riverside,
Down by the riverside,
Down by the riverside.
Gonna lay down my sword and shield,
Down by the riverside,
I ain’t gonna study war no more.
From the Southland
Poems by Louise Alton Burleigh
These verses originally headed the six movements.
“Clean de ba’n an’ sweep de flo’
Ring my banjoring!
We’s gwine dance dis ebenin’ sho’
Sing my banjosing!
"All day long in de burnin’ sun
We wuk’d an’ toil’d, lost an’ won
Now de ebenin’ shadders come
Now de bendin’ wuk is done!
"Den come ‘long Nancycom ‘long Sue
We’ll dance down care de whol’ night thoo.”
In De Col’ Moonlight
Just a tender heart repinin’:
‘Cased yet ‘scapes its bindin’
And in mem’ry of a home
Forgets it’s not its own.
Toil on seekerstumble, cry
Never know de reason why!
Alone in de moonlight call to de sky
Listen for de col’ reply!
Ms. Slotchiver gave her solo recital debut at Carnegie Recital Hall. The New York Times selected her debut CD, Busoni The Visionary, as a Critics Choice. Classics Today says, “Her wide range of keyboard color and sense of mystery are quite simply mesmerizing...” She participated in two international Busoni Symposiums and presented a historic all-Busoni performance at Merkin Concert Hallthe first in thirty years.
Jeni Slotchiver has performed as recitalist and concerto soloist across the world, from Manhattan’s Lincoln Center to the World Piano Conference in Novi Sad, Serbia. Following live broadcast appearances on NPR, WPR, WNYC, and WQXR, profiles in Piano Magazine, Time Out NY, and Los Angeles Times, and writing published in several languages and in periodicals like International Piano, she’s humbled to introduce something so intimately close to home.
With Southern roots of her own, American Heritage is Ms. Slotchiver’s homage to the legendary composers preserving American folk music and creating anew. What was once familiar, is reborn.
Producer: Philip Traugott. Balance Engineer: Tim Martyn, Phoenix Audio LLC. Recording engineer, editing, mixing, mastering: Brian Losch, Losch Recording LLC. Mastering sessions at Meyer Media Mastering, Swan Studios, NYC. Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, September 23 25, 2018. Hamburg Steinway model D piano courtesy Steinway & Sons. Liner notes by Jeni Slotchiver. Artist photography by Martyn Galina-Jones, Melissa Hamburg. Art direction and Package design by Al Gold. Executive Producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker.
I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Carl Weinberg and Danyal Lawson for their support, encouragement, and wisdom throughout this project. Thank you to my producer Philip Traugott, recording engineer Brian Losch, and essay editor Rachel Rummel for their unfailing enthusiasm and energy. I began several of these compositions with my beloved Mentor, Maestro German Diez-Niento. In his memory, and with the many gifts he bestowed on me, I continue the journey. - Jeni Slotchiver