All that Jazz
Long before the term ‘crossover’ was coined, composers have been borrowing from different genres of music. The growth of jazz brought with it a whole new approach to classical composition; an injection of fresh ideas. Playlist curated by Joanna Wyld.Read more…
At first glance, classical and jazz styles may seem incompatible: the rigorous traditions of notated music and its accompanying disciplines on the one hand and, on the other, jazz’s freedom, improvisation, spontaneity. Yet jazz emerged at a time when cultural boundaries were being pushed and broken down, and many composers found that they could not resist experimenting with its rhythms, harmonies, sonorities.
Using the saxophone – an instrument invented by the Belgian Adolphe Sax in the mid 19th century – became, perhaps, the easiest way of acknowledging jazz in a classical context, as in Shostakovich’s relaxed and jaunty Jazz Suites. Other Russian composers who explored the style included Stravinsky, whose Ebony Concerto was composed for bandleader Woody Herman, and Nikolai Kapustin, who encapsulated the fluidity of jazz in his Variations for Piano.
Ravel’s Violin Sonata No.2 features a bluesy slow movement, and Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff’s love of jazz infuses his louche Hot-Sonate for sax and piano. Poulenc’s urbane style was undoubtedly influenced by jazz, audible in the sultry harmonies of Le repas de midi from his ballet, Les animaux modèles.
Inevitably, jazz’s New Orleans roots inspired many American composers to take the style to their hearts, to the extent that in some cases it is almost impossible to separate the classical and jazz elements of their styles. Bernstein and Copland frequently epitomise this fusion: the Prelude to Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti features swing rhythms, syncopations and improvisatory clarinet-writing, and Copland’s sophisticated Clarinet Concerto was written for bandleader Benny Goodman. Although less well-known than some of his compatriots, American composer Paul Creston was a devotee of the saxophone, writing numerous pieces for the instrument, including this Concerto. Duke Ellington was a colossus of jazz whose compositions include the irresistible classic It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).
But the composer who is perhaps most synonymous with putting jazz onto the classical map is George Gershwin, whose style is a perfect mixture of elements from the two styles. His contributions to this amalgamation could fill a separate playlist, but we hear the delectable ‘Summertime’ from his opera Porgy & Bess, and his joyous adventure in sound, Rhapsody in Blue, commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman. Full of improvisatory piano writing, the work begins with that famous clarinet glissando – a feature which, appropriately enough, was not planned by the composer, but which was improvised by clarinettist Ross Gorman during the first rehearsal... and then stuck.