Dana Suesse ‘Concerto in Three Rhythms’: An Exotic Fusion

Good afternoon classical music lovers, happy Thursday! It’s day 10 of my Female Fortnight Challenge and I have such a treat to share with you today! To take things in a new direction I am looking into a composer who is often called the ‘Girl Gershwin’ – it’s the absolutely fabulous Dana Suesse! For this blog I shall be looking into her work Concerto in Three Rhythms which is for piano and orchestra. This work is brilliant, so I do hope you enjoy this blog!

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 dancing. In 1926 she and her mother moved to New York City. She was interested in combining different techniques from genres (i.e jazz and classical), to create hybrid works which were incredibly charming, but also virtuosic and complex. She, from a young age, learnt how to improvise, so when she was performing she would ask the audience to suggest a theme, which she would then improvise around.

Once in New York, Suesse learnt piano with Alexander Siloti (a surviving pupil of Franz Liszt). 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. Suesse 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 had her hands in many different pies (so to speak), and wrote incidental music for plays, as well as compositions for theatre, the concert hall and for live gigs.

After saving enough money, Suesse travelled to Paris for three years to study with the amazing 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 on the Met, Carnegie Hall programs and 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.

As much as I want to talk about all of Suesse’s music in this blog, I will just be discussing her Concerto in Three Rhythms (though more blogs on her will arise soon!). After a youthful Suesse had been commissioned to compose for Paul Whiteman, she offered him her Concerto in Three Rhythms. She eagerly wanted to impress Whiteman and she recalls that whilst composing this work she:

“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.”

Suesse’s work 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 Gershwin and 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. So once Suesse had made it to Chicago, she was greeted by Whiteman, who was incredibly 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 very 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 sadly stuck with her for the rest of her career. 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 next movement entitled ‘Blues’ is going back into the jazz roots, with the likes of Duke Ellington being intertwined throughout the music. The final movement is like ragtime, with the orchestra playing off of each other with the solo piano at the forefront. The piano is virtuosic, rhythmic and exciting with what Suesse has composed, with the orchestra acting as a rhythmic and harmonic support for the various changes. The extensive use of brass, saxophones and clarinets really brings out the jazz influences of Suesse. The different sections really highlight the variations in Suesse’s young and bubbly character, and the work as a whole is incredibly exciting.

Concerto in Three Rhythms is an absolutely fantastic work that combines influences from jazz, Broadway and classical music. Dana Suesse contributed so much to both the classical and popular music industries in the 20th Century – may her legacy live on! I do hope you enjoy this work, Suesse is well worth a listen!

Happy Reading!

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