Rissolty, Rossolty was commissioned by CBS for Alan Lomax’s folk music radio program, The Wellsprings of America, which during 1940-41 premiered new orchestral arrangements of folk tunes by American classical composers (Aaron Copland and Roy Harris among them). “Ruth worked hard as hell,” Peter Seeger said. “Four hundred dollars for months and mouths of hard work. She did a first-rate job.” For the radio premiere, Lomax paired the old with the new. The Kentucky-born activist Aunt Molly Jackson sang the title folk song, and then she and Alan Lomax talked about the issue of women’s work raised humorously by its lyrics and those of the second folk tune, “Phoebe,” quoted in the middle of the piece.
Crawford Seeger packed a lot of ideas into this very short work. Rather than presenting the melodies as audible themes, she combined elements from them in a sophisticated polyphony. The playful repeated-note figure that opens the pieces conies from the title tune. “Phoebe” emerges briefly in a solo flute section and then as counter- melody in string pizzicato, and later in the horns. The final section of the piece is based on the fiddle tune, “The Death of Callahan,” a tour-de-force transcription she published in the Lomax anthology, Our Singing Country. As “Callahan” is overtaken by fragments from “Phoebe” and “Rissolty, Rossolty,” the compound meter forges ahead to a “one beat per measure” at the climax. Here the composer juggles three tunes at once: “Callahan” dominates wind and high strings; the brass oppose that double-time with “Rissolty, Rossolty”; and the low strings echo the leading idea of “Phoebe.” It is a moment that recalls the spirit of Charles Ives.
Many compositional choices were intended to capture the ethos, not just the sound, of transition. Crawford Seeger transcribed two different versions of Rissolty, Rissolty from field recordings to symbolize the process of change that characterizes oral tradition. The exceptional ending for the work translates another insight about folk music into a modern gesture. Rissolty, Rossolty does not really “end”–it shuts down abruptly as the three tunes mix it up. And then from nowhere we hear a fragment from the opening of the work. Why this whimsical moment? The composer was honoring the way folk musicians did not formalize endings, but rather stopped in readiness to begin anew. To Crawford Seeger, this represented the life-force of tradition, its “keeping-goingness” (to use her term), contrasting to the self-dramatizing cadences in conventional classical music.
Rissolty, Rossolty received few performances in Crawford Seeger’s lifetime, one from the New Orleans Symphony in 1950 and the other from the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. in 1953. A New York retrospective organized by Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer for the performers’ Committee on Twentieth-Century Music premiered the work here in 1975.
Program Note taken from the American Symphony Orchestra