Friday, 1 March 2013

2 & 3 March

Classical Break America 2

 

Intro:    Mardi Gras, Mississippi Suite, Ferde Grofé

 

Hullo, this is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme has been researched and written by Mike Burrows, and presents an anthology of American music.  We have just heard Mardi Gras from Mississippi Suite, by Ferde Grofé (1892-1972), a New Yorker, pianist in the Paul Whiteman band, popular composer and master-arranger whose best-known work was in the field of ‘tone-painting’ descriptive of America; he was not perhaps a great composer, so much as one who had a gift for melody, effective harmony and lively, frankly colouristic scoring.  An American Straussian, he was of German extraction and studied for a short time in Leipzig.  Given his orchestral expertise, one should not be surprized that he accepted a friend’s challenge and wrote two pieces descriptive of a bicycle-pump, one entitled, Theme and Variations On Noises From A Garage.

 

Ned Rorem has combined a free-wheeling, frankly diarized private life with a career of composition, performance and teaching.  His short piece for strings, Pilgrims dates back to 1958 and takes as its inspiration a French novel Le Voyageur sur la Terre, about the suicide of an alienated teenager.  Its North-Western-trained composer wrote it in a day at the Macdowell Colony.  Its elegiac style is tonal, lyrical, easy to follow, austerely-scored but expressive, and fits its purpose, its scenario, perfectly - and poignantly.  Adolescent feelings run deep, and however naive, their sentiments deserve to be taken seriously by those who can no longer think uncompromized, but who respect their earnestness!  There are curious, fleeting after-echoes of the opening of Dvorak’s American Suite, and also, one may be reminded of the music of Aaron Copland.  Rorem was born in 1923 and has written many fine, accessible pieces for orchestra and chamber ensemble, but is best-known for his art-songs.  Like many American musicians, he spent time in Paris and something of Gallic expressiveness is found in his music - lightness is in no way to be regarded as flippancy or glibness.  Similar comes from the pen of a Dutilleux or Francaix.  We were all pilgrims.  For some, Earth, is the shrine.

 

Track One:  Pilgrims, Ned Rorem

 

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, I’m Rupert Kirkham and today’s programme is of American music.

 

Now, from New England, and from rural New England’s greatest composer, Charles Ives, comes a short piece of musical mayhem, the Overture And March 1776.  Originally written for theatre band, it is here performed in an arrangement for military band.  It is a devastating display of ‘taking off’ small town music - rhythmical disjunctness, mistaken notes and fragments of popular tunes, some anachronistic to the War of Independence, but de rigeur at celebrations of the epoch. It does as it should, ‘stretch the ears’.  Ives’ own father was town bandmaster and loved country music-making, wrong notes and all; in his experience, wrong notes, collision in the parts and late or early entries must have been an essential ingredient in performance!  Making music was the thing, and note-perfectness had nothing to do with it.  Fourth of July celebrations are not that polite!  Ives is not poking fun at bad musicians; he is sharing his experience of community-music with us - the absurdity is in our rigidly limited expectations of players and of music’s being, its life in itself.  We should remember that stereotypical performance of stereotypical music can be deadening, and that Washington’s was largely an army of amateurs but great fighters! 

 

Track Two:  Overture and March, 1776, Charles Ives

 

Samuel Barber (1910-81) was the composer of Symphonic, concertante, orchestral, chamber music and many songs.  He was one of the latest of late romantics and was not a follower of any school, preferring to permit the work of the moment to determine the style employed.  He is remembered today for one piece, his Adagio, originally a movement from a string quartet, but later arranged for string orchestra and for unaccompanied choir.  He did not enjoy the popularity of the Adagio:  typical of composers of one popular piece, his attitude was that it was not characteristic of his best and most deeply-felt work.  In his defence, the Adagio is a well-written, affecting piece and has come to represent America in mourning or America feeling the Pity of War, but it can sound deeply bogus.  Whether or not it is more characteristic of him than the Adagio, let’s hear the haunting Canzone for flute and piano, his own arrangement for flute and piano of the first section and coda of the slow movement of his Pulitzer-prize-winning Piano concerto of 1962.

 

Track Three: Canzone for flute and piano, Barber

 

The Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a gifted amateur musician.  He played the violin, guitar and harp and invented a variety of glass harmonica.  Here is a short work attributed to him - a String Quartet.  In five movements, Intrada Alla Breve, Menuetto, Capriccio, Menuetto, Siciliana, it is an object example of Eighteeth Century American chamber-music; like all but the most fashionable furniture of the time, this was characterful and rudimentary to a degree and often echoed European models of a pre-Classical era.  Throughout this brief suite of movements - for it is nothing more - the rasp and tang of the instruments - played on open strings - seem palpable, but the music is playful if unadventurous on the tonic and must have been (simple) fun to play.

 

Track Four-to-Nine:  String Quartet, Benjamin Franklin

 

A song commemorating an unknown soldier of the American Civil War, now.  From 1911, The Old Sword On the Wall, by HW Fairbank, was dedicated to the Union General, George H Thomas.

 

Track Ten:  The Old Sword On The Wall

 

The opera, Porgy and Bess, was the largest-scale work of the great George Gershwin, whose talents enabled him to accomplish art-music admired by Schoenberg, Ravel and others, his career having begun as a plugger or song-demonstrator in tin--pan alley.  A fine pianist as a boy, he enjoyed a career as a Broadway-composer, collaborating most successfully with his versifier-brother Ira, and did more than anyone to create non--improvized, orchestral jazz.  Porgy and Bess was his masterpiece, and grew out of musical theatre.  It burns with the same inspired, seemingly instinctive flame as his concert-music.  Cat-fish Row, where lame Porgy falls in love with Bess, kills a murderer for love of her; finds on being released from jail that she has left for New York, and sets out for the city, is no place for blacked up faces:  its mixture of numbers and recitative holds together elements of negro-music, work-songs, gospel, rag, lushly chromatic late-Romantic harmony and harsh dissonance.  Its first performance was given on Broadway, but its ambitions were very different.  For example,  Summertime is sung by a mother as the men play crap.  The character Sportin’ Life - one of his songs is It Aint Necessarily so - is a drug--dealer.  Sportin’ Life entices Bess to a life of drugs as well as the boat for New York.    Let’s hear Porgy’s Lament, Oh, Where’s My Bess, and the Finale of the opera - Oh, Lord, I’m On My Way.  

 

Track Eleven:  Porgy’s Lament and Finale, Gershwin  

 

God and Melville created whales.  Hollywood created the Western.  Jerome Moross created the Big Country.  There are many good film-scores for the films in which the United States took on outlaws, indians, Civil War renegades, Mexican bandidos, and won, latterly While being drenched in tomato ketchup, but, earlier, wearing corporate-style hairdos and streamlined Nineteen Fifties cowboy-garb, when a .45 slug hit home like heart-burn.  The Big Country, from 1958, boasted a big theme.  There is nothing to beat its impetus, its agog excitement and exhilarating orchestral sweep, with slowly swinging, striding bass and sectional, violin-unison-led melody developing by statement and reply.  The scoring is Russian and bold, the melody and harmonies could be those of a revivalist hymn.    

 

Track Twelve:  The Big Country, Moross

 

Only one composer wrote a Mount Saint Helens Symphony when the volcano exploded on the 19th May, 1980.  Alan Hovhaness (1911--2000) was an American of Scottish and Armenian extraction.  Immensely prolific, he wrote well over sixty symphonies, numerous concertante and large choral pieces. His work is characterized by strong, often chant-like melody, rich, modal or chromatic harmony and counterpoint, often on a massive scale.  His writing for hieratic brass and sonorous strings is matched by enchanting use of woodwind and pitched percussion.  One wonders where but in America his perspective, sense of space and large spirit might have grown.  Music flowed from him, occasioned by historical and even geophysical events, topography and the environment, the songs of the whale, the folk--musics, poetries and religions of East Asia, and polyphony of medieval and Reformation Europe. Its flavour is of ancientness, mystery, and worship of the sublime.  He was not universally admired by critics, and must have learned some synonyms for the words naive, fool and misguided, but his work seems to be gaining ground on the listening public’s regard. 

 

We hope to play the Mount St Helens Symphony some other time soon.  Today’s music by Hovhaness consists of the slow movement and scherzo of his Symphony Number 22, Opus 236, City of Light.  He said of this work, “I was thinking of a million lights, an imaginary city...”  The Largo is subtitled Angel of Light, a reference to a Christmas childhood experience of the composer’s.  The Allegretto Grazioso is based on themes from an opera that he had written while in high school, ‘Lotus--blossom’.  The work was commissioned for the centenary of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of Alabama in 1971.

 

Tracks Thirteen and Fourteen:  Largo and Allegretto Grazioso, Symphony No 22, City of Light, Hovhaness
 

We can journey inside a whale thanks to Thomas Newman, a scion of the Newman dynasty of Hollywood film-composers.

This is his piece Haiku, drawn from his music for the Disney film, Finding Nemo, of 2003.  It exemplifies the minimalist style much used in Hollywood these days, but is beautiful in its trance-like lyricism.  Its roots are recognizably like those of Copland and Hovhaness.

The strings chant in flattened common chords and accompanied by more complex drum off-beats. 

Mysterious, comforting, it is like music of the womb.

This is Classical Break, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s script was written and researched by Mike Burrows.  We hope that you enjoyed our time in the Big Country and will join us again soon.  Goodbye!

Track Fifteen:  Haiku from Finding Nemo, Thomas Newman

 

Postscript On HW Fairbank

Henry Waterman Fairbank was born on the 18/04/52 at Linden, Michigan, given his father’s names and mother, Harriet Waterman’s, maiden name.  He took a degree in music at Michigan State University and married in 1874.  He and his wife lived in Detroit throughout the 1880s and he was listed in census as a seller of instruments.  By the turn of the century, he had moved to the Chicago area and was a composer of Baptist hymns, patriotic pieces, songs, character-pieces for piano (such as a Mazourka Elegante dedicated ‘In Remembrance’ to Miss Mollie Bush of Newtown Pennsylvania), a highly respected choirmaster with the Chicago South Side Sunday Schools, and head of music at Chicago’s Normal College (a Ladies Teacher-training College).  As a choirmaster, he was capable of conducting choirs of 2-3000 girls and boys, his concerts attracting anything up to 4,000 listeners.  There is that about the informal journalistic descriptions of such concerts that one wishes one might have ‘been there’.  Hymns, patriotic songs, displays of virtuosity on the cornet or organ (on the organ, a Suppe overture, perhaps), and even a song-performance by a  4 yr old boy .  As a teacher, Fairbank became a much-loved figure, as one can tell from his obituary in the Normal College’s annual Year-book, the Emblem, 1925 Issue, given with portrait below.  He published his  work, such as The Old Sword on The Wall, through his own publishing company.  He died on 11/01/25, aged almost 73. As noticed in the Chicago Tribune, his wife took his body back to Linden for burial. 

 

My view of Fairbank has changed considerably through this information, got chiefly from kind friends of a friend on Facebook.  At first, I visualized a grizzled man in shirt-sleeves, trilby on back of head, cigar butt causing a more-than ordinary twist to sardonic lips and the near-permanent closure of one eye as he pounded out songs for Vaudeville – once in a while, this hard case had a rush of blood to the head and hopeful feeling in the wallet while perpetrating a commemorative song dedicated to Victims of The Late Disaster (whatever it was).  Somehow, this man had achieved The Old Sword on The Wall, certainly the best self-published song I have ever heard.  Maybe, he had stolen it from a brilliant young plugger who had come to less than nothing as a result.

 

After seeing utterly anomalous cuttings from a friend of a friend, I found The Emblem, 1919, on the Net.  This began with pages of portraits of some 70 teachers, which gives an idea of the scale of the very Gothic and sylvan-seeming  Normal College (quite a lovely Teutonic-Attican academy).  The first sight of HW Fairbank was dispiriting.  Could this phlegmatic, chubby-faced man be the composer?  I didn’t find it easy to believe, though I thought that he might have been confident, intelligent and energetic enough to conduct 1000s of youngsters in a concert – he looked so truly unSchumannian in physiognomy that I thought he would be a muscular enough Christian, too.

 

Then I noticed that the top corner of Fairbank’s page was missing, some of the Science-tutor’s title showing.  I flipped back the page.  Yes.  Head of Science. 

 

A fearsome face glared out from further down the Fairbank page next to a female tutor’s name and title.  Could Fairbank’s portrait have been displaced to rest there?  What a cruel joke for an unmissish teacher to endure down decades.   This bespectacled baleful scholar of lean jaw, thin, pursed lips and frown-marks might be intense enough to be a creative artist.  He was clean-shaven, his longer-on-top, slightly wavy hair well-brushed but mildly electric-looking.  This man could be a crusty don-like teacher, born in the same year of Professor Charles Villiers Stanford of Cambridge and the Royal College of Music and outliving the Irish academic basilisk by a short time. 

 

No. The fearsome face glared out through a hole.  Flipping back one or two pages, I found that the intense pedant was, in fact, Head of Geography.
 
I tried the Emblem of 1925 and found this:

 

 
 
  

This is the man who wrote a song of remembrance and reconciliation to an Unknown Officer fallen during  the war that had riven the United States in his boyhood.

 

I have to say that I like this portrait and the affectionate tribute more than any of my imaginative  leaps that fell flat.  I’d add that this looks like a composer and man who devoted his life not only to music but to people; for forty years fostering through integrity and humour not only learning and proficiency in his art, but also the happiness of his fellow man.  As such, he deserves respect over and above regard for a song, the only song of his that I have heard.  It is an inspired song, a real song for humanity however, and I so wish that someone out there would enable the public to hear many more of the works of this peculiarly modest artist, HW Fairbank:  I suspect that it would be worth their while to record, and worth ours, at last, to listen.  

 

Thanks, once again, to my informants!

 

Mike Burrows
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