Thursday, May 20, 2021

American Discoveries

Since I started reading The Heart of a Woman, Rae Linda Brown's biography of Florence Price, I have come to realize that my knowledge of twentieth-century American orchestral music is not is comprehensive as I would like it to be (or thought it was). This could be due to the programming and re-programming of music by the same well-known (and accessible) American male composers alongside the same well-known (and accessible) male European composers, many of whom came to America to escape pogroms, Nazis, and totalitarian regimes.

In the case of Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith, Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch, and Arnold Schoenberg (to name some of the better known men), the direction of influence almost always went "back" to Europe, which is completely understandable.

The American-born composers who dominated concert programs during the twentieth century like Charles Ives, Howard Hanson, Vincent Persichetti, Irving Fine, Samuel Barber, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein gave us a set of lovely framed musical pictures that defined an American "voice" for many of us. 

Then came a set of American-born (male) composers like Roger Sessions, George Crumb, Eliot Carter, John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Milton Babbit that stretched the idea of new American music towards the experimental, the minimalist, and the intellectual. The music that these composers wrote sometimes scared audiences away, but orchestras still programmed them because they wanted to have some skin in the game regarding new directions in music.

I'm not passing judgement. I'm just reporting on the male-dominated (and white-dominated) musical landscape that we are all starting to look at through a rearview musical mirror.

There have been female composers who held a place of importance in American music. Or of relative importance. The best known American woman composer would be Amy Beach. I was surprised to see the small number of people on this Wikipedia list of female American Composers, and I was equally surprised to see the people who didn't make that particular list (like Marion Bauer). I hope to see this list expand soon. I might have to take matters into my own hands.

Not present on this list are the three composers that have music on this recording of newly-discovered orchestral music by women: Priscilla Alden Beach, Linda Robbins Coleman, and Alexandria Pierce. The project represents a great deal of care and work (during a pandemic year) by the Landsdowne Symphony Orchestra, its conductor Reuben Blundell, and the the librarians that take care of the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970) wrote "City Trees" in 1928, and Howard Hanson gave the first performance that year with Rochester Philharmonic. "City Trees" is a lush and romantic piece that brings to mind the paintings of the Hudson River School. The trees depicted musically here progress from rural trees to early twentieth-century urban trees. In scope, variety, and color it brings to mind Respighi's "Pines of Rome," but (and I wrote this in my listening notes before reading the liner notes) the trees here might be better associated with Rome, New York than Rome, Italy. Turns out that the composer, a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden of Mayflower fame, spent her childhood in Rome, New York!

Beach went to Smith College, and the studied at Eastman (I imagine with Howard Hanson), and had a fellowship at Juilliard. She wrote music for a series of silent movies that were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and then disappeared from musical life entirely to write books about pets and work as a laboratory technician. 

I wonder if there is more of her music hiding in a closet or a drawer, somewhere.

Professional life as a composer has been far less difficult for Linda Robbins Coleman. She enjoys an impressive career, and the American heartland (she lives in Iowa) has been good to her. What she has given back is music that reflects her love of the nature around her.

I noticed that "For a Beautiful Land," which she wrote in 1996, is "informed" by the Americana of Copland and Stravinsky. This piece is episodic, and is filled with interesting textures. Overall the wind, brass, and percussion sections seem far more present and important than the strings, though there is some enjoyable playful interaction that involves the strings. The woodwind solos and duets (there are a lot) are engaging and beautiful. "For a Beautiful Land" is relentlessly tonal, and, after a brief nod to Ravel's "Bolero," comes to a bold and optimistic conclusion.

Alexandra Pierce was born in 1934 and just died this past February. She studied at the University of Michigan, earned Master's degrees from New England Conservatory and Harvard, and her doctorate from Brandeis. She taught at MIT and at Antioch College, and spent the bulk of her career on the faculty of the University of Redlands (she retired in 2001). 

Her 1976 "Behemoth" is a five-movement tone poem that explores ideas presented in the Book of Job. Pierce's use of orchestral color is typical of the 1970s, but I do not find it derivitive of any particular composer. Her technique at orchestration is excellent--as good as any better-known twentieth-century composer (see the list above).  She often lets her material travel in a hocket-like fashion around her very large-sounding orchestra. Like Coleman's "City Trees," Pierce's "Behemoth" is very wind, brass, and percussion forward, with the strings mostly creating atmosphere (they engage in a healthy amount of pizzicato and tremolo) and giving support. 

I particularly like the transparent and layered third movement that has a dialogue between the oboe and the horn that seems to travel over a foggy plain: ephemeral, questioning, and suspended. A bright flute glides above, and fades away. The percussion-rich fourth movement has a solo flute and a gauze-like color in the strings that reminds me of "The Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome.

You can buy the album here. It is both inexpensive and rich.

1 comment:

Dr. G said...

The Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music is the world's largest lending library of orchestral performance sets in the world. They place rare, unique, and hard-to-find music on stands around the globe for performances and recordings. In addition to the standard repertoire, the Fleisher Collection houses the largest collection of orchestral music by women, African-descent, and Pan American composers, as well as myriad other silent treasures from neglected composers.
Maestro Blundell gives sound to long-dormant voices with the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra. His continued work in American Romantic music and women composers stands at the forefront of adventure and discovery - a boon to the classical world.
Part of the Special Collections Division at the Free Library of Philadelphia, the privately endowed Fleisher Collection grows under the care of Curator Gary Galván, a musicologist (UF '07) specializing in Pan American music, and Assistant Curator Stu Serio, a Philadelphia-trained orchestral librarian with many years experience in publishing and orchestral music.