It is time to reassess Henry Cowell.
He used Arabian and Persian music long before Britten discovered the East.
He was the first to use strumming on the piano strings. (What young pianist hasn't played The Aeolian Harp?)
And he invented the tone cluster. (When Bartok heard the Sonata for Cello and Piano he asked H.C. for permission to use it.)
He was the first American composer to visit communist
He features rice bowls (predating Tan Dun) in his Varese-inspired complex of cross accents and its delicate xylophone solos in Ostinato Pianissimo.
There are multiple levels of simultaneous events throughout Polyphonica (1928! Are you listening Stockhausen--ites?).
I never realized how much early Carter owes to Cowell until I listened to the Quartet Romantica (1915!). Every voice has its own defining rhythm. ("Maintain the integrity of the line," says Elliott Carter). The counterpoint is Schoenbergian dissonant.
Is he the first American to do twelve tone? (see the epigrammatic Quartet Euphometric of 1916). His First String Quartet (1916) though, sounds to my ears like a more pedantic Alban Berg.
Webern conducted his music in 1932.
He developed the rhythmicon with Leon Theremin in 1931. Madame Longy would have gone wild with the polyrhythms.
In the 30s H.C was experimenting with music played in any order (Mosaic Quartet) long before it dawned on the well financed war-torn Europeans. He called it "a crazy quilt of patterns." His 26 Simultaneous Mosaics (1963) -- no full score, just a series of instrumental parts, played stop-and-start as each player is pleased to play, each player chooses the order of the movements as they please, each player is on his own-- with its shifting drones, tone clusters, atonal moto perpetuo -- is the direct ancestor of all Elliott Carter's music (though E.C. leaves nothing to chance) as well as my own Six Performances.
On the other hand, Suite for Wood Wind Quintet (1934) sounds to me like Virgil Thompson.
Likewise, the Movement for String Quartet (1928) comes right out of Carl Ruggles and Ruth Crawford Seeger.
In his percussion piece Return (1939) he's got delicate, ritualistic gongs (once again Tan Dun) and a human wail reminiscent of sirens used by
And yet, during the height of academic serialism in the early 1960s, he dared to be tonal in the Quartet for flute, oboe, cello and harp---years before Del Tredici. He was a pariah then and a laughingstock for having spent years in prison on a trumped-up charge that was cleared in 1941.
Persian Set (1959) is during his Lawrence of Arabia period. It uses a tax (a sort of Iranian mandaline).
His Hymn to a Fuguing Tune (1944) sounds like early Copland: beautiful modal
He predates the current rage of "eclecticism" in American Melting Pot (1940): Lutheran chorales, an African-American "air" that sounds like "Oklahoma" and reminiscent of William Grant Still, a funny take off on "An American in Paris" complete with wood block and jazz trumpet, a campy oriental riff on Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade, a Shostakovitch take off called Slavic Dance, a fast Latin with an added eighth note time signature like a Jamaican Rumba on Ecstasy.
His Adagio for string orchestra is not a lush remake of Samuel Barber but a single expressionistic line that curls along.
His songs are lovely. He wrote over 180 of them. The early ones are functionally tonal and beautiful. The ones in the 1930s are full of delicious tone clusters and piano strumming. They all have great texts: Maxwell Anderson, Ezra Pound, Shelly, Irish mythology, G.K. Chesterton, Edna St Vincent Millay, Mother Goose, Robert Frost---those were the pre-copyright-law days.
Alas! they languish. Paul Allen Levi, a colleague, premiered 3 Poems of Padraic Column in 1983---almost 30 years after they were written. They're all beautiful---the songs are a whole lot better than the Menotti sound-alikes that make the headlines.
"I want to live in the whole world of music," he said---and he did.
All hail to Henry Cowell---the American Father of us all.
Lou Harrison's Music for Violin with Various Instruments, European, Asian and African influenced both Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Part one features a great violin solo, an ersatz folk song over a sustained triad. Part three's two marimbas on a long pedal which almost reminds me of Steve Reich's Drumming.
Jahla (1972) has a strange Indian-Alberti bass in mixolydian mode. The idea of a drone played between notes of the melody was later stolen by Roberto Sierra.
Lou Harrison's Avalokiteshrara uses a Korean scale I'd like to use sometime (Eb F G Bb C, with F as the final). The mode is called "the delightful" and it is. The piece is a great combination of harp and tuned cymbal.
Music for Bill and Me (1967) is a long modal aria, an appealing folk tune.
I don't know what to say about Labyrinth #3. He uses every percussion on earth. It's a very funny piece.
Songs in the
His Serenade (1978) has a lovely 8 note mode I'd like to use (C C# E F# G A B). Turkish music with finger cymbals, etc in a funny sort of round. The last movement's like a strange Scarlatti sonata.
In Praise of Johnny Appleseed (1942)--love the wooden-flute chords. Henry Cowell thought the bamboo flute, pipe claves almost sounded like Harry Partch. I agree.
Aria in g minor (1942) is simplicity itself: flute and drone. Indian based, interesting.
He wrote a strange opera that's only50 minutes long but in six acts. Rapunzel uses a very small ensemble (violin, cello, piano, flute, percussion) and only 3 singers. It's got interesting recitative and is almost all a capella. It's serial but very melodic (
I would have liked to have seen his concerts with John Cage. His
George Antheil--now I really like his Parisian first string quartet and wish it was played more often. He was "the first American to be taken seriously" (Ezra Pound--it was the 20s). He studied with a pupil of Liszt as well as a young Ernst Bloch. Antheil claims the quartet sounds like a third rate Budapest String Orchestra but with its bi-polar, bi-tonal ostinati it's really a wow piece, viewed now, I think. In his neoclassic second string quartet chromatic melodies hover above non-functional triads (what I do now but he did it in 1927). It shows the Stravinskian roots of
Paul Creston's Symphony #3 is a lovely work, which shows his love of Bach and Chopin, lyrical and richly scored. He was a dance class pianist like me. His wife was a dancer. I can see him at Martha Graham banging
out the beat. Sensibly, he hated Mahler. Sadly, he was considered outdated during the 12 tone craze of the 50s and 60s.
His Partita for flute, violin and strings is lovely as is his Out of the Cradle and Invocation and Dance , with their great orchestral colors.
Of the Roy Harris, William Schuman, Howard Hanson, Walter Piston crowd, Paul Creston, I think, was probably the most original.
I very much like Copland's Piano Variations. There's a good Easley Blackwood performanace of it, though the the studio piano is dreadfully out of tune. His Old America Songs inspired me to write my own American Songs for woodwinds. There's a great banjo melody in Boatman's Dance by the man who wrote
Praises and Prayers, by Virgil Thompson, is a simple, soft, perfect rendition.
I do love his operas. If you want to study American English prosody you could do worse than look to Virgil Thompson. He always said that if you set the text correctly the meaning will take care of itself. Much of his writing consists entirely of arpeggios and scales (Phillip Glass). Who writes songs like Virgil Thompson? There's the pounding piano of Tiger!Tiger! and the Satie-derived songs as well as the German-lied period songs, the parlor songs and the ones on operatic recitatives. Beautiful stuff.
And, of course, he was a great critic. "When a first rate work of art becomes a classic because it is accepted the only thing that is important from then on to the majority of the acceptors...is that it is so wonderfully beautiful." VT
I find Michael Colgrass very appealing. In his Fantasy Variations (1961) he treats the percussion in an exceptionally lyric way. I heard an electronic piece of his when I was a student which still haunts me. He should be better known.
And then there's Robert Helps. He invited me to his house in
Sessions needs a revival. When He was writing the cantata he could be seen walking the hallways of Juilliard with a copy of Verdi's Falstaff under his arm. He was a student's age when he thought about Lilacs, then studying with Horatio Parker or maybe Ernst Bloch. I remember the first performance of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. "But for the opera I could never have written Leaves of Grass," wrote Walt Whitman. So it makes sense that Session had opera on his mind when he wrote the music.
John Harbison said that early Sessions is like Stravinsky but without the ironic distance. It's richer in texture, stockier. Sessions had tons of students and he was extremely influential that way. He always taught the long line and the dense, active texture which is still with me today.
His latest works are very compressed with sometimes of brilliant orchestral color. There's a birdsong in the third movement of Lilacs, a hermit thrush (flute,piccolo and xylophone), but it doesn't sound anything like Messiaen.
Helps recorded the Sessions piano sonatas masterfully.
Nearly half of his work (the best, I think) was done after he retired from teaching.
Conlin Nancarrow influenced me tremendously as a student. His first string quartet is an elegant pre-player-piano work reminiscent of early Carter (They were good friends. Carter spoke to me about Nancarrow on several occasions, but who influenced whom?) The last movement of the string quartet is a killer: lots of fortissimo pizzicatti and a great presto of huge tessitura.
Of course everybody's heard his player piano work: vintage, very clean. There's a live version out by Joanna MacGregor playing the 11th study. There had to have been major splicing but the effect is magical. I like Thomas Ades' Nancarrow and, of course, Ursula Oppens is the prototype. He covered the market in canons long before Gloria Coates.
Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium is the prototype for all the modern American operas of the verisimo school, a little bit of Puccini, a little bit of Britten. He sets English well enough to study. He makes the most of
a small ensemble (17 in the Medium). His libretti are great. I love the ending of the Medium. Amahl has some glorious set pieces too. In The Telephone solo strings do the work of an orchestra---which is truly tricky to write. The Ricercare and Tocatta for piano sounds like a Busoni transcription of Bach. The Canti della Contananza are quite beautiful, lyrical, well crafted.
Menotti doesn't aim for the heights: he keeps it small but perfect. I can't do this. Like Puccini he doesn't push the limits of the voice. He's very careful in his approach to the text. No wonder singers love his work. So many have imitated him---never as well.
Charles Ives's songs are well known. Ramey sings them with great feeling. You've got to love somebody who writes a quodlibet of 25 melodies. Awesome! His piano sonatas and symphonies influenced my writing. I wish I could have met him. He would have given me good advice. His Study 20 in ragtime is hilarious. And, yes, he finally got the Pulitzer, but only after he changed it to make it nice.