John Alden Carpenter
* Sonata for Violin and Piano (1912)
* Quartet for Strings (1927)
* Quintet for Piano & Strings (1937)
Paul Posnak, piano
Sergiu Schwartz, violin
Naxos 8.559103 Total time: 74:35
Summary for the Busy Executive: A Harvard gentleman from Chicago.
Like Charles Ives, John Alden Carpenter came from old New England stock
(he claimed descent from *the* John Alden) and worked as a high-level
business executive for his day job. At that point, all resemblance ends.
Carpenter was a hot ticket during the Teens and Twenties, writing out
of an Impressionist idiom. Some of his solo piano music, while not
exactly groundbreaking (remember that the Rite of Spring appeared in
1913), is extremely well-made, in ways similar to and at the same level
of artistic ambition as Debussy's Premiere Arabesque. His pieces Sea
Drift and Adventures in a Perambulator typify this style. During the
late Teens, he became interested in jazz, which kicked his music out of
its genteel rut. Indeed, his most lasting works come from this period:
Skyscrapers, Krazy Kat, and the piano concertino. During the Twenties,
however, as American composers began to grapple with "hard" Modernism,
Carpenter's stock fell. The music, often poetic and always beautifully
shaped, simply hadn't the interest or the reach of something like Copland's
piano concerto, Varese's Ionization, or Antheil's Ballet Mecanique.
Compared to our Neoclassics - Piston, Diamond, Schuman, Harris, and so
on - it seemed stuck in an earlier era. I think it fair to say that
Carpenter's music lacked an exploratory drive, such as one hears in the
music of Griffes. He contented himself to rest on comfortable ground.
I listen to a Carpenter piece and immediately think of a painting by
Maurice Prendergast or Edmund Tarbell, rather than one by George Bellows
or Lyonel Feininger.
The liner notes compare the violin sonata to Delius. While I don't
normally seek out Delius's music, I can't let him be libeled, since he
has at least a strong artistic personality and Carpenter's piece exemplifies
one of my musical betes noires - the Nice Piece. It's not a sonata, so
much as a series of Artistic Poses and Moods. The thematic material you
forget almost as soon as you hear it, and there's really no argument to
hold you. Instead, the composer strikes a series of attitudes, represented
by the finale. A dinky theme, at the level of an Edwardian piano potboiler
(perhaps "Harlequinade"), gets stated and mostly dropped, as the mood
becomes more and more pretentious - that is, serious for no good reason.
For me, this sonata just about defines musical kitsch.
The string quartet improves upon the earlier piece in every way. For
one thing, each of the three movements actually make coherent statements,
as opposed to resort to empty, second- and third-hand rhetorical gestures.
Typical of Carpenter's music at the time, we get a tentative exploration
of Modernism. The most aggressive of Carpenter's ideas tend to take on
what Jelly Roll Morton called "the Spanish tinge," as if that kind of
exoticism freed the composer from his conventional morning-jacket of
musical mannerisms. My favorite movement is the second, a rapt meditation
disciplined by a fairly tight rein on motific development. It represents
Carpenter's music (and Impressionism in general) at its best: an intensity
that seems to suspend the flow of time.
Carpenter's piano quintet appeared in the Thirties and sounds like he
could have written it thirty or forty years before. Nevertheless, it
shows the composer at his best. The first movement plays very subtle
rhythmic games with an idea that sounds like an homage to the Baroque.
Stravinsky and his disciples, of course, were at the height of their
influence, but they don't really touch Carpenter here, who reverts to a
late nineteenth-century idiom. The instrumental writing is both free
and assured, as if the composer has felt no practical limits at all upon
his thought. The voices speak their "own mind" with one another, and
yet retain the social aspects of genuine conversation. The slow movement
unfolds along a passionate, elegant arc, but with great economy of means.
Again, the idiom lies closer to Schumann and Reger than to Debussy,
although Carpenter can't resist closing on a whole-tone chord. Still,
the meaning of that chord differs from the same sort of thing in Debussy.
It's more of a relaxation of nineteenth-century chromaticism. The third
movement comes as a big surprise. It not only raises the emotional level
of the entire piece, but does so in something much closer to contemporary
Modernism. It's muscular, "big-shoulder" music, what I imagine as
Carpenter finally speaking in his genuine voice, rather than in some
knock-off of John Knowles Paine (his teacher) or Dukas. Nevertheless,
it works, and Carpenter finishes off with a particularly satisfying
musical climax (although a recall of the primary theme of the first
movement I can take or leave).
Schwartz (no relation) and Posnak, despite their considerable efforts,
can't do much with the violin sonata. A sow's purse is a sow's purse,
after all. However, they give it a pretty good shot. The Vega Quartet
lovingly shapes the string quartet and adds to Posnak's muscle in the
piano quintet. Carpenter will probably never be anyone's idea of a major
composer, but he does have something worth saying and he entertains well.
Thanks to Naxos for allowing us to explore at cheap rates.
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