Variations on America
* Copland: Preamble for a Solemn Occasion
- Variations on 'America'
- Adeste Fidelis
- 2 Fugues
* Cowell: Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 14
* Still: Reverie
- Prelude and Fugue
- Wondrous Love
* Paulus: Triptych
Iain Quinn (organ)
Chandos CHAN 10489 Total time: 71:16
Summary for the Busy Executive: Declarations of independence.
Compared to the traditions of Germany, Holland, and France and despite
the presence of single masterpieces, most other countries' music for
organ falls into the category of afterthoughts. Only one item on this
program, Ives's Variations on 'America,' lies anywhere near standard rep
for the instrument. I imagine that it comes down to largely a matter
of employment. Germany, Holland, and France pay pretty good money to
their organists, and for a long time a composer's training consisted,
in part, of learning to play. Indeed, composers considered church
employment a pretty good gig, even if they had to lead the choir as well.
In England, composers and organists tended to be separate, and most
composers who found their way to organist posts (like Vaughan Williams)
tended to stay only a short time. The prestigious posts went to career,
virtuoso players. In the United States, players tend to serve out of
the goodness of their hearts, and not all of them compose.
Ives actually served as a church organist for a fair number of years,
and he used his position as a laboratory for his musical experiments.
The 1898 prelude on "Adeste Fidelis" belongs to these experiments.
Although not atonal, it inhabits a harmonic no-man's land. The tune
originally appears upside-down, then right-side up. Finally, the
wrong-side and right-side sound together simultaneously. Winter haunts
this little piece. The two fugues come from his Yale studies with the
American Wagnerian Horatio Parker. To quote Douglas Adams, they are
"mostly harmless." Any competent organist could have churned them out.
The Variations on 'America' tell another story. I know of few other
organ works so out-and-out funny. Compare this to the Victorian Dudley
Buck's Festival Overture on 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' a solidly-crafted,
very sober score, as straight-laced as a painting by Landseer. Ives
worked on the variations over many years, making his final revisions in
the Forties. Ironically, most people haven't heard it in its original
form, but in the 1963 orchestration by William Schuman. I first encountered
the organ version on an old, old Nonesuch LP (before they went upscale)
and before I heard the Schuman. It begins with a Dudley-Buck maestoso,
moves to a hymn-like variation appropriate for a Civil War Memorial Day,
and sort of takes off from there, including a variation in two different
keys, a Sevilliana, and what I'd call a Gilbert & Sullivan merry tripping.
The score ends maestoso.
Henry Cowell, an American maverick like Ives and an early proselytizer
for that composer, has to a large extent faded from public consciousness.
Like Leonard Bernstein, he seemed to absorb anything and everything.
His catalogue consists of a works ranging from the wildly experimental
to the ravishingly poetic. His series of Hymns and Fuguing Tunes belongs
to the latter. Always eager to expand procedures beyond the standard
European practices, he based them on the shape-note anthem structure of
colonial New England and the American South. The H&FTs are for various
forces: full orchestra, strings, cello, trombone, organ, oboe, three
horns, and so on. Almost all of them make use of modes and faux-"primitive"
open fifths and evoke the naive counterpoint -- it reminds me of
quilt-making for musicians -- of such early American composers as William
Billings, Justin Morgan, and William Walker. This particular hymn sings
solemnly, while the fuguing tune dances. Does anybody know whether an
enterprising label has released the complete set of eighteen? I'd buy
it in a heartbeat.
William Grant Still's Reverie is, unfortunately, a Nice Piece. He
studied with both Chadwick and Varese -- not at the same time, of course
-- and had a brief, interesting avant-garde phase. However, he found
it not to his liking and reverted to Chadwick. He consciously absorbed
African-American music (mostly jazz and especially the blues) as well.
Reverie from 1962 has a lot of Chadwick and no jazz that I can hear, to
its loss, I think. Pleasant enough, it doesn't make a permanent place
in my memory banks.
The teen-aged Samuel Barber actually served briefly in his hometown
Presbyterian church as organist, before heading off to Curtis and
world-wide fame. Curiously, he published only one work for solo organ,
although he had written more. Some of these fall under the heading of
juvenilia, but even so, they're quite good. In 1927 at Curtis, he wrote
the Prelude and Fugue in b under the supervision of his composition
teacher Rosario Scalero. It's very Brahmsian and quite fine. After
all, it takes talent (and brains) to follow Brahms, particularly the
late organ music. Wondrous Love (1958) stands as Barber's only published
solo organ work. In Barber's mature, post-World War II style, it varies
the shape-note hymn of the same name. The counterpoint seems wayward
but is in fact strictly controlled, much like the opening "Veni, veni,
Emanuel" section of Barber's 1960 Die natali. I find the whole thing
both masterful and as idiosyncratic as Ives's Variations on 'America.'
I can't think of another composer who could have come up with it. A
pity so few know this score.
Based in Minneapolis, Stephen Paulus has come into national prominence,
although the fact that his base lies on neither coast has, I think,
hindered the reception of his work. I've heard a fair number of his
scores: some I like, some I don't. However, I think he has become a
finer composer as he has proceeded. He certainly hasn't stood still.
Triptych appeared in 2000. Its movements -- "Like an Ever-rolling
Stream," "Still Be My Vision," and "As If the Whole Creation Cried" --
take their titles from venerable, if not exactly familiar, hymns. Paulus
often has a visionary bent which finds its way into his music. All of
these hymns have the Spiritual Journey as a subtext: for example, "Time,
like an ever-rolling stream, / Sweeps us away. / Our life's a dream
..." and so on. You might expect the moony-swoony to go along with this,
but Paulus (like a real visionary) zigs in unexpected directions. For
the most part, he writes vivid, lively music. I have no idea of the
future of this work (or any other, for that matter), but it strikes me
as a shame if it should fail to take hold.
Iain Quinn, a Welsh organist, does very well. Uncharacteristically,
the Chandos engineers louse him up in the Ives Variations, in which the
echo swamps the counterpoint of the louder sections. Every other track
is fine. However, quite obviously Quinn does his damndest to bring out
the individual ingredients of Ives's musical burgoo. In fact, I manage
to hear strands in it I've never heard before. Given a better shake
sound-wise, as in the Barber, Quinn's playing clearly presents various
independent lines. Quinn also shows a poetic streak. His account of
Ives's Adeste Fidelis strikes particularly deep.
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