Music Post: American Music for Strings

Published: Oct. 9, 2018 at 1:57 PM HST
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There was a golden age of classical music from 1850 to 1890 in the German-speaking lands of Europe. The leisure classes were eager to hear new works, and the hot performers of the day, including the old Liszt, the young Brahms and Clara Schumann, all on piano, Joseph Joachim on violinist, and several acclaimed quartets, were welcome, indeed expected, to play new works.

That nurturing of classical music, especially chamber music, happened later in Paris when the wealthy wives of industrialists would feed and water artists and musicians at Sunday soirees, collectively producing an incubation area for French composers.

In more recent generations we have seen Britain become a congenial place for community orchestras and bands, leading to, among other things, a large body of listenable British string music. The Naxos label has been recording this sort of thing and has gone above half a dozen releases without any sign of running out of material.

America incubated movie music and jazz and rock, but its classical concert audiences have remaining mostly interested in fresh performances of core repertory, which is to say, music written for Vienna in 1860 and Paris in 1910.

It’s big country, though, and there is more than enough American music for strings, to a two-hour episode of “Howard’s Day Off” with it.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) is remembered mainly as a symphonist, and there are some godawful recordings of Harris chamber works, seemingly designed to bury them. Finally, however, there are some new recordings which, among their many fine attributes, are in tune. Harris’s Third Quartet is an interesting work. Instead of the usual four movements it is a collection of preludes and fugues. We’ll open the first hour with the first prelude, and start the second hour with the third fugue.

William Schuman (1910-1992), a student of Harris who often sounds like Harris on a sugar high, is also remembered principally for his orchestral music (and his tenure as genial administrator of Juilliard and Lincoln Center) but wrote several quartets. We’ll hear the finale of the second one.

Elliott Carter (1908-2012) was also a genial man but most of his music wasn’t. He treated composition as an arithmetic problem and wrote tons of stuff that is far too important to enjoy. But his 1943 “Elegy,” originally for viola and piano but later scored for strings, speaks from the heart and can be enjoyed without a math degree.

Arthur Foote (1853-1937) is the composer most to be missed if you never hear music by pre-Gershwin Americans. Foote managed to remain innocent of an 1870s European education, and seemed more enthralled by Bach then late Romantic sorts.

John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) is remembered chiefly for the witty “Adventures in a Perambulator,” a suite describing a baby stroller walk in the park from the point of view of the baby, and most listeners who later encounter his “Skyscrapers” are astonished by the different style. But Carpenter was a craftsman who avoided getting into a rut. We’ll hear the finale of his 1927 quartet.

Benjamin Lees (1924-2010) was a Russian born in China, but by the age of five he was a music student in San Francisco. He would later teach at Peabody in the 60s and at Juilliard in the 70s. Lees’ music is rhythmic but without the clichés of Americana. We’ll hear the third movement of his 2002 Fifth String Quartet.

Samuel Barber was just a boy when he decided to be a composer – a letter to his mother about this survives – so it should be no surprise that his mature style us evident in his Op. 1, “Serenade for Strings.” We’ll hear the first movement.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) died of brain cancer in his late thirties or we might have a lot more fine classical music. His “Lullaby for String Quartet” is marvelous.

David Diamond (1915-2005) was a nasty man who wrote astringent symphonies, but one particular exception stands out, “Rounds for String Orchestra.” We’ll hear one movement.

Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) used his West Coast conservatory training mostly to develop an advanced form of jazz, but his also composed classical music, and his “Chromatic Fantasy” is excellent both in solo piano and quartet form.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) wrote little chamber music, but his “First Piece for String Quartet” has its points.

Peter Mennin (1923-1983), the buttoned-down president first of Peabody and then of Juilliard, wrote symphonies and concertos distinguished mainly by fierce propulsion. His slow movements tend to be suspenseful. We’ll hear the second movement of his second quartet.

John Adams (1947- ) wrote the masterpiece of the Minimalist movement, a sextet, and later for string orchestra, “Shaker Loops.” We’ll hear the finale of the fuller version of this 1978 work.

Wynton Marsalis (1961- ), the third generation jazz musician who returned to those roots after a remarkable career as a classical trumpet player, is the director of jazz at Lincoln Center. His first quartet, “At the Octaroon Balls,” is jazz-inflected classical music and it totally works.

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), longtime music for the New York Herald-Tribune, would later make a symphony of his second quartet, which we here sample in its original version.

Robert Moran (1937- ), an early collaborator with Philip Glass, has written some interesting works that seem to occupy the space between Minimalist and Post-Minimalist. His “Points of Departure” is a good orchestral example; for quartet, I refer you to “Music from the Towers of the Moon,” adapted from a film score. The opening movement is the music over which I read underwriting credits each weekend.

(Howard Dicus hosts “Howard’s Day Off” on Hawaii Public Radio’s HPR-2, 5am-7am HST Saturdays, with a replay at 5pm-7pm HST Sundays. If you join the Howard’s Day Off Listener Appreciation Society on Facebook you’ll see cue sheets for the programs along with advance notice of the following weekend’s topic.)