Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Music For Independence Day

For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to six discs of American music, a preparation of sorts for Independence Day.

My parents and I have a longstanding practice of listening to American music this time of year, and Josh and I have been maintaining this tradition.

The discs we chose this year did not involve any “tough” music, unlike a couple of the discs we chose last year (I do not think that Josh derived much enjoyment last year from Gunther Schuller’s “Symphony 1965” or William Schuman’s Symphony No. 7—in fact, that Gunther Schuller work from last year made Josh grind his teeth). Instead, this year we stuck to a more “populist” vein.

The discs we chose this year were:

“After The Ball”, a recital of Victorian songs performed by Joan Morris and William Bolcom, on the Nonesuch label

Antheil’s “Ballet Mechanique” and other Antheil works, performed by the New Palais Royale Orchestra And Percussion Ensemble under Maurice Peress, on the MusicMasters label

Music of Jerome Kern, performed by the Audubon Quartet, on the Centaur label

American orchestral music of Ives, Barber, Copland, Cowell and Creston, performed by The Academy Of Saint-Martin-In-The-Fields under Neville Marriner, on the Decca label

Choral Music of Samuel Barber and William Schuman, performed by The Joyful Company Of Singers under Peter Broadbent, on the ASV label

Orchestral Music Of Aaron Copland, performed by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra under the composer, on the Sony label

“After The Ball: A Treasury Of Turn Of The Century Popular Songs” was the very first recital disc that the husband-and-wife team of Morris-and-Bolcom ever made. Recorded in 1974, it made Morris and Bolcom virtually household names among music lovers in the U.S., and the popular team followed up “After The Ball” with numerous other recordings of light, popular repertory over the next three decades.

None of the ensuing discs, however, has probably developed the high reputation that “After The Ball” has always enjoyed from the day it was first issued.

“After The Ball” is a very special disc. Morris is ideal in these parlor songs, sentimental ballads and novelty numbers, capturing the particular ethos of the era in which these songs were written—and without any “archness” ever creeping into her performances. This cannot have been easy. In other hands, such material might have invited maudlin, even camp, treatment. Morris avoids any such dangers, singing these faded old songs simply, without adornment, without excess emotion, and free from any undercurrent of contemporary “interpretation”. This is the disc for which Morris will always be remembered.

From this recording, it is clear that Morris was a lovely singer in the 1970’s. Her timbre was not interesting and there was little color in her voice, but her intonation was pure, her phrasing simple, natural and eloquent, and her enunciation always clear but unaffected.

In 1974, as captured by the microphones, this was a voice of sheen and bloom that was very affecting. In later years, this sheen and bloom were gone (last autumn, Josh and I and my mother listened to Morris’s “Orchids In The Moonlight” disc, recorded in 1996; Morris remained a stylist in 1996, but any special vocal quality was gone).

I was surprised how many of the songs on “After The Ball” I had heard before, and so was Josh. In addition to the title song, we already knew “Good Bye, My Lady Love”, “A Bird In A Gilded Cage”, “I’ve Got Rings On My Fingers”, “Meet Me In Saint Louis, Louis” and “Wait Till The Sun Shines, Nellie”. Wherever had we heard these old songs before? In most cases, we had no clue, but they had entered our consciousness somewhere along the way.

One genre of popular song from turn-of-the-century America is omitted entirely from Morris’s anthology: the genre known as “coon songs”. Indeed, the most popular song in America for much of the 1890’s was Ernest Hogan’s “All Coons Look Alike To Me”, followed by “The Coons Are On Parade” and “New Coon In Town”. In fact, coon songs were a national—and worldwide—craze in the 1890’s, coinciding perfectly with the advent of ragtime.

Irving Berlin wrote coon songs. Much of the repertory of John Philip Sousa’s band was comprised of coon songs. Sophie Tucker got her start as a “coon shouter”—a singer of coon songs—in Vaudeville.

Coon songs were particularly popular in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna and, to a lesser extent, in Scandinavian countries and the Latin countries of Italy and Spain. Even Russia spent a decade in the thrall of coon songs. The genre only died, in the U.S. and elsewhere, several years after World War I (although it continued to thrive in Germany through the 1930’s, despite—or perhaps because of—Nazi efforts to suppress coon songs).

Many coon songs were written by black songwriters, including the ones generally acknowledged as most offensive. Ernest Hogan was black, and late in life he defended “All Coons Look Alike To Me” on the basis that the song had been “good for show business”.

The liner notes of “After The Ball” fail to make note of this forgotten genre, creating a gaping hole in what purports to be an anthology.

Josh hated “After The Ball”.

“Ballet Mechanique” made the name of New Jersey-born George Antheil known throughout the world at the time of its premiere in Paris in 1926, but Antheil’s fame was short-lived and he was virtually forgotten at the time of his death in 1959.

Antheil later arranged “Ballet Mechanique” for conventional orchestra, but the original version—and the version heard on the MusicMasters disc—called for instrumentation of three xylophones, four bass drums, gong, two pianos, sixteen synchronized player pianos, pitched electric bells, siren and three airplane propellers (of different pitches).

“Ballet Mechanique” was the height of modernism in 1926—the Paris premiere created a sensation, and the first American performance in 1927 caused a similar commotion—but it quickly faded from view. This was so for two reasons: its instrumentation may have been unusual, but its music materials were feeble, weakly developed and weakly manipulated; and Aaron Copland, vastly more talented than Antheil, was soon to dominate American modernism with a steady stream of more bracing and more finely-crafted works.

The MusicMasters performance was recorded shortly after a 1989 Carnegie Hall concert at which the 1927 American premiere of “Ballet Mechanique” was recreated. There is very little actual music-making involved in “Ballet Mechanique” once basic tempos have been set. The music merely drones on for 27 boring minutes before it is over. The piece does not improve with repeated listens.

The rest of the disc is devoted to Antheil compositions that were programmed along with “Mechanique” at its 1927 American premiere and at the 1989 concert recreation.

Most interesting is Jazz Symphony, the only interesting Antheil work I have ever encountered. It is a fine piece, a one-movement orchestral essay, tightly-constructed, that is free and breezy (if not particularly jazzy). It sounds, in part, as if it might have been written by George Gershwin had Gershwin enjoyed the benefit of a conservatory education. It also sounds, in part, like Darius Milhaud, but with a German twist.

The other two works on the disc, both chamber music, made no impression at all. Antheil’s String Quartet No. 1 was forgettable—vacant, devoid of interest, expression, personality and character. The performers were the Mendelssohn Quartet.

The Second Sonata For Violin, Piano And Drum was similarly vacant. The gimmick of adding a drum to the classic violin-piano duo added nothing.

The MusicMasters label is now defunct, and this disc has long been out of print. This disc may have some degree of rarity attached to it now, since the disc is currently selling for 76 pounds on Amazon United Kingdom.

Goodness gracious! Perhaps my father should try to unload it at such an inflated price while he may.

Josh hated the Antheil disc.

I have no idea whose inspiration it was to arrange Jerome Kern songs for string quartet, but someone in the Audubon Quartet clearly liked the notion, and this disc is the result.

Many of Kern’s most enduring songs are on the disc, including my two personal favorites, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “All The Things You Are”, two of the very, very greatest American songs ever written. Fourteen songs are on the disc, in all, plus a medley from “Show Boat”.

I love Jerome Kern—I think Kern and Richard Rodgers were our greatest songwriters, greater than Gershwin, Berlin or Cole Porter—but hearing an hour of Kern’s songs arranged for string quartet was not an enriching experience.

Some of the tunes outstayed their welcomes because the arrangements were too long (in a couple of cases lasting eight minutes or more). Some of the tunes cried out to be sung, because the lyrics are as important as the melodies. Some of the tunes might have worked in orchestral arrangements, but the string quartet medium was not a good choice to bring a few of these tunes to life, any more than a pipe organ arrangement would have been apt.

The arrangements were credited to Charles and Elliott Weiss and Howard Schatz.

The disc is primarily a curiosity, and an odd one at that. I have absolutely no idea why I bought this disc—it must have been a lack of lucidity on my part.

Josh hated the Kern disc.

The Neville Marriner/Academy Of Saint-Martin-In-The-Fields disc of American orchestral music was a tribute to the American Bi-Centennial and originally appeared on the Argo label. The disc includes Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 3 (“Camp Meeting”) and four shorter works: Samuel Barber’s ubiquitous Adagio For Strings, Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, Henry Cowell’s Hymn And Fuguing Tune No. 10, and Paul Creston’s A Rumor.

These are nice, neat performances, and this is a lovely disc. The Ives receives a very smooth, suave, highly-molded reading—much different than the kind of performance Leonard Bernstein, for instance, offered in Ives—and it works beautifully. In fact, this is my favorite recorded performance of the Ives Third, more observant of the hymn-based nature of the work than most American performances. I doubt that I would want to hear Marriner in the larger-scaled Ives Second, but in the more intimate Ives Third he is excellent.

The remaining performances come off well, too. Marriner’s reading of Quiet City is one of the finest versions ever recorded. The Cowell is charming. I believe that this is the only recording of the Creston piece ever issued, and I can easily understand why “A Rumor” is never recorded—it is the weakest composition on the disc.

The disc of American choral music by Barber and Schuman is devoted mostly to Barber. The disc features Barber’s Agnus Dei, a wordless choral arrangement of the Adagio For Strings, and includes nine other Barber works, three of which are songs arranged for chorus, including “Sure On This Shining Night” and one of the Hermit Songs.

Several moments in these Barber choral works are of almost indescribable beauty; many more, alas, are not. Barber was an extraordinarily uneven composer. One or two inspired bars are often followed by pages and pages of dull writing. One or two good ideas are often surrounded by a dozen hackneyed thoughts. This makes for frustrating listening. Moreover, I detest Barber’s choral arrangement of the Adagio For Strings—I’d much rather hear the piece on a calliope.

There are only two Schuman works on the disc: Perceptions, settings of eight aphorisms of Walt Whitman; and Mail Order Madrigals, settings of texts from a 19th-Century mail-order catalog. The Schuman works are intended to be witty. They are not.

The performances do not help matters. The Joyful Company Of Singers is a chamber choir, but the group lacks a chamber choir’s clarity of textural utterance. The group also lacks richness of tone, and it would not be inaccurate to describe much of the singing on this disc as “hooty”, a common problem with even the finest of English choral groups (and The Joyful Company Of Singers is certainly not among that number).

Josh hated the Barber/Schuman disc.

The Copland disc includes the original, chamber orchestra version of the complete “Appalachian Spring” as well as “Lincoln Portrait” and the suite from “Billy The Kid”.

“Appalachian Spring” was recorded in 1973 with a group of pickup musicians in New York. Ani Kafavian and the late Paul Jacobs are among the notable musicians who participated in the recording.

“Appalachian Spring” is a marvelous score, and this is a marvelous recording—I have loved it for years. There is a sweet, almost beguiling, quality to this performance that is very affecting. It is not as hard-driven as many recorded performances of the suite from the ballet for full orchestra, and all the better for that.

Josh loved “Appalachian Spring”, and we listened to the work over and over and over. It has become one of his favorite pieces of music.

“Lincoln Portrait” and “Billy The Kid” were recorded in London in the late 1960’s, and the performances are not quite up to the high level of “Appalachian Spring”.

The “Lincoln Portrait”, not one of Copland’s finer pieces, does not come across in this recording. The speaker, Henry Fonda, is all wrong for the text, and he sounds as if he is embarrassed to be part of the project. Further, the sound engineers were unsuccessful in creating an acoustic satisfactory for both orchestra and narrator. Both sound artificial, airless and dry.

The suite from “Billy The Kid” is another great Copland work, and it holds together well despite being stitched together from a number of old cowboy ballads. It is, in fact, one of my favorite Copland works.

Copland’s own performance is good, but I have heard better recordings of “Billy The Kid” from Bernstein and David Zinman.

We shall have to listen to more Copland. Josh has decided that Copland is one of his favorite composers, and by far his favorite American composer.

That’s an assessment I can understand.


  1. Boy, Andrew, dear Josh does not like a lot of things!

    Myself, I adore ALL genre of music, that is, except, Country and Rap music.

    I do hope you are well.


  2. Thank you, J.R.

    Both Josh and I have been frightfully busy at work, trying to finish some things before next week, when we will be at the lake.

    I hope you have a wonderful weekend, and I hope you have a wonderful July 4 week.

    We will not be online at all next week.