The American composer Henry Cowell has had some attention paid
to him over the last decade but it has been scant. Two worthwhile
collections appeared on Naxos American Classics and specialist
labels such as Mode, Albany
have not forgotten him. However his concertos and
symphonies (20 of them) never attracted systematic recording plans.
Looking back to the 1980s into the next decade even Delos that
ultimately over-confident leviathan of American orchestral music
managed to avoid adding Cowell to their Seattle recording schedule.
Koch International are low profile these days. Even so, they are
active and keep their classical back catalogue live. These two
Cowell chamber orchestra discs have been part of the Koch stable
since 1993. There's also another from the same conductor/orchestra
team containing music by a composer sometimes bracketed with Cowell:
Alan Hovhaness. The Armenian-American composer's Mountains
and Rivers Without End
, St Gregory Prayer
and Symphony No. 6 Return and Rebuild
the Desolate Places
are on 3-7221-2. Richard Auldon Clark
and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra also recorded the music of
David Amram, Otto Luening, Alec Wilder and David Soldier.
The present pair of CDs concentrates on Cowell though the second,
somewhat oddly, includes works by two other very different composers.
Cowell was born at Menlo Park, California but spent his formative
years with his mother moving within Oklahoma, Kansas and Idaho.
Buying his first piano in 1912 he experimented with chords and
produced The Tides of Manaunan
(1912) and Dynamic Motion
(1914) in which dissonant tone clusters are used. Studies
at UCB (1914-17) introduced him to atonality and polytonality.
His 'wild man' European tours made quite an impression
as did those by Antheil and Ornstein. He was the first American
composer to be invited to visit Russia which he did in 1928 before
such experimentation there became regarded as bourgeois formalism.
After two decades of extremes he began to move to an accommodation
with a sort of tangy tonalism. This can be heard in the works
His students from his years at the Peabody (1951-56) and Columbia
(1949-65) include Luening, Moross, Siegmeister, Becker, Copland,
Bacharach, Cage, Harrison and Herrmann. At one stage he had even
had Gershwin as his pupil. Works by some of these composers as
well as Ruggles, Ives, Still, Thomson, Varese, Schoenberg and
Webern were published by Cowell's "New Music Edition".
From a base of having in the 1920s attracted admiration from Bartók,
Hindemith, Schoenberg and Webern who conducted Cowell works in
Vienna, Cowell went on to study oriental music in Berlin (1931-32).
Having since the early 1940s been gripped by a fascination for
folk music he went on a world tour in 1956 under a Rockefeller
Foundation grant. He spent 1956 in Teheran hearing Iranian folk
music every day. His Persian Set
in four movements
was premiered in Teheran on 17 September 1957. It incorporates
a part for the Iranian Tar which is a double-bellied three stringed
instrument similar to the mandolin. The mandolin takes the part
of the Tar in this Koch recording. The sinuous sway of the swift-slipping
violin in the Moderato
entwines with the flute and the
fast trembling mandolin played by Joyce Balint. There's also a
banjo (Michael Rosenski) and a flavoursome minimalist percussion
contribution from Tomoko Inaba. The banjo is evident in the wilder
. After a stilling Lento
there's a celebratory
with mandolin and a wild-eyed, klezmer-like dervish
whirl with shouts from the orchestra members. There you are -
another work to add to Delius's Eventyr
where the orchestra
members are called on to shout out a sort of 'hey' or
'hoi'. It may loosely be bracketed with other Cowell works
including the Homage to Iran
American Melting Pot
was premiered in 1943.
It celebrates, across seven movements, the cultural bouillabaise
that is America. There are movements for German (a sustained Finzian
chorale in the manner of the Hymn Tunes), African (a quick and
spirited spiritual), French (light-footed clip-clop quick-step),
Oriental (a mysterious ruminating Alaparia
(a folk dance - sturdily outlined by brass), Latino (Uirapuru
chattery) and Celtic voices (a liquidly bubbling jig taking us
back to Cowell's Gaelic roots). Strangely there was nothing representative
The sweetly contoured Air
for solo violin
and string orchestra is a walking-pace meditation with an underlying
Old American Country Set
was premiered in Indianapolis
on 28 February 1940. It is in part a memento of childhood days
trailing from relative to relative across those three mid-West
states. The English folk and hymnal character (Holst and RVW)
of this piece perhaps links with Percy Grainger whose secretary
Cowell ultimately became and whose folksong field recordings he
catalogued. The Comallye
movement has a nice banjo-picker
aspect and the slow blooming Charivari
is part dream and
part river-steamer majestic. The Cornhuskin' Hornpipe
a fast-paced working song. Interesting that like Grainger Cowell
experimented with new instruments. With Louis Theremin he produced
the Rhythmicon for which he wrote a concerto with orchestra -
Adagio from Ensemble
orchestra derives from his 1924 string quintet piece called simply
. This original work from his early cauldron of
experimentation includes, in its outer movements, parts for bull-roarer,
graphic notation and a few guides and launching points for experimentation.
The movement which was arranged many years later takes us away
from the lighter Cowell to his more subtle and awkwardly angular
experiments of the 1920s. It is a sombre and tentative yet anxiety-shadowed
There are 18 Hymns and Fuguing Tunes
for various combinations between 1943 and 1964, the year before
his death. The name derives from the hymns of William Walker and
the fuguing tunes of William Billings. The Second
is for string orchestra and was premiered over the radio in NYC
on 23 March 1944. It is calming, dignified, rather English in
a Rubbra-Finzi way yet with an infusion of Barber-like passion.
of these is amongst the most famous and featured
on an early 1970s American music Decca anthology from Neville
Marriner and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The Finzian innocent
passion of the Hymn
is lent intensity by the oboe's guileless
adumbration of the melody which becomes more animated in the Fuguing
which will resonate with lovers of Holst's St Paul
and Fugal Concerto
He must have rather liked the diptych because in 1963 he developed
a work written for piano and sax in 1961 into the Air and
for alto sax and small orchestra. This bipartite
piece has an air that sweetly serenades the ear with a breathing
underpinning from the strings that echoes Moeran and Goossens.
There's nothing bluesy or jazz-like about it. The chuckling scherzo
has the sax capering with other woodwind solos and then drawing
breath for a nostalgic ballad.
Another late work of his is the large-scale five movement Concerto
premiered in Florida in 1964. Its
instantly suggests Barber's Adagio
with the Allegretto
being a lissom folk-dance led by oboe
and clarinet. The Andante
begins amid the cool beauty of
a gently incessant harp figure off which the sounds of the passionate
strings recall an amalgam of Finzi and Barber. The first of two
allegros take us back to Holst's Brook Green
though with more verdant cantabile. That last element
is dominant in the last allegro with some Grainger-like moments
along the way. It's an intensely joyous piece and will win Cowell
new friends if given a whirl.
is a very brief brevity. It was written
to a commission from the leader of the CBS Radio Orchestra,
Maurice Wilks. It's a catchy piece with the rum-ti-tum quality
of RVW's more bucolic moments.
Philadelphia was the home of Vincent Persichetti.
renowned concert halls and orchestra opened their programmes to
his music. Like Cowell he has never had the popularity of Hanson,
Schuman or Piston let alone that of Copland or Bernstein but he
does merit exploration. This pupil of Roy Harris and Fritz Reiner
wrote 160+ works including nine symphonies and 12 piano sonatas.
His Hollow Men
based on the poems of T.S. Eliot
was premiered in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1946. It is
a cantilena floated over a singing string band with the trumpet
playing watchful troubadour as well as noble orator. The cast
of the melody seems to reference Copland's Lincoln Portrait
I also wonder if the piece was influenced by similar such pieces
by Alan Hovhaness. It is placid yet noble.
New Yorker Edward MacDowell
was one of America's nineteenth
century romantics whose creativity was still seen as legitimised
by European studies and models including Mendelssohn and Grieg.
Their example and a certain irresistible sentimentality set the
seal on his most popular piece: To a Wild Rose
from his cycle Woodland Sketches
. One of the world's
piano stool salon favourites, it has been exhaustively arranged
but here is one for string orchestra. This is affecting music
of innocent beauty. It is played with great tenderness.
The whole recital works very well.
Alternative review of the Persian
by Neil Horner