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Haskell SMALL (b.1948)
A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours for solo piano (2015) [33.55]
Lullaby of War for solo piano and two narrators (2007) [30.43]
Haskell Small (piano)
rec. Westmoreland United Church of Christ, Bethesda, Maryland, USA, 22 June 2008; July 2015
MSR CLASSICS MS1601 [64.41]

I have to admit that the name of Washington-based composer Haskell Small was new to me. I hadn’t come across an earlier MSR CD which includes his The Rothko Room - Journeys in silence, Visions of Childhood and A Glimpse of Silence (review). His Renoir's Feast is coupled with another version of Lullaby of War on Naxos 8.559649.

Lullaby of War is set for piano, played by the composer and two narrators, male and female. It takes as its starting point the disturbing Stephen Crane poem ‘War is kind’ which begins “Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind”. The remaining poetry is ‘No’ by Joy Harjo (b.1951), ‘Recitative’ by Yvan Goll (1891-1950), 'Naming Souls' by Uri Zvi Greenberg (1896-1981), ‘Look Down, Fair Moon' by Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and the extraordinary ‘Guernica Pantoum’ by Paula Tatarunis (b.1952). The poems are shared between the contrasted voices and interspersed with piano pieces by Haskell Small. The latter are reflections on the words or at least are informed by them. For example in ‘Guernica’ the line “the pivot of a deathward dance” sets off a sort of vicious 'Danse Macabre'. The musical style is freely chromatic and often dramatic. The texts bluntly convey the horrors of the results of war.

Yvan Goll had direct experience of the World War I and composed his most famous poem ‘Requiem for the Dead of Europe' with its lines ‘The bridges built of corpses/The roads built of corpses”. The Jewish Austrian poet Uri Zvi Greenberg also fought in the same war. His poem ‘Naming Souls’ is very personal: “I stood on my own, the last/of the species that fight”.

The work is not easy listening but entirely suitable for this period when we are regularly reminded of the folly of war, especially the First War. That said, the power of the poetry is so great that it outweighs the somewhat nebulous piano music, which, for me neither adds strongly to nor consistently complements the poems. I almost felt that I would have liked the music to stand on its own after the poetry was read. I was rather sadly, relieved when each of the piano pieces came to its conclusion.

Eight years later Small composed his A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours. I have at this moment in my hands a beautiful British Museum reproduction copy of ‘The Hastings Hours’ (c.1480) one of many which was a popular manual for private devotion during the later Middle Ages. Its essential component is to enhance worship. My version has gorgeous illustrations of, for example, The Virgin and child, St. Katherine and the crucified Christ. Robert Aubrey Davis in his thoughtful and helpful booklet notes for this disc, reminds me of a sign I once saw in a monastery gateway “Silence is also prayer”. How does music fit into this philosophy?

St. Benedict who conceived the regular hours of a monk's day insisted on silence but also on the chanting of psalms and other music during the services. ‘Where words end, music begins” one might re-iterate. Music can also be prayer and Haskell Small’s generally quiet piano pieces rise like incense in spiritual contemplation.

The style moves from mysteriously chromatic as in the opening ‘Introduction’ and the following ‘Vigils’ to diatonic and homophonic. You can hear this in movement eight ‘None’ and in the freely flowing and simply melodic ‘Vespers’; both are periods of prayer as decreed by Benedict. The eleven movements take us through the monastic day. After ‘Vigils’ also known as Matins - the service held during the night hours - we move to ‘Lauds’, and then ‘Prime’ followed by ‘Tierce’. Before ‘Sext’ the composer inserts a brief ‘Walk to Calvary’, a picture of which could well be found in a Book of Hours. The ‘None’ and ‘Vespers’ are preceded by ‘Compline’ and bedtime is offered as ‘The Great Silence’. Having stayed on three occasions in Benedictine houses I know what that feels like.

Musical ideas are pursued and repeated and developed so that although the composition is sectionalised with contrasts of speed and dynamic it can easily be followed. It’s a good piece to be played by candlelight at night and has that feeling that repetition would do no harm to your continued appreciation.

It would be interesting to hear another pianist interpret these pieces although the composer is clearly a fine player and he is perfectly well recorded.

This disc is, for me, something of a mixed bag but may well have a distinct appeal for many readers.

Gary Higginson

 




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