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
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
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
It would be interesting to hear another pianist interpret these pieces
although the composer is clearly a fine player and he is perfectly well
This disc is, for me, something of a mixed bag but may well have a distinct
appeal for many readers.