Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Library Book Sale CD Trove XII

Reviewing my CD finds from half-price day at the Friends of the Multnomah County Library Annual Booksale.

William Henry Fry: Santa Claus Symphony
Royal Scottish National Orchestra

The received wisdom about symphonic music in the United States is that nothing that happened before, oh, 1920 is worth talking about. Then you have Aaron Copland, who established something resembling an American voice, and later the discovery of the music of Charles Ives, an eccentric New England insurance executive who wrote a great deal of music for symphony that had however had virtually no audience whatsoever.

If you dig a little deeper, you find that sure, there were of course plenty of American composers running around in the Nineteenth Century. They are almost universally held in contempt as being too German. And indeed, formal music in the U.S. was often written, conducted, and played by German immigrants, and almost all American composers worked from the musical models laid down by the Classical and Romantic German masters. In music history, this is seen as Derivative and Very Bad. The usual whipping boy is John K. Paine, a perfectly competent composer whose two symphonies sound vaguely like Schumann. He's pretty good, really, but your only hope of hearing his work performed live is to go to a music history concert, where the orchestra might play an exaggeratedly stiff rendition of a few bars so the audience can titter before getting down to appreciate some real American music, probably some -- let's face it, somewhat overrated -- Ives.

So Holy Crap! what we have here is some American symphonic music that actually predates John K. Paine. William Henry Fry, according to jacket, was "the first native-born American to compose for large symphonic forces." And you know what? He's actually pretty good. The Santa Claus Symphony is, as you might expect, big and jolly, but with a certain joyful seriousness to it as well. It is, perhaps unfortunately, seasonal music, with a broad quotation of Adeste Fidelius that would inevitably ring strange during summer months. Other pieces on the CD are an Overture to Macbeth, the Niagara Symphony, and The Breaking Heart. The last of these is fairly poor, calling into question the depth of Fry's output, but the Macbeth is quite stirring and dramatic.

Fry and Paine were not Beethoven and Mozart, but then neither were Schubert and Berlioz. And I am certainly not inclined to call for an America First! movement, where we would all express our love of country by carefully cultivating a taste only for our own native composers. That would be silly. But it wouldn't be much more silly than pretending that our national traditional of formal music began only when Ives got home from work, when Aaron Copland thought he'd found jazz, or when George Gershwin developed high-culture ambitions. Those three guys are important figures in the history of American orchestral music, but they didn't invent it. Hats off to the Naxos label for exhuming our deeper music heritage.

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