Today, American music is probably the most played, heard and streamed worldwide. The musical idioms cherished by our contemporaries were crafted for the most part in America, or at least are influenced by American music. This can be considered as history’s revenge for the slowness with which Europe acknowledged the potential of a distinctive American culture.
In this Da Vinci Classics album, the music we hear was composed by North American composers; however, as we will shortly see, their musical interests embraced both North and South America, but – obviously – were also influenced by European styles and techniques. Notwithstanding their deep differences, however, these four composers do speak a distinctly “American” musical language, and bear witness to the gradual development of a specific musical identity.
The works recorded here are for the piano, an instrument of European descent, and which used to embody the ideals, practices, social habits, and artistic aspiration of the Old Continent. This is doubtlessly true, but is also a partial view: indeed, America quickly adopted the piano as one of its own instruments, and even developed new techniques of piano building in order to meet the particular needs of its population. North Americans were constantly on the move, and they kept exploring new areas and zones of the Continent, settling in previously uninhabited places; small square pianos were easy to transport, and were the musical embodiment of the pioneers’ colonization efforts.
During these explorations, Americans encountered new landscapes and new musical styles. As is well known, the States have gorgeous and luxuriant forests, dry and desertic areas, icy and arctic landscapes, as well as the urban jungles with their deep contradictions (entrepreneurship, dynamism, poverty, racial conflicts, night life, creativity etc.…). All of these elements could deeply inspire a composer looking for new ideas and for a genuinely American music. Moreover, local musical styles could also be encountered, both in the urban contexts and outside them. African-American music slowly conquered both Black and White audiences; its rhythms, originating from the Continent whence the former slaves came, and its typical musical gestures (such as the call-and-response pattern) were found to be increasingly irresistible by audiences of all skin colours, and they quickly overtook European audiences as well. (For example, composers whose own style seems at the antipodes of early jazz were evidently conquered by it. Debussy, the master of watercolour nuances in music, and a composer whose works frequently avoid all rhythmical schematizations, was clearly attracted by African-American music, as several of his pieces testify). Other sources of inspiration were constituted by the songs and dances of Native Americans, both in the Western areas of the States, and in the remote north of Alaska. Finally, but not less importantly, Latin America also provided an extraordinary repository of musical ideas, rhythms, and genres. There, too, the music of the native populations encountered that of the colonizers. Whilst on the political and social plane such encounters were frequently problematic and often censorable, on the musical plane the results of these meetings are among the most fascinating products of the last (long) century.
This complexity is intriguingly embodied by the figure of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. His very biography bears witness to the constitutive plurality of the American society. He was the son of a British Jew and of a French Creole. Born in New Orleans – the future cradle of jazz music – he absorbed a variety of musical traditions from the very outset of his life. Having demonstrated his musical talent at a very young age, Gottschalk left America for Europe, where the best schools of the classical music tradition could be found. However, the musical elite of the Paris Conservatoire superciliously refused even to audition him, on the grounds that “America [was] a country of steam engines” and that, consequently, no genuine musical talent could have been born there! Fortunately, the young musician was not discouraged by this display of chauvinistic bigotry, and went on with his musical studies under the guidance of some of the best private teachers of the era. He quickly affirmed himself as one of the most promising young talents, praised by Chopin, Liszt and Alkan, and toured extensively Europe. Later, however, he went back to America, where he would establish himself as the greatest local pianist. His concert tours were exhausting; however, they also allowed him to familiarize himself with a variety of musical idioms from both North and South America. Thanks to this exposition to non-European styles, his own musical idiom took forms which can be seen as paving the way for jazz.
In the case of the pieces recorded here, however, the reference context is European, even though the remoteness of Scotland and the individuality of her traditions constitute a musical world of their own. These two Ballads are inspired by poems which were thought to have been written by Ossian, a Gaelic Bard. In fact, they were probably the forgery of an eighteenth-century poet. This did not prevent them from stimulating the creation of a variety of musical and non-musical works (including Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave): Gottschalk’s pieces do incorporate some Scottish-sounding musical gestures, and beautifully render the atmosphere in which natural and supernatural meet each other.
“Scottish” works were also composed by Amy Cheney Beach, but in this Da Vinci Classics album her interest in exoticism takes another form. Amy Beach had shown an impressive musical talent since her earliest childhood; however, her family did not know how to properly manage it especially with reference to the limitations female musicians had to experience at the time. Her piano studies were influenced by a former student of Liszt, and her astonishing talent as a pianist was widely acknowledged. However, having married at just 18, she gave up her concert tours and focused instead on composition. She wrote many short pieces, but also several large-scale works, such as a majestic Mass and a Gaelic Symphony, which could profitably be compared with Gottschalk’s Ballads as concerns their common “Scottish” setting. Beach’s poetic style is evident in her beautiful Dreaming, from her Four Sketches; here, the lyricism of her character clearly emerges. However, there was also a wild side to her personality, and this is better exemplified by some pieces from her Eskimos op. 64. This short collection is weaved with eleven Inuit songs: Beach had become acquainted with the tunes of the Alaskan natives through a recording, and had been enthused by their unusual shape. So she decided to employ them as the building bricks of this piano suite, where a traditional Romantic pianism weds itself to an entirely different musical world.
Along with the Inuit tunes, these pieces take inspiration also from Polar landscapes and situations. A similar fascination with nature – and particularly with American nature – was also at the root of many works written by Edward MacDowell. MacDowell, born in NYC, was educated as a pianist, among others, by legendary Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño. In turn, she had been a pupil of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who mentored and promoted her, and the dedicatee of Amy Beach’s Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, thus connecting most of the musicians represented in this Da Vinci Classics album. Different from Gottschalk, MacDowell was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire where he had the opportunity to study for years thanks to a scholarship – evidently, in the meanwhile Paris had accepted that musical talents could grow on American soil!
Like Gottschalk, however, MacDowell was heard and praised by Franz Liszt, as well as by Clara Schumann. Having taught for a time in Germany, he married one of his former students and moved back with her to America. They lived in Boston (the city where Beach herself lived most of her life), but in 1896 Edward was called to establish the music department at Columbia University. This seemingly impressive step in MacDowell’s career would, however, prove fateful: due to misunderstandings with the University’s management and to the polemics which followed, he resigned, becoming the object of a campaign of defamation. This, probably, contributed to the worsening of his mental health, and led him to a form of infantilism which lasted until his death.
However, he had already shown symptoms of psychological conditions, which have posthumously been identified as a depression conditioned by the absence of daylight (he felt much worse during wintertime). In summer, instead, he spent his holidays in a beautiful residence in New Hampshire, where he wrote abundantly, frequently taking inspiration from the surrounding landscapes and nature. This is particularly evident in his justly famous Woodland Sketches (of which the two best-known pieces are played here), but also in his Sea Pieces, whose inspiration comes both from the beauty and majesty of the roaring sea, and from poems illustrating its magnificence in a refined literary form.
The album is completed by works by George Gershwin: both the composer and most of the pieces recorded here need a shorter presentation than the others. His Piano Preludes are among the first mature encounters between the Afro-American early jazz tradition and the classical idiom (even though he curiously labelled the third of them as “Spanish”). His Rhapsody in Blue pays homage to Liszt’s treatment of the gipsy musical heritage in his Hungarian Rhapsodies, but employing blues as its originating material. The pieces from his Songbook reveal how his powerful melodic talent could become “song” even in the absence of words. These quintessentially American works bespeak an entire world (and in fact have been adopted in countless movies as symbols of a place and of an era: most recently, they have been used in The Great Gatsby). Yet, they are not more “American” than the others: America, indeed, is a land of many languages, and most of them are represented here.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
Graduated with honors and a special mention of the Commission at the Conservatory “Domenico Cimarosa” of Avellino (A. Y. 2014/2015). He performed in many concert halls, including: Teatro di San Carlo of Naples, Auditorium “V. Vitale” of the Conservatorio of Avellino “D. Cimarosa”, Sala Scarlatti and Sala Martucci of the Conservatorio of Naples, Auditorium of the University “Alfonso X el Sabio” of Madrid, Sala Eutherpe of Leòn (Spain), Auditorio de la Caxa Rural (Granada), Cappella Reale of Portici (Naples), “Pio Monte della Misericordia” (Naples), RCS Recital Hall (Ravello Concert Society), “Teatro Titano” of San Marino Republic, “Circolo Nazionale dell’Unione” of Naples. He has collaborated with Filarmonica Laudamo of Messina and Foundation “Renata Tebaldi” of San Marino Republic. Since 2019 he collaborates as répétiteur with the Teatro di San Carlo of Naples in many opera productions of the Season, including a toruneé in Matera, 2019 European Capital of culture, playing Cavalleria Rusticana by P. Mascagni.
Amy Marcy Beach [née Cheney], [Mrs H.H.A. Beach]
(b Henniker, NH, 5 Sept 1867; d New York, 27 Dec 1944). American composer and pianist. She was the first American woman to succeed as a composer of large-scale art music and was celebrated during her lifetime as the foremost woman composer of the USA. A descendant of a distinguished New England family, she was the only child of Charles Abbott Cheney, a paper manufacturer and importer, and Clara Imogene (Marcy) Cheney, a talented amateur singer and pianist. At the age of one she could sing 40 tunes accurately and always in the same key; before the age of two she improvised alto lines against her mother's soprano melodies; at three she taught herself to read; and at four she mentally composed her first piano pieces and later played them, and could play by ear whatever music she heard, including hymns in four-part harmony. The Cheneys moved to Chelsea, Massachusetts, about 1871. Amy's mother agreed to teach her the piano when she was six, and at seven she gave her first public recitals, playing works by Handel, Beethoven and Chopin, and her own pieces. In 1875 the family moved to Boston, where her parents were advised that she could enter a European conservatory; but they decided on local training, engaging Ernst Perabo and later Carl Baermann as piano teachers. Her development as a pianist was monitored by a circle including Louis C. Elson, Percy Goetschius, H.W. Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Mason and Henry Harris Aubrey Beach (1843–1910), a physician who lectured on anatomy at Harvard and was an amateur singer; she was to marry him in 1885.
American composer, pianist and teacher. At the turn of the 20th century he was America's best-known composer both at home and abroad, particularly renowned for his piano concertos and evocative piano miniatures.
George Gershwin: (b Brooklyn, NY, 26 Sept 1898; d Hollywood, CA, 11 July 1937). American composer, pianist, and conductor. He began his career as a song plugger in New York’s Tin Pan Alley; by the time he was 20 he had established himself as a composer of Broadway shows, and by the age of 30 he was America’s most famous and widely accepted composer of concert music.