Monday, October 28, 2013

The MacDowells of New Hampshire

Edward and Marian MacDowell (Library of Congress)
Maybe you've heard of the MacDowell Colony, an oasis in New Hampshire where artists can go and create without worrying about menial things like money and preparing meals. (Artists still compete for fellowships to this place.) Or maybe you were a piano student who has played the old chestnut "To A Wild Rose." It was Edward MacDowell who created both of these items, and in a short period of time (46 years) led an interesting life.

MacDowell was born in New York in 1860 and displayed so much musical talent that his family moved to Paris so that he could study there. He was successful at the Paris Conservatoire and moved on to study and teach in Frankfurt, Germany.
This is where he met his future wife, Marian Griswald Nevins, who was a piano student of his. They married in 1884 and stayed in Germany for a while and then moved back to the United States, living in Boston until he received an offer in 1896 to teach at Columbia University in New York City. He was that university's first music professor Around this same time, Marian purchased Hillcrest Farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which they used as their summer residence. In 1904, after a sabbatical leave, MacDowell had a public feud with university administrators and resigned from Columbia.

The MacDowells flourished in their New Hampshire home where Edward composed music and wrote poetry with nature as his inspiration. Although he composed music for other instruments and ensembles, he is best known for his solo piano music. Four sets of short piano pieces are at the top of his Greatest Hits list: Woodland Sketches, Sea Pieces, Fireside Tales, and New England Idyls. "To A Wild Rose" is part of Woodland Sketches. MacDowell was a true romantic, naming his pieces with descriptive titles and sometimes even adding poems to the sheet music. (This hadn't been done before.) His Indian Suite was built upon authentic Native American themes, one of the earliest examples of Native American themes in art music.

Edward's story has a sad ending. He was run over by a Hansom cab in 1904, and this exacerbated an existing condition (syphilis) while also contributing to dementia. His career was over, and he spent his days in a chair by a window, paging through a book of fairy tales, usually recognizing his close friends. He died in 1908 in New York City and was buried at Hillcrest Farm in New Hampshire.

The MacDowells' story doesn't end there. Before his accident, Edward had the idea that he would like to share Hillcrest Farm with other artists so that they could enjoy the bucolic and inspirational setting. The couple was able to line up a group of investors that included Grover Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie, and J. Pierpont Morgan. The group set up a fund which established the MacDowell Colony that still exists today. Before he died, Edward was able to see the first group of participants arrive. Marian toured the country as a pianist and promoted the colony at the same time. When she was in New Hampshire she oversaw the endeavor. She outlived Edward by about fifty years and nurtured thousands of artists, musicians, writers, and dancers at the MacDowell Colony. Leonard Bernstein wrote his Mass there, and Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town. Just about anyone who is anyone has had a residency at the MacDowell Colony. In 1997, the MacDowell Colony was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

Monday, October 21, 2013

New Music from Faraway Lands

You know what's fun? Listening to new music from other cultures, sometimes on unfamiliar instruments, and occasionally in languages unlike anything we know. I listened to these CDs while at my desk working and at home at another desk while writing. As I write this post, I'm listening to a recording called African Guitars Anthology (Lusafrica, 2012)According to the brief liner notes, the guitar has figured prominently in African music for about 150 years, and  the performers here represent the entire continent from north to south. Some are solo guitarists, and some support star performers. That is it, though, barely a paragraph
of information, so the curious prospective listener has no choice but to bravely dive in and listen. It's not difficult to imagine this music coming from Africa with its complex rhythms and characteristic percussion instruments. This brave and curious listener gives the recording a thumbs-up for its clarity of sounds and voices, festive spirit, and diversity of styles. Check out some samples at this site (but check your library, too).

Have you ever been to Iceland? Me neither, but it's at the top of my travel bucket list. For now, I'll have to be content with Icelandic Violin Duos (MSR Music, 2012). The performers call themselves Duo Landon, Hlif Sigurjónsdóttir from Iceland and Martin Frewer from a lot of places but currently Germany. Both musicians play instruments made by Christophe Landon, a French violin maker, who originally commissioned them to record Béla Bartòk's 44 Violin Duos. After the Bartòk recording, the duo was looking to put together an album of Icelandic violin duets, but only found three. They contacted some Icelandic composers they knew and commissioned three additional duets. This CD brings us all six duos.

A trip to Sweden would not be a bad thing, either. This record is more jazz than global probably, but they are all Swedish tunes. This is a diverse post, after all, culturally and genre-ly. I hear that the Swedish people appreciate jazz, and traditional Swedish tunes have found their way into some well-known jazz standards. (Listen to Quincy Jones's Stockholm Sweetnin' for example.) Swedish Ballads... & More (Charleston Square, 2013) features American tenor saxophone player Scott Hamilton (NOT the ice skater), with a Swedish trio: Jan Lundgren (piano), Jesper Lundgaard (bass), and Kristian Leth (drums). Here's a short review of this recording of Swedish tunes jazzed-up and arranged by Swedes. I found this gem of a video on YouTube, Hamilton performing "Dear Old Stockholm," which is not technically from the album because why would they put it up there for free?! This is an older recording of Hamilton performing with the Scandinavian Five. A newer version of this tune is found on the Swedish Ballads... & More CD discussed in this paragraph.

And now for something completely different, Compositions for Geomungo and Gayageum (Sub Rosa, 2013). Baudouin De Jaer is the composer of this unusual music, and the performers are Kim Hyunchae and Lee Hwa-Young. The geomungo is a Korean zither that dates back to the fourth century. It has six strings, but only two of these contribute to melody. They are hit with a bamboo stick, and the resulting music comes out sounding like a combination of string and percussion. The gayageum dates back even further, to the first century BC in Korea. It is similar to a zither and the geomungo but has at least twelve strings, and possibly as many as 25. The music produced by this instrument is more melodic, less percussive, and more similar to traditional Asian music we've heard in movie soundtracks and media. It is difficult to describe fresh new sounds using mere words, but I'll try: both instruments, and these compositions for them, produce an elegant, nature-based, unpredictable listening experience.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Like Jazz? Here's some new stuff.

The rumors are true: I am a librarian. One of the best parts of my job is selecting recorded music for the library's collection. It's fun, kind of like shopping with someone else's money. Luckily for the library, my days are filled with many other tasks to distract me from that addictive bliss shopping brings. I've been listening to some new jazz acquisitions lately (not in the library--that would be wrong) and I thought you might be interested...

The album George Shearing at Home (Jazzknight Records, 2012) sounds like a couple of guys sitting around in one of their living rooms playing jazz because that is exactly what it is: George Shearing on his own piano and Don Thompson on bass. Do you know George Shearing? He started his long recording career in the late 1940s and continued until his death at 91 in 2011. Here's some vintage Shearing from 1959:

This recent album was recorded just before he died in 2011. Shearing was eclectic as well as prolific, and performed solo, with small jazz groups and with symphony orchestras. The music on this recording is smooth and pensive--delightful interpretations of familiar and standard tunes. I listened to this while online at the DMV, in a remarkably mellow mood thanks to Shearing and Thompson.

For a change of mood, check out Curtis Fuller on trombone. His Down Home (Capri, 2012) is an energetic album which showcases original music. Fuller was the trombonist on Coltrane's Blue Train record from 1957, and since then has collaborated with just about anyone who is anyone in jazz. The six players heard on this album, Curtis Fuller (trombone), Keith Oxman (tenor saxophone), Al Hood (trumpet and flugelhorn), Chip Stephens (piano), Ken Walker (bass), and Todd Reid (drums), don't often play together and so enjoyed extensive time together practicing and relaxing in order to forge connections and a cohesive whole. The 2011 recording shows this. It is hot stuff. I listened to this in the car, too, and its energy kept me alert during some commutes home after looooong days of library work. Here's the young Curtis Fuller in 1963 with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers...

Energetic, but in a different way, is Chick Corea and Gary Burton's Hot House (Concord Jazz, 2012). This is another living room collaboration. Burton brought his vibraphone to Corea's house, and the two selected songs by composers of the 1940s through 1960s to explore. My favorite is Lennon and McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby," transformed by Corea's piano and Burton's vibraphone into a recognizable but fresh soundscape. I probably shouldn't have listened to this in the car--it was distracting trying to identify the familiar but metamorphosed tunes. Here's a piece of publicity for the album which will give you a taste of its sonic fabric...

Speaking of innovative soundscapes, give the Ali Ryerson Jazz Flute Big Band a listen. Our library now owns a copy of their Game Changer album (Capri, 2013). This gang of flutists with rhythm section creates a silky sound so perfectly appropriate for jazz that the listener forgets that they are listening to a band entirely made up of flutes of all sizes. Ali Ryerson, the leader, has commissioned her arranger friends to write for this instrumentation so that students in her jazz flute master class would enjoy authentic jazz still appropriate for the instrument. The idea for this recording sprang forth when Ryerson introduced the ensemble to the National Flute Association. The record has a trailer, even:

Joe Magnarelli? I had never heard of him, but his Live at Smalls CD (SmallsLIVE, 2013) is an engaging example of traditional jazz featuring Magnarelli's trumpet. If you like jazz, you will like this CD. Magnarelli is joined in this quartet by Mulgrew Miller (piano), Dwayne Burno (bass), and Jason Brown (drums). I don't know them, but I like them. Here they perform some originals and one very familiar "Ruby My Dear" (by Thelonious Monk) and they take really long solos. Really long. Epic. This recording was made at Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village on Smalls' own label SmallsLIVE in summer, 2012, and recreates the jazz club ambiance so accurately you will think you are there. SmallsLIVE is dedicated to "the idea that jazz is best heard in a live context with minimal editing, captured in the full spontaneous moment in which it was created" ...with lots of solos! Here's a really long video of the quartet at Smalls. Enjoy!

Have I intrigued you with this collection of new jazz? Check your library, record shop, or favorite online CD supplier for some new tunes to create your own distinctive sonic fabric!! (If you have access to my library, I've finally returned these to the stacks--have at 'em!)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Who was this Louis Moreau Gottschalk?

Those readers who know me personally know that I have lately been teaching music courses at a lovely retirement village. If you know that, you also know that I have found the experience fulfilling and enjoyable beyond my expectations. The students/participants are bright and knowledgeable, well-read and well-traveled, and sharing my passion of music with them is simply a joy.

We are currently midway through a six-week course on American Music, beginning with Colonial America and ending in the 1920s with precursors of jazz and nascent American art music. In preparing each two-hour lecture, I have come across surprises and treasures I didn't know existed, and sometimes I even surprise those savvy participants with some aspect of American music with which they had not been familiar.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a rock star in the mid-1860s.

Louis Moreau Gottchalk was a delightful surprise for all of us. I had heard of him, and I remember certain pianists in graduate school being so enamored with his music that they became Gottschalk specialists. I had never read about him, and not encountered his piano music because it was way past what I could expect to master for my own repertoire. This man was ahead of his time as they say, using the syncopated rhythms of Creole New Orleans in his piano compositions, and putting together a unique cosmopolitan sensibility from his travels in Europe and South America, as well as his native United States.

Gottschalk was born in New Orleans to a Haitian mother and German father. Music is a fundamental part of that city now, and was then, too. Gottschalk soaked it up and showed his aptitude for music early in his childhood. His parents signed him up for piano lessons at age five with the organist at St. Louis Cathedral, François Letellier, and by age seven he was substituting at Mass on the organ.
The organ pipes in St Louis Cathedral
As a survivor of eight years of childhood organ lessons, I can vouch for the difficulty of this instrument. Every finger and foot is required to act independently, while also adjusting switches and bars to tweak the organ's sounds. Both hands and the left foot are usually engaged in playing melodies and chords independent of each other. I wasn't able to come near mastering this in eight years, but little Louis Moreau could perform well enough after two years of lessons to play in church in front of people. I spent some time in New Orleans a couple of years ago, and St. Louis Cathedral was one of my favorite places there.

St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square, New Orleans
When he was thirteen, his parents sent him to Paris to study music. He gave a recital at the Salle Pleyel (one of Chopin's hangouts) just before his 16th birthday which was a huge hit. He began composing for the piano and incorporating influences from the Creole music he knew from New Orleans. When you listen to Bamboula below, please remember that ragtime jazz as we know them did not exist yet. Some of the roots of jazz were around (the Creole influence, for instance), but they had not evolved into any kind of pure concert music. Parisians were fascinated by the sounds Gottschalk got out of the piano and his music became wildly popular. He gave recitals all over Europe, and North and South America, and soaking up musical influences at each location.

Scholars generally divide Gottschalk's music into six compositional periods, and these are based on where he was living at the time:

1844-1851: Paris (Bamboula is from this period)

1851-1852: Switzerland and Spain

1853-1856: United States (check out Le banjo from this period)

1857-1861: the Antilles (considered by some to be his most prolific period; listen to Souvenir de Porto Rico)

1862-1865: United States

1865-1869: South America

He was not strictly a piano composer. Gottschalk composed operas which are mostly lost to us today, and a collection of orchestral music. Towards the end of his life in South America, he enjoyed organizing huge concerts with hundreds of musicians. This exciting orchestral piece is Gottschalk's Grande Tarantelle.

Gottschalk suffered from malaria when he lived in Rio de Janeiro and eventually moved to Tijuca, a suburb, where he died on December 18, 1869 at 40 years old. My premiere source* tells me that it is believed he died not from the malaria, but from an overdose of the quinine used to treat it. His remains were moved from Brazil to Brooklyn, New York, where he was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

If you've never heard the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk before that this post will spark your curiosity. If you would like to read more, get your hands on Gottschalk's own memoir, Notes of a Pianist. I haven't read it YET, but it comes highly recommended!

*Irving Lowens and S. Frederick Starr"Gottschalk, Louis Moreau." Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University PressWeb7 Oct. 2013.<>.