Three Scarecrows

As part of a whirlwind immersion into George Walker, I read three books published by Scarecrow Press. Without a doubt this has been some of the most purely enjoyable reading on music I’ve done in recent memory.

Pride of place must go to George Walker’s own memoir, Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist. What an extraordinary document! I was absolutely enthralled.This book made me miss practice sessions, dinners, and a subway stop.

Walker is best known as a composer, but his book makes it clear that he was a pianist first. He still vividly remembers Rachmaninoff’s 1939 Cleveland Orchestra concert in Severance Hall of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and the Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Other greats of the era were observed in even closer quarters:

In my senior year Rudolf Serkin came to Oberlin. After practicing scales, arpeggios, and octaves for forty-five minutes in the morning in Warner Concert Hall, he continued to practice for additional hours in the afternoon in Finney Chapel. It was my good fortune to have walked past the chapel en route to dinner at the theological seminary when I heard the sound of a piano. (A year earlier the same scenario had occurred before the concert by Horowitz. When I went inside of the chapel, I saw him seated at the piano on the stage. He was talking with a piano tuner about voicing a few notes around middle C. When he was satisfied that the adjustments had been made, he played the Black Key Étude of Chopin from its beginning to the end. There was no practicing of anything after that.)

In 1938, as a sophomore, Walker experienced something of interest to any swing era fan:

Before the party ended, one of my classmates persuaded Avery Parrish, a jazz pianist whom he had met, to play something on the ugly, snaggled-tooth, yellow-keyed piano in the living room. (I could never bring myself to touch it.) How Parrish managed to produce recognizable pitches on the this abandoned relic was incredulous. His playing of “After Hours,” a famous blues song that he had composed (I had never heard it before) with flat, twisting untrained fingers punching out a stream of repeated notes was eye-opening.

Walker lets it all hang out in his memoir. There are no sacred cows.

Mlle. [Nadia] Boulanger also invited her Wednesday class to attend a rehearsal of one of the French orchestras that Leonard Bernstein had been engaged to conduct. The rehearsal was scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. At 10:25 Bernstein still had not shown up.

The first work to be played was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 5. When he finally arrived, Bernstein began to conduct and play the solo keyboard part from memory. In the middle of the first movement he couldn’t remember the solo part. He didn’t have the score. (Up the creek without a paddle.) The orchestra decided to proceed with the next work, Gershwin’s “American in Paris.” It was reported later that Bernstein had been shopping for a red leather jacket prior to the rehearsal.

My quotes here are picked almost at random, as Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist is packed with tight, strong, and memorable paragraphs. (As mentioned in our interview, I laughed out loud at his unkind description of the food offered at the Pulitzer Prize ceremony.) There’s also much love for his parents, two hardy Washingtonians who taught Walker the stoicism required to work within a society forever unwilling to look him in the eye and give him the respect he deserved.

Among the forest of barbs is a laud to his boyhood friend, Albert Faurot, who

…Published a thoroughly researched book, Concert Piano Repertoire, that reflects a firsthand knowledge of piano literature. This compendium differs from the vague and sycophantic commentaries of David Dubal, a Juilliard professor.

H’mm! Dubal’s Art of the Piano is one of my main inspirations for DTM. Looking again at the entry on Walker, it turns out that Dubal gets Walker’s birthdate wrong (it is 1922, not 1927) and is misinformed about the slow movement of the Piano Concerto, which was not written as a memorial. The rest is not so bad, although rather slight:

Walker is a good pianist, who worked with Rudolf Serkin and Robert Casadesus. His 1975 Piano Concerto is a stark, lyric, and wrapped drama in three movements. The slow movement is “a personal and musical memorial to Duke Ellington.” Natalie Hinderas recorded the work. Works for solo piano include three piano sonatas. No. 1 (1953) is in three movements. In quartal harmony, the first movement simmers with restlessness; the second movement is Variations on a Kentucky Folk Song. The Second Sonata (1957) is ten minutes of concentrated music. Sonata No. 3 (1976) is freer in style, bleak and serious.

The Art of the Piano is pretty even-handed, obviously too even-handed for rugged Mr. Walker, who calls Dubal “sycophantic.” While Dubal’s book is a standard reference, I had never heard of Faurot. After Walker’s comment, I was extremely curious to take a look at Concert Piano Repertoire.

Faurot lays it out in his introduction.

For the opinions expressed I do not apologize, but take entire responsibility. It is impossible to be impersonal and objective about music if one really really cares for it. Attractions and aversions are as profound and unfathomable in music as they are in human relations. The truism that one man’s cup of tea is another’s vial of poison is unfortunately true….I have been guided by the belief that the awakening of a shared enthusiasm in another is a teacher’s finest task. If the reader finds that my cup of tea is his poison, he can easily locate those at whom I take pot-shots, and build his program around them.

I’ve always liked Beethoven’s Sonata No. 12 in A-flat, but Faurot sets me straight, or at least gives me pause:

This turnip had better be left to the specialists, who may squeeze a little juice from the jejune variations. They may even fool us into believing in the dead hero, and his pompous empty march. The joke of the scherzo is wearing thin by now (a final cadence for an opener); and the busy-ness of the closing allegro fails to redeem the overblown work.

I don’t mean to totally misrepresent Faurot. He offers positive comments on the classic works that he admires. But the best bits are in his pointed criticism, like when seems to anticipate the rise of the Hyperion record label in his judgement on Eugen D’Albert (I like D’Albert, by the way):

Not yet discovered by the grave-diggers, this phenomenal pianist left two concertos (the second is best), and numerous suites that may once be heard again, then again interred.

His overwhelming distaste for Alkan is rather inexplicable, but then again, Faurot didn’t have the chance to hear Marc-Andre Hamelin play any of the Études in Minor Keys.

These horrendous marathons are for pianists with unflinching endurance, fabulous technic, unlimited leisure, and preferably with tone-deafness.

I’ve read for years that Alkan was rejected before his current renaissance, and never knew really what the objection was. Having read Faurot, now I know!

While Faurot has no use whatsoever for post-Cage experimental music, there are kind words for many then-contemporary composers, especially Americans. Indeed, this may be a essential book for those looking up names like Robert Helps, David Del Tredici, Vincent Persichetti, Peter Mennin, John McCabe, Robert Palmer, etc.

Faurot’s entry on Louise Talma begins unpromisingly: “Chalk up another success for Women’s Liberation.” However, his description of Alleluia in Form of Toccata is on the mark:

Highly original 5-min work. Introductory declamatory section in octaves on a two-note motif leads to a rapid joyous allegro vivace, largely in two voices, one a sort of boogie-woogie bass, while the other does detached four- to five-note motifs (Al-le-lu-i-a). It has the look (but not the sound) of a Scarlatti sonata. Sustained cantabile middle. All these combine in an exciting climax with the added fun of a superimposed jazz beat.

Occasionally a barb becomes sweet, as in a description of Kabalevsky’s Third Sonata:

Like Liszt, it “sounds better than it is,” but since sound is the ultimate criterion, Bravo!

As as for his old friend George Walker? This serious analysis deserves to be reprinted in full, and is obviously much better than Dubal.

Works by this black American composer-pianist-educator include chorus and song settings. His keyboard music is all pianistically idiomatic, finely structured and large-scale.

Sonata No. 1 (1953): Allegro feroce. The first sonata is basically c#, though the harmony is freely chromatic and, in the first movement, often quartal. A bold single-note theme doubles into octaves then speeds up into rapid figures, well-deployed, to bridge to a lyrical and richly contrapuntal second theme. The strong rhythm is varied by shifting meters; the development builds to a fine frenzy in unison octaves, which also provide a climatic coda.

Moderato (second movt). Six variations on a Kentucky folk song, “O Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” form a superb middle movt, able to stand alone as a program item. Highly imaginative and contrasting, the short sections include inverted canonic imitations, powerful martellato octaves, an espressivo with bell-like pedal points, folk-dance and toccata styles.

Allegro con brio (third movt). In the stunning last movt, a ringing c# octave approached by minor 2nds above and below forms the first motif; for a second theme, another folk tune, dancey and lilting. The short movt ends bravura. Demands full technic and musicianship.

Sonata No. 2 (1960). [this is wrong, it is from few years earlier] More taut and finely-wrought, this four-movt work takes less than 10 min to play. Whereas the first used quartal intervals and chords, the melodic motifs in all movts here are major-minor 3rd figures, giving it an organic unity carried out by a return of the opening theme for finale.

Adagio non troppo (first movt). Though the first movt is laid out as a theme (g) of 4-meas with 10 variations (also mostly 4-meas) and coda, the ear is unaware of divisions, and hears a continuously unfolding line with wonderful diversity and very idiosyncratic keyboard figures, like a passacaglia that conceals its repetitions. The mood is urgent and portentous.

Presto (second movt). Jazzy syncopation suggesting a barn-dance contrasts the second, with brief disjunct figures, staccato-legato, joining for a long melodic line.

Adagio (third movt). A broad, moving cantabile, 5/4, in the tenor is answered by a plaintive arabesque in the treble, all parts doubling and multiplying for the ff climax; the ending fades to ppp, but maintains the range from resounding bass to chiming treble.

Allegretto tranquillo (fourth movt). A theme in G related to the presto opens the fourth quietly, but quickly builds to a whirlwind, with the portentous opening theme and octave arpeggios for coda.

Spatials (1960). This effective 3-min work is a set of six variations organized entirely on a tone row. It appears six times in the statement, the rows overlapping like run-on lines in free-verse, to form linear, 2-v, chordal motifs. The first variation uses the retrograde row, relating to the statement in general movement of voices and shape of motifs. Two of the brief variations introduce a sustained voice; and all except the last two, which are linked, end with a cadence — sometimes delayed, sometimes carried over and surprisingly resolved.

Spektra (1970). In free fantasia form, this three min 30 sec piece explores piano color and dynamic intensities in a series of rapid arabesques ranging over the keyboard like UFOs (and requiring five staves for notation on the last page). Chords from distant constellations, with delicate tremolo clouds, or static messages tapped on a single key. Amorphous, but heartening in its demonstration that there is still life in the old keyboard, without resort to gadgets.

According to Walker, it is a coincidence that both the Faurot and Walker books are published by Scarecrow. Walker approached Scarecrow because he had been interviewed for their important 1979 volume The Black Composer Speaks, edited by David N. Baker, Lida M. Belt, and Herman C. Hudson.  The other interviewees are Thomas Jefferson Anderson, Jr., David Nathaniel Baker, Noel Da Costa, Talib Rasul Hakim (who is the brother of jazz drummer Joe Chambers), Herbie Hancock, Ulysses Kay, Undine Smith Moore, Oliver Nelson, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, George Russell, Archie Shepp, Hale Smith, Howard Swanson, and Olly Wilson.

As a teenager, I was fascinated by the discussions with jazz musicians, but now that I know more about classical music, I’m just as intrigued by the discussions with everyone else. The Black Composer Speaks is an essential volume that should be much better known. File it right next to Art Taylor’s Notes and Tones.

George Walker Triptych:

1) Interview with George Walker

2) Three Scarecrows

3) Dispatches from Detroit (by Mark Stryker)