The African Influence
(Gottschalk, Joplin, spirituals)
(Ives and Nancarrow)
Official Composers (vol. 1)
(Gershwin and Copland)
Official Composers (vol. 2)
(Barber and Bernstein)
(Babbitt and Carter)
(Reich, Glass, Adams)
A Later Lonely Titan
The Page Has No Sound
(30 other favorite pieces)
(León and Gann)
Antony Heinrich‘s idiosyncratic pre-Civil War piano music is startlingly rough-hewn and abstract, with blunt corners more extreme than Joseph Haydn or Ludwig Van Beethoven. It is music that will forever remain justly obscure, but, still, let the record show that the first American piano composer of note might be called, “The Thelonious Monk of the Classical Style.”
The most popular Romantic American composer was Edward MacDowell, who wrote many piano pieces and two piano concertos. Woodland Sketches contains the once omnipresent To a Wild Rose (which Art Tatum would repeatedly quote), but MacDowell’s best piano piece might be the sparkling Hexentanz, occasionally still heard as an encore. At one point the second concerto was thought to be as worthy as the Edvard Grieg concerto.
There were other good American composers from the Romantic era, but little of that music is known today except by specialists. A stunning recording by piano titan Josef Hofmann has ensured immortality for the slight Valse Gracile by Horatio Parker (who is better known for teaching composition to Charles Ives than for his own music). More intriguing is Amy Beach. The solo music is perhaps no more than proficient, but her lush and well-developed Piano Concerto from 1900 deserves an occasional concert performance.
The African Influence
New Orleans pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk had a fascinating career as performer and composer. It would be so interesting to hear how Gottschalk himself played his own pieces, especially those that have an overt connection to diaspora rhythm, like Bamboula and The Banjo. At least we have Eugene List‘s marvelous Gottschalk record, which dances quickly along with exciting pianistic fireworks. Another important LP is by Gottschalk specialist Jeanne Behrend. She takes romantic liberties with the phrasing but a kind of “stamping foot” remains.
Scott Joplin’s European notation is not marked with a swing feel, so there is a long history of playing Joplin as straight or even eighths, a tradition consecrated after the ragtime revival initiated by Gunther Schuller and Marvin Hamlisch in the 1970s. However, early recordings of ragtime and even Joplin’s own piano rolls do not have a truly even eighth. Later on, recordings of Joplin by Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Hank Jones, and Mary Lou Williams all feature an obvious swing eighth. At the same time, it must be said that Joplin’s music is absolutely indestructible no matter how it is phrased. The Maple Leaf Rag, The Entertainer, Heliotrope Bouquet, The Easy Winners, Elite Syncopations, Magnetic Rag, and the rest all sound great whether played by young piano students, elderly amateurs, condescending virtuosos, or working-class ragtime professionals. All praise Scott Joplin!
While the tuneful themes of Joseph Lamb and James Scott are perfect for those wishing to explore the more European side of ragtime, Artie Matthews‘s Pastime rags have noisy clusters and could be treated more like jazz. Nathaniel Dett‘s important Juba Dance could be played with jazz phrasing as well. Zez Confrey made many excellent recordings of his popular novelty ragtime, and all of it has at least a hint of swing feel.
References to ragtime is part of what makes fully notated American music American. Scott Joplin looms in the background in a way that Edward MacDowell does not.
Another notated form connected to African traditions is the spiritual. Famously, the slow movement of Antonín Dvořák‘s New World Symphony is modeled on a spiritual. African-American composers who evoked the spiritual for fully-notated slow movements include Dett, Harry Burleigh and William Grant Still. A particularly successful example for solo piano is the lovely Andante from Florence Price‘s Sonata in E Minor.
Two hermetic geniuses, Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow, both confronted ragtime head on.
Ragtime syncopations are everywhere in Ives but the emotion is always abstract, part of a surreal mash-up. His Ragtime Dances are for noisy ensemble, and the discontinuous orchestral masterwork Central Park in the Dark has frequent quotations of “Hello ma baby, hello my darling, hello my ragtime gal.” In the Inn, which can be heard as part of Piano Sonata no. 1, is about as literal as Ives got when writing ragtime for solo piano. Ragtime is just a flavoring for Ives, but an essential flavoring nonetheless.
Ives’s Concord Sonata has become one of the benchmarks of the literature, a treasure box that still keeps some of its secrets. This vast canvas places the American Transcendentalism of Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau in counterpoint with Beethoven, especially the “fate” motive of the Fifth Symphony. For many this is the Great American Piano Sonata. There are over 40 recordings. John Kirkpatrick‘s early traversals are important; more recently Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Marc-André Hamelin have offered readings with the highest technical and musical polish.
The Piano Sonata no. 1 is not as frequently programmed but it is just as dense as the Concord and even longer. The Three Page Sonata deserves more play than it gets, a substantial work with an outrageous final chord, while standalone piano studies include many interesting pages, including works explicitly about the classic American themes of race (The Anti-Abolitionist Riots) and baseball (Some South-Paw Pitching). A lone disc of Ives playing Ives is required listening.
Some of Ives’s best and most accessible piano writing is in the songs: General William Booth Enters into Heaven is a perfect pocket anthology of Ivesian effects.
Many ragtime composers were intrigued by the player piano. James P. Johnson is now considered one of the finest of jazz pianists, but a significant part of his livelihood was generated from the making of piano rolls.
Conlon Nancarrow’s music remains the ultimate apotheosis of player piano abstraction. His earlier rolls deal directly with ragtime and boogie woogie. Later works focus on irrational tempo relationships, usually with a canonic element. The release of the first 1969 Columbia LP of Nancarrow player piano studies changed the world.
There is a small amount of Nancarrow music for live pianist. A Prelude, a Blues and madcap Sonatina are from the early years, while Tango? and Canons for Ursula (dedicated to Ursula Oppens) are late pieces featuring demonic tempo relationships. The latter has almost entered the general repertoire, with adroit recordings by Thomas Adès, Joanna MacGregor, and Oppens herself.
Ives’s interest in mash-up and Nancarrow’s interest in machines seem related to crucial threads in more recent vernacular American music: beat-making, sampling, auto-tune, and so forth.
Official Composers (vol. 1)
While both Ives and Nancarrow had to wait to have their day in the sun, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland were celebrated early. They have vied for “first chair” Americana in concert halls around the world for nearly a century.
The best of George Gershwin’s songs go in that time capsule documenting the finest human achievement, especially when those songs are interpreted by equally profound jazz musicians. Porgy and Bess is one of the great 20th century musical theatre pieces.
Without context, Gershwin wins the the day. However, there’s an obvious argument that the huge popular success of Rhapsody in Blue obscured the significant artistic successes of the great early jazz musicians, especially great black jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson. At the same time, the harmony of jazz owes a lot of Rhapsody in Blue. Mary Lou Williams, Cedar Walton, and Herbie Hancock are on record saying that playing through the Rhapsody was a formative influence. Herbie Nichols and Tadd Dameron considered Gershwin a key American composer.
Some think that Concerto in F is even more successful than Rhapsody in Blue, but the fabulous tunes can’t hide the occasional bit of compositional tinsel used to connect disparate elements. Like most versions of jazz for symphonic forces, Concerto in F is a fancy musical theatre piece that thinks that it is cooler than it really is. Recently Aaron Diehl has been playing the Concerto with improvised breaks and some genuine blues improvisation: this is the direction formal Gershwin performance needs to go.
The slight Three Preludes are Gershwin’s only significant solo piano pieces. The composer’s own recording should be studied more than the score, for Gershwin himself knew how to generate feel, an aspect of performance not covered by the European tradition of notation. (It is high time for conservatory students to quit learning the Gershwin Preludes and learn transcriptions of Jelly Roll or James P. instead.)
There’s no more influential dissonant American piano piece notated in the European idiom than Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations. It is Igor Stravinsky as taught by Nadia Boulanger with a taste of ragtime. There’s also a sleek, non-contrapuntal profile that suggests American skyscrapers more than European country gardens. There are many excellent recordings, but one that must be heard is the composer’s own from 1935, where each note is played like a new discovery.
Copland’s ear for original exciting harmony is unrivaled. But — in what may be a minority opinion — his work can also be surprisingly inconsistent. The early Piano Concerto begins well but ends up trying too hard to be “jazzy.” The other two big solo pieces, the Piano Sonata and the Piano Fantasy, have charismatic ideas but the lack of counterpoint becomes tiring. The modest Four Piano Blues is a better fit, and the composer himself sounds happy and content in his own recording of those “blues.”
Official Composers (vol. 2)
Gershwin was born in 1898, Copland 1900. Their immediate heirs were Samuel Barber (1910) and Leonard Bernstein (1918).
Samuel Barber is the most generally competent of the four official composers, at least by the European standards of counterpoint and formal development. The compact and wildly charismatic Piano Sonata was premiered by one of the most famous pianists in history, Vladimir Horowitz, who also advised Barber on the score. Horowitz’s record is still astonishing, a basic library item for all pianophiles.
There’s not that much ragtime in the Barber sonata, but the first movement has a remarkable foreshadowing of McCoy Tyner (the C minor section in the development) and the concluding fugue is syncopated.
All written before 1950, the Copland Piano Variations, the Ives Concord Sonata, and the Barber Piano Sonata comprise a trilogy of the greatest large scale American piano pieces that lack improvisation.
Barber’s other essential piano piece is the vernacular-inspired Excursions; there is even a fractured 12-bar blues in G. The Piano Concerto is a major work, especially compelling in the first recording by John Browning. The last movement of the 1962 concerto is a driving ostinato in five: Perhaps an answer to Dave Brubeck?
Not quite as important but still uniquely Barber are the Nocturne and the Ballade. One wishes for a dozen more similar pieces, making for a volume that could stand on the shelf next to Frédéric Chopin.
Like Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein was better off composing for the theatre than the concert hall, although his best formal pieces like Serenade after Plato far outdistance Gershwin. Bernstein was a wonderful pianist, but sadly did not leave a large body of work for the instrument. The most interesting is a kind of concerto, Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety. The stride section of Anxiety, “Masque,” is more successful than any from Gershwin’s formal works. Indeed, this dotted-sixteenth rag with silly percussion — alternating with memorable sinuous theme — is as convincing as this kind of “playing at swing” thing ever gets.
The very early Piano Sonata has some interesting material. More familiar is the much later Touches. I suspect people play Touches just because it is by Bernstein, isn’t too hard, and has obvious blues references. The theme is nice, but the homophonic variations become a shade banal.
A better use of the piano is Bernstein’s vital transcription of Copland’s El Salón México. Grandmaster Shura Cherkassky unexpectedly added this novelty number to his repertoire and recorded an exciting version in 1989, when Cherkassky was 80.
During their extraordinarily long careers, Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter mostly offered the thorniest music imaginable, hard to play and hard to listen to. This sound world can be quite beautiful but also is a refined and acquired taste.
The early tonal Carter Piano Sonata from 1945 is firmly established in the repertoire, a sprawling and compelling work extending the Boulanger/Copland tradition. (The music of Boulanger students has been described as “international counterpoint.” The kids worked with her in Paris before going back to their native lands to put that perspective to national use.) The lack of conventional meter in the first movement foreshadows Carter’s future metrical complexity. Of the many recordings, the first by a patron saint of modernist piano, Beveridge Webster, is still a thrilling listen.
The later Night Fantasies is rigorous. Carter’s mature works often have exceptionally complicated polyrhythms in the background, and in Night Fantasies it is a real show-stopper, 216:175. However, one cannot perceive that rhythm, it just sounds like a bunch of stuff. (One of the nice things about Nancarrow is how one can actually hear the advanced polyrhythms in action.) In Carter’s defense, it is striking how many wonderful pianists have programmed and recorded Night Fantasies. All these musicians must feel that the gigantic effort is worth it. (It was originally a joint commission from four of the best: Ursula Oppens, Charles Rosen, Gilbert Kalish, and Paul Jacobs.)
I confess that despite having heard the work many times with a score in hand, I would not automatically recognize Night Fantasies if the selection was started at mid-point. There just isn’t enough for my ears to hang on to. I prefer the late piano piece 90+, written when the composer was 90, featuring 90 half-staccato, half-held “plunks” marking a slow steady beat in the midst of Carter’s normal broken-up keyboard texture.
90+ is one of the works from Carter’s final, more accessible period. One of my great live experiences was seeing Pierre-Laurent Aimard give the premiere of the toccata-like Caténaires in New York with the composer in the audience. After a sensational performance, Aimard came out to the audience and chatted with Carter, then went back up to the piano and played it again.
The Carter Piano Concerto sits there, a block of sound, although the original recording with Jacob Lateiner has a kind of austere glamor. More to my taste is the absurd Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord with Two Chamber Orchestras, a work which anyone can tell instantly is a restless and surreal journey.
Milton Babbitt’s earliest well-known work, Three Compositions for Piano, is almost a conventional piano piece, with a first movement that has a stream of unbroken sixteenth notes. Babbitt quit that kind of thing immediately. Going forward, all parameters were serialized.
Electronic music, like the masterpiece Philomel, may be Babbitt’s most lasting legacy. However, the solo piano music is always interesting. Babbitt is more open and transparent than Carter. For all the lack of conventional continuity, each individual sound is attractive. The surveys by Robert Taub and Martin Goldray are valuable; Marilyn Nonken recorded the tremendous Allegro Penseroso in an outstanding and well-produced performance. If you can approach with an open mind, it is simply pretty piano music.
A few pieces like Minute Waltz and It Takes Twelve to Tango have humorous references to other genres. Sadly, Babbitt never recorded an album of standards from American musical theatre. He understood that aesthetic and a few examples of his pianism on video are thrilling.
As with Carter, a Piano Concerto was one of Babbitt’s big pieces, recorded by Alan Feinberg. (Eventually, a second Concerto would be one of Uncle Milton’s last works; it lacks a commercial recording but can be heard online.) In an alternate life I would spend serious time with both the Carter and Babbitt concerti, trying to see if my ears would catch up, curious if one would definitively prove to be more engaging than the other.
Inevitably, the vast difficulty of serialism created a reaction towards work that was easy to hear. The biggest names of what used to be called “minimalism” were Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams.
Steve Reich has contributed essentially nothing to the solo piano repertoire: Aimard, wanting to record a disc comparing Reich to György Ligeti, was forced to overdub or clap his hands.
Philip Glass has written many piano etudes. While I admire Einstein on the Beach, Music in 12 Parts, and other Glass pieces, I confess — in what may be a minority opinion — that I don’t find his classic approach complex enough for durable solo piano composition. Frankly I am more intrigued by recent occasions when Aaron Diehl or Jason Moran fooled around with Glass etudes than the release of a high-end Víkingur Ólafsson record on DG.
John Adams’s first notable work, the large scale Phrygian Gates, is the only longer solo piano piece from the genre that has gained true repertory status. Carter’s Night Fantasies and Adams’s Phrygian Gates are both from the late seventies and work in direct opposition to each other. (For her two-CD overview American Piano Music Of Our Time, Ursula Oppens put the Carter on one and the Adams on the other.)
Grand Pianola Music was another important early Adams piece, a kind of double piano concerto that concludes with a hilarious onslaught of glittering arpeggios.
Adams has developed his style, getting less and less “minimal,” and at this point must be the most frequently commissioned American composer in history. The raucous solo piece American Berserk was recorded by Nicolas Hodges, and Emanuel Ax romps through Century Rolls with orchestra. These two later Adams works are indebted to ragtime, especially the piano roll tradition of James P. Johnson and Conlon Nancarrow.
Earlier pure minimalism wasn’t so connected to ragtime syncopation, although there was certainly a beat. When I interviewed Alvin Singleton, Singleton asked, “Is the rhythm section in a latin music ensemble minimalist?”
It’s a telling point. All sorts of music have repeating rhythms and chords that are from comparatively non-notated traditions. Partly because they aren’t notated, those traditions have a chance to generate feel.
In their earlier days, Reich and Glass had bands, essentially rock bands, that helped work out the grooves. That is probably when Reich and Glass were making their most exciting music. Minimalism has since gone into rock, pop, electronica and jazz with remarkably successful results: Radiohead, Bjork, Sigur Ros, Aphex Twin, Keith Jarrett, The Necks, The Bad Plus..it’s long list.
Having a drummer aboard (or at least a drum programmer like Richard D. James) makes all the difference. All drummers study vernacular music for feel.
Without a band, without a drummer, the emotional content of minimalism becomes less obvious. The rhythm in Phrygian Gates is static. There’s no “feel,” there are no curves or undulation, and any hint of syncopation is buried within a mechanical texture. Folklore is absent. People who record Phrygian Gates probably play to a click trick, there’s no reason to sweat having perfect metronomic time in constant pulsing even eighth notes for 20 minutes. (In the recording of Century Rolls, the orchestra can’t play in perfect time, so the effect of the opening section is somewhat diminished. Perhaps the orchestra should have played to a click.)
While I posited Night Fantasies in opposition to Phrygian Gates above, Night Fantasies is also completely lacking in folklore. Indeed, a click while recording would seem to be required, a flawless reference point to help orient the polyrhythms correctly.
Singleton’s comment, “Is the rhythm section in a latin music ensemble minimalist?” might also bring up a political dimension. While the unchanging, pointillistic surface may get exhausting, Carter and Babbitt never appropriate older rhythmic traditions in a superficial manner. They don’t tread where they haven’t earned the right to go.
Minimalist composers, discarding ragtime, also discard giving obvious credit to diaspora rhythm.
To put it another way: We all kind of understand that George Gershwin needed black music to exist. But it doesn’t seem like Philip Glass is understood in that same context. It’s not Glass’s fault, just as all the popular and important indie rock without much blues ethos can’t be blamed for whitewashing a tradition. But I do appreciate how Steve Reich name-checks Kenny Clarke and John Coltrane in interviews.
I’ve gotten far afield, and truthfully my complaint needn’t even involve race or appropriation.
If a computer could reproduce the sound of a piano perfectly, then MIDI performances of the “metronome sympathetic” Phrygian Gates and Night Fantasies might seem acceptable. That’s simply not true of earlier European-based composition, which requires a kind of light and shade in the beat ranging from subtle emphasis to big rubato.
In the end almost all my preferred notated piano music invites a complex, romantic, and personal rhythmic response from worthy pianists, just like Ives’s Concord, Copland’s Variations, and Barber’s Sonata.
(One of the reason Nancarrow is so hip is that how he subverts that paradigm entirely. I’m not against live pianists playing Nancarrow transcriptions — I’m sure the performers learn a tremendous amount in the process — but humanizing his aesthetic brings no obvious additional insight to the listener. )
There’s probably only one more work from 1950-1999 that might be added to the original trilogy:
A Later Lonely Titan
The People United Will Never be Defeated! by Frederic Rzewski is a set of 36 variations on the Chilean song “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” It covers a range of moods and styles and gives the performer a lot of room for interpretation. In live performance it is a guaranteed success, perhaps even more of sure thing than the Ives Concord, the Copland Variations, or the Barber Sonata. When Igor Levit recently included The People United Will Never be Defeated! on a major label release with the Goldbergs and the Diabellis it was a significant statement.
(Marc-André Hamelin has recorded wonderful studio versions of the Ives Concord, the Barber Sonata, the Rzewski People United — and a searing Copland Variations exists on YouTube. I believe Hamelin is the only pianist to document an interpretation of these four pillars of notated American piano music.)
Many of Rzewski’s compositions make a progressive or socialist point. Rzewski practices what he preaches by giving away his scores online, playing at a fish market, and generally living an austere and cantankerous life of devotion to his craft.
Rzewski is also an extraordinary pianist, heard to especially good effect on the Hat Art recording of North American Ballads and Squares. The Ballads are wildly deconstructed protest songs and the Squares are indebted to ragtime. Rzewski improvises stunning cadenzas as well, for example on a wonderful disc of the British revolutionary Cornelius Cardew, We Sing for the Future! (Cardew was another political composer who practiced what he preached.)
There’s a lot more Rzewski piano music out there, much of it vital, although one gets the sense the composer was profoundly uninterested in making another “hit” like The People United Will Never be Defeated! Some of Rzewski’s piano music is not even intended for general repertory: The Road meanders along for something like seven hours.
The Page Has No Sound
After the composer writes it down, they need a pianist to play it. I fervently admire the keyboard artists who have taken the time to learn, perform, and record modernist repertoire.
Much important American notated piano music requires unconventional techniques. Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano and 4’33” for unplayed piano by John Cage are quintessential examples. Henry Cowell’s own recording of Cowell piano music is required listening. Morton Feldman‘s poetic landscapes redefine the passing of time, Gloria Coates examines the durability of a single gesture. Ben Johnston‘s gorgeous piano solos are microtonal; Lou Harrison‘s robust and profound piano concertos are for instruments in alternate tunings. George Crumb‘s theatrical piano music ranges from easy to virtuoso, but almost all of it makes unusual demands on the pianist: singing, playing inside the harp, deciphering circular notation. Scores from Earle Brown, Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Julius Eastman must be sorted out by performers willing to embrace at least a bit of improvisational ethos.
It is traditional at this point to cite Annea Lockwood‘s Piano Burning as the most extreme piano work ever “composed.”
The following grab bag of 30 favorite pieces (and many relevant satellites) reflects personal taste and happenstance, music that somehow came on my radar over the years and made an impression. It all fits on a conventional piano recital next to Beethoven and Chopin, yet in many cases the ghost of Scott Joplin is present, somehow making the ethos American.
1) 1919 Charles Griffes, Piano Sonata.
The English critic Wilfrid Mellers memorably wrote of the Griffes sonata, “…An American parable in musical terms, telling us what happens to the ego alone in the industrial wilderness.” Griffes was the American Impressionist, but also the American Orientalist. I wonder what would have happened if Griffes had looked to ragtime sources closer to home rather than gazing East…? At any rate, this is still the most important early American piano sonata after the two by Ives, and at this point there are dozens of recordings; the one I listened to first was a telling account by Leonid Hambro, better known as Victor Borge‘s assistant. The shorter Griffes pieces like The White Peacock are deservedly popular. +++ A later energetic use of exotic synthetic scales in the Griffes Sonata tradition can be heard in the Piano Sonata (1958) of Robert Moevs, recorded by virtuoso Joseph Bloch.
2) 1924-1928 Ruth Crawford Seeger, Nine Preludes.
Atonal lyricism is supported by a clear narrative. Seeger quit composing early, a true loss. Recordings of the preludes by Joseph Bloch and Sarah Cahill are excellent. Jazz pianists may also want to read through Seeger’s amusing Study in Mixed Accents, which is sort of a dire deconstruction of the finale of Chopin’s Funeral March sonata. +++ Seeger’s preludes pair easily with the dense and frequently analyzed Evocations (1934–43) of Carl Ruggles.
3) 1932 Marion Bauer, Dance Sonata, op. 24.
While Bauer was a great proselytizer of modern music as a teacher and writer, her own compositions are not yet established in the repertoire. On Virginia Eskin‘s Bauer compilation the Dance Sonata is the clear winner, a perfect evocation of Art Deco.
4) 1943 Walter Piston, Passacaglia.
This melodic slice of 5/8 meter has been a staple of intermediate piano recitals since publication. It’s a shame there is not much more Piston solo piano music to be found besides a student Sonata and a short Improvisation; a slender but charming Piano Concertino (1937) alternates limber lines with quartal harmony and was recorded by Carol Honigberg. Another rather establishment composer of the era was Quincy Porter, whose Piano Sonata (1930) links between Griffes and Copland, a bit rhythmically staid but still possessing attractive qualities. Clipper Erickson performs it on disc of early American piano music.
5) 1944 Harold Shapero, Three Sonatas (sometimes called Three Amateur Sonatas).
A dewy freshness pervades these short Joseph Haydn-esque pieces. The opening of the first in D Major is unforgettable, American Neo-Classicism at its finest. The early Sonata for Four Hands is similarly attractive; two major later Shapero works, a F minor Sonata (1948) and set of Variations (1947), are deliberately heavier and more like Beethoven. +++ This kind of heaviness may also negatively affect the massive Piano Sonata (1947) by David Diamond, although the premiere by Rosalyn Tureck was recorded, and Tureck shows no signs of flagging despite the length and density of the argument. Diamond’s two Sonatinas from from 1935 and 1987 are more obviously charismatic, especially the joyous early work, and were recorded by Mirian Conti. (A second Diamond Piano Sonata appears to be unrecorded.) +++ Michael Boriskin tracked the early Shapero sonatas on a wonderful disc that includes Music for Piano (1947, dedicated to Boulanger) by Irving Fine. Boriskin explains, “While it inhabits the same sound world as the Shapero sonatas, Fine’s lyricism is more overt and vocal, his textures richer and more traditionally pianistic, and the rhetoric more flowing.” Rounding out the Boriskin recital is the agreeable showpiece Ricercare and Toccata on a Theme from ‘The Old Maid and the Thief” (1953) by Gian Carlo Menotti. Pianophiles also celebrate Earl Wild‘s daredevil performance of the Menotti Piano Concerto (1945).
6) 1945 Morton Gould, Prelude and Toccata.
Gould was a virtuoso pianist but his imagination wasn’t always in top gear when writing for his own instrument. I used to think the small scale Rag-Blues-Rag was Gould’s most successful piano work, but recently I’ve heard Shura Cherkassky’s amazing 40’s recording of the substantial Prelude and Toccata. Since this Toccata is more abstract than Gould’s more familiar Boogie Woogie Etude, it is thankfully in less direct competition with actual boogie greats like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons or Pete Johnson. Gould’s output is uneven, and in recent years his reputation has sharply declined — his name doesn’t even appear in some books offering an overview of American music — but at his best, Gould could be more successful than Gershwin or Bernstein when appropriating ragtime and blues.
7) 1946 Roger Sessions, Second Piano Sonata.
All of Sessions’s piano music is worth exploring. The Neo-Classic First Sonata (1930) has a wistful opening and thunderous bass effects in the allegro. The Copland Variations, discussed above, was composed the same year as Sessions 1, thus making convenient place to set down a marker for the start of about three decades of astonishingly great midcentury American piano music (although the pieces didn’t start stacking up in bunches until the 40s). The Sessions Third Sonata (1965) is considered one of the foremost examples of post-Schoenbergian thought in American piano composition. (David Burge even dared to write, “If anything, Session’s almost uncanny feeling for musical form, something not always so apparent with Schoenberg, makes his music more convincing than the older composer.”) My favorite remains the compact and decisive Second Sonata: perhaps Sergei Prokofiev pushed further into absolute atonality? Webster made the first recording (I think?) on a classic LP with the Carter Sonata and the Copland Variations. The complete Sessions piano music played by Barry David Salwen is a great CD, but the recording that turned my head around was miraculous Randall Hodgkinson. I listened to Hodgkinson play Session 2 a lot. There is also a live Sessions 2 by Robert Helps: I was at that performance at Merkin Hall along with Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Garrick Ohlsson, and Alfred Brendel. Taub recorded the Piano Concerto (1956); Rebecca LaBrecque and David Holzman are two more important Sessions interpreters. +++ Hodgkinson’s Sessions record is coupled with Fantasies and Impromptus (1981) by Donald Martino. Martino’s dense language has eluded me a bit so far, but I am happy to own Eliza Garth‘s survey of Martino’s works, including the outrageous parody Suite in Old Form (1982).
8) 1946 Ben Weber, Fantasia (Variations).
This humane and attractive rhapsody is Weber’s best piece and has been recorded by several excellent pianists including at least one bonafide star, Stephen Hough.
9) 1948 Hunter Johnson, Piano Sonata.
Just shy of a masterpiece, the Hunter Johnson sonata hangs on the fringe of the repertoire. There are several good recordings but no high profile pianist has ever been a champion. Johnson was influenced almost to the point of plagiarism by the groundbreaking Roy Harris Piano Sonata (1928), but Johnson’s sonata is far more professional and pianistic. (I complained about moments of non-existent counterpoint in Copland and Bernstein above, and somehow there is even less counterpoint in the blocky Harris sonata.) Johnson was a broke Southerner and made a deliberate effort to put that life experience into his work: The slow movement of the Sonata is quite extraordinary, perhaps the best abstract “blues” movement I know from notated solo piano music. +++ Yvar Mikhashoff recorded the Johnson sonata on a smartly-programmed recital with contemporary works by Jack Beeson and Robert Palmer. There are several piano sonatas from Jack Beeson’s early years before he become well-known as an opera composer. Beeson’s Fifth Sonata (1951) is a prime example of solid mid-century composition; as with Hunter Johnson’s sonata, the slow movement has a touch of blues. Robert Palmer’s best known piece is the Toccata Ostinato (1945) played by William Kapell, a rugged encore that didn’t prepare me for the luscious Second Sonata (1948), which is a bit Chopin-esqe and quite creative in pianistic layout. Adam Tendler has recently released an excellent overview of Palmer’s piano music.
10) 1948 Leon Kirchner, Piano Sonata.
In my view the Sessions Second Sonata from 1946 and the Kirchner Sonata from 1948 are really peas in a pod. (Great pieces kept rolling off the presses! The Carter and Barber sonatas, discussed above, are from 1946 and 1949. Babbitt’s Three Compositions for Piano are from 1947.) If Sessions has something of Prokofiev in the mix, then Kirchner’s Sonata is indebted to Béla Bartók, although both pieces are imbued with a grand romantic American ethos. Leon Fleisher‘s recording is a classic, but Sara Laimon‘s recent traversal has more rhythmic authority. Kirchner himself was a fine pianist and recorded his biting Piano Concerto (1953) and a comparatively relaxed Five Pieces for Piano (1987). Later works include a rather octotonic Second Sonata (2007) played to the hilt by Jeremy Denk. +++ More compositions somewhat in the Sessions-to-Kirchner “stern, lyrical, atonal” line can be heard from Edward T. Cone and Andrew Imbrie. Cone’s name is less familiar as composer than as a commentator and editor, but I recently audited Jeffrey Farrington‘s recording of the grand and pianistic Prelude, Passacaglia and Fugue (1957) with surprise and delight. Imbrie’s substantial Short Story (1980) was recorded by Leslie Amper. +++ While Benjamin Lees is also in the Prokofiev to Bartók tradition of Sessions to Kirchner, most of what I’ve heard is a comparatively “easy” listen with the composer making a direct and uncomplicated argument. (Perhaps Lees shares something with the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera.) Gary Graffman was Lees’s high-powered advocate, and Lees credited Graffman with good ideas for the pulsating Sonata No. 4 (1963). Lees was also championed by Conti and Ian Hobson.
11) 1949 Ned Rorem, Three Barcarolles.
Rorem is probably most valued for his magnificent contribution to the art song and choral repertoire. The Rorem piano sonatas and etudes are good but his lyric sensibility may shine most naturally in these Barcarolles. The first recording by Fleisher foreshadows Keith Jarrett’s solo improvisations to a remarkable extent. It was a heady era for American composers when Samuel Barber worked with Vladimir Horowitz and John Browning, Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter worked with Beveridge Webster, Leon Kirchner and Ned Rorem worked with Leon Fleisher, and Benjamin Lees worked with Gary Graffman.
12) 1952 Mel Powell, Sonatina.
I love Mel Powell, I love his jazz playing, I love that he quit playing jazz, I love his composition. Sadly there is only one piano work that is in his “student” Neo-Classical style, the small-scale but technically challenging Sonatina offered as a kind of “graduation piece” on a 10-inch LP otherwise documenting a casual session with jazz greats Buck Clayton and Walter Page. Powell’s piano performance in jazz was top shelf, and his recording of the Sonatina shows he could have been a major recitalist of his own fully-notated piano music as well. There’s not much piano music from Powell’s mature serialist style, although the ferocious double piano concerto Duplicates played by Alan Feinberg and Robert Taub is thoroughly satisfying and won a Pulitzer Prize.
13) 1953 George Walker, Sonata No. 1 for Piano.
Walker was a unique American character who did not ever really get his due. Part of the problem may have been how much of his most immediately attractive music was written way back in the 1950s. The style of the first sonata is original, a serious exploration of C sharp minor, with harmonies that might recall Paul Hindemith but with far more rhythmic flexibility. Piano Sonata No. 2 (1956) is also tasty and even more compact; some consider it to be Walker’s greatest piano piece. Walker was an outstanding pianist and his records are essential, yet there is room for modern virtuosos to take up these two early charismatic sonatas, for in this case I don’t regard the composer’s own renditions as the final word. Natalie Hinderas‘s recording of the Walker Piano Concerto (1975) is magnificent. +++ Hinderas’s small but important discography includes Plays Music By Black Composers, a trove of Walker, William Grant Still, Olly Wilson, Hale Smith, and others. Other similar-themed anthologies have been made by Monica Gaylord, Karen Walwyn, and William Chapman Nyaho. As a jazz pianist, I am naturally intrigued by the fully notated music of African-American composers. There’s a lot there, including sonatas by David Baker, Adolphus Hailstork, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. A lesser-known piece that may deserve repertory status is played by Karen Walwyn, the Piano Sonatina (1956) by Roger Dickerson. Dickerson (who is lifelong friends with Ellis Marsalis) composed a graceful and detailed piano piece that manages the considerable feat of sounding like exactly what it is: A fully notated sonata from New Orleans. +++ Ulysses Kay was one of the most successful (at least in terms of a career with notable commissions) African-American composers of the era, but not much of his piano music is available for a curious listener; Gaylord recorded a few of his attractive Inventions. Kay’s style was perhaps not far from William Schuman, another important (and in this case white and very successful) American composer who did not regard the piano as central to a personal aesthetic.
14) 1954 Arthur Berger, Three One-Part Inventions.
Babbitt called these unique pieces, “White note Webern.” They must be just the devil to play but are a really fun listen! Geoffrey Burleson‘s disc of the complete Arthur Berger piano music is valuable, as is Burleson’s survey of the prolific Vincent Persichetti, whose work as a teacher and theorist ranks high in the story of American classical music. Persichetti’s piano music might be a bit middle of the road for my own tastes, but the “mirror” approach of his late music is moderately provocative. +++ Berger’s neoclassic contemporaries included Harold Shapero, Irving Fine, Ingolf Dahl, Leo Smit, Alexei Haieff, and Lukas Foss. I love all this stuff! However, I included Shapero’s Amateur Sonatas and Berger’s One-Part Inventions in these 30 favorites because they are noticeably personal…whereas the Stravinsky-Boulanger-Copland style can become just a shade anonymous in many other fine midcentury pieces. Ingolf Dahl’s complete piano music was recorded by Charles Fierro; the large scale Sonata Seria (1953/1962) is intriguing, but the compact Hymn (1947) would be easier to pull off in recital. Claudia Hoca recorded the piano music of Leo Smit; the melodic Variations in G (1949) is a lovely work that should be better known. Smit himself was an excellent pianist and recorded the complete Copland piano music and several pieces of Alexei Haieff, including a Sonata (1955) and Concerto (1952). Something of Richard Rodgers may haunt Haieff’s style, and smaller works like Gifts and Semblances (1948) and Juke Box Pieces (1952) are perfect for sight-reading on a rainy afternoon. Like Arthur Berger, Lukas Foss pushed from an early Neo-Classic base into more experimental sounds. Daniel Beliavsky and Scott Dunn have recorded Foss — the early works like Fantasy Rondo (1944) are next door to Bernstein — but the disc to get is the composer himself playing the strange late work Solo (1983), an unashamed mash-up of dodecaphony and minimalism. +++ Through a different door we get to George Rochberg, who famously reversed the conventional order of discovery, writing important serial music before embracing tonal styles. Carnival Music (1977) includes Blues and Ragtime movements. The best Rochberg piano piece I’ve heard is Four Short Sonatas (1984), a convincing synthesis of a spectrum ranging from Domenico Scarlatti to Roger Sessions, recorded by Sally Pinkas as part of a large survey of Rochberg in collaboration with Evan Hirsch. +++ Elie Siegmeister worked somewhere in the eclectic Foss—to–Rochberg vein, ranging from rather hokey Americana to serious atonal melodicism, recorded by Kenneth Boulton.
15) 1955 Louise Talma, Piano Sonata No. 2.
Louse Talma was one of the most successful of the 40’s Neo-Classic composers who tackled further chromaticism in the 50s. I’ve championed Talma 2 for many years; each time I go back, it’s even better than before. My program note from a decade ago, when it was played by Hiroko Sasaki on a concert produced for our teacher Sophia Rosoff: “Begins in the middle of things, with a ping-pong and an ostinato. The Allegro’s syncopations are almost jazzy, reminding us that Talma’s post-Boulanger style is mid-century Americana like Charles Eames’s Lounge Chair or Raymond Loewy’s Studebaker Hawk. The slow movement’s melodic inspiration is offset by a casually good-humored scherzo. Although Talma works with whirling twelve-tone figurations in the finale, the soaring tunes above and below the frenzy remain resolutely Romantic in gesture.” Hubert Rogers is not quite up to the task on the original CRI recording (he’s not helped by a claustrophobic acoustic); Theresa Bogard is better on her all-Talma CD, which includes the dashing chromatic Six Etudes (1954) (first played by Beveridge Webster on a notably outstanding record) and the cheerful diatonic Alleluia In Form Of Toccata (1944, dedicated to Harold and Esther Shapero). +++ Talma’s Dialogues for Piano and Orchestra is sadly not recorded. Two composers working in a style not far from 50’s Talma who contributed important concerted works easy to find on record were Wallingford Riegger and Peter Mennin. Riegger’s Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1953) performed by Benjamin Owen is unusually saucy and even comic (?) by conventional atonal standards, while Mennin’s cinematic Piano Concerto (1958) was championed by the legendary British pianist John Ogdon.
16) 1957 Billy Jim Layton, Three Studies for Piano.
Layton wrote only a few pieces but he was an unusually charismatic twelve-tone composer. I have listened to Donald Berman play these these impressive etudes many times. +++ The first recording of the Layton etudes was by pianist-composer Yehudi Wyner, whose stirring Neo-Classic Partita (1953) was recorded by Biljana Milovanovic. From the same era is Jacob Druckman‘s The Seven Deadly Sins (1955), recorded by Richard Zimdars, which, while enjoyable, only hints at the future of Druckman’s artistry, a future which had little to do with solo piano.
17) 1961 Ross Lee Finney, Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia.
Martha Braden plays this outstanding fully chromatic work on an all–Ross Lee Finney recital. I would be curious to hear a few other top-shelf pianists tackle Quasi Una Fantasia; a masterpiece might be hiding in plain sight. Finney’s earlier diatonic voice is heard to pleasing effect in the once-popular “Christmastime 1945” Sonata No. 4 in E major (1944), recorded by William Doppmann.
18) 1962 Lester Trimble, Five Episodes.
William Masselos‘s recording of the solo piano arrangement of this orchestral piece has to be heard to be believed! Lester Trimble is not a familiar name but Masselos was clearly out to make a case for greater recognition. It’s an atonal landscape but the narrative is convincing, with massive pianistic climaxes worthy of a 19th century composer. +++ Masselos was a key pianist of the era and an early advocate of Ives and Griffes. Another vital piano recording of an otherwise obscure composer is Masselos’s disc of the William Mayer Piano Sonata (1960), a compelling fantasy built from stacked fifths. With these works by Mayer and Trimble from 1960 and 1962 we are winding down the run of magnificent Midcentury American piano music begun by Copland and Sessions in 1930.
19) 1963 Robert Starer, Sketches in Color.
These tiny teaching pieces have been popular since publication. They are clear, melodic, and abstract. Bravo. Starer was a good composer for adults as well, with two Sonatas and other big pieces worthy of investigation. Major virtuoso David Bar-illan played the Second and Third Starer Concertos.
20) 1966 Miriam Gideon, Of Shadows Numberless.
Gideon’s aesthetic is a bit like dreamy Alexander Scriabin cut with a taste of astringent Copland. There’s other worthy Gideon solo music, including a good Piano Sonata, but Of Shadows Numberless is especially charismatic and one of the few standout notated American piano compositions from the mid-60s. +++ Paula Ennis Dwyer performs Of Shadows Numberless superbly on the recital New Dimensions: Music By Women, which also includes interesting pieces by Shulamit Ran, Tina Davidson, and especially Nancy Van de Vate, whose Second Sonata (1983) has an appealing leanness of texture and terseness of argument.
21) 1971 Robert Helps, Quartet.
Helps studied with Roger Sessions and performed John Ireland; somewhere between those extremes lies Helps’s own music. Quartet is a rare masterpiece from the era, and Helps’s own recording is one of the finest documents of a composer/pianist fully in sync with themselves. Other important Helps pieces include the early atonal Three Etudes (1956) recorded by David del Tredici and Helps’s most popular set, the phenomenal 3 Hommages to Gabriel Fauré, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Maurice Ravel. (1972). +++ Del Tredici himself went on to be an unusual composer, with many pieces devoted to Alice in Wonderland. Even more than Help’s 3 Hommages, Del Tredici’s Virtuoso Alice (1984) would be difficult to guess as 20th century music in a blind taste test. Boriskin’s performance is, indeed, virtuoso. +++ Writing conventional piano music had become a bit unfashionable in American compositional circles but George Perle and Richard Wilson were among those that persisted. George Perle’s dodecaphonic Etudes (1973-76) recorded by Boriskin is a pleasing listen, and Richard Goode recorded a lush Perle Ballade. Richard Wilson’s dense Eclogue (1974) offers a workout on the level of Ravel or Rachmaninoff and was championed by David Burge on record and in print. Later, Blanca Uribe would become Wilson’s colleague and advocate in such worthy works as Fixations (1985), Intercalations (1986) and a Piano Concerto (1991). A generation younger, Lowell Liebermann‘s harmonic palette is simpler and the rhetoric comparatively obvious, perhaps like an updated Franz Liszt, especially in the Gargoyles (1989) played by Hough and Yuja Wang. Liebermann’s substantial Nocturnes, eleven so far, show this composer as an heir to Barber and are enjoyed by a wide range of pianists from students to professionals. The engaging, humorous, and smart Etudes of David Rakowski have also taken hold with a larger public. Begun in 1988, the Etudes are now over one hundred in number.
22) 1980 Charles Wuorinen, The Blue Bamboula.
Unlike many serialists, Wuorinen knows something about how to write for the piano, probably because he could really play the instrument himself. In Blue Bamboula, a quote from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is fed through the modernist meat grinder with an assist from Gottschalk. Carla Bley told Amy Beal, “To me, the piece Blue Bamboula with Garrick Ohlsson playing it, is the best piece of piano music in the world.” Most of Wuorinen’s piano music is successful if you like this sort of thing (which, to be fair, is not what most people like). David Burge’s recording of the bite-sized Variations (1963) and Robert Miller‘s recording of the dramatic first Sonata (1969) may be more enjoyable than you expect. The Third Concerto (1983) played by Garrick Ohlsson is a syncopated masterpiece.
23) 1985 John Corigliano, Fantasia on an Ostinato.
Corigliano intelligently combines minimalism and the Andante from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Ursula Oppens has recently recorded the complete Corigliano piano music, but at this point only Fantasia on an Ostinato is established in the repertoire, a piece especially successful in live performance. I also enjoy the early Corigliano Piano Concerto (1968), which was premiered and recorded by the firebrand Hilde Somer.
24) 1985 Peter Lieberson, Bagatelles.
These Bagatelles might be the most charming 12-tone music ever written. Even more important is the epic Piano Concerto (1983). Peter Serkin played Lieberson with the same silky assurance the pianist brought to Stefan Wolpe and Toru Takemitsu, two international composers who bracket easily with Lieberson. Considering his flair for modernism, it is rather a shame that Serkin found few other American composers of interest over the years. +++ Some claim Stefan Wolpe was an American composer. If that’s the case, let me quickly add Serkin’s jaw-dropping recording of the equally amazing Toccata in Three Parts (1941) to this list. +++ Gerald Humel was born in Cleveland, lived in Berlin, and apparently identified as a Czech. As with Wolpe, I’m not certain if Humel belongs on the list geographically, but there is no doubt his epic, four-movement Universe (1985) is a masterpiece of the highest order. Indeed, Humel’s Universe may deserve the dubious distinction of being the “most awesome least-known” piece on this page. Jeffrey Burns plays it superbly on CD; I recently learned about the work in a NYC concert of two movements by the astonishing Jacob Rhodebeck.
25) 1987 Vivian Fine, Toccatas and Arias for Piano.
Fine’s long career saw considerable stylistic change. (Early on in my development I learned a lot about Neo-Classicism while attempting to play her Sinfonia and Fugato from the 40s.) Toccatas and Arias was her last piano work and it synthesizes tonality, atonality, and conventional piano virtuosity in a satisfying way. Veda Zuponcic‘s recording is excellent.
26) 1987 (slightly revised 2005) Justin Dello Joio, Piano Sonata.
Justin was my composition teacher for a year at NYU in 1992/93. He gave me the score to this essentially conventional yet extremely well-made Sonata and kickstarted my interest in classical music with an American accent. In his way Justin is a throwback to the 40s and 50s, a time when his father Norman Dello Joio was part of the crew of exciting American composers that valued craftsmanship in every dimension of the finished product. (The musically and technically approachable Third Sonata from 1949 is probably Norman Dello Joio’s best piano piece and used to be played by students everywhere; several recordings exist including a hard-to-find but utterly delicious LP of American music by virtuoso Frank Glazer, which includes excellent readings of Shapero and Copland.) Garrick Ohlsson has taken up the cause of the younger Dello Joio and issued a superb recording of the Sonata in 2007. There is rumor of a forthcoming Dello Joio Concerto for Ohlsson in the works +++ NYC musician dynasties: The great violinist Miranda Cuckson (who is also a friend) sent me her father Robert Cuckson‘s soundcloud page, which offers marvelous piano sonatas of pure intent and vast harmonic skill composed in 1967 and 1977. There is no official Cuckson recording yet, but I believe that is in the works. DTM readers will be notified when one arrives…
27) 1989 Paul Cooper, Sinfonia.
The only helpful harmony book I ever used was something my Mom found at a thrift sale, Perspectives in Music Theory: An Historical-Analytical Approach by Paul Cooper. Many years later I discovered Cooper’s piano music and was even more impressed with this underrated musician. The Sinfonia is powerful enough that there are already two recordings, by John Perry and John Hendrickson. Cooper worked closely with Ross Lee Finney and perhaps this dense yet melodic Sinfonia takes up where Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia leaves off.
28) 1995 Ralph Shapey, Sonata Profundo.
Shapey’s thick and detailed compositions for piano emphasize the variation form, where each movement is a distinct character study and key sonorities recur like signposts. There are three big Shapey piano pieces easy to find on record. Kyle Gann says of the Fromm Variations (1966) played by Robert Black, “I’m hard put to name another piece of such absolutely abstract, atonal, ‘difficult’ music that engages you so directly and makes such ineffable intuitive sense.” 21 Variations for Piano (1978) has been recorded by David Holzman and Wanda Maximilien. Shapey said, “A great work of art transcends the immediate moment into a world of infinity.” Sonata Profundo was commissioned by the celebrated pianist Russell Sherman, who Shapey called “Buddy.” A postscript to the score reads, “Go, Buddy, go, in a Voice of Thunder!” While called a “sonata,” Profundo is still essentially “variations,” a bit shorter than the other two Shapey variation sets, and is easy to follow if you can meet it on its own terms. +++ Accompanying Sonata Profundo on Sherman’s disc were new pieces by George Perle, Robert Helps, and Gunther Schuller’s only major solo piano work, a clearly structured and rather masterful Sonata-Fantasia (1992). Back to Shapey’s 21 Variations: Wanda Maximilien was of Haitian descent and made valuable recordings of Shapey, Luigi Dallapiccola, Robert Moevs, and Irwin Balezon. Shapey wrote the short piano piece “Harmaxiemanda” as a wedding present when she married CRI executive Carter Harman, the same Carter Harman who got the most revealing Duke Ellington interviews on tape.
29) 1994-2000 Joan Tower, No Longer Very Clear.
Tower’s suite (recorded by Heidi Louise Williams) offers relatively tame sonorities on the tonal-to-atonal spectrum thoughtfully expanded into virtuoso piano music. Tower is rather obsessive in extracting juice from a motive, and the Beethoven-based Piano Concerto (1985) recorded by Ursula Oppens is satisfying listen. +++ Alvin Singleton’s best piano work so far is probably the utterly delightful concerto BluesKonzert (1995) in memoriam Julius Hemphill, also recorded by Oppens (who was definitely the piano bard of this generation). Singleton’s substantial early set of variations, Mutations (1966), lacks a recording, while the recent In my Own Skin (2011) contrasts gospel and expressionist gestures. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has apparently written no solo piano music, but the propulsive and exciting Piano Concerto (1986) can be heard online played by Marc-André Hamelin. A similar situation exists with Joseph Schwantner, whose dark and stormy Concerto for Piano & Orchestra (1988) was premiered by Emanuel Ax. (It says something about the state of American classical music that these two major concertos by major composers performed by major pianists lack well-produced and vetted recordings with an accompanying liner note. On the other hand, it would have been impossible for me to work on this post while on tour in the pre-streaming era.)
30) 2000 Curtis Curtis-Smith, Twelve Piano Etudes.
I met Curtis-Smith in Ann Arbor and was taken aback when he sent me his own recording and the score to these Etudes. They are exquisite, friendly, durable, and must become better known. Curtis-Smith explains that the second etude, “…Demands a non-legato cantabile/espressivo touch. Surely, a singing, expressive line need not be limited to ‘traditional’ legato touch. Bartok’s parlando indication comes close to what is needed here, although the non-legato touch of the be-bop pianist may be a better model.” +++ Curtis-Smith was associates with two other important pianist-composers in Michigan, William Bolcom and William Albright. Albright and Bolcom were fascinated with ragtime, and their pieces in the old style remain fresh, especially Albright’s The Dream Rags (1970) and Bolcom’s Three Ghost Rags (1970), with The Graceful Ghost Rag perhaps being the single most famous rag not by Scott Joplin. Bolcom’s Pulitzer-winning Twelve New Etudes for Piano (1977–1986) are challenging and memorable; Marc-André Hamelin dispatches them with ease, including the Rag infernal (Syncopes apocalyptiques). +++ Even John Harbison has joined the ragtime act, with three Gatsby Etudes (1999) surprisingly reminiscent of Zez Confrey. The Harbison Piano Sonata (1987) in memoriam Rogers Sessions was recorded by Ursula Oppens, but I’m more thrilled about the euphonious Harbison Piano Sonata No. 2 (2001), recently recorded by Ryan MacEvoy McCullough alongside charismatic 21st century solo piano music by James Primosch. Primosch’s Contraption (2011) is almost a novelty rag. +++ A dedicated ivory-tickler is composer-pianist John Musto, whose many contrapuntal rags can produce unexpectedly fine and sentimental effects, for example in the substantial Regrets (1999). My friend Matthew Guerrieri also writes substantial ragtimes in the Albright/Bolcom tradition; they are still unrecorded, and honestly I am tempted to take on that challenge myself. Guerrieri told me, “The first rag I’d acknowledge is from 1992.”
(Bonus track #1) 2005 Tania León Tumbao.
The line is naturally starting to get blurred, but, generally, if someone feels more like a 21st century composer than a 20th century one, then I’m saving them for next time. However, since diaspora music is one of my themes, I want to draw attention to this surprising masterpiece by the Cuban-born León. For the first time on this page, the the word syncopated is insufficient: One must use the word clave, especially when discussing the performance by Jade Simmons. Is this video proposing a new era for integrating groove into fully-notated music?
(Bonus track #2) 1997-2004 Kyle Gann, Nude Rolling Down an Escalator.
To reiterate, my above list of 30 favorite pieces ignores “experimental” American classical music, the genre of American classical music which many commentators find most entrancing. For those wishing to read more about Cage, Cowell, Harrison, Feldman, Crumb, Coates, Eastman, and many others, a good place to begin are the volumes American Music and Music Downtown by Kyle Gann. Indeed, my 30 selected pieces almost work in (syncopated?) counterpoint to Gann’s perspective.
I’ve thought a lot about Gann over the years. One of the reasons I started DTM was Gann’s impressive (and now defunct) blog PostClassic. Later I was thunderstruck when I heard his CD of Disklavier studies, Nude Rolling Down an Escalator. I reviewed the album for DownBeat and made sure Mark Morris heard it (who then made up the MMDG dance Looky to several selections). While working on my lists these past months, I re-assessed Nude Rolling Down an Escalator and found it just as fresh as ever, especially the one-of-a-kind rag Texarkana, named for the twin home towns of Joplin and Nancarrow.
In the 21st Century, high-speed digital machines are now our world. Gann’s mechanical piano and León‘s unforced strut, both written on the cusp of the new millennia, reminds us that art doesn’t go away, but always manages to find a path forward.