Variations on America / Cowell / Ives / Paulus / Barber

VARIATIONS ON AMERICA. COPLAND: Preamble for a Solemn Occasion. IVES: Variations on 'America'. Adeste Fidelis. 2 Fugues. COWELL: Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 14. STILL: Reverie. BARBER: Prelude and Fugue. Wondrous Love. PAULUS: Triptych.
Iain Quinn (organ).
Chandos CHAN 10489 (C) (DDD) TT: 71:16.

Declarations of independence. Compared to the traditions of Germany, Holland, and France and despite the presence of single masterpieces, most other countries' music for organ falls into the category of afterthoughts. Only one item on this program, Ives's Variations on 'America,' lies anywhere near standard rep for the instrument. I imagine that it comes down to largely a matter of employment. Germany, Holland, and France pay pretty good money to their organists, and for a long time a composer's training consisted, in part, of learning to play. Indeed, composers considered church employment a pretty good gig, even if they had to lead the choir as well. In England, composers and organists tended to be separate, and most composers who found their way to organist posts (like Vaughan Williams) tended to stay only a short time. The prestigious posts went to career, virtuoso players. In the United States, players tend to serve out of the goodness of their hearts, and not all of them compose.

Ives actually served as a church organist for a fair number of years, and he used his position as a laboratory for his musical experiments. The 1898 prelude on "Adeste Fidelis" belongs to these experiments. Although not atonal, it inhabits a harmonic no-man's land. The tune originally appears upside-down, then right-side up. Finally, the wrong-side and right-side sound together simultaneously. Winter haunts this little piece. The two fugues come from his Yale studies with the American Wagnerian Horatio Parker. To quote Douglas Adams, they are "mostly harmless." Any competent organist could have churned them out. The Variations on 'America' tell another story. I know of few other organ works so out-and-out funny. Compare this to the Victorian Dudley Buck's Festival Overture on 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' a solidly-crafted, very sober score, as straight-laced as a painting by Landseer. Ives worked on the score over many years, making his final revisions in the Forties. Ironically, most people haven't heard it in its original form, but in the 1963 orchestration by William Schuman. I first encountered the organ version on an old, old Nonesuch LP (before they went upscale) and before I heard the Schuman. It begins with a Dudley-Buck maestoso, moves to a hymn-like variation appropriate for a Civil War Memorial Day, and sort of takes off from there, including a variation in two different keys, a Sevilliana, and what I'd call a Gilbert & Sullivan merry tripping. The score ends maestoso.

Henry Cowell, an American maverick like Ives and an early proselytizer for that composer, has to a large extent faded from public consciousness. Like Leonard Bernstein, he seemed to absorb anything and everything. His catalogue consists of a works ranging from the wildly experimental to the ravishingly poetic. His series of Hymns and Fuguing Tunes belongs to the latter. Always eager to expand procedures beyond the standard European practices, he based them on the shape-note anthem structure of colonial New England and the American South. The H&FTs are for various forces: full orchestra, strings, cello, trombone, organ, oboe, three horns, and so on.

Almost all of them make use of modes and faux-"primitive" open fifths and evoke the naïve counterpoint -- it reminds me of quilt-making for musicians -- of such early American composers as William Billings, Justin Morgan, and William Walker. This particular hymn sings solemnly, while the fuguing tune dances. Does anybody know whether an enterprising label has released the complete set of eighteen? I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

William Grant Still's Reverie is, unfortunately, a Nice Piece. He studied with both Chadwick and Varèse -- not at the same time, of course -- and had a brief, interesting avant-garde phase. However, he found it not to his liking and reverted to Chadwick. He consciously absorbed African-American music (mostly jazz and especially the blues) as well. Reverie from 1962 has a lot of Chadwick and no jazz that I can hear, to its loss, I think. Pleasant enough, it doesn't make a permanent place in my memory banks.

The teen-aged Samuel Barber actually served briefly in his hometown Presbyterian church as organist, before heading off to Curtis and world-wide fame. Curiously, he published only one work for solo organ, although he had written more. Some of these fall under the heading of juvenilia, but even so, they're quite good. In 1927 at Curtis, he wrote the Prelude and Fugue in b under the supervision of his composition teacher Rosario Scalero. It's very Brahmsian and quite fine. After all, it takes talent (and brains) to follow Brahms, particularly the late organ music. Wondrous Love (1958) stands as Barber's only published solo organ work. In Barber's mature, post-World War II style, it varies the shape-note hymn of the same name. The counterpoint seems wayward but is in fact strictly controlled, much like the opening "Veni, veni, Emanuel" section of Barber's 1960 Die natali. I find the whole thing both masterful and as idiosyncratic as Ives's Variations on 'America.' I can't think of another composer who could have come up with it. A pity so few know this score.

Based in Minneapolis, Stephen Paulus has come into national prominence, although the fact that his base lies on neither coast has, I think, hindered the reception of his work. I've heard a fair number of his works: some I like, some I don't. However, I think he has become a finer composer as he has proceeded. He certainly hasn't stood still. Triptych appeared in 2000. Its movements -- "Like an Ever-rolling Stream," "Still Be My Vision," and "As If the Whole Creation Cried" -- take their titles from venerable, if not exactly familiar, hymns. Paulus often has a visionary bent which finds its way into his music. All of these hymns have the Spiritual Journey as a subtext: for example, "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, / Sweeps us away. / Our life's a dream ..." and so on. You might expect the moony-swoony to go along with this, but Paulus (like a real visionary) zigs in unexpected directions. For the most part, he writes vivid, lively music. I have no idea of the future of this work (or any other, for that matter), but it strikes me as a shame if it should fail to take hold.

Iain Quinn, a Welsh organist, does very well. Uncharacteristically, the Chandos engineers louse him up in the Ives Variations, in which the echo swamps the counterpoint of the louder sections. Every other track is fine. However, quite obviously Quinn does his damndest to bring out the individual ingredients of Ives's musical burgoo. In fact, I manage to hear strands in it I've never heard before. Given a better shake sound-wise, as in the Barber, Quinn's playing clearly presents various independent lines. Quinn also shows a poetic streak. His account of Ives's Adeste Fidelis strikes particularly deep.

S.G.S. (March 2010)