|About this Recording
8.559012 - SCARMOLIN: Orchestral Works
Anthony Louis Scarmolin (1890-1969)
Anthony Louis Scarmolin was born in 1890 in the northern Italian textile-producing town of Schio, near Padua, where his father worked in the local industry. His father moved to America in 1900, taking his family with him and settling in New Jersey. The elder Scarmolin also provided his talented young son with his first instruction on the violin and, it is thought, the piano.
At an early age Anthony Scarmolin showed undeniable signs of talent. As a teenager he enrolled in New York's German Conservatory of Music, where he continued his piano studies with Bertha Cahn. At this time he also began to compose; his earliest works used a fascinating, tortured chromaticism and occasionally crossed the line into what some call atonality. Apparently the work of an autodidact, Scarmolin's earliest pieces mystified his teachers. His early style, contemporaneous with Schoenberg's early departures from tonality and with Bartók's String Quartet No. 1, did not survive their criticism. Why he left this youthful voice behind, never to retrieve it in later works, remains an unsolved mystery .It was therefore as a pianist that he graduated from the conservatory. Sadly, as fate would have it, a debilitating hand condition forced the cancellation of a planned Carnegie Hall début recital. Although he eventually recovered, he abandoned the idea of a performing career. Reshaping himself as a commercial composer, he threw himself into the composition of sacred and light classical songs, pedagogical and salon music for piano and easy choral works. These he sent to various publishers, who gradually began to publish them. At the same time he continued to write "serious" works, evidently harbouring the ambition of conquering the stage. His first operas date from this period and one of them, The Interrupted Serenade, was later submitted to the Metropolitan Opera by Beniamino Gigli, eventually to be rejected by the programming committee. The earliest of the pieces recorded on this album probably date from before World War I. At this time in his career Scarmolin was less than fastidious with his recordkeeping; the Three Miniatures must therefore be dated by means of stylistic analysis. During the 1910s he wrote many orchestral pieces in the "light classical" vein, and it is into this category that these delightful little pieces fit. The atmospheric, and harmonically static, Andante which opens the set harks back to the earliest experimental stage in the composer's development, when he was trying out complicated textures and rhythms. The following two movements, a hornpipe and a polka, are filled with good cheer and humour. They also show a slight lingering interest in novel instrumental effects, among them col legno, when in the second piece, the string-players strike the strings with the wood of the bow.
From his adolescence too are a number of virtuoso piano pieces in an impressionistic style. Two of these, Night at Sea and Snowdrift, along with the third piece, White Meadows, from considerably later (1954), were orchestrated in 1995 by John Sichel and are recorded here as Three Preludes. Though widely separated in time, the three pieces make a satisfying suite with their impressionistic nature and their shared tonalities, as well as their characteristic use of slippery, whole-tone harmonies. Night at Sea and Snowdrift are, as their titles imply, musical landscapes. The eventful piano originals make extensive use of dynamic and textural contrast and exploit the entire range of the keyboard. Arpeggios and glissandi are heavily used. The Satie-like White Meadows, on the other hand, is more meditative and restrained. The orchestrational style, as is frequently the case when one composer arranges the work of another, is neither that of the composer (whose orchestral music tends to be much more texturally conservative than his piano music) nor the orchestrator, but was rather modeled on that of some of the composers whose scores Scarmolin owned and admired (Puccini, Respighi, and Debussy, among others).
Scarmolin served with the U.S. Army in World War I, playing the clarinet and, when possible, the piano, with the 320th Field Artillery Band. He continued to write predominantly "marketable" music during this time, adding patriotic songs to his repertory. Upon his return from the army he found work as a band and orchestra director at Emerson High School in Union City, New Jersey and served in this capacity, well-loved by his students, for thirty years, until heart trouble forced an early retirement in 1949. In 1926 he married a voice teacher and singer, Aida Balasso, who devoted herself to her husband's career. The couple were childless and travelled frequently to Italy.
During the 1920s and early 1930s Scarmolin seems to have devoted himself even more to being commercially successful, apparently making time by limiting his production of "art music." His artistic ambitions seem to have reawakened about 1935, the year he composed his First Symphony. From this time on, though, he continued to compose quantities of pedagogical piano music, as well as pieces for student ensembles of all kinds. He seems to have composed almost out of nervous habit - he was one of those composers who constantly scribbled on napkins and programmes - a kind of compulsive music-making that was a release from everyday care rather than a reflection of any kind of inner turmoil.
Scarmolin was a modest and private man who kept his inner life to himself, more of an eighteenth century cut, perhaps, than his Romantic melodic and harmonic language would lead one to suspect. Even during the global trauma of World War II his titles reflect an insulation from the outside world. The charming Variations on a Folk Song, for instance, dates from 1942. This work may possibly have had but one link to the raging war: the word "Italian" was conspicuously omitted from the title, though the folk-song in question is la Lionesse, from the composer's native Piedmont.
Some of Scarmolin's works bear opus numbers; others do not. He seems to have been indiscriminate about assigning them, and he did so without regard to the work being published or performed, or important enough to merit the distinction. Scarmolin was lax in this practice and occasionally assigned opus numbers retrospectively to earlier pieces, to bring himself up to date. There are some early pieces with more than one opus number, some opus numbers with more than one piece, and some opus numbers that seem to have been skipped altogether. Far more common, however, are pieces which have no opus number; the current catalogue of Scarmolin's works runs to about 1,150 pieces (many of them earlygrade piano pieces), whereas his opus numbers go only up to the 220s.
After the war's end, even after ill health forced his retirement from teaching in 1949, Scarmolin continued to compose compulsively, for commercial and artistic applications. His 1947 Invocation is one of his most ambitious works, a seventeen-minute work of heroic style built around a ceremonial motif of a falling fourth heard in the lower strings in the opening bars. Despite contrasting themes of a lyrical nature, the mood continually returns to the grave style of the opening. The coda of the work begins in a hushed fashion, with a theme reminiscent of Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration, before building to its triumphant ending. There is no written clue to what is being invoked in this work, but Scarmolin was a religious man and it is possible that in this case he was addressing his deepest artistic ambitions.
A year after Invocation Scarmolin produced the most dramatically sound of his eight operas, The Caliph, set to a wry libretto by Carleton Mantanye and based on a story by Justin Hundley McCarthy. The story is a fable set in the time of Haroun-al-Rashid, the great eighth-century Caliph in Baghdad. The Dance, recorded here, is performed by the female lead, Dilidilan, a captive of the Caliph (and secretly loved by him). When an overheated adolescent street urchin, Ali Hassan, sees Dilidilan through an open window, he enters the house to court her, unaware of the real owner. Ali Hassan is caught in the act by the Caliph, who orders his captive to dance for the young man and strikes a bargain. after the dance, Ali Hassan may leave the house - alone - for good, or, if he wishes, he may marry Dilidilan - but if he does, after one night with her he will be decapitated and his body thrown in the Tigris. Following the Dance, Ali Hassan overcomes his ardour and leaves with some haste. The Caliph then confesses his love, and Dilidilan admits that she too has fallen in love with him - and they live happily ever after.
The Sunlit Pool is a brief tone-poem dating from December 1951. The musical language, like that of many of his early orchestral works, resembles film-scores of the era. Comfortably tonal with an occasional use of the whole-tone scale, this quietly colourful work ends with a tasteful dissonance, a lowered sixth, heard through the final E major tonic chord.
In subsequent years Scarmolin' s harmonic language began to change somewhat. Though he never returned to the expressionistic textures - or moods of his first works, he did begin to experiment with a greater degree of chromaticism. A somewhat astringent, though always conservative, exploitation of harmony comes passionately to the fore in Arioso for string orchestra, written in 1953.
Scarmolin's late chromaticism is most in evidence in the latest work included here, the 1964 Prelude. Cloaked in his usual lush film-score style are some new features in Scarmolin's writing: series of descending unison fourths in the xylophone and pizzicato strings; alternating chromatic and whole-tone passages; astringent use of modality (at the close). This brooding work sounds with a strangely muted dramatic character which suggests a hidden programme.
The same unstable harmonic palette is evident in the other work from the 1960s included, the brisk and extrovert Concert Piece for Trumpet and Strings, composed in 1962. A more cheerful work than the Prelude, the Concert Piece exists also in a version for trumpet and piano, suggesting that it was intended to be marketed as a contest piece.
Scarmolin died in 1969, and his widow died in 1987. Since that time the A. Louis Scarmolin Trust has been involved in rediscovering and promoting his works, and in gathering the details of his life. I am greatly indebted to trustees past and present, including Margery Stomme Selden, John Hamel, and Helen Benham, for the work they have done piecing together the biography of the composer. More detailed biographical work is in progress and. it is to be hoped, further recordings of Scarmolin's hitherto unheard works.
@ 1998 John Sichel
Joel Eric Suben
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