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8.559020 - SIEGMEISTER: Piano Music, Vol. 1

Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) Piano Music, Vol. 1

Elie Siegmeister is a significant figure among those native-born composers who defined American musical style in the twentieth century. Although he himself admitted that in childhood there was no great evidence of his profound musical gift, his unswerving perseverance and innate creativity helped him become a prodigiously productive composer. His wide range of inventiveness encompassed virtually every musical medium, with a stylistic diversity ranging from the most complex to the most simple, from the most oblique to the most direct. With the piano, however, he found one of his most potent vehicles for creative expression.

Born in New York City in 1909, Elie Siegmeister enjoyed the many cultural advantages of an upper-middle-class family. He studied piano with Emil Friedberger and, subsequently, music theory and composition with Seth Bingham at Columbia University, from which he graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1927. Following four turbulent years in Paris, studying composition with Nadia Boulanger, he returned to New York to start his career as a composer, writer and champion of the contemporary American music scene. He was instrumental in establishing in 1932 the Composers' Collective of New York and in 1937 the American Composers Alliance. Siegmeister also immersed himself in the expressive potential of the American folk-song. Over the next decade, he produced much of his truly accessible music, characterized by clarity and simplicity with a particular focus on uniquely American material.

Throughout the 1950s, American composition turned towards the avant-garde. Although Siegmeister never considered this trend truly worthy of his attention, his own style did undergo a transformation towards one that was less accessible to the average listener. This change in compositional direction culminated in his seasoned, mature style, beginning around 1970, one that sought to express emotional drama as well as to retain and absorb the earlier folk-song and jazz traditions. Throughout this period, from 1949 to 1976, he served on the music faculty at Hofstra University, where he enjoyed long-term financial security as well as abase from which to continue his compositional growth.

Siegmeister's position as one of America's pre-eminent composers is evidenced by the many prominent positions to which he was elected. He served from 1960 to 1965 as vice-president of the American Music Center, was chairman of the Council of Creative Artists, Libraries and Museums in 1971, and was elected to the Board of Directors of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 1977. He died in 1991 in Manhasset, New York.

Siegmeister completed his American Sonata in May 1944, after resettling with his family in Brooklyn, New York. This was the first of five major sonatas for solo piano and the only one that overtly represents, as he wrote in the sonata's preface, "an American panorama, blending jazzy and folk-like themes with purely classical form". At this point in his career, he had enjoyed considerable success with several orchestral works also based on American themes, namely, Ozark Set (1943) and Western Suite (1945). Constructed in straight-forward sonata-allegro form, the first movement opens with an animated unison theme in D major. Accents are strategically placed among the continuous stream of eighth-notes (quavers) to reflect a syncopated rhythmic feeling of 3+3+2, similar to a rumba. This asymmetrical grouping projects an infectious exuberance throughout this movement, whether the overall musical character is energetic or lyric. The second movement, majestic and expansive in tone, is unique in its thematic material, marking the only occasion that Siegmeister incorporated quotations from authentic American folk-songs in one of his piano works. The opening of the first section is based on the African-American protest song, Sistern and Brethren, and is the most prolonged melody of the movement. Other, more fleeting references to two pioneer songs, The Saints's Delight and The Promised Land, are heard in the second section. The third movement returns to the fierce rhythmic drive exhibited in the first movement. Whereas that had relied on rhythm as a unifying device, the final movement features a more varied thematic approach. An opening chordal flourish quickly gives way to a syncopated "boogie" theme, which is hammered out in the right hand and subsequently reiterated in a series of rapid variations. The contrasting second theme is a beautiful melody in the style of a leisurely cowboy song.

To the average listener, Siegmeister's On This Ground might seem to be a radical change in direction. Indeed, by the time of this work's completion in 1971, his style had taken a turn towards a more complex and subtle language. While the five movements of On This Ground exhibit a far less rigorous development and a distinctly atonal harmonic style, Siegmeister nevertheless has here reached his mature style, a style that is epitomized by thematic economy with a touch of Americana. The first piece of this suite, Dream Freely, contains spacious phrases and warm underlying harmonies, all freely developed in a manner befitting its title. The second piece, Where?, provides a striking contrast in its acutely dissonant concentration on a single ascending major seventh. The third piece, Ariel, has a mercurial, quality that forms an ideal compliment to the stern mood of the previous piece. Whereas the sevenths of Where? seem to struggle in their ascent, those of A riel fall with ease, in effect allowing natural gravity to take over. The fourth piece, Summer, paints a dreamy, peaceful landscape. Its avoidance of any strong sense of underlying pulse clearly projects a feeling of timelessness. The final piece, Mr. Henry's (Monday Night), is perhaps the most unusual of the suite. It is an indulgence in contemporary ragtime style, which Siegmeister would continue to explore throughout the remainder of his compositional life, as ragtime was enjoying a strong resurgence in American popular culture.

In 1967, 35 years after his Theme and Variations No. 1, Siegmeister composed his Theme and Variations No.2. Dedicated to his daughter and son-in-law, Nancy and Alan Mandel, this sophisticated work is remarkable in its efficient use of motivic material and dramatic impact. It also shows the extent to which his command of this form had grown. Impressively enough, the core of the entire set of fifteen variations is based on just four notes: D flat-E flat-C-E. Siegmeister reveals his keen sense of resourcefulness and creativity in the embellishment and disguise of this four-note motif throughout, a motif comparable to the famous E-A-C-H motif, but without the latter's extramusical or programmatic significance.

In 1980, a year after the completion of Piano Sonata No.3, Siegmeister produced his Piano Sonata No.4, subtitled Prelude, Blues and Toccata. This sonata was commissioned by The American University, in Washington, D.C., to honour the inauguration of its new president, Dr. Richard Eerendzen. As its title suggests, Siegmeister employed a more overt reflection of his own earlier "Americana" period, thus continuing his musical maturation first signalled in On This Ground. He again uses the element of ragtime in the final movement, while also including a "blues" theme and variations for the second movement, in a work that represents perhaps his most idiomatic treatment of the piano of any of his solo piano compositions. The first movement, Prelude, employs an extremely compact sonata-allegro structure, with two clearly distinct principal themes. The first uses elements of the opening falling four-note motif, developed in alternating percussive eighth-note (quaver) figures and arpeggiated flourishes. The second theme is a gentle, folk-like melody that is initially presented in the form of a chorale. The theme and variation structure of the second movement is based on a simple blues-style melody, which is freely explored and developed in the seven variations that follow. As with his other variation sets, Siegmeister quickly launches into a radical dissection of the theme. Over the course of the variations, the integrity of the original musical idea becomes irrelevant, to the point where it appears merely as veiled fragments, freely interwoven into a richly chromatic, dense texture. The third movement, Toccata, is a loose sonata-allegro structure. This movement is unique among Siegmeister's toccata-like pieces in that it rarely makes use of the typical staccato articulation. Rather, he seeks to project a "jazzy" feeling by frequently emphasizing short, slurred groupings of eighth notes (quavers), often derived from a 3+ 3+ 2 subdivision. In addition, the climax of the development section occurs with a sudden intrusion of a raucous ragtime passage.

Siegmeister's Piano Sonata No.5, his final work for piano solo, was completed in 1987. A fitting conclusion to his extensive catalogue of solo compositions for this instrument, the fifth sonata embodies many elements from his past achievements. As with the fourth sonata, Siegmeister drew much inspiration from his love of American blues and jazz. This sonata also reflects his often extreme sense of emotional drama and turbulence. Many passages are unparalleled in their overall density and technical difficulty. The first movement's form is a departure from his earlier sonata structures, with no visible evidence of a traditional sonata-allegro design. Rather, he appears to be rejoicing in the principle of thematic contrast for its own sake. The movement consists of nothing more than four distinct sections patched together and immediately repeated with slight variations. The result is a kind of musical mosaic, alternating between serene lyricism and explosive rhythmic energy. The second movement is closely allied to the second movement of the fourth sonata in its style and design. In the fifth, a set of seven variations develops from a blues-style theme, differing from its predecessor in its use of a more lush theme. Here Siegmeister pursues a free and unstructured mode of variation technique. With the third and final movement, he returns to a clear sonata-allegro structure. The two contrasting themes are characteristic of his two sides: virtuosic, driving energy balanced with lyric radiance.

Kenneth O. Boulton

Kenneth Boulton
Throughout a varied career as soloist and chamber musician, the pianist Kenneth Boulton has developed a special interest in contemporary American piano music. This has led not only to extensive performance projects based on or around the music of Aaron Copland and Elie Siegmeister, but also to lecture-demonstrations on works by twentieth-century American composers that are appropriate for students. A native of Seattle, Washington, Kenneth Boulton completed undergraduate studies in piano at Washington State University, and was awarded the Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Maryland. Past awards, among others, have led to appearances with the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra and the Washington-Idaho Symphony. He maintains an active teaching schedule, currently serving on the piano faculties of the Wilmington Music School, Delaware, and West Chester University, Pennsylvania.

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