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8.559021 - SIEGMEISTER: Piano Music, Vol. 2
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Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) Piano Music, Vol. 2

Elie Siegmeister is one of a handful of American composers who gave rise to a distinctly American style of music in the twentieth century. Strongly influenced by the works of Charles Ives, Siegmeister extended his own imaginative use of musical colour and drama over virtually every instrumental and vocal genre. The qualities that bind together all his music are deeply rooted human emotions and strongly expressive characterizations, along with a focus on traditional compositional architecture and techniques.

Elie Siegmeister was born in New York City in 1909 into an upper-middle-class family of Russian-Jewish origin. Although he demonstrated no extraordinary aptitude for music study as a boy, frequent trips with his father to hear the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera eventually stirred his creative imagination. After early piano lessons with Emil Friedberger, he went on to study music theory and composition with Seth Bingham at Columbia University, from which he received a Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude in 1927.

Following four volatile years in Paris, under Nadia Boulanger's tutelage, Siegmeister returned home to begin a career as a composer, joining forces with other young New York firebrands such as Marc Blitzstein and Henry Cowell. In particular, his involvement with the Composers' Collective of New York (1932-1936) gave him an outlet to introduce his music to students and working people He further attempted to "connect" with the American public throughout the 1940s, following his own discovery of the American folk­song tradition. Many of his most popular works come from this period and coincide with an overall shift in American composition towards music of simplicity and directness.

While Siegmeister did not embrace the wave of American avant-garde composition that began around 1950, his musical language was tempered by a consequent increase in complexity. This was a period of profound evolution for Siegmeister at a time when he was clearly looking inward in search of a more personal means of expression. What resulted was a synthesis of dense musical textures with obvious jazz and folk elements. Thus, he achieved dramatic intensity while maintaining a direct link to a broad audience.

As an educator, Siegmeister enjoyed a lengthy tenure, from 1949 to 1976, at Hofstra University, where he also served as composer-in-residence. In addition, he served from 1960 to 1965 as vice­-president of the American Music Center 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, having spent a lifetime expressing the American spirit in music in the face of ever-changing attitudes and values.

Composed in 1946, Siegmeister's Sunday in Brooklyn enjoyed particular popularity, following three successful orchestral works in the same vein, Wilderness Road (1944), Prairie Legend (1944) and Western Suite (1945). A typical product of Brooklyn, he was well placed to create a work that reflected various aspects of suburban life in one of America's most vibrant communities in the mid-1940s. The work's five movements range from representations of quiet family moments to teeming crowd scenes, while the unmistakably popular style of this work reflects the influence of George Gershwin. The first piece of the set, Prospect Park, depicts a stroll through Brooklyn's most famous oasis, with sliding harmonies supporting broad, sweeping melodies. The second piece, Sunday Driver, represents the hectic pace of modem life, rather than a leisurely country drive. The nervous energy is projected through an underlying, ongoing eighth-note (quaver) pulse, divided into a 3+3+2 grouping. The third piece, Family at Home, has a cozy, intimate quality, established by a gentle, chordal ostinato in the left hand. Its lyrical style recalls Prospect Park. The shortest and most tender piece of the suite is the fourth, Children's Story, dedicated to his two daughters, Mimi and Nancy. The poignant music reflects a father's fond memories of time spent with his young children. The final piece, Coney Island, is appropriately raucous and spirited in nature. It is also the most vividly programmatic of the set in its depiction of gathering crowds and other sounds typically heard at the famous amusement park.

Completed in 1964 and dedicated to the pianist Alan Mandel, Siegmeister's single- movement Piano Sonata No.2 represents a vast departure from his American Sonata, composed twenty years earlier. It illustrates his growing interest in more organic structures and complex, sometimes explosive sonorities. Indeed, Siegmeister himself claimed the work as one of the most violent he had written. The sonata uses tonal effects unique to all his solo piano music, including hammered notes, tone-clusters, plucked strings and harmonics. His continuing efforts to compose in a leaner style are shown in the single-­movement design of this work. Three well-defined and distinctly contrasting elements, each exemplifying a single aspect of sonority, rhythm and lyricism, are presented in a multi-sectional structure that resembles sonata-allegro form. The adoption of this form is no surprise, but his efforts to cut out extraneous figuration mark this sonata as undoubtedly his most tightly knit.

<>Although composed when he was only 23, Siegmeister considered the Theme and Variations No.1 his first substantive composition and it reveals an assured sense of compositional technique rare in such a young composer. Written in 1932, this set of 26 variations is a young man's rebellion against what he perceived as the overly "pretty" neo-classical style so prevalent among composers in France during the 1920s. The overall uncompromising and unrefined temper of this work reflects the influence of Charles Ives and Igor Stravinsky Modelled on Beethoven's Variations in C minor, Siegmeister's variations are also in the form of a chaconne, in which the theme is actually a harmonic progression in the key of C minor. The following continuous series of variations repeats this progression, with each variation given a specific rhythmic figuration or technical pattern.

In 1979, fifteen years after completing his Piano Sonata No.2, Siegmeister returned to this form in his Piano Sonata No.3. A similar number of years separated his work on the first and second Piano Sonatas, and as before, his return to the sonata revealed an evolved, albeit more subtle, approach to this structure Contrary to the one­-movement scheme of the second, with the new sonata he returned to a traditional three-movement plan, thereby increasing its overall length significantly. He also continued his quest to absorb elements unique to the American musical scene into his own contemporary language. Lastly, the sonata's design is much more sprawling and expansive than that of its predecessor. Superficially, the first movement seems the least cohesive of the three. More than in any of his other works for solo piano, Siegmeister indulges in wild and unpredictable handfuls of figuration. This tends to mask what is actually a rather tightly unified sonata-allegro structure. The leisurely second movement, constructed in ABA form, illustrates his intriguing manner of modifying his essentially atonal language with discreet hints of jazz. Though it is sometimes difficult to define, his link to a jazz style is present in the movement's opening seventh chords. The initial phrase also demonstrates his increasing inclination towards the juxtaposition of contrasting elements within a short, concentrated space. The third movement, also in ABA form, opens with a dreamy introductory section that links the stillness of the preceding movement to the imminent frenetic, toccata-like section. In the main section, Siegmeister uses the same percussive intensity he employed in the first movement but in a more strident fashion. There are neither breaks in the driving intensity nor compromises in the amount of physical endurance required to manage the fantastic leaps, expansive chords and rapid staccato passagework.

Siegmeister's final suite for solo piano, From These Shores, was completed in 1985 and fulfilled a commission from the United States Information Agency's Artistic Ambassador Program. In the course of this work, Siegmeister reflects on various aspects of the American experience. Each of the suite's five movements takes its inspiration from the words of five of America's best loved authors, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Langston Hughes and William Faulkner.

The overall style of the work echoes the density and harmonic complexities of the Piano Sonata No.3 and On This Ground; indeed, certain passages seem to be interchangeable There is, however, more sophisticated interplay of sound and colour in particular movements in From These Shores. The composer also interjects frequent and finely-controlled rubato effects throughout. Each piece, apart from the final movement, is in ABA form. The first movement, Whitman, was inspired by a fragment from Whitman's Leaves of Grass. As Siegmeister indicates in the preface to the suite, "Starting from Paumonok asks where we came from." This is the most rhapsodic movement, containing sweeping arpeggios, loosely woven counterpoint and fluctuating tempi. The second movement of the suite, Mark Twain, was inspired by the comic whitewashing scene from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and is the lightest of the set. The thematic ideas are exceedingly short and concise, frequently emphasizing rhythmic characterization over melodic substance. The third movement, Thoreau, was inspired by Henry David Thoreau's most famous work, Summer in Walden. As Siegmeister wrote, "Summer in Walden reflects the sunlit loneliness of the New England woods." This piece is rivalled only by the Summer movement from On This Ground in its quiet stillness. The fourth movement of the suite was inspired by one of the leading African-American poets, Langston Hughes. To head this movement, Siegmeister chose the line, "I play it cool" from Hughes' poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred. In Siegmeister's words, Hughes' statement "presents the black poet's dancing, laughing, sardonic, bitter-sweet images of Harlem". Throughout this movement there is a captivating energy present, sometimes restrained, often boundless, always unpredictable. The final movement, Faulkner, is based on an excerpt from Faulkner's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Fabel. The passage reads, "I don't fear man … because man and his folly will endure … They will do more. They will prevail" Siegmeister's choice of Faulkner's broad challenge to mankind is certainly an appropriate way to conclude this series of musical meditations on the American ideal.

Kenneth Boulton

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