About this Recording
8.559199 - HELPS: Shall We Dance / Piano Quartet / Postlude / Nocturne
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Robert Helps (1928-2001)

Robert Helps (1928-2001)

Shall We Dance • Piano Quartet • Postlude • Nocturne • The Darkened Valley (John Ireland)


Robert Helps was Professor of Music at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He was a recipient of awards in composition from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim, Ford, and many other foundations, and of a 1976 Academy Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters. His orchestral piece Adagio for Orchestra, which later became the middle movement of his Symphony No. 1, won a Fromm Foundation award and was premièred by Leopold Stokowski and the Symphony of the Air (formerly the NBC Symphony) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His Piano Concerto No. 1 was commissioned by the Thorne Music Fund and first performed by the composer with the Manhattan Conservatory orchestra. His Piano Concerto No. 2 was commissioned through the Ford Foundation by Richard Goode and performed by him with the Oakland (CA) Symphony. Robert Helps served as professor of piano at the New England Conservatory, the San Francisco Conservatory, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Manhattan School of Music. He was artist-in-residence (pianist) at the University of California-Davis in 1973. He was recorded extensively as pianist, composer, and pianist/composer on such labels as Victor, Columbia, Composers Recordings Inc., Deutsche Grammophon, New World, Desto, Son Nova, and GM Recordings. Many of his compositions, including his Symphony No. 1 (Naumburg Award) and Gossamer Noons for voice and orchestra, are recorded. He was very active as a solo and chamber music pianist throughout the United States. His major teachers were Abby Whiteside for piano, and Roger Sessions for composition, and he toured extensively with such internationally famous performers as Bethany Beardslee, Isidore Cohen, Rudolf Kolisch, Phyllis Curtin, soprano, and Aaron Copland, and for many years performed solo and chamber works, many of them world premières, for internationally known chamber music and contemporary music organizations in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, and elsewhere. His later concerts included memorial solo recitals of the music of renowned American composer Roger Sessions at both Harvard and Princeton Universities, an all-Ravel recital at Harvard, and a solo recital in Town Hall, NY. His final compositions include Eventually the Carousel Begins, for two pianos, A Mixture of Time for guitar and piano, which had its première in San Francisco in June 1990 by Adam Holzman and the composer, The Altered Landscape (1992) for organ solo and Shall We Dance (1994) for piano solo, Piano Trio No. 2, and a piano quartet commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. He died in 2001.


Shall We Dance was written in 1994, after a long hiatus, a period of silence from the composer. It was written for the pianist Russel Sherman who gave the world première of the piece on the 2nd of April, 1996, in the Kathryn Bache Miller Theatre at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Robert Helps often referred to it as one of his most powerful pieces.


He wrote: The title Shall We Dance came to me compellingly and spontaneously about half way through composing this piece. I never fight a title that emerges in this fashion. Despite the casual sound of the title, this is not a flippant piece. It is, however, sensual. “Dance” intrudes all over the place, both consciously (i.e., the “tune” of a Mischa Levitski waltz that my mother played a lot when I was a kid) and unconsciously (i.e., American “popular” music – Ravel – etc.). The dance rhythm disintegrates, basically self-destructs towards the climax of the piece only to regenerate slowly later and proceed to the end. Shall We Dance pays a special homage to the pedal, that fabulous pianistic resource that only pianists have, the lack of which makes even the wonderful orchestral transcriptions by Ravel of his own piano works fade when compared to the original.


The Quartet for piano, violin, viola and cello was written in 1997 for the Sergey Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress and dedicated to the memory of Sergey and Natalie Koussevitzky. The world première took place on the 14th of December, 1997, in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. by members of the Dunsmuir Piano Quartet.


The composer wrote as follows: In music, long (several movement) pieces deal with “emotions” and “rhythm” (pacing) as does a long prose narrative (novel), but without the encumbrance of words (i.e., a “plot”). How music gets at us in this fashion, directly, without words, how a composer can set up a mood through the use of only twelve pitches, that produces a similar emotion in practically all sensitive people listening, remains a mystery. The quartet, in five movements, is a bit like looking at a piece of jewellery or a painting from five very different angles, getting very different perceptions, but basically just one new look each time. The titles suggest something of the mood content – Prelude, Intermezzo, Scherzo, Postlude and, perhaps a bit on the odd side, coda – The Players Gossip. The inspiration for this somewhat peculiar title comes from a comment made by Chopin before the publication of his famous “Funeral March” Piano Sonata No. 2. The last movement of Chopin’s Sonata, the movement after the funeral march, is well known to us by its popular sub-title “The Wind Over the Grave”, a title probably as unknown to Chopin as “Moonlight Sonata” was to Beethoven. In a letter to a friend Chopin described the last two movements of his Sonata as “a funeral march followed by a bit of gossip”. Keeping in mind that composers can be, and often enjoy being, a bit frivolous (verbally) about basically serious things (non-verbal), the “mood” of Chopin’s comment entered my mind after finishing the fifth movement and felt peculiarly appropriate to its mood.


A capsule description of the mood of each movement might read something like:


1 (a piano solo movement)…Radiance, but of a subdued sort;


2 The most ‘human’ movement – perhaps Intimacy, again of a subdued sort;


3 at last some Speed, falling into an ABA shape, in this case, defined as such mostly by, LOUD, soft;


4 the return of movement no. 1, the piano being joined by the other instruments, thus altering somewhat the perception;


5 a good-natured finale. The title of the movement, Coda – the Players Gossip, pretty well describes one way of looking at it.


The Postlude for horn, violin and piano was written in 1964. It is Part III of Serenade, a series of compositions commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation.


The Nocturne for string quartet was completed in November of 1960. It is Part II of Serenade. Robert Helps inscribed the original score with, “for my parents”. In his own note on the work he wrote: It belongs to an esoteric genre of pieces that hardly ever get performed, single movement pieces for string quartet. I later incorporated the Nocturne into a yet more apt-not-to-be-performed work - a chamber music “happening” entitled Serenade, a work in three movements, performable as a single work or as separate works, of which the Nocturne is the middle movement. It is very much a mood piece, the mood being in the tradition of the numerous Mahler and Bartók “night music” movements which make their appearances in these composers’ string quartets and symphonic works. It is predominately a gentle movement, “night music” heard from afar. It does, however, have its share of “filigree” passage-work and an occasional “muted” climax. The combination of delicacy, even wistfulness, and consistently high register employed in all four instruments presents, I feel, an interesting performance challenge.

               One might refer to Robert Helps at times as a soul-mate of John Ireland. Certainly Robert Helps was intrigued by the beauty of John Ireland’s music, performed it often and transcribed some of his songs for solo piano. Although he was respected in his time, John Ireland was never as well known as some of his contemporaries such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and Frank Bridge. This live recording of The Darkened Valley (Walking along the darkened valley/ With silent melancholy) was Robert Helps’ fourth and final encore on the 6th of November, 2000, in the Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie in Berlin.


Robert Helps and Frank Dodge

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