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8.559365 - FOOTE, A.: Francesca da Rimini / 4 Character Pieces after the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam / Suite / Serenade (excerpts) (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
Arthur Foote (1853–1937): Francesca da Rimini, Op. 24 • Air and Gavotte
The notion that American music began with Aaron Copland (or, depending on your tastes, with George Gershwin or perhaps Cole Porter) dies hard, but it ignores a number of excellent composers who flourished before any of those men were born. Even if we discount the musical creativity of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Hopkinson and (attributively) Benjamin Franklin, and that of still earlier substantial composers like John Antes and his Moravian brethren or William Billings of Boston, we should not forget the achievements of more than a dozen talented composers ranging in date from Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829–1869) and John Knowles Paine (1839-1906) to Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884–1920), and including such notable figures as George Whitefield Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, Charles Martin Loeffler, Horatio Parker, Amy Beach, Daniel Gregory Mason, John Alden Carpenter, and Carl Ruggles. It is tempting to include Charles Ives in this list also, but though he was composing busily before Copland was born, it took years for his work to make any substantial impact on American musical life.
Among those named above, Paine served at Harvard as the first music professor in the United States, and the composer who concerns us here, Arthur Foote, studied with him and graduated in 1875 with the first MA degree in music ever bestowed by an American university. Foote was born in Salem, Massachusetts, and spent most of his life in Boston, though he also served as a guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1911. For the last sixteen years of his life he taught piano at the New England Conservatory. Foote was unusual among the American composers of his time in that all of his training took place in the United States, with the exception of a few lessons he took with Stephen Heller in France in 1883. A number of visits to European musical centers also helped to frame his style, which was firmly grounded in the classical manner of Brahms and in the tradition of the European romantics.
Some two-thirds of Foote’s copious output was published in his lifetime. Of the three works in this recording that thus carry opus numbers, the earliest is the “Symphonic Prologue” Francesca da Rimini, based on the story of the doomed lovers Francesca and Paolo related by Dante in the fifth Canto of The Inferno. Dating from 1890, this was the composer’s second published orchestra work. It is a fine example of his command of broadly conceived structure as well as of his powerfully expressive musical language. The piece branches out from a dark-hued Andante sostenuto opening in C minor to incorporate Allegro assai sections punctuated by forceful passages in recitative style. The scoring, for a standard symphony orchestra with double woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings, is fastidiously detailed. A characteristic subordinate theme exults in a near-Elgarian succulence and grace, and demonstrates Foote’s willingness to flout conventional tonal schemes by first appearing in an expectable E-flat major but recurring first in E major and finally, shortly before the work’s ppp conclusion, in C major.
If the stylistic background of Francesca da Rimini is to be found in Brahms, the pieces that follow it on this disc, the Air and Gavotte for strings, take their inspiration from a much earlier source. The Air, in particular, can be heard as a conscious study based on the corresponding movement in Bach’s Third Suite for orchestra. Foote always wrote superbly for strings, and in this exquisite movement he achieved a delicate balance between harmonic richness and well-judged touches of counterpoint, the whole supported on a foundation of steadily descending bass notes, played first with the bow and later pizzicato. The Gavotte offers an effective contrast, with its bluff yet nicely varied rhythms and its exploration of pitches well above what would have been the norm in Bach’s time. It is not known for certain who put together the two pieces (found also as the second and fifth movements of his Serenade, Op. 25, which also derives from earlier works) for performance as a pair; their probable original composition dates are 1889 for the Air and, for the Gavotte, 1866, when Foote was only thirteen years old.
In 1900 Foote revised a set of his piano pieces to create the Four Character Pieces after the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, thereby producing what has remained one of his most popular works. As romantic in atmosphere as his Francesca da Rimini was classical, these pieces add harp and percussion to the orchestral forces, and give much more prominence to the atmospheric qualities of individual instruments. A chromatically inflected clarinet solo dominates the first piece, an Andante comodo headed by the following verse from the Rubáiyát:
Much more forceful in manner, the second movement might almost be called Foote’s answer to Brahms’s Hungarian and Dvofiák’s Slavonic Dances. After a driving first section, marked Allegro deciso, illustrating:
a moderately paced middle section headed by:
turns the same fundamental rhythm to cleverly transformed expressive effect.
Prefaced by what will undoubtedly be the most familiar quotation from the poem for most listeners—
—the Comodo third movement evokes the trance-like mystery suggested by those words with hypnotic rising octave figures, coming to rest in repeated harp tones enveloped by immobile A-major harmonies high in the strings.
The final piece is again in ternary form. The outer sections, Andantino ben marcato, offer some teasingly unpredictable variations on a seemingly simple 6/8 pulse. The poetic heading here is:
The central Molto allegro is headed by
Starting with muted strings framing a sinuous oboe solo, this section builds to a powerful climax before reining back for a shortened reprise of the initial material, to end softly again, with high harmonics in the upper strings.
It is the strings, clearly, that lie at the root of Foote’s feeling for orchestral color, so that the Suite in E major for string orchestra makes an appropriate conclusion for this recorded program. Though the title might lead one to expect another baroque-inspired composition, the feeling of this work, written in 1907 and revised in the following year, is closer to that of string-orchestra works by Tchaikovsky, Dvofiák, and Elgar. A Praeludium marked Allegro comodo is followed by a movement titled in the published score in German Pizzicato und Adagietto. Characteristically resourceful in its rhythmic variety, the opening and closing Pizzicato section, marked Capriccioso—Allegretto, encloses an eloquent Adagietto enhanced, like the first movement of the Air and Gavotte, by neatly propulsive contrapuntal touches. Again titled in German, the third and last movement, Fuge, treats an Allegro giusto subject that may at first sound square to some highly ingenious rhythmic transformations, suggestive at times of the finale fugue in Brahms’s Handel Variations. Like all of the music recorded here, the Suite transcends what might be regarded as traditional aims to show us a composer as individual in inspiration as he was well-schooled in technique.
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