About this Recording
8.559649 - SMALL, H.: Lullaby of War / Renoir's Feast / 3 Etudes in Sound (Rayner, Nasseri)

Haskell Small (b. 1948)
Lullaby of War • Renoir’s Feast • Three Etudes in Sound


A composer, like any artist, is the sponge of his environment, absorbing influence, surroundings, even (in the slang sense of the term) resources of friends or patrons to keep the artistic vision alive. One can imagine Haskell Small’s youth in Washington, D.C., as the son of an Army colonel who promoted chess playing among the ranks, leading to two of the primary compositions on this disc: one centered on an iconic artwork in this town, and the other a meditation on war.

Lullaby of War, written for pianist Soheil Nasseri, was (in the composer’s words) “both an expression of outrage at our perpetual rationalizations for making war and an offering of compassion for its victims.” The concept—two Civil War poems, two from World War I, and two from the anthology “Poets Against the War”—are interconnected by a “prayer theme” that allows the pianist and narrators to limn the ghastly rainbow of war in an arc from Stephen Crane’s War is Kind through Joy Harjo’s bitter lullaby, Yvan Goll’s indictment of all humanity seen in the trenches of World War I, Uri Greenberg’s evocation of the moon rubbing its face “like an animal” on the boot nails of dead soldiers, Walt Whitman’s own moon hymn for his fallen comrades, to Paula Tatarunis’ agonized evocation of Guernica.

Throughout, the pianist oscillates between the elegiac, poignant, and even monotonous side of war, and the outrage that underlies every poetic line and every note.

Anyone weighed down by thoughts of war, or indeed any sad thing, need only venture into The Phillips Collection in Washington and see one work of art: Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. It is summer, it is sunny, it is safe, it is sweet, reminding us as Renoir’s great film-maker son Jean wrote of his father, he “chose to live like a cork floating on water.”

The Seine dances happily in the background, and the “river theme” the composer creates in Renoir’s Feast weaves together an only slightly-imagined tableau vivant of these actual friends of the artist. The train arrives at the riverside bistro in Chatou, the owner’s son takes the ladies for a boat ride, and the various merrymakers chat and flirt (comic actress Jeanne Samary uses her wiles on roué art-lover Paul Lhote, as Lestringuez, the public official with a mystical edge, tries to capture her attention), as we hear the piano painting for our ears what Renoir gave us on the canvas.

The sliver of an unidentified man in profile in the painting led Small to imagine that Renoir himself is among his fellow revelers, and led the composer to mimic the artist’s manner of painting: Renoir was “known to begin a new piece with a splattering of ideas, then allow the painting to take form in the same way as his cork on water.”

Finally, the Three Etudes in Sound are non-programmatic studies that (as the composer says) “are mainly concerned with color and sound control.”

Robert Aubry Davis

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