About this Recording
FECD-0003 - COWELL: Ongaku / Symphony No. 11 / Thesis

Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell


I believe in music, in the force of its spirit, in its exultation, its nobility, its humor, and in its power to penetrate to the basic fineness of every human being. I believe that a truly devoted musical work, dedicated to human integrity, into which the composer has put the best of himself, acts to humanize the behavior of all hearers who allow it to penetrate to their innermost being.


- Henry Cowell


In resurrecting the extraordinary archive of First Edition Records, with its many great modern works originally issued on LP, no composer is more deserving of a first anthology than Henry Cowell. It was Cowell’s astonishing energy in the first half of the Twentieth Century, both as a prolifically experimental composer and as a passionate advocate of new music, that very much cultivated the environment in which the Louisville Orchestra devoted itself to commissioning, performing, and recording new music.


Cowell rose to a prominent role of leadership in American music as a very young man. His unorthodox childhood equipped him with a remarkable set of experiences and skills. He was born in Menlo Park, California in 1892, the only child of leftist writers. His earliest years were lived at the edge of the Asian community in San Francisco, where he studied the violin and was exposed to music of the Pacific rim. Henry was for the most part homeschooled by his mother Clarissa, and after the 1906 earthquake, they lived nomadically and impoverished, making stops in Iowa, New York, and Kansas, before returning to California in 1911.


As a teenager, Henry was tremendously well-read, and he had developed into a fine pianist with many distinctive short compositions to his credit. Discovered by a Stanford professor, Cowell studied at Stanford and Berkeley and was tutored in music by Charles Seeger. His creativity was for the most part nurtured, and in the 1920’s he was gaining wide attention, performing his piano compositions in New York and Europe, shocking the world with techniques which included playing with his forearms and stroking the strings. By 1925 he had founded the New Music Society of California to present concerts of “ultra-modern” music, and he began publishing the quarterly score anthology New Music.


Cowell’s development is worth citing, for it seemed to have fostered not only his tremendous intellect, talent and imagination, but also his social impulse and generous idealism. He lived for sharing music, and it was not enough for him to write over 900 compositions. Through his New Music Editions (which published the scores of numerous composers) and his persistent efforts to bring composers, their music, and the public together, Cowell profoundly transformed the culture and independence of American music. His generosity to others was matched by his inclusive view of the value and dignity of all the world’s music, as Cowell studied, embraced, and advocated world music decades before it became chic.


It might be argued that Cowell was too restless in his writing and advocacy of new music to take the time to compose a masterpiece. But perhaps his vision did not include such notion of cultivating a grand static object. Cowell thought of music as a living thing, a necessity for our individual and collective cultural health. He was a pioneer in understanding and embracing cultural relativity, and in knowing that the hallowed works of the western classical tradition were only part of the world’s great musical traditions. As a result, he saw his own music and energy, as part of something much larger than himself, and in that he forever took delight.


Though their music developed in profoundly different ways, the nature of Cowell’s selflessness and loving devotion to music, is evident in the path of his one-time student John Cage. Where Cowell made himself open to all the world’s music, Cage made music open to all the world’s sounds. It was Cage who said of Cowell’s music: “This music is up to the minute: it is occidental and oriental at one and the same time.”


The works gathered here in this first volume of First Edition masters are late works, from a period when ill health could not deter Cowell from his persistent passion for discovery and assimilation. He said at this time, “I have never deliberately concerned myself with developing a distinctive ‘personal’ style, but only with the excitement and pleasure of writing music as beautifully, as warmly, and as interestingly as I can.” Those who knew Cowell heard in his work the optimism, gentleness, and warmth of his personality. But to Henry Cowell, he was only sharing that which he saw as the very qualities of life itself.


- John Kennedy


Tens on Remembering Henry Cowell


Remembering Henry I realize

His central kindness and the gentle smile.

I remember his certain eagerness

To like and to be liked, and that he brought

A hundred kindred composers to meet

Each other out of that same amity.

The wide life of his mind, I remember,

Was serene and free, as he was also

Perfectly fearless in his melody.

Those tunes that seeming had a folk-like turn

Still sing in constructs of objective thought.

Irish, he loved to talk, and spellbound all

With tales of populations, pianos,

Or Diesel engines, or performances.

He spoke of marvels and taught by allure.

He said “as you remember” and then told

Some wondrous thing you’d never heard ‘til then,

Thus flattery disposed receptive minds.

He befriended pupils and was to me

Of all mentors most marvelous, and whose

Steps part grass before me across the years.

Difference and hybrids are good he said

And agreed that people have lived before

And not been fools because of that, and that

They’ve lived in other places too and not

Been fools because of that. No single way

Suffices now, and knowing at least one

Other music well he felt illumines

Mind and heart as Mozart thought of travel,

That it is essential to an artist.

Like Gottschalk or Eichheim and others too

He knew a new world of human music

To which he guided us with charming guile

And raised our heads to hear a veena play.

He alerted ears to Gamelan, and

Gagaku, and a thousand other joys.

Remembering Henry also includes

His advice to drink of gin in summer

And in winter to take whiskey or rum.

In remembering Henry I miss him,

But then I remember him everywhere.


- Lou Harrison



Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3


The following notes are reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release, and are taken from those written by George H.L. Smith for the Cleveland Orchestra program book of October 14 and 16, 1954.


Mr. Cowell has told us that his Hymns and Fuguing Tunes are “not an imitation of the old hymns, but a development from them, the larger form imposing greater freedom with increased variety of rhythm and tempo, modal modulation, contrast of tonal color and more extended polyphony.” Writing in particular of the No. 3, the composer continues:


“This Hymn is a sustained piece in the Dorian mode and was borrowed from southern revival meetings rather than New England anthems; it adopts the dance rhythms that have been taken over by the big singing gatherings in the south. It is a modern development of the southern Fuguing Style (of Alabama, Geogia, Tennessee, etc.) in which popular minstrel show rhythms and tunes were turned to religious purposes in revival meetings. The general effect I hope is one of good nature and enthusiasm. The tunes are of course my own, but both tunes and treatment were suggested by the music of the singing schools. I have tried to develop them in ways suitable to the modern orchestra without abandoning their essential character.”



Ongaku for Orchestra


The following notes by Henry Cowell are reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release.


I write as a Westerner, for Western orchestras, but my Ongaku is music in which I have allowed myself to be influenced by the sunny splendor of Japanese music, as other Americans have subjected themselves to the influence of German, French, or Italian traditions.


The foreign music strangest to Western is certainly that of the Far East; China, Korea and Japan. But the strangeness to me seems largely superficial, a matter of tone color and performing technique rather than musical structure. That the music of the East and West are related is attested, I think, by the fact that Western orchestra performers will find nothing particularly surprising in their individual instrument parts for Ongaku (except for the overblown technique for the flute), in spite of the unfamiliar general style in which the music is couched.


Ongaku is in two movements, the first very slow and stately, related to the ceremonial Gagaku music of the Japanese court. The second movement is somewhat faster, lyrical but precise, and it owes something to a more recent style of Japanese ensemble music called Sankyoku.



Symphony No. 11, “Seven Rituals of Music”


The following notes by Henry Cowell are reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release.


These are Seven Rituals of Music in the life of man from birth to death.


The Symphony opens gently (andantino), with music for a child asleep; before the movement ends there is a moment’s premonition of grief in the music that will later close the Symphony with a lament.


The second is a busy movement (allegro) with percussion; this is music for the ritual of work, and there is a prophetic hint of war.


The third movement (lento) is a song for the ritual of love, with the premonition of magic.


The fourth movement (presto) is music for the ritual of dance and play, with some reminiscence of the music for work.


The fifth (adagio) is for the ritual of magic and the mystical imagination, with some remembrance of the music for the magic of love.


The sixth (vivace) is for the ritual dance that prepares for war and includes man’s work.


The introduction to the last movement (andante) is a fugal exposition of the themes of the preceding six movements; it leads into the music of the ritual of death, which begins as a lament and grows in intensity until the Symphony comes to an end.



Thesis (Symphony No. 15)


The following notes by Henry Cowell are reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release.


There is no extra-musical program. The form is unusual: five tiny movements; a choral-like introduction, an impassioned melody, a scherzo, a longer quiet melody, an irregular-rhythm dance which leads into a recapitulation of these elements in one movement, and at the end a sonata-form movement based on an extension of the primary motiv (a descending whole followed by a half step), which is the mainstay of all movements. As the last movement is in sonata form, I decided to call it my 15th Symphony.


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