WILLIAM MASON (1829 - 1908)
As talented and intellectually gifted as he was, William Mason is better known to many through the extensive reputation of his New England-based family than for his own accomplishments. His father, Lowell Mason (1792-1872), garnered well-deserved fame in the areas of public music education and church music; his brother, Henry Mason (1831-1890), gained
prominence in the manufacture of musical instruments as co-founder of the Mason & Hamlin Company; finally, his nephew, Daniel Gregory Mason (1873-1953), achieved distinction as a composer, author, and professor of music at Columbia University.
William Mason was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 24th January, 1829, the third of four sons born to Lowell and Abigail Mason. Although William showed an early proclivity towards music, he was not strongly encouraged by his parents to develop his talent, partly owing to his fathers desire that he opt for a career in the clergy.Nevertheless, around 1845, William began productive piano study with Henry Schmidt at the Boston Academy of Music, while also composing and publishing his first pieces for the piano, Deux Romances sans paroles, Opus 1. His professional dbut came a year later at the Boston Academy of
Music, with a performance of the Variations on the Air from Mhuls Joseph, Opus 20, by Henri Herz, for piano with string quintet accompaniment. In 1849, William Mason did what virtually every aspiring American composer and performer was expected to do: he immersed himself in rigorous European training. Mason set sail for Germany and the city of Bremen, to begin a period of piano study, which ultimately lasted for five years and took him to Leipzig, Prague, and Weimar. His considerable talent and abilities afforded him the privilege of concentrated instruction from such legendary pianists as Ignaz Moscheles, Alexander Dreyschock, and Franz Liszt. Mason returned to the United States in 1854, his sights set on a career as a concert pianist. For a while, he succeeded admirably in building a reputation through several ambitious recital tours. Within a year,
however, Mason became convinced that the life of a touring virtuoso, while rousing to the ego, was intellectually and musically unfruitful. He decided to relocate to New York City, his geographical center for the remainder of his life, and began a multi-faceted career of performing, teaching, and composing. Of special significance during this time was the formation of a chamber ensemble that included Mason and violinist Theodore Thomas. Over the next thirteen years, the Mason-Thomas Quartette would present many world and U.S. premires, including that of Brahms Trio in B Major, Opus 8. Possibly more noteworthy than any of the aforementioned accomplishments, Mason carved out an influential reputation as a piano pedagogue. In 1867, his first pedagogical work was published, A Method for the Piano-Forte, co-authored with E. S. Hoadly. Later notable titles would appear, among them, A System for Beginners in the Art of Playing upon the Piano-Forte (1871), A System of Technical Exercises for the Piano-Forte (1878), and Touch and Technic, Opus 44 (1891-92). In addition to his publications, Mason held numerous posts that reflected his commitment to sound musical instruction for students of all ages, including the presidencies of the National Musical Congress and American Vocal Music Association, and membership on the board of piano examiners for the American College of Musicians. In 1901, Masons illuminating autobiography Memories of a Musical Life was published. Thereafter, he maintained an active schedule as a teacher, working primarily from the studio in Steinway Hall that he had occupied since 1866. Following a brief illness, William Mason died at his home in New York City on 14th July, 1908, at the age of 79.
William Masons piano music is not only a product of his own substantial technical pedigree, but also a reflection of that period of American music when it was fashionable - even advisable - to imitate European models. Almost without exception, his works favour a clear ABA structure and make no pretence toward weighty thematic development. They are simply a creation of their generation: unfailingly entertaining, colourful and, at times, intriguing salon pieces. In spite of this generalised qualities, Mason did not escape a subtle evolution in his own compositional approach to the piano, which, after all, spanned a full sixty years. Many of Masons earliest published works, composed between 1849 and 1856, are born of the grand virtuoso style of the mid-nineteenth century. His exploitation of brilliant octaves, cadenza-like flourishes, extreme registers, and intricate arpeggio figuration reflect the influence of Liszt and the great Austrian pianist Sigismond Thalberg, whom Mason heard and closely observed on many occasions. Following closely on the heels of Masons decision to abandon a solo concert career was a discernible shift in his piano music towards a style somewhat more modest in scope. With few exceptions, Masons compositions from the years from 1857 to 1890 are replete with the melodic poeticism and dance-like rhythms characteristic in many works of Chopin. Finally, Masons late piano works, composed mainly between 1890 and 1905, resemble the more personal and complex idioms of Brahms, Schumann and Faur. All previous excesses are now stripped away, revealing the
true sophistication of the mature master on which modern American pianism could find a native identity.