88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

Ragtime found its way into one of the finest achievements of American music, the First Piano Sonata (1901-1909) by Charles E. Ives. Reconstructed and literally saved from obscurity by composer Lou Harrison and pianist William Masselos, this Sonata contains only one descriptive title “In the Inn” for the second half of the second movement which is made up of Ragtime Dance No. 1 and No. 2 (both 1902). The fourth movement (IVa, IVb) also contains ragtime passages. The composer’s Three Page Sonata (1905) studies the relation between a dense macho march, an energetic, complex ragtime (syncopated 2/4 time against 6 bass beats), and a mysteriously wandering passage built of high crystalline tones, alternating chords in fourths, and a tango-like bass line.

The Sonata No. 1 and No. 2 are vast soundscapes of passionately searching themes, of flowing thoughts that generate grand architectonics (in Essay Before a Sonata, Ives remarks that “Emerson wrote by sentences or phrases, rather than by a logical sequence … as thoughts surge to his mind, he fills the heavens with them”), and tender impressionist memories contrasted with angular realities. There are tonal chords attended by complex harmonies, mysterious rolling bass drones, massive tone clusters (unlike their use to depict cannons in battle pieces, these clusters are played with a pianissimo and cloudy touch, or in fiery cascades), delicately intertwining chromatic “dissolves”, animated declamations, free-wheeling rhythmic variations that communicate a dynamic logic of their own. The combination of all these elements created a musical texture never heard before.

In fleeting moments, snatches of American tunes and hymns can be heard: in the First Sonata, the New England hymnody of “Lebanon,” as well as “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “I hear thy welcome voice,” “Where is my boy tonight?,” “Happy day,” “What a friend we have in Jesus”; many of these same tunes recur in the Second Piano Sonata: Concord, Mass., 1840-1860 (1911 – 1915) which also offers the theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in many disguises.

Many of Ives’ Studies (1907 – 1909) contain textures and gestures like those in the two Sonatas. Study No. 9: The Anti-Abolitionist Riots in the 1830’s and 1840’s (1908 – 1909) features stormy bass writing and glorious bell-like chords in fourths and fifths. In this study, Ives is remembering his grandfather who was an abolitionist. Study No.9 was originally one of the “centrifugal cadenzas” in the unfinished Emerson Concerto (1907), the adjective “centrifugal” indicating how Emerson’s essays tend to radiate from a center.

There are many march and ragtime impressions in Study No. 20 (circa 1908), as well as mirror clusters (which accumulate then de-accumulate in an arcing motion), and passing quotes from “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Turkey in the Straw,” Harry von Tilzer‘s “Alexander,” and “Don’t you love your baby no more?” Study No. 21: Some South-Paw Pitching! (circa 1909) has college-type tunes harmonized with highly dissonant and chromatic chords, a coda marked “allegro molto, spirito, agiganto, hitopo, conswato!” and a plagal (IV-I, or “Amen”) cadence with the instruction “after a 2nd thought look for a boy in front row!” then softly play the concluding chord.

The Three Quarter-tone Pieces for two pianos (1923- 1924) have to be heard in live performance to experience the audio illusions or secondary pitch effects that result from the heterodyning of the closely tuned frequencies. This piece verifies that Ives had an especially acute ear (Ives’ father, a bandleader, used to have the children practice singing in quarter-tones) and that complex harmonies in some of his works were not put in merely as later “avant-garde” additions but serve to illustrate the delicacies that Ives actually heard.

Carl Ruggles, like his friends Charles Ives and Henry Cowell, was an American innovator and singular voice. The Ruggles “sound” is chromatic and atonal, with clean yet passionate lines. He did not write by any system (either the Schoenbergian method or Ives’ independently invented “tone roads” procedure), other than his tendency to never repeat a pitch until 7 to 10 others had passed. He created few works, and labored over the perfection of each. Unlike the titles given to pieces by Ives which often evoke a specific American place, holiday, or hero (e.g., Lincoln the Great Commoner), Ruggles gave his works “pure music” titles outside of time and unattached to place: Men and Mountains (1924), Sun-Treader (1926-1931), Vox clamans in deserto (1923), pieces which are nonetheless emotionally gripping. His piano works, several of which were orchestrated, have his notable clarity of statement and gesture: “Angels” (from Men and Angels, 1920), Evocations: Four Chants for Piano (1935 – 1943), “Toys” (1919).

Somewhere around 1911, Charles Tomlinson Griffes abandoned his earlier German-influenced style to write impressionistic, free form compositions. Whole tone chords and scales combined with pure and innocently modal, pulsing ostinato figures, flowing melodies with harp-like and cascading accompaniments, sweeping exclamations, polytonal textures and recherché harmonies masterfully describe sublime imagery in the Three Tone Pictures, Op. 5, “The Lake at Evening” (1911), “The Vale of Dreams” (1912), “The Night Winds” (1912), and in the Fantasy Pieces, Op. 6: Barcarolle (1912), Notturno (1915), Scherzo (1913). The Roman Sketches, Op. 7: “The White Peacock” (1915), “Nightfall” (1916), “The Fountain of Acqua Paola” (1916), and “Clouds” (1916). Proportional in structure in the manner of Debussy and Ravel, these elegant works still have Griffes unique, sensitive, American voice.

The Sonata (1917-1918) signaled a change toward a more angular, moody style, somewhat acerbic at times, alternating between agitato and eerily calm, with an advanced tonality that is uniquely Griffes. Although there are moments when the music sounds like Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke (1911) (esp., the rolling drones on open fifths), there is nothing serialist about Griffes’ compositional procedures. The Three Poems, Op. 9 (1916) for voice, composed a year earlier seem like studies for this Sonata with their highly dissonant and experimental sound. Griffes’ remarkable output was generated over a too brief 13-year period yet he managed to develop a distinctive voice.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox