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

There were many fine American composers writing for the piano during the late Classical period. To mention only a few: John Christopher (James) Moller (especially his Sonatas and Rondos), Friedrich Rausch, James F. Hance, Victor Pelissier (esp. the Nuptial Procession from the theatrical production The Bridal Ring, 1811), Arthur Clifton, Frederick A. Wagler, Miss R. Brown, Maria Penniman, Charles F. Hupfeld, Charles Thibault, Charles Gilfert (esp. his six variations on “Freshly Now the Breeze is Blowing”), Peter K. Moran, William Martin, Henri-Noel Gilles, William R. Coppock, Eugene Guilbert, Joseph Willson, William Staunton, Marthesie Demilliere, Jacob Eckhard Jr., Gabriel Grenier.

Although Joannetta Catherine Elizabeth van Hagen’s The Country Maid or L’Amour est un enfant trompeur with Variations for the pianoforte or harpsichord (ca. 1800) is in a late classical style, and her originality, innovative, bright, and (for the time) technically demanding variations mark this composition as a part of a so-called “transitional” period, foreshadowing the Romantic era to come. The lively syncopation in the first variation features accented chromatic anticipations and notes borrowed from the parallel minor mode (to make diminished 7ths) in the manner of Beethoven. The second, third and fourth variations all contain quick passages harmonized in tenths that trill, float, and produce ear-tickling angular off-beats. Van Hagen herself must have been some pianist.

A remarkable composition, written in 1806 and still avant-garde when it was finally published in 1825, is Benjamin Carr‘s Fantasia on the Air ‘Gramachree’. The original tune by an unknown author was first published in 1787 and sung in various versions—”A Maid in Bedlam,” “Molly Asthore” (or “Mailigh Mo Store,” “Molly Bheag O!,” “Molly My Treasure”), and “Grai My Chree!” (“Love of my Heart!”)—in Ireland, Scotland and England. This pining song for a lost love by the banks of Banna was known from three settings done by Haydn. Another folk song called “The Ould Bog Hole” contains similar lyrics: “The pigs are in the mire, the cows are in the grass, a man without his love is no better than an ass… O gramachree, mavourneen could you fancy me, Arrah cushla mavourneen won’t you marry me.” Carr’s Gramachree begins unfolds like a long improvisation. Gramachree‘s overall dynamic intensity and the density of its virtuosic gestures border on the Lisztian. But other elements of the piece are still rooted in the Classical period.

To follow Carr’s harmonic thinking is an intriguing and perplexing task. He sometimes seems to skip intermediate steps in modulating, and leads the ear far astray only to return to the central key without any preparation—the second page contains fast movements between D-flat major to F-sharp major, an enharmonic switch from a C-sharp major seventh chord to the key of D-flat minor notated in 7 flats plus a B double flat (to express the melodic form of the minor); we turn the page and, boom, it’s suddenly back in F minor.

To say that Carr and others actually heard these complex harmonic relationships differently from what our contemporary mind’s ears might expect may be too much to presuppose, but one wonders. There is a passage on the 2nd page where what sounds to this author like a C ninth chord (flat 9) just dying to return to the central tonic of F minor, is instead heard as a diminished 7th by Carr who resolves it to D minor, a chord which is at a very far removal from the tonic, and somewhat shocking within the Classical style. But then he simply follows this chord with an ascending chromatic scale ending on your basic C chord and (boom! again) we are back in F minor. What Carr has actually done here is to create two measures of harmonic silence, while the scale climbs, during which the memory of the last harmonically distant chord is wiped out. This unusual device is surprisingly effective. Time is again changing meaning or at least defying expectation, and the chords become like passing flavors.

Carr was a prominent figure in the music scene of this era. He emigrated from England to Philadelphia in 1793 and was successful as a publisher, editor, promoter, singer, pianist, organist, prolific composer, teacher and conductor, and helped found the Musical Fund Society. He published the Musical Journal for the Piano Forte, which was the first American music magazine. Carr’s popular The Federal Overture (1794), which unites music associated with both the Federalists (“Yankee Doodle,” etc.) and French tunes associated with the Anti-Federalists (“Ça ira,” the Marseillaise Hymn, etc), was the first published American medley. His battle piece “The Siege of Tripoli” (1804-1805) requires the same virtuosity as his Gramachree variations; for example, a startling, and moderately difficult ascending double glissando in sixths represents the explosion of the Intrepid war ship. Carr’s “Dead March And Monody,” dedicated to the Senate of the United States, was performed at the service held in memory of George Washington at Philadelphia’s New Zion Lutheran Church on December 26, 1799.

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