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

How does one even begin to talk about Anthony Philip Heinrich? After a series of business trips all over Europe and twice to the U.S., this self-taught, highly original (and still controversial) composer finally immigrated to Philadelphia in 1810 where he became the unpaid musical director of the Southwark Theatre. But it wasn’t until he went bankrupt that he decided on a career in music. “It was from a mere accident” he said, “that music ever became (my) profession.” In love with America, Heinrich moved to the woods near Farmington, Kentucky, (outside Louisville) and lived there in a log cabin from 1817 to 1820, “…dwelling by chance in the then solitary wilds and primeval forests.” He even managed to organize an orchestra in Lexington to play the earliest known American performance of a Beethoven symphony.

At the age of thirty-seven, Heinrich became a composer, filling his works with great themes from his new homeland: the legends and heroes of Native Americans (the orchestral works Pushmataha, Manitou Mysteries, Tecumseh, Pocahantas, The Indian Spirit Bond); of great birds (The American Eagle’s Musical Flight, and The Ornithological Combat of Kings symphony with its energetic syncopation, dense coloristic timbres and delightfully deceptive “big” endings); of nature (The War of the Elements, Thunders of Niagara); of great mysteries (The Tower of Babel, The Death of a Christian, Marcia Funebre); of daily life (The Barbeque Divertimento, the outrageously elaborate song “La Toilette de la Cour or The Dress of Courtship”); and of American history and mythology (The Treaty of William Penn with the Indians, The Adieu of the Pilgrims, The Consummation of American Liberty). The composer of these loftily-titled pieces soon earned the sobriquet of “the Beethoven of Kentucky.”

Heinrich evolved a unique style of musical composition that seems to pay more attention to the generation of gestures than to standard types of formal development (though several of his works demonstrate that he was quite aware of these traditional forms). Although the basic materials of Heinrich’s music can be found in Beethoven and Haydn, Italian opera (Bellini), and American band music and folk tunes, the way the composer organized these materials and modulated them simply was unlike anyone then or since. Critics seemed to like his music, but were often hard pressed to explain why. One notice, otherwise a rave, puzzled: ” … in the midst of this sublimity and grandeur, we are sometimes startled by the quaintest and oddest passages we ever heard.”

Heinrich’s contemporary, the relatively conservative James Hewitt, describes a visit in which “two or three hours of patient hearing did I give to the most complicated harmony I ever heard, even in my musical dreams. Wild and unearthly passages … (he) asked me if I had ever heard music like that before? I certainly had not.” In the words of musicologist J. Bunker Clark, Heinrich’s “music rivals that of Beethoven or Berlioz for its progressive experimentation”.

In 1820, Heinrich published two remarkable volumes of collected works (his Op. 1 and 2): The Dawning of Music in Kentucky or the Pleasures of Harmony in the Solitudes of Nature, and The Western Minstrel, a Collection of Original Moral, Patriotic and Sentimental Songs for the Voice and the Pianoforte, Interspersed with Airs, Waltzes, &c. These editions contain variations for violin, string ensembles, songs, choruses and many virtuosic piano works (cotillion dances, waltzes, divertimenti, serenades, the Kentucky and other marches, quicksteps, odes to Washington and Commodore Perry, the sonata La Buona Mattina, variations on Haydn’s “God Save the Emperor,” etc.). In 1823, Heinrich published a similarly extraordinary volume entitled The Sylviad or Minstrelsy of Nature in the Wilds of N. America.

Several of his compositions stand out for their rare conceptuality: Avance et Retraite: A Military Waltz is constructed as a palindrome. The 3/4 piece is built primarily from military trumpet calls, bass trills and drum rumbles, and waltz melodies all occurring on the tonic and dominant steps of F major. At the end, the pianist encounters the “retraite” instruction “Retro, or begin at the end, and end at the beginning”. The first twenty-two measures of the retrograde and the first twenty-two measures of the forward version almost match, except for the rhythmic inversions. In his list of works, Heinrich refers to a no-longer extant symphonic form of this work, and may have considered other instrumental possibilities for realizing his musical palindrome.

A modern experience, equivalent to a pianist’s reaction to encountering A Chromatic Ramble in 1820, would be something akin to seeing a UFO landing in your backyard. The score is visually stunning. Hyper-Lisztian in its virtuosity with its chromatic runs and interweaving altered chords, its enharmonic modulations, advanced key relationships (the opening measures alone carry the listener through descending Wagnerian major third roots) and intervals (successive minor sevenths, etc.) – and this work was written just nine years after Liszt’s birth. There is an accompanying text wandering between the two staves that describes what is going on in the music in a cool, humorous tone: “Among the flats the flats and sharps and sharps a tedious journey travel, And lose yourself in knots in knots of Chords Chords Chords of Chords Chords Chords, And then those knots unravel … then sigh and die and faint in bliss extatic extatic extatic…” and so on. No exact indication is given as to how this text should be presented, if at all; the words may be intended only for the mental pleasure of the performer, presaging Erik Satie‘s off-kilter works.

“The Barbecue Divertimento” (No. 18 of the Sylviad) is the short title given to one of Heinrich’s most melodious, spirited and interestingly varied pieces. It consists of two parts: the “Ploughman’s Grand March” opens in a galloping “la chasse” rhythm (Bugle Call of the Green Mountain Boys) that introduces a dazzlingly varied parade march; the “The Banjo,” the latter half, imitates the titular instrument, and a full 30 years before Gottschalk’s well-known piece by the same name. This section opens with a mysterious undulating bass figure (in half-steps in the manner of Dizzy Gillespie‘s “A Night in Tunisia,” or Thelonious Monk‘s “Epistrophy”) under a minor key banjo warm-up, and then the mode changes to major for a folk tune, the kind Heinrich could only have heard played by an African-American performer. Seventy years ahead of fashion , ragtime riffs emerge (ragtime also occurs in Heinrich’s Ornithological symphony). There are also passing quotes of national tunes like “Yankee Doodle” and “Ça ira,” and all this happens within the generous duration of 540 measures until the Green Mountain Boys and The Banjo player are united in the hymn “All Hail to Kentucky” (quoted from “The Dawning”).

Considering the ragtime-like syncopations in many of Heinrich’s works, he may have heard, heard of, or at least indirectly been influenced by the African-American spirit of Francis “Frank” Johnson‘s band, composed usually of about 20 “Free Black” musicians who toured the East Coast from 1815 through the 1840s. Johnson established a remarkable career for an African-American at that time, remarkably as a full-time musician when that profession was a rarity in America, regardless of your skin color. A composer of over 300 works, Johnson’s group performed for concerts, charity functions, parades, cotillion balls, circuses, canal dedications, railroad openings, etc. Following a European tour, he organized the successful Promenade Concerts à la Musard in the 1840s, forerunners of today’s “pops” concerts, some of the first interracial performances in the U.S.

The band played waltzes in 5/4 time, like “Valse a Cinq Temps” by A.J.R. Conner and the “Five Step Waltz” by Edward Roland, as well as Johnson’s own “Philadelphia Firemen’s Cotillion” (featuring shouts of “Fire!” accompanied by a clanging bell), the almost-ragtime “Lucy Neale Quadrille” by Isaac Hazzard, James Hemmenway’s “Philadelphia Hop Waltz” with its lively brass section-writing, and the birdcalls and syncopated rhythm leaps of Johnson’s “The New Bird Waltz.” Written accounts of Johnson’s band describe them playing much more than the written notes in unusual, improvised rhythms and spontaneous variations, but, as was the case for Heinrich’s reviewers, terms to describe what was going on did not exist.

In Heinrich’s incredible song for vocal quintet and piano called “Philanthropy,” he finds quite advanced harmonies through elastic part-writing techniques (accented non-chordal and higher harmonic tones in the manner of Schumann and Bud Powell, avoidance of resolutions, chromatic passing tones, etc.); the passing harmonies sometimes imply Bebop chords (e.g., the C 13 augmented 11 flat 7 chord in the intro) and suggest Ivesian dissonances. The piano interludes are freewheeling and provide a shocking dramatic contrast to the noble pace of the initial vocal lines. Toward the end of each verse the vocal lines become almost unsingable, fast vocalises with nowhere to breathe—although , in spite of this difficulty, there is an excellent performance in The Flowering of Vocal Music in America on New World Records).

While Heinrich sought new expressions to match his expansive, Romantic feelings toward Nature and humanity in his adopted country, John Field in Ireland explored the nature of his invention the nocturne, and other composers here also sensed a new spirit of individual expression encouraged by the rising political freedom. Joseph C. TawsFantasie In Which is Introduced the Favorite Scotch Air of ‘They’re a’ noddin’ with Variations for the piano forte As Performed at M. Aime’s concerts (1824) has a floating lyricism which features broken diminished chords in twisting figures, sudden bagpipe interpolations, and foretastes of barbershop quartet-like and more advanced (Wagnerian) harmonies. Christopher Meineke also created imaginative variations on “They’re a’ noddin’” (1824), and other tunes from Great Britain such as “Sandy and Jenny” (1825) with its open introductions and cadenzas, and “My heart and lute” (1827). The introduction to Meineke’s medley “The Rail Road” (1828) has a series of motoric rotations on a C-major chord separated by fast scale runs, the whole representing shouts of “Hurrah!” This celebration of energetic movement is also found in works of the decade like Frederick L. Abel’s “American Rondo” (1820) with its “la chasse” riding rhythms, and Oliver Shaw’s “Trip to Pawtucket” (c.1830), which imitates a couch drawn by four horses.

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