Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Beach Chamber Music: A First Taste

My first impression of Amy Beach's Opus 67, her F sharp minor piano quintet, was that my study of her Opus 15 Sketches did very little to prepare me for the experience. I should not have anticipated otherwise. The four Sketches, composed in 1892, fit nicely into a repertoire of short poetic works for solo piano whose origins can probably best be placed in the shorter piano works of Franz Schubert. Within that repertoire she is chronologically a contemporary of Ferruccio Busoni (about a year younger) and most likely shared with him the influences of Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and Anton Rubinstein. 1892 happens to be the publication year of Busoni's Opus 31a Konzertstück for piano and orchestra, the work with which he won the 1890 Anton Rubinstein competition in Moscow. However, while Antony Beaumont identifies Busoni's inspirational sources for this work as Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Max Reger, Beach's Sketches are more a product of exposure to nineteenth-century American salons, where many of the compositions in John Gillespie's Nineteenth-Century American Piano Music anthology were performed.

Another interesting point of chronological orientation comes from Charles Ives, who was about seven years younger than Beach and composed his set of organ variations on "America" in 1891. Ives could never seem to resist the opportunity to express his contempt for that nineteenth-century piano repertoire, whether in text or in his own approach to composition. It is therefore at least slightly ironic that, in last night's performance of Beach's piano quintet, pianist William Wellborn was joined by the Ives Quartet, so named, according to the program, out of inspiration "by the passionate, artistic commitment and unique temperament" of that composer.

The chronology of the Beach piano quintet puts it in 1907, a time when Ives was just beginning to find his own rebellious way. Beach had come a long way from the short works of 1892 and the influence of light salon entertainment. This is serious chamber music on the scale of the other piano quintets and quartets that constitute its legacy (the same legacy that Ives would later take on in beginning work on his only piano trio in 1909). However, while I felt I had a comfortable sense of context for the Sketches, I was less sure of how to establish context for this particular piano quintet (as opposed to my first encounter with Ernő von Dohnányi's Opus 1 piano quintet, which clearly used Brahms as its point of departure). Perhaps the most important thing about Beach's approach is that she seemed after a way to compose a work for five "equals," as opposed to the frequent domination of the piano resulting in a "concerto for piano and very small orchestra." One might even say that she was anticipating later twentieth-century composition with a sensitivity for the sonority of each instrument that tends to occupy the ear more than her strategies for counterpoint and harmony. (Perhaps at least some of that interest in sonority grew out of her interest in documenting bird songs.)

Most important is that there is more in this composition than could be grasped by the single occasion of last night's performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. This is a work that deserves more attention. As I mentioned on Saturday, it occupies a somewhat culminating position in the history of piano quintets and quartets; and it is also a significant contribution to the repertoire of American music at the beginning of a new century. It deserves further listening, and we would do well to strive for a better understanding of the context in which it was situated. Saturday's conjecture that Wellborn had structured the first half of his program as a gradus ad Parnassum to Beach by way of Domenico Scarlatti, Joseph Haydn, and Franz Liszt turned out not to be the case. Liszt may have been an influence for the Sketches, but the piano quintet was cut from quite another cloth. Recent concerts have done much to expand our "listening comprehension" of compositions (particularly American) from the middle of the twentieth century; we all need to learn more about what was happening at the beginning of that century.

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