The Revelation of Henry Cowell

Albert ImperatoMon 1st February 2010
Henry Cowell – why so few performances? (Photo: courtesy of American Symphony OrHenry Cowell – why so few performances? (Photo: courtesy of American Symphony Orchestra)

The most important American composer who is still virtually unknown

Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra (both clients of our company) have a well-deserved reputation as musical discoverers. Over the past seven seasons I have been to nearly all of the concerts they give at Lincoln Center – though next year they move to Carnegie Hall, their original home when Stokowski founded the orchestra in 1962 – and many that they give at Bard College at the annual Bard SummerScape festival. Virtually every performance I’ve heard them give features a work, or works, that I’ve never heard before, often ones that have never been recorded (many of the works on ASO programs are New York and even US premieres).

All of these concerts have been fascinating in some way, but some leave an impression far deeper, a sense that Botstein and his intrepid band have unearthed something that should have never been allowed to disappear in the first place. Just off the top of my head I can name a few works that they have played that fit that description: Gavriil Popov’s Symphony No. 1 (thankfully available on a Botstein’s recording with the LSO for Telarc); Dame Ethyl Smyth’s The Wreckers; Dallapiccola’s Volo di notte; Hiller’s The Destruction of Jerusalem; and, last summer at Bard, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. To this list I now add the music of Henry Cowell, whom Botstein and the ASO celebrated this Friday night in a concert featuring seven of his works. The word to describe the experience: revelatory.

Knowledgeable music lovers may know just a bit about Henry Cowell (1897-1965). Most likely they know that he introduced some unusual techniques to the playing the piano – namely, those famous tone clusters that he achieved by pounding the keys with his forearms. Others may know that he was influenced by Asian music (born in Menlo Park he, like many Californians, had more exposure to Eastern culture than his Eastern counterparts); taught numerous composers from John Cage and Lou Harrison to George Gershwin and, believe it or not, Burt Bacharach; or that he played an important role in championing the music of Charles Ives. And still others may know that bit of biographical information that still shocks us to hear today: that he was imprisoned in San Quentin for four years (pardoned four years into a 15-year sentence) on a “morals charge.” The “crime”: having consensual sex with other men.

In any case, having learned about Cowell through my work promoting the ASO’s concert, and now having heard the six works they performed, I’m convinced that Cowell just may be the most important and influential American composer whose music is still virtually unknown. John Cage may have called him “the open sesame for new music in America,” but how is that so many of the friends and students of Cowell have had their music performed and widely recorded while the figure whom Harrison called “The mentor of mentors” remains clouded in obscurity?

The ASO’s concert on Friday was so musically satisfying that the idea Cowell was just one of those figures who should be remembered more as a teacher than as a creator was completely banished from my mind. Each piece was full of color, and craft and surprise and enchantment: I can’t remember the last time a concert devoted to a single composer’s works was more enthralling.

Most memorable, bizarre and also exceedingly fun was the dance piece Atlantis (1931), which featured the orchestra as well as three solo voices (miked in this performance) that rose up and down in eerie glissandos. The program notes made mention of the Sea Soul, and Sea and Earth Monsters. I wasn’t following closely enough to know which was which, but listening to the singers’ suggestive moans it was clear that Cowell’s creatures were having a good time. It all built up to a delicious, extended climax. The whole work was wonderfully, hypnotically strange, like a trippy Saturday morning cartoon that you would watch as a kid and wonder what the people who made it had been smoking (remember H.R. Pufnstuf, or, perhaps more tellingly, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters?)

Botstein had said beforehand that he thought the Variations for Orchestra (1959) was the strongest work on the program, and from the point of view of form and content I agree. The theme Cowell gives us is quickly developed in a sequence of rapidly changing contexts, including a bow to Indonesian gamelan. After just this one hearing I felt like I could use the word “masterpiece” to describe it.

The closer was the Symphony No. 11, “Seven Rituals of Music,” which also made a very strong impression (happily, I have the work in my CD collection, thanks to a pioneering recording by the Louisville Symphony). As Cowell explained, “There are Seven Rituals of Music in the life of a man from birth to death.” The journey begins “with the music for a child asleep,” and the varied, fresh and arresting music that follows takes us through the rituals of work and love and magic and war. Listening to it I thought of Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie, not because Cowell’s “Rituals” is as grandly conceived, or because of many overt similarities in the styles (though there were moments when Cowell’s use of woodwinds and percussion, evoking Japanese Gagaku, hinted at elements of Messiaen’s sound-world), but because both works revel in the mystical and celebrate the unquenchable energy of life. Both composers clearly had the gift of wonderment.

Cowell once said, "I want to live in the whole world of music". Hearing this concert, and revisiting the few recordings of Cowell’s music I have in my collection (including Mosaic, a splendid two-disc set of Cowell’s chamber music on Mode), I want to live in the world of Cowell’s music for a while. How is it that, even now, we continue to see new cycles of Beethoven’s Symphonies, but only two or three of Cowell’s 21 symphonies have been recorded?

The ASO’s program notes pointed out that Joel Sachs has written a complete biography of Cowell that will be published by Oxford University Press. Great news, but it’s not due out until Spring 2011! Until then, I’m going to hope that Mark Swed is right when he observes in his Los Angeles Times review that the ASO’s concert may be the beginning of a Cowell revival that will last.

If you’re interested, you can read Leon Botstein’s essay about Cowell .

Or, you can listen to Botstein discuss Cowell in an interview with John Schaefer on WNYC’s Soundcheck.

Albert Imperato

Albert Imperato is co-founder of 21C Media Group, a classical music and performing arts PR, marketing and consulting firm. His on-line journal gives a window into the New York music world, as seen through the eyes of a leading PR guru.

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