American East Coast School Works

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American East Coast School Works

  • Skyscrapers
  • Oedipus tyrannus
  • Lamia
  • Suite
  • Festival Overture on 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

The cover of this record gives pride of place to John Alden Carpenter's ballet score Skyscrapers and it's Skyscrapers that emerges as the most distinguished piece from this anthology of music by members of the ''American East Coast School'' of the early twentieth century. To be fair, it is also the youngest, the longest, and the only one seriously to address the issues of modernism and American identity. Fascinating as it is to hear what men such as John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote, Dudley Buck and the rather more familiar Edward MacDowell got up to, I rather doubt whether any of the pieces performed here will ever again lodge in the concert repertoire.
Skyscrapers is quite another matter. Commissioned by Diaghilev in 1922 for Monte-Carlo but in fact first given at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1926, it's a work of curiously mixed pedigree, owing as much to post-war Paris as it does to Charles Ives and his circle. Unmistakably European is the overt brutalism, the punchy, bitonal dissonances, the 'machine' quality that Carpenter (like George Antheil) picked up from members of Les Six, themselves heirs to Satie's Parade and the Stravinsky of Petrushka, and it's those two scores in particular that resonate through Skyscrapers, not only in actual sound but also in the scenario, which is set largely in a funfair. What makes Carpenter's ballet so unique, however, is its amalgam of those Parisian elements with a profusion of Americanisms: echoes of (among other things) Stephen Foster, George Gershwin and the voice of black America, the sound of the saxophone and the banjo; above all, ragtime and fox-trot, which are never far below the surface and often cheerily well above it. Whether or not there's enough variety in Carpenter's invention to sustain a full 20 minutes of home listening may be in doubt, but it must have been a glorious score for dancing to, and it surely merits a revival on stage.
The remaining works, all written in International European style, are far less striking, and not obvious choices for coupling with Carpenter. Only Dudley Buck's Festival Overture on ''The Star-Spangled Banner'' makes any sincere attempt to sound home-grown, and even this is spoilt by its undistinguished use of sonata form, its rough orchestration and a particularly awful moment when the principal themes are forced into counterpoint with one another. As if in sympathy, the London Symphony Orchestra's playing barely rises above the routine for these pieces. Skyscrapers, on the other hand, they play with evident enthusiasm, as well they might.'

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