Sunday, March 31, 2013

Alice McElroy Procter's Pandora: a rediscovered American classic

This article has been long in the making, as I've been regrettably slacking on what is a very exciting project.  In addition, I'm covering a work that has no recording, and probably hasn't been performed since 1938 (!); I'll use other composers' works to help illustrate my point, but I may record portions of this piece in the future.  For now, the article begins with a story.

I'm a member of the New England Brass Band, a non-profit, British style band that plays in Massachusetts and neighboring states.  At one rehearsal, I'd brought a piano piece to look at during the break, the Fantasy (1942) by Ross Lee Finney.  One of our euphoniums, John Procter, wandered over and saw the piece I was looking at.  "Oh yeah, I know him.  My mother was a student of his."

What the what?!  He explained that his mother Alice (1915-1987) had studied composition first at Smith College (under Finney and Werner Josten) and later at Eastman School of Music (under Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers).  As a student her works included the orchestral tone-poem Seanachas, Flute-prints for flute, piano and string quartet, incidental music for a satirical play titled They Called It Macaroni (MUST.  SEE.), and Pandora, a one-act ballet, for her thesis.  Along the way she met and married fellow composer Leland Procter (later a professor at NEC and an ACA member), and the burdens of family life consumed her time left for composition.  She continued to write, largely in pedagogical piano music for various publishers, but also in occasional pieces for Boston groups (such as an Overture for Youth Orchestra).  In the early 50's she attempted to start her own publishing company, The American Music Company, beginning with a set of pieces by Leland and a collection of easier compositions by such established figures as Robert Ward, Gail Kubik, H. Owen Reed, George Frederick McKay and John Weinzweig.  However, internal squabbling and financial and legal difficulties meant the end of Alice's dream, leaving the already-printed volumes sitting in boxes.  Those books, as well as submitted manuscripts and Alice's own works, have been sitting in John's garage for years.  It must have been fated that somebody as deranged and obsessed as myself should happen upon them and now write about the greatest of her works, Pandora.

Cast in many small scenes within a 20' act, Pandora is more a revisionist telling of the classic Greek myth than a faithful one.  The original story can be likened to a Greek version of Theodicy, the reconciliation of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God with the presence of evil in the world.  Those familiar with mythology know that the Greek gods are more concerned with family arguments and bedding mortals than with the happiness of mankind, but the idea remains.  The most well known version of the myth makes Pandora a being created and raised by the gods, and given to Epimetheus as gift from Zeus, carrying a box containing great evil.  His brother Prometheus warned him not to accept gifts from Zeus (as they were often evil).  Epimetheus paid him no mind, and the curious and deceitful Pandora opened the box, letting wickedness and sorrow escape into the world.  In Alice's version, Pandora is cast as a pure woman, a maiden with whom Epimetheus meets and falls in love.  The box doesn't hold the evils of the world per se, but rather the secret to eternal life, and Pandora has been fated to deliver it to humanity.  The problem is that Epimetheus is dazzled by the box and decides to crack it open himself, thus releasing demons and such sundries.  Things are finally righted, and Pandora tosses the flower of eternal life to humanity, sacrificing herself for the good of mankind, taking an ominous reminder of the fickleness of powers that be and turning it into a hero's tale.

As a composer Procter appears to have taken a great deal of influence from her teachers Howard Hanson and Werner Josten.  Hanson needs little introduction here, being the first American to establish himself as a symphonist with his first symphony, the "Nordic".  His style is broad and Germanic with touches of impressionism, weaving them into a symphonic language rather than lingering on their meanings.  Werner Josten was a German expatriate, his music also one that streamlines new harmonic developments into an approachable, dramatic language.  Both of these composers fit more into the direction that music in Hollywood would go rather than the modernist and folk-inspired direction American academic music went, giving them little weight in academia but helping their success in the concert scene.  Here's a work apiece as reference points:

Procter's dramatic technique is through leitmotivs (themes tied to characters and ideas), with a number of recurring themes for each character and even moods.  Her treatment of these themes shows a fine understanding of mood-setting and dramatic flow, tying each theme to a recognizable background.  Her harmonic language is rich and flexible, taking cues from fantastic music of the time (such as The Sorcerer's Apprentice and the orchestral works of Respighi).  Vast pools of extended tertian chords in the strings support soaring melodies, and in savage parts thumping, disjointed perfect fifths drive the action.  The introduction of the ballet is dark and mournful, the whole context of the ballet pointing towards the evils of the world and Pandora's eventual sacrifice.  Of special interest to Procter is a split-third polychord, with a major triad below (say C - E - G) and a 6-4 inversion major triad on the minor third of the scale above (B-flat - E-flat - G), and it's this chord that ends the piece.  It's a nice way to leave a bittersweet note in a relatively happy ending, as nobody is really happy with a death, no matter how noble.

It's a big, dramatically powerful work that deserves a revival, and can be seen as Procter's masterpiece.  I'm certain it would go over well as a ballet, and may work as a concert piece all its own.  It's also the first piece of hers uploaded to IMSLP as part of my efforts to broadcast her compositions to the world.  Her works are a reminder that not all composers can remain on the scene, and that fine works are often kept in secret, waiting to be found.  More pieces will be uploaded soon, and I hope that new performances and recordings will follow.  I give endless thanks to John Procter for graciously lending me his mother's manuscripts for this exciting project.

You can see the piano score for Pandora here:,_Alice_McElroy)


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

RC One-Off: Volfgangs Dārziņš's Piano Sonata no. 2

This post is the first in an ongoing series of "one-off" articles for Re-Composing, meaning short pieces on single works rather than full pieces on composers.  For these pieces either they are the only work I can find easily from a given composer or they are the only work I particularly care for by said composer.  In the case of today's work I think it's the strongest piece on YouTube, and I've been unable to find good information on its author, Volfgangs Dārziņš (1906-1962).  The most that I know of him is that he was the son of Emīls Dārziņš (1875-1910), an important figure in Latvian music and a late Romantic composer with nationalistic tendencies.  The Balkans have an interesting relationship to classical music, whose composers run the gamut from folk-inspired (Jāzeps Vītols) to the ultra-minimal (Arvo Pärt) and the eclectic (Pēteris Vasks), and largely operates on its own terms.  The piece here by Dārziņš bespeaks an impassioned and cosmopolitan sensibility which is always nice to see in a random encounter.

Set in three movements, the Piano Sonata no. 2 starts on a declamatory note with a rich Ionian chorale, letting planed fifths bring the piece into a dark, pinging ostinato supporting a flowing sopranino melody.  These two memorable ideas are then cast against each other in expansion, setting up a simple structural rhythm and the kind of harmonic sonorities to expect for the rest of the piece.  The ostinato section is written without barlines, a practice dating back to the piano works of Erik Satie and one that makes me smile.  The running sixteenths also allow for the melody to maintain rigor but still surprise in its flexibility.  The second movement is more Iberian in nature, with a roving, sunbaked ostinato leading into a brightly sung, octaved melody.  The writing here is modal, focusing on a Lydian/Ionian split mode worthy of Debussy.  The performance here doesn't do the dynamics justice, as following them would have been more exciting and subtle.  The third movement is the most violent and Eastern European, but not before executing an entrancingly simple chorale reminiscent of Stravinsky (in his primitivist chamber miniatures).  The Eastern flavor is felt in a rhythmically jerky theme cast in planed diminished triads, along with an octatonic countermelody; the violence eventually gives way to a rich, major bridge.  The violence returns and crashes on, morphing through another declamatory, octaved theme and receding like a death knell.  The chorale returns, making a bittersweet coda to a powerful work.

The piano writing here is very effective, fully understanding the capabilities of the instrument and how performers will interpret the notes.  The performance here is one of many of  Dārziņš's pieces by pianist Andis Sinkevics, and from my limited information he seems to be the only pianist performing this music.  He has a channel of his own (  if you're curious.  I'm no expert on Balkan music, so if anybody recognizes any Latvian folk influence on this piece I'd be interested to know what they are and how extensively they dictate the music.  Anyways, thanks for reading and I'll see you next time.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

John Verrall: a Triumph for the Persistently Nice

If there's one thing I'm grateful for in the contemporary Classical scene, it's that great composition is by no means confined to the Northeast; some regions are actually surprising in their artistic fecundity (such as the "Atlanta School" with Jennifer Higdon and Christopher Theofanidis, or the sweet sounds coming out of the University of Iowa).  However, one corner of America that seems to still be struggling to find it's voice is the Pacific Northwest; over the past hundred years only a scant handful of nationally reputable composers call WashIdEgon their home (such as William Bolcom and William Bergsma).  It has nothing to do with the people per se, just a lack of organization.  Heck, with a condctor like Gerard Schwarz helming the Seattle Symphony for so many years, a man synonymous with championing modern American music, it's more surprising not more music comes from there.  I also don't insist that there be a specific school or tradition, just more enthusiasm.  But if there's one great figure who nestled himself in Seattle with lasting effect you can't do much better than John Verrall.

Verrall (1908-2001) was born in Britt, Iowa and counted Zoltán Kodály among his early teachers, moving from two Bachelor's degrees gained in Minnesota to the Berkshire Music Center (where he studied with Roy Harris and Aaron Copland).  After teaching at Hameline University for several years he joined the faculty of Mount Holyoke College, working for a time as an editor for G. Schirmer.  Mount Holyoke also served as a platform for him to co-found the Valley Music Press with Ross Lee Finney from Smith College, a non-profit organization that published new American music for more than 30 years.  In 1948 he left Mount Holyoke to teach at the University of Washington, where he remained for the rest of his career.  During his time there he gained a reputation as a brilliant and sympathetic teacher, and searching trough the comments sections of both of these videos will uncover fond memories of a happy man with deep respect for his students and their individual crafts.  A familiar name can be counted among his charges: the good Mr. Bolcom.

Though many of Verrall's earlier compositions feel in line with the vaulting Americana of his populist teachers, in the late 40's he adopted a pitch organization system that would define his sound, and serve as the basis for the two pieces featured here.  The basic concept is a nine-note tetrachord, using a central pitch and growing outward in different directions (such as C-D-E-E, F or F, G-A-B-B).  This allows for harmonies that feel tonal, but stack up in unique ways and allow for new contours.  These pieces feel only like a Verrall piece, and he compliments this system with a conservative, economical style (valuing close harmonic writing, deft melodic contours and glowing emotional resonance).  Perhaps he felt that sticking to a familiar, comprehensible feel would allow for his harmonic basis to sing and develop as it may.  The Sonatina and Prelude are both quite approachable, the Sonatina a living room-appropriate, Neo-Classical morsel and the Prelude a somber and reflective work more in the vein of his predecessors at the BMC.  I almost don't have to elaborate on them, as Verrall's language is self-explanatory and they aren't too long to get through in a sitting.  In addition to these two pieces I've heard not only the deeply stirring String Quartet no. 4 on that LP at the top (a rare item I was very pleased to find at a reasonable price), but also a CD of his piano works performed by Kimberly Davenport, including his powerful Piano Sonata no. 1.  She knew him personally, and nobly revived a number of his works in his memory (a kindred spirit if I ever saw one).  It's excellent and still available if you're curious.

The modest artists, the ones who carve out their own niche while never forcing the point, are the hardest to promote, not for lack of quality in their works but more for a lack of surface glitz.  Their work just isn't as exciting to those who don't feel like actually looking at it, and that's a poor way to treat kind people.  Let's let Verrall's niceness persist, and nudge where we can; our audience won't be disappointed.


Verrall is a member of the ACA, where the bulk of his compositions are published:

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Short Eulogy for Monroe Couper

In the history of obscure art there are many causes for obscurity.   Some art is difficult to understand.  Some art is under-promoted.  Some art is simply poorly made.  And some artists are cut short before their time.  And the latter case is the most unfortunate, because in many cases advocates must work much harder for much little product, not all of which may be fully developed.  Today I’m speaking of Monroe Couper, who as of this writing may only be remembered for one recording of one piece.

Monroe Couper was born in Waynesboro, VA, and was on the faculty at Kingsborough Community College as Associate Professor of music from 1980 until his death.  He had an orchestral work of his, In Memoriam, performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra.  In 1994, he went on a mountain climbing trip with his friend Eric Lattey on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.  Couper had been trained in mountaineering and ice climbing, and broke off from a larger group in order to reach the peak.  Unfortunately, Mt. Washington is notorious for quickly changing weather.  When the search party found the two the next morning, they had frozen to death.  None of Couper’s pieces had been published.  This recording, his obituary, and various articles on the accident are all that publicly remain of his existence.


I don’t believe in precognition or omens, and I’m loathe to give much credit to writers who see certain artworks as anticipating major world events or personal tragedies.  However, the subject of Couper’s last piece is too eerie to ignore.  In Memoriam was inspired by two Angolan refugees who were starving to death; my limited information prevents me from knowing how he came across them.  It’s an arresting work, highly reminiscent of Carl Ruggles, an unprolific but extraordinary composer whose compositional language is so emotionally intense and harrowing it evokes nothing less than the War in Heaven in my mind.  Couper’s swan song is also borne of a deep anguish, and like Ruggles’s pieces is not very long (under 6 minutes, quite short for an orchestral piece).  He evidently put a great deal of thought into the piece, and the result is both economical and shoots straight to the heart.

I’m offering this work not just as a memorial for Couper, but also as a charge for my fellow musicians.  The loss of Monroe Couper to the music world is one I’m unable to judge but feel is greater than we can tell from this lone work.  It’s possible that he’ll only be remembered as one of the many victims of Mt. Washington, one of the deadliest peaks of North America.  And the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t take an untimely death to lose an artist’s œuvre.  If any of my readers have more information on Couper I’d love to see it, but there are countless more composers who need our help.  I’m sorry that this post is a morbid one, but I feel that I couldn’t let it slide, and I hope that I’ll be able to uncover more of Couper’s works in the future.  And in the meantime, here's to considerate YouTubers.


Yankee Magazine article on the accident:

National Geographic article on the accident:

Abel Decaux: A Quality-Over-Quantity Special Report

When I start talking about my passion for uncovering obscure works, people often ask me what drives it, or how I got started.  There are a number of reasons, including my natural collector nature and how I view pieces as being like small children who can't fight for themselves, but I think the aspect that most people can empathize with is that of a treasure hunt.  There are brilliant jewels in the vastness of classical composition just waiting to be uncovered, and every time I come across something truly extraordinary it makes all the time spent more than worthwhile.  For me there were a few early discoveries that spurred my interest (I'll get to Nicholas Thorne later), and the piece we're talking about today is a jewel in the crown.  And it stands alone not only in its techniques and moods, but also among the composer's oeuvre.  Because he never wrote any other pieces.

Abel Decaux (1869-1943) was a French organist, studying his instrument under Charles-Marie Widor and Alexandre Guilmant (two heavyweights in the French organ tradition), and composition under Jules Massenet (of Thaïs fame).  Starting in 1900 he spent 25 years as the organist of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur in Paris, later moving to America and teaching organ at the Eastman School of Music.  In 1935 he moved back to Paris to teach organ, and like most organists wasn't remembered by the general public in the years following his death.  However, he did leave behind a singular, haunting piece: Clairs de lune, a set of piano pieces written between 1900 and 1907, published in 1913, leaving the public not sure what to make of them.

At no point in this article will you hear me say that this work is a descendant of Massenet's compositional language.  In fact, I'm not sure anybody wrote music like this before or since, and many of the techniques on display anticipate experiments by Debussy, Ravel, and Schoenberg's free atonal period (such as the Book of the Hanging Gardens and Pierrot Lunaire).  Clairs de lune also has the rare distinction of being a horror-inspired classical work, a category I wish would grow, and its main inspiration lies in the grotesque world of Edgar Allan Poe, which was wildly popular among Parisian intellectuals in the late 19th century.  The piece opens with a super Gothic poem by Louis de Lutèce, which features such imagery as silently gliding clouds, a mummified cat, gargoyles and other classy horror symbols (and has my new favorite French word: abracadabrant!).  There were other Poe-inspired pieces from this time period, such as Debussy's attempted opera on "The Fall of the House of Usher" and André Caplet's Conte Fantastique for harp and strings, inspired by "The Masque of the Red Death".  This work stands above all of them out of sheer invention, and also by being less specifically based upon Poe but rather invoking his spirit.

The first piece sets the crystalline, ominous mood of the night, with light octaves and both whole-tone and hexatonic scale fragments.  He uses tiny contrapuntal cells (three or four notes), which interlock into strange chords.  After the first page he holds a tritone in the bass with the sostenuto pedal, letting an arpeggio skitter across the top (the chord it makes is a major thematic element in the piece).  The tritone makes the twelve bells of midnight, and the skittering grows, then shifting to little intoned major sevenths.  These expand into atonal chords, and those grow to a big cascade down the upper notes of the piano, landing in the middle register; the skittering returns and brings us to a dramatic reprise.  All of this is written with an incredible sense of drama and a number of pregnant pauses.

The second piece is La Ruelle, (the alley); the low, anticipatory chords intone dread, as we step softy through the back way, fearing danger around the corner.  A dry, chromatic melody snakes through near-pizzicato chords, and the low steps return, this time with a piercing chime up top.  The snake comes back, accompanied by a chromatic cry in the upper register; after some tentative drama, the tritone from the midnight bell returns, almost as a beating heart, racing for escape.  The piece crashes in climax, and familiar chords return to bring the listener down, the intonations leaving us with little resolution.

The third piece, La Cimetière (my favorite), is the emotional chord of the work, starting with delicate, carillon-like lines in the high registers.  Decaux uses the cemetery for a religious experience; rich low chords stately plane, like the voice of God.  The real meat is where the planed God voice is met by a double-octave melody, sung at the top of the piano's lungs.  The performance here is excellent and makes this movement an incredible cathartic experience, but without a conventional resolution; the most cathartic music is met by the most mysterious (minor ninths), and another setting of the skittering arpeggio.

The final piece is La Mer (the sea), and is the closest to impressionist pieces of the time, and can be played as a separate piece (being the most accessible of the four).  The 5-over-3 ostinatos are very evocative and murmuring, and after some whole tone business with accented note cells we get to the piece's most tonal music (Major chords!  Lydian skitters!).  It's pretty self-explanatory, and even though it's the most conventionally exciting it too has no finality.  None of the pieces offer a conventional resolution; Decaux wants mystery, not "ta-da!"

What I really admire in these pieces is their economy: the individual techniques are actually quite simple, but they're used in the most effective, evocative way.  This recording, the third in history, came with liner notes comparing Decaux's condensed writing (especially chords in the first movement) as anticipating Webern, which is remarkable considering the overwrought, sturm und drang tendencies of pre-WWI music.  There were sketches for a fifth movement, La Forêt (the forest), but they never came to fruition.  Also, the statement that Decaux only composed Clairs de lune isn't entirely accurate, as somebody found a small organ fugue in a pedagogical collection, but it doesn't really count for our purposes.  I suspect that the public of 1913 simply had no idea what to make of these pieces, and Decaux was never a consistent enough presence in the composition world to promote them.  Thankfully they have fallen into the public domain, and can be found here:,_Abel).  May your nights be spooky and your cemeteries transcendent, and let's get some more performances of these unforgettable miniatures.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Radical Voyages with Burr Van Nostrand

“During this time period, witnesses recall that there were riots, incessant protests (of the Vietnam War), Harvard Square was burning, and wherever you were, you could not escape the noise and the smoke...”

~ “Burr Van Nostrand”, American Composers Alliance

I have a plan to one day do a Vietnam Memorial concert with three works: Ned Rorem’s War Songs, Alvin Etler’s Brass Quintet, and George Crumb’s Black Angels.  All of these works are wholly or in part responses to the Vietnam War (and in the case of Etler in response to the death of his son in battle).  But now that I’ve heard Voyage in a White Building I by Burr Van Nostrand, I may need to revise this program to fit his work in.  Because before I’d heard Voyage I didn’t know how intense a Classical music Vietnam response could be.  Allow me to supply some background.

 Nostrand was born in Los Angeles in 1945, and after starting cello lessons at Hoover High School he eventually got his early works performed by the San Diego Symphony and the La Jolla Chamber Orchestra.  He then studied at New England Conservatory under Robert Cogan, and graduated with a Masters degree in composition in 1971, and remained active as a composer, lecturer and cellist through the 80’s, and was featured in a documentary on Avant-Garde composers for TV Belgrade.  After the 80’s the compositional community did a good job at never mentioning him again, and things stayed that way until 2012, when Jason Belcher, a Masters student at NEC, found a bunch of his works in the NEC library and was blown away.  Because of his rabblerousing a concert reviving his works was put on (which I unfortunately was unable to attend), and a CD of some of the works is being released on April 1st of this year (Burr Van Nostrand: Voyage in a White Building I).  In additional fortunately-ness, Nostrand is a member of the American Composers Alliance (, a wonderful non-profit organization where composers can supply their manuscripts and get them published on demand, so they gave a lot of press to the NEC concert and put up videos of the performance on their site and their YouTube channel.  And let me tell you, I’m pretty sure you’re not prepared for Voyage in a White Building I.

I’m not sure this work could have been possible without the ACA’s quote at the top of this article.  Voyage is an epic, a harrowing, anarchical, one-of-a-kind music experience that infers a deep horror in life.  The work is a “setting” of the first poem in the “Voyages” cycle by Hart Crane, widely considered one of America’s greatest poets and a suicide at age 32.  Voyages is a stunning, evocative set of erotic poems written in response to Crane falling deeply in love with a Danish man, and though I can’t be sure that Crane’s social isolation stemming from his sexuality has any real connection to Nostrand’s music, but the parallels between Crane and America’s disenfranchised social revolution are hard to ignore.  Reprinting the text here may prove useless, as I’m not sure any actual words remain in the reciter’s part.  The speaker is caught in a battle with language, at points anguished and others orgasmic, providing a focal point for the chaos presented by the instruments (among them a sitar and an autoharp, artifacts of psychedelia and folk rock respectively, both dominant genres at the time).  One could imagine how the composer could notate this music, and thankfully the ACA provided a couple of images from this score and another work titled Tuba-Tuba for reference.  Just look at this stuff:

Never in my life have I seen scores like this, and from George Crumb to Cathy Berberian I’ve seen some wacky scores in my day.  Lovely notated fragments collide with indeterminacy and simple written instructions, and each score is crafted as a kaleidoscopic graphic design, with beautiful inked linework, near-calligraphic text and a keen sense of humor.  There were many fast and loose experimental methods in American composition in the 60’s and 70’s, headed up by John Cage as the ultimate authority on conceptual music, but I think Nostrand comes the closest to a full synthesis of techniques, notated and indeterminate, sounded and graphic.  Even if performing the works proves challenging it is impossible to deny the artistry that is present in these scores.  Hopefully the NEC revival of Nostrand’s œuvre will spur more composers into discovering his music.  The work that I’m most excited to hear is Symphony-Nosferatu, a 45-minute work for a huge orchestra (including a saxophone section, prepared piano and various electric instruments), two choruses and a woman in black mourning clothes planted in the audience.  I’m an enormous fan of the 1922 film Nosferatu, so the idea that there exists a colossal musical setting by a talented composer gives me fainting spells of joy.

To play you guys out, here’s an excerpt from a piece for solo violin called Phaedra Antinomaes:


Sunday, March 10, 2013

How's Georgy Catoire for an inaugural post?

Whenever I hear a piece of art deemed a "classic" there is a part of me that cringes.  It isn't merely that I may not like the work in particular, but the notion that this work must last beyond others, and that those others aren't worth the consumer's time.  In all my time reading books, watching movies, and listening to music I can't think of anything more counterproductive to personal growth than sticking to the standards, as so many great artists and their works are left behind by history for any number of reasons, be it artistic politics, real politics, the blockheadedness of the public or just bad luck.  It's been a major obsession of mine for the past few years to find great lost composers and works and work my hardest to restore them to their rightful places in the classical canon (or at least get a few more recordings and performances).  And I can't think of a better entryway to obscure composers than Georgy Catoire (1861-1926).

Catoire (of both Russian and French lineage) is an interesting case in Russian music, a composer who was right in line with a compositional lineage (the piano school headed by the work of Scriabin) and then was forgotten by his peers for being irrelevant at the end of his career.  What I mean by all that is that his work fit in with the vogue for a good while, and then two radical changes left him in the dust: the ultra-modern early Soviet school under Lenin, and the repressive populist regime under Stalin.  The funny thing about him being left in the dust is that some composers thrived under Stalin by being crushingly old-fashioned; Catoire had the misfortune in having little interest in Russian National themes.  It would be safe to say that between his twin influences of Scriabin and Wagner (him actually being one of the few Russians in the Wagner society), his had much more interesting things on his mind.

Though he wrote music in many genres (including the orchestra and many chamber pieces) it appears Catoire will mostly be remembered for his piano works, and I can't see anything wrong with that on account of them being pretty fantastic.  The above piece is wickedly effective, and has a beautiful fetish with the Dorian mode and half-diminished chords.  As difficult as it sounds it actually lays very well under the fingers (though I have an allergic reaction to those who judge pieces solely on playability).  There's a great vaulting quality of how the arpeggios towards the main chord end in a leading tone, in a way letting the pianist throw the chord down, hitting the listener in the gut (and Marc-Andre Hamelin doesn't do a too-shabby job with it, either).  For a Wagnerian I actually don't hear Wagner in Catoire's works, but the Scriabin definitely rears its lovely head.  Here's another piece from that set for some contrast:

The Reverie as a piece concept arose in the late-19th century, and I've read it attributed to music that lets the mind drift off into a hazy, introspective realm (a state of reverie, if I might pretend to be clever for your chagrin).  So much of Catoire's music seems to fit this mold, not to mention this piece actually called "Reverie," and I think the heart of the piece lies not in its actual climax, but at the point of 2:19 (my favorite, but of course).  The harmony is a B-flat minor Dorian scale, lightly falling and being held over a C, suspending a transition to the V chord of F minor (the relative minor of A-flat major, the key of the piece).  He could simply strike the notes, but it's that utterly fragile, fading quality, and the placement of the transition note (C) on the most off of off beats that makes this piece incredibly beautiful.  For my money Catoire's technique with this kind of piano writing peaked with the 4 Chants du Crepuscule, which Hamelin recorded on his CD (which you should pick up before its out-of-print price point goes up further).

One could speculate on the focus on delicate sadness that rips waves through his oeuvre.  It may be good to note that he almost stopped composing completely fairly early into his career, forced into seclusion by the disapproval of his friends and family at his life choices.  A more foolish critic would focus on how his work seems all the more sad considering the downward political spiral Russian music took via hideous public trials and forced bucolicism, but I'm long past believing in artistic precognition (I'll talk of George Butterworth in the future, thank you very much).  The only truth is that this sadness can't be denied, and it takes the form of supple, organically rhythmic line work and deep, yearning melodies.  He never took radical shifts in his methods, and there is never a sense in his work of an artist desperate to prove himself.  It just is, and a gorgeous "is" it is.  Hopefully some more recordings and performances will emerge, but to give you a boost here's a bunch of his works on the great IMSLP:,_Georgy.  Here's to unforced beauty and kind conviction, and a happy inaugural post to you, too.