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)


1 comment:

  1. Hi Peter. Love what you're doing. I just found Alice M-P's 'Flute Prints' at IMSLP, which you uploaded. Please may I have your email address so that I might contact you about it?

    Ian Munro
    ianomunro at gmail dot com