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:


  1. Great to find this post, Peter, and thanks for your kind words about my recording! Happy to share links of where folks can get the recording if they are interested!

  2. Thanks! It's nice to see somebody is reading these articles, even if only for detective work. If you have any suggestions for other composers to feature I'd love to hear them.