Monday, May 6, 2013

On the Gardner Read collection at Boston University

Every collector reaches a level in their work where they ask a simple question: why?  Why put work into preserving these things, things that you may be unique in desiring?  What is their real value?  Why do you need to collect at all?  With classical music, I find myself questioning its collector appeal simply because I feel relatively alone in what I do (not to say there aren't other hopeless obsessives on YouTube and the like).  I'm also curious as to why I collect certain composers' work, usually in cases where I have hesitations in showing that work to others.  Every collector has attachments to their finds that are tricky to explain by purely objective standards.  This is where Gardner Read comes in.

The music of Gardner Read (1913-2005) can be best described as sitting neatly between John Alden Carpenter and Ned Rorem, but that doesn't do a whole lot for people uninitiated in the American Classical Canon (TM).  Read's works inhabit a rich, yet stately, sound-world, heavily influenced by impressionism but possessing an American solidity, never raising its voice.  He is mostly known today for authoring one of the definitive handbooks to music engraving, Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice, and despite having a work list nearly 200 strong no frequently-performed works bear his name.  I probably would have gone a good while longer having not heard of him if it weren't for his position as a Professor in Composition at Boston University, my Masters Alma Mater, and for a career-spanning collection of his works at BU's main library.  These kinds of library collections (the M3's for those unfamiliar with the Library of Congress system) are oeuvre sets, and BU houses the life's work of such luminaries as Debussy, Shostakovich, and Josip Slavenski (who I may get to in a later article).  This is what the Read collection looks like:

Those crusty volumes haphazardly stuck in the shelves were donated by Read himself; he also donated dozens of other great works by lesser-knowns to the stacks as a gift to people like Mr. Y. Truly.  It should be noted that the library staff isn't too keen on keeping these scores organized, and I suspect I'm the only person in a while to take an interest in them.  The M3's are only pulled out by students for classwork and I highly doubt Read has come up in Music History recently.  Also, Read is one of the more accessible composers from the mid-20th century to remain sophisticated, so I'm not sure why more students aren't playing perfectly good recital material like the 6 Intimate Moods for violin and piano (which contains a leaf) or the Threnody for flute and piano.  Am I nuts for caring about him?

I need to warn you that there aren't a lot of recordings of Read's work on YouTube and half of them are very old, very bad recordings, so I don't have much to play for you.  I can give little examples like the above Night Song for piano.  To make a stab at it, the main reason for the neglect of Read's music today is its way of never jumping out and smacking the listener over the head.  Nothing smacks the listener over the head, and historical memory is largely written on shallow criteria.  While some of Read's pieces are loud and exciting there are a heck of a lot more written from a subdued, internal space.  The bulk of the pieces I've seen from him are patient and inviting as a philosophy, utilizing economical techniques and a masterful handle on long form to create their catharses.  That first line from the Night Song isn't an anomaly for Read's piano writing, as a number of other piano pieces and a lot of his lovely songs grow from a similar place.  I grew up on this kind of music (Debussy and Chopin being my first classical heroes), so I've found a lot to love in his oeuvre but sympathize with those who start checking their watch at the sight of a nocturne.  He has a very good pile of night pieces, like the Petite Berceuse for piano, the songs Lullaby for a Man-Child, Lullaby for a Dark Hour, At Bedtime, When Moonlight Falls, and one of his best pieces, Night Flight for orchestra:

The piece is inspired by the beloved novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and depicts the magical, mysterious space above the clouds, evoking mood and atmosphere rather than telling any kind of story.  One thing Read is very good at is bringing the listener into a subconcious world without resorting to minimalist techniques, and the economical writing and long-form focus serve that purpose excellently.   It should be standard rep for American orchestras, with its ingenious orchestration, modest length and programmatic context.  I especially like the use of a repeated oboe note to represent the beeping radio in the cockpit.  Another work that invades the subconcious the best is the ass-flattening De Profundis for horn and organ (recorded by the great trombonist Christian Lindberg for his album The Sacred Trombone along with Read's Invocation for trombone and organ).  I'm actually kind of mad that piece isn't uploaded, though it would be nice to hear it played on an actual horn.

In an effort to get more of his stuff online I have made a performance of his Impromptu, op. 42 for YouTube.  The Impromptu is one of his best piano pieces and is highly reminiscent of Ravel's Neo-Baroque works:

Most of his piano works were marketed by their publishers as pedagogical works, and his most advanced work for piano, Driftwood, has never been published; I was lucky and got to scan a copyist's version from the BU collection.  It appears Read relied on these small pieces for income and actually re-published the Impromptu in a revised version as the Intermezzo, op. 42a.  Comparing the covers of these two works is a nice era comparison, as the Impromptu was published in 1940 and the Intermezzo in 1959.  The Intermezzo cover is about as modern as the marketing for his works ever got, by the way:

I read that Copland and Read got into a minor spat that ended with Copland calling Read a "romanticist", and Read questioned whether his music was too lush for the Neo-Classical Populist language for which Copland was the Sun God.  As modestly romantic as Read must have appeared in the 30's, 40's and 50's, that's nothing compared to how out of place he must have looked after the 60's ended and the hard Avant-Garde took over in the U.S.  He did try his hand at more advanced compositional techniques, including aleatoric music and extended instrumental technique, but more often than not they would feel like his music.  An attractive example of that tendency is the Canzone di Notte for guitar, which has the guitarist tapping the body of the guitar among Read-ish arpeggios.  The lower line is an elegant notational solution to where the guitarist taps.

He retired from teaching in 1978 and kept composing into the 90's, including the excellent-looking 5 Aphorisms for violin and piano, which would make an excellent framing piece on a recital that starts with the 6 Intimate Moods (violinists: take note).  One late work that got recorded is the Fantasy-Toccata for harpsichord, using the crunchy tone quality of the instrument to augment crunchy polychords.  The harpsichordist Mark Kroll was actually a Professor Emeritus at BU and performed the piece all over the U.S. and Europe:

I wish I could show you the first two symphonies (both written in the 30's), both of which won first prize in two different contests, but the recordings on YouTube are dreadful, so I'll let you find them at your own risk.  The third piece that got first prize is actually one of my least favorite works of his, the Nocturnal Visions song set from the 80's.  It may have been apparent that Read was running out of ideas, as the first song is just a revision of an older one without proper credit.  Most composers find themselves in Read's position at the ends of their careers, but the difference is that you can tell from Read's music that he was a really nice guy, and that's a little sad.  The good news is that his colleagues and students knew he was a nice guy, and a very understanding teacher who didn't force his rhetoric upon his students.  Upon his death in 2005 BU's website published an obituary (’s-gardner-read-dies-at-92/), and it mentions a 1998 concert of his works at BU that appears to have gone over well.  I think Read is far more deserving of his own study room than Arthur Fiedler, who not only has a special library area but a ghastly stone relief outside the door.  Maybe it's not that I'm crazy, but rather I just feel for Read and his desire to make beautiful music, and think it shouldn't be forgotten.

In the end it may have been the surface modesty that kept Read from broader academic and public acceptance, and his personal evolution was always on his own terms and not the zeitgeist's.  There are some CDs out there if you want to investigate his work further, and I would recommend The Art of Song, a 1999 collection of his vocal works recorded by D'Anna Fortunato and friends.  His songs are quite lovely and would be welcome to Ned Rorem fans.  Perhaps if more people hear his pieces I'll start to feel less odd for wanting his pieces to be heard.  And if you think that a full investigation won't turn up anything terribly exciting, I'll leave you with one of his most invigorating orchestral pieces, Toccata Giocosa:



  1. The 4th symphony was recently uploaded to YouTube and is another subconcious-invader, split into two heavy movements. Here's the link for the curious:

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