Tuesday, August 6, 2013

To Charm and Soothe - the Edward R. Benjamin Award for Restful Music

Most composition contests are loud, whether by design or by insecurity.  The young, nameless figures who populate their Hopefuls are under pressure and anticipation, making sure the judges know that each and every note is bursting with creative energy and grant-winning spirit.  This all too often results in pieces which leap out of the page and smack the committee across the face for even thinking John Q. Mozart from Scuttlebum State University wouldn't be up to snuff*.  Keeping that in mind, it's always special to see a contestant putting their reputation on the line to show off something gentle - not unworthy, just gentle.  These pieces never win, of course, but it's a real show of character for an artist to trust so much in their more modest work to put it right up front and beam as if it were their only child.  So what if there was a contest dedicated entirely to those pieces?  There was, from 1953 to 1971, and it was exclusive to the Eastman School of Music.

Edward R. Benjamin (1897-1980) was a Southern Industrialist whose work took him to Louisiana, North Carolina, and many places in between and afar.  He was also an ardent patron of serious music in the South and elsewhere, and believed that life should be lived surrounded by beauty.  And no other kind of music transfixed him such as that which "charms and soothes", calming, rich works that invoke restfulness in the listener.  Arguably his most lasting contribution to the world of music was his founding, with the help of Howard Hanson, a highly esteemed composer and director of the school, the Edward R. Benjamin Award for Restful Music, an annual contest for Eastman students to award the best piece (or pieces) to invoke those qualities Benjamin held so dear.  In 1958 Hanson decided to record nine of the winners for one of his contract albums for Mercury Records, Music for Quiet Listening, and with the reprinting of the record in 1994 (with a few other tracks to fill out the CD) it's the last anybody heard of the contest and most of the winners.  That reissue is now out of print, which is a shame - it's both historically interesting and quite lovely.

Unlike many high-profile contests, the Benjamin Award draw exclusively from a single student body, and upon reviewing the nine I had only heard of two people, one of whom in very brief passing.  It's a fine reminder that just because somebody enters into a higher education program it's no guarantee they'll make the alumni hall of fame in their field.  Some of the winners stuck it out in the classical field, becoming professors at Eastman and elsewhere, while others left the highbrow behind, such as Bill Pursell, who went on to be a pop pianist and session musician.  The only two figures I'd heard of, Ron Nelson and Martin Mailman, largely eluded fame by gaining recognition in music for wind band, a surefire way to get performances but not widespread acknowledgement.  And even with the later success of the contest winners none of the pieces on this disc have gotten any lasting recognition.  Sadly, their brief time in the sun was written in to their very being, but not by any effort of the composers.

One issue with the compilation is having to listen to each piece in a row.  Some compilations lend themselves to a full sit-down; not this one.  The historical fascination in this kind of set is its function as a snapshot of the prevailing influences and ambitions of young composers during the greatest boomtime in American classical music.  That being said, hearing all nine of the works together creates a pleasant blur.  I don't intend to diminish the quality of the works by mentioning their self-similarity; it's an expected trait when era-binging and I don't hold it against the composers.  They're students and haven't fully developed their voices (and may never), so its natural for there to be overlapping qualities, and none of the pieces were written with the intention of ending up on a compilation album of its peers.  All of the works owe some of their existence to the granddaddy of all modern adagios, Gabriel Fauré's Pavane, as well as Maurice Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte.  To quote the album's liner notes, they "possess a thoughtful serenity and a calm emotion devoid of cloying sentimentality," and aren't "morbid or dull-toned or cloudy."  I think it's best to approach each piece on its own terms, perhaps taking in one with a fine scotch and leaving the rest for other times.  The recording team thought each piece should stand on its own within the confines of an LP, recording each with a simple, high quality technique that allowed the purely musical qualities to come to the fore.  For such modest music a lot of people care very deeply about its due treatment.

It's probably fitting that the contest was suspended in 1971, at the very end of academia's acceptance of the profitable and popular brand of American classical music that had dominated during the previous three decades.  So ubiquitous was this style that some of the works on this disc wouldn't be out of place in a serious 50's Hollywood drama or TV show.  I think its also fitting of not only the works' bid for singularity but also the all-too-predictable obscurity of the album that I was only able to find one of the tracks on YouTube.  Its composer, Ron Nelson, is known almost exclusively for his powerful band piece Passacaglia on B-A-C-H.  As with that piece's homaging bent, his Sarabande: For Katharine in April (1954 winner) seems to channel the spirit of Ravel, not so much in the Pavane but for The Enchanted Garden, the final movement of the Mother Goose suite and one of my several dozen votes for the most beautiful piece of music ever written.  If you do find the disc my other recommendations would be Bill Pursell's Christ Looking Over Jerusalem and Paul Earl's And on the Seventh Day...  For now, here's the Sarabande, and I hope that we can all find time for quiet listening in our lives - some of us certainly need it.


*One of my favorite stories to this regard was when my undergraduate band professor and his star pupil returned from a band conference.  The band director announced to the wind ensemble, "I have seen the future of band music, and it is very loud."  The pupil told m about John Mackey's piece Asphalt Cocktail, the climax of which involved a percussionist throwing a metal trashcan full of chains onto the stage.  He also retold another professor's joke about a piece that made his penis fall off.

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