Saturday, October 19, 2013

Roy Agnew - Diffuse Refractions of the Southern Star

Australia had a long road to being taken seriously as a global presence, or even as a Western presence, and its arts scene, while now thriving, spent the first half of the 20th century in limbo.  While many people in the US know about the boom in the Australian film industry in the 1970's (Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Cars that Ate Paris), Australia's compositional scene is still a non-entity for most of the world, aside from John Antill's Rite of Spring-esque, now-pseudo-racist ballet Corroboree.  The only Australian composers of the past 30 years to gain any kind of international recognition are Peter Sculthorpe and Carl Vine, both of whom have made a habit of playing the populist card.  The most famous Australian-born composer is Percy Grainger, though he left the country at age 13 and spent his most important years in England and America (that hasn't stopped any Australian fans, though).  It's perhaps fitting that the other important Australian composer from the first half of the last century, Roy Agnew (1891-1944) shares some technical similarities with Grainger, though not his heart or themes.

Trained in piano by a handful of Sydney-based musical sub-names (as well as a brief stint under Alfred HIll), Agnew sidestepped the stereotype of cloying conservatism that so many English-speaking countries cultivated in music throughout the 1910's.  His Australian Forest Pieces of 1913 brought his vernacular into the impressionistic fold, and he was very successful performing his own works throughout the next few decades.  In the 20's he studied with Gerrard Williams and Cyril Scott, the latter of which was once a household-name famous impressionist-mystic best known for the Avant-Salon classic Lotus Land.  Scott has been named among possible influences on Agnew's work, but one man who may have had more influence than any other was the meteorically influential Alexander Scriabin, another self-made impressionist by way of mysticism and a candidate for an alternative founder of 20th century music if the big four (Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok) hadn't pummeled his name from the history books.  His mature works of the 20's and later traverse harmonic landscapes few other people did, not so much in density of dissonance but rather his very personal choice of sonority and movement, making him an Australian counterpart to Arnold Bax.  Agnew's works lean towards aching poignance and reverie, a sentiment periodically shared by Grainger but always framed by Anglo folk influences and a predilection for overt climax.  His mature language is best encapsulated in his 1922 miniature Poem no. 1, of which the only YouTube version is performed by me (albeit a tad slow); oddly enough I'm the one who's made the most effort to record his work on the web.

It's odd how very few modern pianists have recorded his works; they're just ripe for the picking and would go over quite well with today's audiences.  There are a few all-Agnew albums in existence, but they're all confined to Australian labels with no American exposure.  Impressionism has never had much of a problem making money, after all, and not all of his work is langourous.  Listeners without the time on their hands for extensive searching will find that almost all the easily accessible performances, all on YouTube, are by amateurs, sometimes with glaring errors, but one of his big works did find its way to our thrifty doorstep:

The Sonata Ballade most shows the influence of Scriabin, with vaulting post-Romantic sturm und drang flowing into elliptical harmonic swirls.  As in vogue as these kinds of piano sonata were among early Soviet composers (until the arts inquisitions put a stop to dissonance and any music of interest), the rest of the music world had taken a turn for the Neo-Classical, which left no room for dark sincerity such as Agnew's.  The piece won an award in the Musical Association of New South Wales' Sesqui-Centenary Competition for Australian Composers, but I can't imagine it would fit in well with the musical environment of the eve of WWII.  It's oddly fitting as a war piece, as the synthesis of Straussian heroic motives and fraught pan-tonality make for a grand portrait of misplaced nationalism and the horror of clashing jingoism.  Though Agnew died having achieved real success and made his country proud, the memory of his work entered into steep decline in the latter half of the century and it hasn't been heard too much since.  Academia and the entertainment machine favored clarity over mystery, and so the rich, personal atonalists such as Agnew, Scott, Scriabin and Dane Rudhyar were the first casualties of the New Provable Order.  I'm certain a revival is inevitable, as Agnew's oeuvre is a lush and marketable one, and it's not like Australia's pianists have completely dropped the ball.  If only we could get a hold of those albums, then maybe we'd have more incentive to make his music our own.  Many of his scores have been uploaded to IMSLP, which is where I got the ones I play here, so have at 'em and thank the stars that the internet exists.  Hopefully my efforts, including two more articles on Agnew for Forgotten Leaves and Visual music as well as the recording below, help out a bit, but the loveliness of his works are self-evident and may be the source of their own gravy.  In any case, here's to the mystery of extended tonality and humanity's need for the dark and quiet.


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