Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Gentle Death of Lilacs - Rare Gems from the Cos Cob Song Volume


I've referenced before my adoration for the early years of American modernism, but there's still much more to show and soak in.  It's easy to see that modernism in American music didn't really get started until the mid-20's, far behind Europe and with little good reason.  That ungood reason is simple - American publishing houses had no interest in modernism.  The biggest force for publishing new music in the late 10's and early 20's was the Society for the Publication of American Music, and their output may have worked in the American musical climate then but now seems embarrassingly stodgy.  While a few odd ducks escaped (such as Carl Ruggles's Toys, by far the strangest, most haunting piece published by church and organ music publisher H. W. Gray), young composers had no real haven for their larger modernist works.  However, 1929 delivered in two capacities: Henry Cowell's seminal journal New Music Quarterly, and Cos Cob Press, Inc.  While the former has been immortalized as the most important advocate for new music in America's modernist development, Cos Cob has largely evaded the public eye, partially for its short life span but also the lack of frequently-performed works in its catalog.

Founded and partially funded by Alma Morgenthau Wertheim, Cos Cob Press was largely begun to publish works by the Young Composers Group, containing such future luminaries as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Elie Siegmeister and Roger Sessions.  Before you assume the Cos Cob catalog was all polychords and populism, let me just say that in these early years the Coplands of the country were just getting their bearings and wrote in very different idioms than the language of Appalachian Spring (in many ways more personal and rewarding idioms).  Taking its name from the famous Impressionist art colony, the six years of Cos Cob's existence (before it was absorbed by the equally important Arrow Music Press, which was absorbed by the bastardly Boosey & Hawkes**) allowed a number of beautiful and varied works to see well-engraved*** print.  It's brief run makes it a time capsule of a wonderfully free-form time when modern music could have gone in any direction, and in its way fulfills the American dream of rugged individualism like no other publisher before or since.  As the face of modern music became less intimate and more soaring and mechanistic, the link to an Impressionist movement seems all the more poignant.  Though I can't go into much more detail here, the musicologist Carol Oja wrote an excellent article on Cos Cob for the journal Notes that can be found here.

In 1935, Aaron Copland rounded up a pile of song by his friends and published them in the Cos Cob Song Volume, one of the most important anthologies in American music history.  The songs are a snapshot of one of the most fertile modernist collectives of the time, including Copland, Sessions, Charles Ives, Virgil Thomson and Paul Bowles.  In addition to people you may have actually heard of, the collection included a few songs by figures who either never gained due respect for their work or dropped off the map entirely.  In late 2012 I gave a recital called American Diary, showcasing an hour of America's best unheard prosody and featuring several songs from the Volume.  Three songs in particular caught my adoration, and I made YouTube recordings of them after the recital in order to further emphasize their value.  I've tagged this article as a One-Off because the songs, all of which I'm featuring here, are the bulk of the published output of their respective composers, and two of them make up a whole 50% of their oeuvres.  And each composer is as elusive as they are in desperate need of a revival.

(Click each for larger view)

Arguably the most mysterious of the three, Irwin Heilner (1908-1991) was an island unto himself.  His style has little in common with his contemporaries and he had few champions in his time, though you couldn't get a much better advocate than the conductor William Strickland.  Only one piece of his, Chinese Songs for voice and orchestra, ever got a commercial recording (a service done by Strickland), and The Tide Rises is the only piece of his to get published for wide release.  It's one of the darkest, most foreboding art songs I've ever seen, taking a Longfellow poem to its most extreme capacity for horror.  Heilner's language often employs collaged modes, but in the climax breaks out into free dissonance, resisting analysis at every turn.  The grave, hushed vocals only add to the sense of a coming storm just outside the concert hall.  It begs for further investigation, not only of Heilner's oeuvre but of the song's hidden depths, the latter of which I'll let you infer.


(Click each for larger view)

Israel Citkowitz (1909-1974) was a close friend of Copland's since his teenage years, and his current obscurity can mostly be attributed to his extreme perfectionism.  Aside from Gentle Lady, the excellent Five Songs, settings of James Joyce's Chamber Music, is the only piece Citkowitz let escape; he destroyed nearly everything else he wrote.  That piece of information is decidedly un-public, as I heard that from Rodney Lister, a good friend and pupil of Virgil Thomson.  While the Five Joyce songs are written in a spare and luminous modal language reminiscent of Ned Rorem, Gentle Lady takes a turn for the ambiguous.  Composed mainly of a snaking, atonal treble melody, the song is the antithesis of pianistic prosody, keeping the proceedings oddly dry.  It's more suited for winds and strings, and I actually made a transcription for voice, flute, two cellos and contrabass - I may prefer it in that setting, but Citkowitz is the boss.  Much like TideLady's inspiration stems from a funereal place, but is much more distant from tangibility, requiring utmost sensitivity from the performers.  Hopefully I didn't make too much of a hash of it.


(Click each for larger view)

My favorite song of the whole collection, Lilac-Time is one of only two published pieces by Alexander Lipsky (1900-1985), an influential pianist whose legacy is mostly comprised of a series of Bach editions for Kalmus.  I have no idea how much more music he wrote, because I haven't been able to track down a single score beyond the two that were published, and I don't know anybody who knows where his manuscripts are.  It's a crying shame, because Lilac-Time, as well as the ridiculously scarce**** Four Sketches for piano, are fantastic, illustrating a rich and deeply creative musical mind.  Both pieces are reminiscent of the Ultra-Modernists such as Ruth Crawford, Ruggles and Charles Seeger, but their writing is so emotionally resonant they make a case for standing on their own as American classics.  Counterpoint is the name of Lilac-Time's game, and you probably never thought clashing minor seconds could be so beautiful.  The subject matter is once again death-centric, and in contrast to Heilner's doom and gloom Lilac-Time is haunting and unbelievably yearning.  The poem is beautiful enough as it is, but Lipsky's enriches the words and makes the listener's neck arch in dream-like ecstasy.  I have no idea why nothing else of Lipsky's has surfaced, and the lack of a professional recording for Lilac-Time is a travesty.  There is a recording of the Four Sketches but it's acutely rare, so I may be forced to make my own in the future.  For now, here's Lilac-Time:

Cos Cob's catalog stands as a testament to the fecundity and liberation of early American modernism, and the Song Volume is the cornerstone of the firm and the early years of the Young Composers Group.  If you're interested in the rest of the songs, a few more were recorded very well on the album But Yesterday is Not Today: The American Art Song 1927-1972.  The three composers featured here need to be heard, and my efforts are not enough.  Even if we don't have the time or energy to single-handedly revive them, let's at least celebrate them in the spirit of rugged individualism.  It's music like this that makes me proud to be an American*****.


*I've counted this article as a Visual Music post because of Cos Cob's cover design.  Unfortunately I don't have a color scan of their stuff, but the B & W version sums it up nicely.  I just adore that big note - pure Art Deco.  The font is spare but bold, meshing perfectly with the geometry and space of the Bunyan-sized engraving.  Once again, good design was thwarted by the end of the Deco movement.

**Boosey & Hawkes is best summed up by my former orchestra conductor Christophe Chagnard: "Boosey & Hawkes are a bunch of gangsters whose only purpose in life is to screw poor musicians out of their money."  Now that they've been absorbed by Hal Leonard, all is lost.

***Their output was engraved by the same engraving house that Universal Edition used in the 20's, giving the Cos Cob scores a very recognizable and cozy feel.

****Let me know if you want the score and I'll send you my PDF scan.  Trust me, you need it.

*****I hope this article can stand as a piece of contemporary patriotism that isn't completely stupid and embarrassing.  The loudest and proudest of today tend to be horrible people, so maybe we can return intellectualism to Americana - it needs a bit of help.

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