As renowned and overwhelmingly popular Samuel Barber is, nobody is going to jump up to prove how innovative he was. Barber was always a conservative voice, but it was also a distinctive one and it stemmed from a unique, emotionally profound sensibility, and his oeuvre is rewarding if you slip into the right mindset - one of emphatic, sepia-toned melancholy. Lee Hoiby is cut from the same cloth, but never achieved the success of Barber, partially because he didn't have an Adagio for Strings, but mostly because he never matched Barber's sophistication and emotional power (his cloying, saccharine Violin Concerto aside). He's of that dubious tradition of tonalesque gay composers who are mostly known as art songwriters, with Ned Rorem leading the pack out of sheer mastery of the form. There's a very large and rich song tradition in this country, and the worst part about it is the overarching success of its blandest authors, most recently the distressing popularity of gay Pop Classical vocal composers Ricky Ian Gordon and Jake Heggie. The unusual tradition of tonalesque, high profile gay male American composers (Copland, Thomson, Bernstein, Rorem, Blitzstein, Flanagan, Bowles, Del Tredici, etc.) may be to blame, but pure economics can't be ignored. Vocal music is both highly resistant to change and a good financial investment, and there's little pressure to open new doors - singers are some of the most coddled performers around, and writing vocal music adds enormous restrictions to modern composers already struggling with the pressure to be original. Not only is it an uninspiring world for fledgling art song composers, it's also uninspiring for gay male composers - the link between being gay and vapid, tonalesque composition has the potential to become a hurtful stereotype in itself, and I'm surprised it hasn't been called out at this point.*
Lee Hoiby was also gay and tonalesque, but wasn't nearly as vacuous as others of the ilk, and has his moments of real creativity - just be warned that those looking for new sound experiences will be left in the dust soon as look at them by his stuff. I had picked up his Piano Album some time ago, and they feature some of his most original and passionate writing, though all possessing a subdued air of sadness. His best piano work, Narrative, op. 41 (1983), has been recorded three times, and is worth a look. You can find all his piano works here, but don't tell anybody I gave you that link (and only click the "PDF" buttons). Many publishers are perfectly satisfied pigeonholing their artists, so I consider G. Schirmer's choice to issue this handsome edition a welcome act of charity, a small effort in exposing Hoiby as more than just a songwriter. What may be more notable is an illustration featured on the cover, one of the best nightmares I've ever seen in pencil:
I couldn't find any consistent information on the illustrator, Robert Beers, but perhaps its best if I pretend the image slipped over from the dream world. While clearly surreal and at times even cubist, the style is charmingly crude and its flat superimpositions are more akin to collage than an actual scene. I haven't met too many unicorns in my day but I can guarantee they don't have anemones for feet and teeth like a handsaw. I was about to point out that the artist messed up the keyboard, but I realized it was a mirror of itself, and it occurred to me that I shouldn't ask too many questions about things I enjoy having. It's actually a very apt image when you think about the mindset it must require to write music like Hoiby's: nocturnal, world-weary and deeply personal, much like Barber's. Hoiby's writing is too patterned and restrained for audiences to really plunge into its pathos, but it doesn't keep his music from having an emotional effect. The distance between Hoiby and his audience helps put them in another place, almost that sense of reverie that was so intently sought after by 19th century composers. That kind of fraught restraint is akin to the songs of Schubert, and Hoiby even payed tribute to him with his Schubert Variations, op. 35, included in the album. I'm too jaded to become a real fan of Hoiby, but I'd choose his piano music any day over the New Vapids. I get him, and that's really all you can ask when taking in art. There aren't any good recordings of pieces from the album on YouTube, but Albany Records did upload Dark Rosaleen, a substantial piano quartet after Joyce, on the occasion of Hoiby's death in 2011 at the age of 85. The quartet weaves variations upon a melody by Joyce himself, and Hoiby successfully evokes the dark atmosphere of dream that permeates much of Joyce's poetry. I can only imagine how it went over in the land of sawnicorns, as Hoiby can never tell me himself - he illuminated the value of private music and I'd like to respect his personal world.
*Rodney Lister told me of an encounter between the stubbornly tonal (and gay) Virgil Thomson and the (gay) serialist Ben Weber. Virgil said, "I hear that you're a twelve-tone composer."
"I also hear that you're a homosexual."
"Well, which one is it? You can't be both!"