Friday, April 1, 2016

Short-Shrifted - William Baines

In English culture one composer stands for dying young, personally and as a symbol of his generation, more than any other, George Butterworth (1885-1916).  One of the most sensitive and melancholic of the Pastoralists, Butterworth published a handful of song cycles and orchestral pieces before going off to the front of WWI, eventually dying in the Battle of the Somme, his body lost to the war.  His cycle A Shropshire Lad from poems by A.E. Housman, as well as its orchestral epilogue, the Rhapsody, have become musical symbols of the U.K.s "lost" generation of young men lost to the Great War, and his early death at 31 might have given his music some artificial support after his time, though judging by its quality it would have been well-remembered regardless of its author's tragic passing.  Another young death in British composition that has made much less of an impact on its country's psyche is that of William Baines (1899-1922), dead at the much more tender age of 23 from tuberculosis and in many ways a more daring and individual composer than most of his English contemporaries.

My introduction to Baines came from the inclusion of his piece Tides, as much of a posthumous breakout hit as he'll ever get, in the 2002 Rarities of Piano Music festival, an annual nine-day festival of piano rarities at Schloss vor Husum in Germany that has featured some favorite pianists of mine and this blog, such as Marc-André Hamelin and Kolja Lessing.  The Danish record label Danacord has put out 17 CDs of highlights from the festival and Tides made the cut, performed by Jean Dubé, alongside works by Szymanowski, Reger and Ignaz Friedman.  British Impressionism, or rather the Impressionist side of Pastoralism, what I call the post-Elgar British composers such as Vaughan Williams and his ilk, never equaled the evocative dreamscapes of the French Impressionists in the large scale but some individuals tried to go for the gold, such as Frank Bridge in many of his miniatures and the early work of John Ireland, and Baines's music (most of which can be seen in score form here) is the most non-Pastoralist Impressionist work I've seen come from England in its near-total avoidance of British folk influence and commitment to the ambiguous moods of his French predecessors.  Tides has become one of his most popular works because of its near-surrealism, a far cry from the likes of Butterworth, chockablock with juxtaposed scales, Scriabin-esque chord structures, bursts of virtuosity and deep foreboding.  I've always had a soft spot for pieces that treat the sea in a sense of danger (such as Irwin Heilner's creepy song The Tide Rises) and Tides expertly captures the mood of standing on the shore of a vast ocean in the dead of night.  The second movement, "Goodnight to Flamboro", is almost Ivesian in its placement of popular-style music in a pantonal landscape, and why the first movement alone has caught on more than the whole thing baffles me.  I am grateful for anything of his to catch one regardless of which part of it, as nowadays much of his music is available and the many amateur performances of his piano pieces has made him a minor favorite in the New Digital Repertoire, a movement that I'm doing everything I can to further and one that hasn't gotten nearly enough discussion in the mainstream.  This amateur fanbase has produced such a variety of Baines recordings that I can show you this one, a selection from his warmly etched Four Sketches, without breaking any copyright laws:

The Sketches are some of his earliest pieces, written when he was 19 and 20 and showing considerable maturity and thoughtfulness for formative works, a time most composers prefer to forget after they've achieved Tenure Grant Academy status or whatever it is composers get these days.  These years were strangely lucky ones for Baines as he was pulled into the British army in 1918, only to be relieved of his duties because of septic poisoning, obviously the most attractive illness for the Classical music set.  He would continue composing and performing through the aftermath of his sepsis, a disease he never really recovered from, and only a few years later succumbed to the aforementioned TB, the fatal illness of choice by those who want to die wanly and sexily.  While I can't exactly point to any of his pieces as evidence or reflection of his atrocious health (always the most tasteful treatment of another's illness) most of his works are imbued with an arresting sense of loss and distant nostalgia, a very English brand of saudade or dor.  One of the best pieces of his for expressing this is his Twilight Pieces, the first piece, "A Fragment" capturing the quality of fading sunlight in heavy summer air:

The second piece, "Quietude" also takes great pains to never let the chords naturally resolve, a Pastoralist answer to Wagner delaying the tonic until after the fourth or fifteenth hour.  There are a few tricks here that I've never seen in another piece of this time, such as this chord:

Or this little grace note, part of "Quietude"'s moment of physical outburst:

On a more swift, non dolorous note of delivery, here's "The Naiad" from the Three Concert Studies:

I always like those chord progressions where a simple form is chosen and the permutations are either flying farther out from the center or collapsing inwards, as the first half of that main left hand ostinato shows.  Baines also understands that an audience used to more conventional chords will accept any foreign dissonance as long as it moves by quickly enough and has a superficial logic, either with itself or with other harmonies in the phrase.  There were a ton of fairy-folk-inspired pieces by British composers around this time and this is one of the most magical and exciting, rewarding those who can afford the crispest piano to perform it on.  In case you're wondering, no, Baines never finished a full piano sonata, though not for a lack of trying.  Aside from an early, uncharacteristic Symphony that wasn't performed until 1991 (link here, though beware of amateur hour performance) Baines never wrote a "big piece", something that often ends up "cursing" composers after their deaths in the eyes of overly discriminating musicologists with their eyes peeled for analyzable, symphony-length works ripe for dissertationing.  For an example, imagine if Federico Mompou had never written Musica Callada and how much critical attention he would have gotten then.  This attitude was high-order phooey then and is even higher-order phooey now that there's a huge market for classical music outside of the strict confines of concert halls and academic studies.  For my money Baines well earned his place in the canon of British music and his works are gifts that keep on giving intellectual and emotional rewards, and his gradual resurrection through the internet can only be a good thing - an attitude I wish more performers would adopt, if only for the sake of works like these 7 Preludes.  Goodnight, Flamboro and otherwise.


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