Thursday, September 21, 2017

Summer's-End-Pieces - Ned Rorem's The End of Summer

In my last article I had mentioned that Hugo Weisgall walked a bit of a tightrope in achieving great success as an opera composer while sticking to his atonal guns, and today's composer, Ned Rorem, also has some serious tightrope-walkin' and gun-stickin' to his name.  One of the most famous American composers I've covered here, Rorem has spent his 70-year career producing a vast body of work that consolidated American and French attempts at modal harmony, great attention to textural detail, and a great balance of poignancy and seriousness.  He is arguably America's greatest composer of art songs next to Ives, writing so many of them, and of such high quality, that his achievements with them have overshadowed a remarkably large body of instrumental music, including 3 symphonies, several concerti, and dozens of other orchestral, chamber and solo works, all possessing his unique musical voice.  One could argue that his works since the late 1970's have largely been rearrangements of the same material, but I'd also argue that after a certain point he was an old man and his ability to continually compose at his age is remarkable in its own right, and the pieces sounded great, anyways.  It's one of these later works that we're looking at today, one of many of his works to get excellent recordings this century as part of Naxos's American Classics series.

I did a bit of writing on Rorem's earlier songs in my Forgotten Leaves article on two Walt Whitman settings of his, so check it out for context on where he came from.  He debuted during a time when modal and polytonal harmonies were all the rage in America, and as the 60's rolled through and academic music took a hard right turn into Darmstadt-ville he too shook things up, though not in the same way as his contemporaries.  First, here's an early song of his:

There's obviously lots to like here - simultaneous familiarity and creativity, establishing a musical world that unfurls in variation.  While his works display a full range of emotions, of course, his harmonic language and Francophonic soul wrapped the listener in a warm quilt.  By 1985, however, he'd been through the looking glass - a decade before, in response to Vietnam he'd written one of his most chilling works, his War Scenes:

That's about as atonal as Rorem works get, so 1985 Rorem was able to relax a bit and write slightly more "normal" music while retaining his newfound edge.  That said edge:

This blistering recording of today's work, The End of Summer for clarinet, violin and piano, comes courtesy of the fine folks in Fibonacci Sequence, recorded alongside Rorem's Book of Hours for flute and harp and Bright Music for larger ensemble.  Considering how great The End of Summer is it may come off a bit goofy for me to say that it's the least of the three works on the disc, but only by a bit.

The three movements of The End of Summer have a cyclical feel, loosely bookended by a typically Roremish perpetuum mobile.  The sinister racing up and down strange scales sounds great, though is horrible to play, meaning I'll probably never program this work with Cursive, but Fibonacci Sequence operates at a different level than I.  The first movement, "Capriccio", opens with a very Red Violin soliloquy before spilling musical marbles down musical marble chutes, and the nutso display is broken up by dramatic hushes (relatively) and another Rorem staple, semi-ironic Parisian café music.  The second movement, "Fantasy", allows for the most experimentation and formal variety, allowing the instruments to drift through moods and genres as if in a dream.  The closing "Mazurka" takes us back to sinister form, though never in a truly frightening way.

Sorry for the shortness of my critique - it's just that overly-explaining Rorem defeats the purpose of Rorem.  Abstrusity was never his game, and so all his technical refinements were dressed in approachable garbs, resulting in works that were as easy to program as they were to conceptually understand.  Perhaps that's why he's remained so successful for so long, even if this work isn't exactly his most memorable.  But if every piece I wrote about for a themed article series was the best thing its composer ever wrote, what kind of a world would we live in?  Huh?  Answer me that, readers!'s still a great piece.  So see you tomorrow.

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