BURLEIGH: Music for Violin and Piano (Cherina Carmel/ Mary Barranger/ Zina Schiff) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559061)
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Cecil Burleigh (1885-1980) Music for Violin and PianoHistory has precious little to say about Cecil Burleigh. He was a composer and violinist, American born, but studied abroad at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin. His violin teacher was Anton Witek, and his composition teacher was Hugo Leichtentritt. Before going to Europe, he toyed with theory and violin during high school, playing in local chamber music groups, writing incidental music and improvising at the piano. In Berlin he experienced the rigours of a proper musical training, and returned to America and enrolled in the Chicago Musical College. There, he pursued violin studies with Emile Sauret and composition with Felix Borowski. He was in demand as a soloist, performing concertos with major orchestras and touring in duo recitals, but abandoned this life when he was engaged as a teacher of violin at the Western Institute of Music and Drama in Denver, Colorado. He stayed there for two years, before he accepted a post as professor of violin and theory at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and again moved on to Montana State University. The lure of composition and the big city, however, got to him, so he abandoned his teaching career altogether, moved to New York City, and resumed his studies. His composition teacher was Ernest Bloch and his violin teacher was Leopold Auer. He supported his composition career in the city with his efforts as a violinist, but eventually accepted a position as a professor of violin, theory and composition at the University of Wisconsin. He was there from 1921 until 1955.
Burleigh's output is fairly extensive, though little of it is has been recorded on disc. He is the author of countless moment pieces (small works, much like preludes), a large portion of which are for violin and piano. He wrote many musical settings, for voice and piano, on the poetry of Tennyson, as well as three violin concertos, three symphonies, a number of string quartets and several tone poems for orchestra, these last bearing austere titles such as Leaders of Men and From the Muses. Until 1940 he composed mostly small pieces, the bulk of which were scored for piano and violin.
Compositions by Burleigh remain largely unknown today, with a few exceptions. It is very telling that one available recording, which contains a few of his pieces, is entitled "Sherry Kloss plays Forgotten Gems." Forgotten, indeed. Perhaps the present release, as part of Naxos continuing effort to bring American music to the fore, will further the cause of this genteel and thoughtful musician.
The pieces here included are short, compact miniatures, single-focused and elegantly composed. They owe much to Edward MacDowell, one of the first major American composers. MacDowell wrote small "character" pieces, the most famous of which is To a Wild Rose. The origin of these pieces can be traced further back, to Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Brahms, all of whom wrote their own versions of these "moments musicaux," usually for solo piano. Yet it is not just as a composer of moment pieces that Burleigh basks in the spirit of MacDowell, it is also in the subject matter. Both men were fascinated with Indians, both wrote music that has a quintessentially "American" sound, both were academics in music schools and both took a European training back to their own land.
These are little gems, the longest of which lasts a little over three minutes, to be absorbed pell-mell, each evocative of a single idea. In Winding Stream we hear a dark, brooding melody over the flowing piano, while the faux-Indianist From a Wigwam or Indian Snake Dance, the lusty Bolero or colourful Tints, are charming little frozen moments scored for violin and piano. This is sincere, careful and often quite beautiful music.
"Details, Zina," Jascha Heifetz once advised, "It's all in the details," and he passed his love of the miniature along to me. His daughter, Josefa, while piano teacher to my daughter, Cherina, generously presented us with many of the newly released compact discs in the Heifetz Collection, one of which contained two charming works by Burleigh. When I read the liner notes, however, I realised that this Burleigh, a certain Mr. Cecil Burleigh, was not the Burleigh I thought he was, Dvor??ák's pupil Harry T. Burleigh. Like Jascha Heifetz, my Burleigh was a pupil of Leopold Auer. Intrigued, my resident sleuth and husband, Dr. Ronald Eisenberg, busied himself in Burleigh and produced piles of music for my perusal. Discovering gem after gem, we realised that this was a CD in the making.
In a sense this album is a sacred musical journal filled with precious details of my work with Jascha Heifetz and, more recently, of eleven years living in Shreveport, Louisiana. There, more than in any other time in my life, I was forced to observe details, immersed in the unfolding childhoods of my daughters and the Southern community that initially seemed foreign to me. Many of the Burleigh titles evoke specific times, people, and places, recalling tender joys and impenetrable mysteries. There really was A Log Cabin, Cottonfields, and Mammy, a Sweet Romance and very Early Mornings (Cherina did not sleep through the night until she was four). There were also Fairies Dancing, Hushed Woods, Haunted Shadows, Yuletide, and the Lament of a Rose. Like a Winding Stream, my journey continued now in California where, at the age of sixteen, Cherina finally repaid me for those sleepless nights. She lovingly and painstakingly produced this album, constantly reminding me of Jascha Heifetz's advice, as well as joining me in the studio as accompanist for the Impromptu and Cradle Song.