Robert Helps (1928-2001)
Shall We Dance Piano Quartet Postlude Nocturne TheDarkened Valley (John Ireland)
Robert Helps was Professor of Music at the University ofSouth Florida, Tampa, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He was arecipient of awards in composition from the National Endowment for the Arts,the Guggenheim, Ford, and many other foundations, and of a 1976 Academy Awardfrom the Academy of Arts and Letters. His orchestral piece Adagio forOrchestra, which later became the middle movement of his Symphony No. 1, won aFromm Foundation award and was premi?¿red by Leopold Stokowski and the Symphonyof the Air (formerly the NBC Symphony) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NewYork City. His Piano Concerto No. 1 was commissioned by the Thorne Music Fundand first performed by the composer with the Manhattan Conservatory orchestra.His Piano Concerto No. 2 was commissioned through the Ford Foundation byRichard Goode and performed by him with the Oakland (CA) Symphony. Robert Helpsserved as professor of piano at the New England Conservatory, the San FranciscoConservatory, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University ofCalifornia at Berkeley, and the Manhattan School of Music. He wasartist-in-residence (pianist) at the University of California-Davis in 1973. Hewas recorded extensively as pianist, composer, and pianist/composer on suchlabels as Victor, Columbia, Composers Recordings Inc., Deutsche Grammophon, NewWorld, Desto, Son Nova, and GM Recordings. Many of his compositions, includinghis Symphony No. 1 (Naumburg Award) and Gossamer Noons for voice and orchestra,are recorded. He was very active as a solo and chamber music pianist throughoutthe United States. His major teachers were Abby Whiteside for piano, and RogerSessions for composition, and he toured extensively with such internationallyfamous performers as Bethany Beardslee, Isidore Cohen, Rudolf Kolisch, PhyllisCurtin, soprano, and Aaron Copland, and for many years performed solo andchamber works, many of them world premi?¿res, for internationally known chambermusic and contemporary music organizations in New York City, Chicago, LosAngeles, San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, and elsewhere. His later concertsincluded memorial solo recitals of the music of renowned American composerRoger Sessions at both Harvard and Princeton Universities, an all-Ravel recitalat Harvard, and a solo recital in Town Hall, NY. His final compositions includeEventually the Carousel Begins, for two pianos, A Mixture of Time for guitarand piano, which had its premi?¿re in San Francisco in June 1990 by Adam Holzmanand the composer, The Altered Landscape (1992) for organ solo and Shall WeDance (1994) for piano solo, Piano Trio No. 2, and a piano quartet commissionedby the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. He died in 2001.
Shall We Dance was written in 1994, after a long hiatus, aperiod of silence from the composer. It was written for the pianist RusselSherman who gave the world premi?¿re of the piece on the 2nd of April, 1996, inthe Kathryn Bache Miller Theatre at the Columbia University School of the Arts.Robert Helps often referred to it as one of his most powerful pieces.
He wrote: The title Shall We Dance came to me compellinglyand spontaneously about half way through composing this piece. I never fight atitle that emerges in this fashion. Despite the casual sound of the title, thisis not a flippant piece. It is, however, sensual. \Dance" intrudes all over theplace, both consciously (i.e., the "tune" of a Mischa Levitski waltz that mymother played a lot when I was a kid) and unconsciously (i.e., American"popular" music - Ravel - etc.). The dance rhythm disintegrates, basicallyself-destructs towards the climax of the piece only to regenerate slowly laterand proceed to the end. Shall We Dance pays a special homage to the pedal, thatfabulous pianistic resource that only pianists have, the lack of which makeseven the wonderful orchestral transcriptions by Ravel of his own piano worksfade when compared to the original.
The Quartet for piano, violin, viola and cello was writtenin 1997 for the Sergey Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congressand dedicated to the memory of Sergey and Natalie Koussevitzky. The worldpremi?¿re took place on the 14th of December, 1997, in the National Gallery ofArt in Washington, D.C. by members of the Dunsmuir Piano Quartet.
The composer wrote as follows: In music, long (severalmovement) pieces deal with "emotions" and "rhythm" (pacing) as does a longprose narrative (novel), but without the encumbrance of words (i.e., a "plot").How music gets at us in this fashion, directly, without words, how a composercan set up a mood through the use of only twelve pitches, that produces asimilar emotion in practically all sensitive people listening, remains amystery. The quartet, in five movements, is a bit like looking at a piece ofjewellery or a painting from five very different angles, getting very differentperceptions, but basically just one new look each time. The titles suggestsomething of the mood content - Prelude, Intermezzo, Scherzo, Postlude and,perhaps a bit on the odd side, coda - The Players Gossip. The inspiration forthis somewhat peculiar title comes from a comment made by Chopin before thepublication of his famous "Funeral March" Piano Sonata No. 2. The last movementof Chopin's Sonata, the movement after the funeral march, is well known to usby its popular sub-title "The Wind Over the Grave", a title probably as unknownto Chopin as "Moonlight Sonata" was to Beethoven. In a letter to a friendChopin described the last two movements of his Sonata as "a funeral marchfollowed by a bit of gossip". Keeping in mind that composers can be, and oftenenjoy being, a bit frivolous (verbally) about basically serious things(non-verbal), the "mood" of Chopin's comment entered my mind after finishingthe fifth movement and felt peculiarly appropriate to its mood.
A capsule description of the mood of each movement mightread something like:
1 (a piano solo movement)...Radiance, but of a subdued sort;
2 The most 'human' movement - perhaps Intimacy, again of asubdued sort;
3 at last some Speed, falling into an ABA shape, in thiscase, defined as such mostly by, LOUD, soft;
4 the return of movement no. 1, the piano being joined bythe other instruments, thus altering somewhat the perception;
5 a good-natured finale. The title of the movement, Coda -the Players Gossip, pretty well describes one way of looking at it.
The Postlude for horn, violin and piano was written in 1964.It is Part III of Serenade, a series of compositions commissioned by the FrommMusic Foundation.
The Nocturne for string quartet was completed in November of1960. It is Part II of Serenade. Robert Helps inscribed the original scorewith, "for my parents". In his own note on the work he wrote: It belongs to anesoteric genre of pieces that hardly ever get performed, single movement piecesfor string quartet. I later incorporated the Nocturne into a yet moreapt-not-to-be-performed work - a chamber music "happening" entitled Serenade, awork in three movements, performable as a single work or as separate works, ofwhich the Nocturne is the middle movement. It is very much a mood piece, themood being in the tradition of the numerous Mahler and Bartok "night music"movements which make their appearances in these composers' string quartets andsymphonic works. It is predominately a gentle movement, "night music" heardfrom afar. It does, however,