SIEGMEISTER: Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Kenneth Boulton) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559020)
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Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) Piano Music,Vol. 1
Elie Siegmeister is a significant figureamong those native-born composers who defined American musical style in thetwentieth century. Although he himself admitted that in childhood there was nogreat evidence of his profound musical gift, his unswerving perseverance andinnate creativity helped him become a prodigiously productive composer. Hiswide range of inventiveness encompassed virtually every musical medium, with astylistic diversity ranging from the most complex to the most simple, from themost oblique to the most direct. With the piano, however, he found one of hismost potent vehicles for creative expression.
Born in New York City in 1909, ElieSiegmeister enjoyed the many cultural advantages of an upper-middle-classfamily. He studied piano with Emil Friedberger and, subsequently, music theoryand composition with Seth Bingham at Columbia University, from which hegraduated cum laude with aBachelor of Arts degree in 1927. Following four turbulent years in Paris,studying composition with Nadia Boulanger, he returned to New York to start hiscareer as a composer, writer and champion of the contemporary American musicscene. He was instrumental in establishing in 1932 the Composers' Collective ofNew York and in 1937 the American Composers Alliance. Siegmeister also immersedhimself in the expressive potential of the American folk-song. Over the nextdecade, he produced much of his truly accessible music, characterized byclarity and simplicity with a particular focus on uniquely American material.
Throughout the 1950s, American compositionturned towards the avant-garde. Although Siegmeister never considered thistrend truly worthy of his attention, his own style did undergo a transformationtowards one that was less accessible to the average listener. This change incompositional direction culminated in his seasoned, mature style, beginningaround 1970, one that sought to express emotional drama as well as to retainand absorb the earlier folk-song and jazz traditions. Throughout this period,from 1949 to 1976, he served on the music faculty at Hofstra University, wherehe enjoyed long-term financial security as well as abase from which to continuehis compositional growth.
Siegmeister's position as one of America'spre-eminent composers is evidenced by the many prominent positions to which hewas elected. He served from 1960 to 1965 as vice-president of the AmericanMusic Center, was chairman of the Council of Creative Artists, Libraries andMuseums in 1971, and was elected to the Board of Directors of the AmericanSociety of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 1977. He died in 1991 inManhasset, New York.
Siegmeister completed his American Sonata in May 1944, afterresettling with his family in Brooklyn, New York. This was the first of fivemajor sonatas for solo piano and the only one that overtly represents, as hewrote in the sonata's preface, "an American panorama, blending jazzy andfolk-like themes with purely classical form". At this point in his career,he had enjoyed considerable success with several orchestral works also based onAmerican themes, namely, Ozark Set (1943)and Western Suite (1945).
Constructed in straight-forward sonata-allegro form, the first movement openswith an animated unison theme in D major. Accents are strategically placedamong the continuous stream of eighth-notes (quavers) to reflect a syncopatedrhythmic feeling of 3+3+2, similar to a rumba. This asymmetrical groupingprojects an infectious exuberance throughout this movement, whether the overallmusical character is energetic or lyric. The second movement, majestic andexpansive in tone, is unique in its thematic material, marking the onlyoccasion that Siegmeister incorporated quotations from authentic Americanfolk-songs in one of his piano works. The opening of the first section is basedon the African-American protest song, Sisternand Brethren, and is the most prolonged melody of the movement.
Other, more fleeting references to two pioneer songs, The Saints's Delight and The Promised Land, are heard in the secondsection. The third movement returns to the fierce rhythmic drive exhibited inthe first movement. Whereas that had relied on rhythm as a unifying device, thefinal movement features a more varied thematic approach. An opening chordalflourish quickly gives way to a syncopated "boogie" theme, which ishammered out in the right hand and subsequently reiterated in a series of rapidvariations. The contrasting second theme is a beautiful melody in the style ofa leisurely cowboy song.
To the average listener, Siegmeister's On This Ground might seem to be a radicalchange in direction. Indeed, by the time of this work's completion in 1971, hisstyle had taken a turn towards a more complex and subtle language. While thefive movements of On This Ground exhibita far less rigorous development and a distinctly atonal harmonic style,Siegmeister nevertheless has here reached his mature style, a style that isepitomized by thematic economy with a touch of Americana. The first piece ofthis suite, Dream Freely, containsspacious phrases and warm underlying harmonies, all freely developed in amanner befitting its title. The second piece, Where?,provides a striking contrast in its acutely dissonant concentration ona single ascending major seventh. The third piece, Ariel, has a mercurial, quality that forms an idealcompliment to the stern mood of the previous piece. Whereas the sevenths of Where? seem to struggle in their ascent,those of A riel fall with ease, ineffect allowing natural gravity to take over. The fourth piece, Summer, paints a dreamy, peacefullandscape. Its avoidance of any strong sense of underlying pulse clearlyprojects a feeling of timelessness. The final piece, Mr. Henry's (Monday Night), is perhaps the most unusual of the suite.
It is an indulgence in contemporary ragtime style, which Siegmeister wouldcontinue to explore throughout the remainder of his compositional life, asragtime was enjoying a strong resurgence in American popular culture.
In 1967, 35 years after his Theme and Variations No. 1, Siegmeistercomposed his Theme and Variations No.2. Dedicatedto his daughter and son-in-law, Nancy and Alan Mandel, this sophisticated workis remarkable in its efficient use of motivic material and dramatic impact. Italso shows the extent to which his command of this form had grown. Impressivelyenough, the core of the entire set of fifteen variations is based on just fournotes: D flat-E flat-C-E. Siegmeister reveals his keen sense of resourcefulnessand creativity in the embellishment and disguise of this four-note motifthroughout, a motif comparable to the famous E-A-C-H motif, but without thelatter's extramusical or programmatic significance.
In 1980, a year after the completion of Piano Sonata No.3, Siegmeister producedhis Piano Sonata No.4, subtitled Prelude, Blues and Toccata. This sonatawas commissioned by The American University, in Washington, D.C., to honour theinauguration of its new president, Dr. Richard Eerendzen. As its titlesuggests, Siegmeister employed a more overt reflection of his own earlier"Americana" period, thus continuing his musical maturation firstsignalled in On This Ground. Heagain uses the element of ragtime in the final movement, while also including a"blues" theme and variations for the second movement, in a work thatrepresents perhaps his most idiomatic treatment of the piano of any of his solopiano compositio