Classical Music on Radio

Estimates of how many pieces Henry Cowell wrote vary from 750 to a thousand. Many are still unpublished, even though Cowell was able to promote himself, as a publisher, propagandist and performer. In the 1920s he was something of an international celebrity, demonstrating his innovative approach to the keyboard and innards of the grand piano in pieces like Tiger, which is full of tone-clusters, or The Aeolian Harp and The Banshee, which are played on the strings, plucked, tickled and rubbed. All three were heard, performed by Cowell himself, in Tuesday's edition of Composer of the Week. It examined Cowell's music of the 1920s, side by side with the music he helped promote at that time, and included four works published in his "New Music Edition" - Carl Ruggles's sinewy orchestral piece Portals; Charles Ives's stout-hearted choral-orchestral setting Lincoln the Great Commoner; the third movement of Ruth Crawford's String Quartet, one of the most elegantly intelligent pieces of the period; and Schoenberg's Klavierstuck Op 33b, inimitably enunciated by Glenn Gould.

If Cowell was so prolific, you might ask why it was necessary to stuff in all that other music. The reason is that, as one of the key witnesses of Cowell's career averred, Cowell was both a natural leader and an altruist: "You would never go to Ruggles for help; always Cowell!" Cowell stood for more than himself.

Which is more than you can say of most composers - necessarily a competitive lot. But it must be said, too, that Cowell's music, and the way it changed over the years, doesn't make for the satisfying story-line, or the sense of organic growth, you feel in the development of Schoenberg or Bartok or, to take one of Cowell's countrymen, Aaron Copland. Cowell's pieces were like spontaneous expressions of enthusiasm, and his preoccupations shifted from experiments with musical vocabulary to Irish folk music, American hymns, and music of the Middle and Far East. The quantity of his output and the diversity of his activities indicate breadth rather than depth. Yet we always need such fearless, primitive people, and if Cowell's three-movement Piano Concerto of 1928 seems empty now that its shock value has faded, the small solo pieces sound as fresh and spotless as the day Cowell conceived them.

Innocence is the last quality you associate with Stravinsky. In the interval of the concert of his music in Choir Works last Sunday evening, Jeremy Summerly interviewed one of his nurses, Maighread Simmonds, who was with him when he died. Despite the happiness of his marriage to Vera, there had been some deep disturbance in his life, she thought. She never saw anyone bless himself so much, she recalled, and death took him unawares. You half expected her to have disapproved of his composing, but she said it was obviously therapeutic - she saw him, pencil in hand, at a table, never at a piano. Stravinsky called her Lorelei, but although she called him maestro, she thought his music was "sheer madness" at first, and only came to understand his importance and take an interest in his work after he died.

In Spirit of the Age earlier on Sunday, Christopher Page interviewed the amazing Marcel Peres, director of Ensemble Organum. Page said how provocative their performance of Machaut's Mass was, for they endow it with the vigour and character you associate with folk or jazz singers, awakening resonances of the Middle East by introducing throaty little ornaments that sound utterly natural. Peres worked with Corsican singers, who were still in touch with an ancient tradition of singing the liturgy pre-dating the reforms of Pius X, but whom he had to teach to read music. He pointed out that, unless you are a bel canto singer, it's natural to change timbre, or tone quality, as you extend your range, which seems altogether a liberating concept. Hard to imagine him as once the organist of the Anglican church in Nice, still less taking courses at the Royal School of Church Music in Croydon, but he did.

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