I was sent back to this CD - or rather, to its original issue, dating from 1987, Carpenter: Skyscrapers and Other Music of the American East Coast School, which I've had in my collection for years, and of which this is the reissue - by another similar one which I just heard and reviewed, similarly gathering now almost forgotten American East Coast composers from the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century. In the latter case, the CD was from the Louisville First Edition Encores series and the composers were (by chronological order), Arthur Foote (1853-1937), George Chadwick (1854-1931), Arthur Bird (1856-1923) and the younger Frederick Converse (1871-1940): Louisville First Edition Encores- Arthur Bird: Eine Carneval, Scene for orchestra / Frederick Shepherd Converse: Endymion's Narrative / Flivver Ten Million.
In fact, I found that disc mostly disappointing. The various tone poems collected there, composed between 1886 and 1904, sounded like hack rehashes of 19th Century German romantic music. I didn't need to look into the respective composers' biography to guess that - as was apparently the norm for US composers back then - they were all trained in Germany. And indeed, only Foote wasn't, but then he was a student of Berlin-trained John Knowles Paine.
The problem lay not so much in the imitation and derivativeness in themselves. I'd love for an American composer - or a composer of any country for that matter - to have written a 5th Symphony of Brahms: the ones written by the composer himself are compositions of such magnitude and sweep that four are simply not enough! And a Dvorak 10th would have been fine, too.
But it seems that these composers would not - or could not - so much imitate Brahms or Dvorak, as the most run-of-the-mill German romantic opera of their student days - not Wagner, not Strauss, mind you, but rather Spohr and HIS epigones. Not that the music wasn't well-crafted: it was. But it seemed as if these composers were trying to demonstrate that they could write music that was no different, and not inferior to the recognized (and now most of them nearly forgotten) German composers of their (early) days.
The one piece that stood out, though, was the one Frederick Converse wrote a quarter century later, in 1926, bearing the improbable and hilarious title "Flivver Ten Million: A Joyous Epic Inspired by the Familiar Legend, `The Ten Millionth Ford is Now Serving Its Owner'". The title starts making sense when you know that "flivver" was one of the nicknames given to Henry Ford's epoch-making Ford Model T. The tenth millionth came out of the Detroit factories circa 1925 and the rest seems to have been, indeed, a publicity slogan used by the company back then. Inspired by Honegger's Pacific 231, "Flivver Ten Million" is a musical tribute to the famous car and, beyond it, to the American technological era. But beyond that farcical appearance (which extends to the contents and orchestration of his piece), Converse wrote wonderful music, colorful, imaginative and quite daring for its time. So, in a quarter of a century, a composer could move from writing a rehash of Spohr to composing music of genuine American flavor.
So that's what reminded me of Carpenter's Skyscrapers, which (I realized afterwards) happens to have been composed the same year, 1926, and deals with a a strikingly similar theme. It is a ballet and it received its premiere at the Met. It depicts the bustling city life of New York, traffic lights as "symbols of restlessness", throngs of agitated workmen actioned by the sounds of whistles (the "toilers" also appear in Converse's piece), amusement parks of the Coney Island type, "Ferris wheels, street shows, fun-mad, dance-addled crowds" and so forth - the notion smacks very much of Ives, in fact. In view thereof, the biographical similitudes of Carpenter and Ives are all the more striking: not only do their dates almost exactly coincinde (Carpenter was born two years after Ives and died three years before), but, like Ives with the insurance business, Carpenter supported himself as vice-president of his father's shipping supply business. Composing was a (serious) hobby.
That said, the music, as colorful and entertaining as it is, isn't as original as Converse's in Flivver (to say nothing of Ives'). Skyscrapers does start auspiciously, with a motoric ostinato that could almost be the start of a piece by John Adams, introducing a theme of great epic sweep, almost evocative of, say, Copland at HIS most modernist, or of Mossolov's Iron Foundries. It is all couched in a deft and lean, chamber like orchestration, which allows the brass, percussion and piano to stand out at full bite. But after about three minutes it settles into a more conventional, Broadway-Gershwin style that, as entertaining as it is, I find less interesting and innovative than Converse's. Don't get me wrong though: even that style must, despite Gershwin, have sounded much more daring and innovative in 1926 than it does now, and it is very entertaining, with its use of the banjo, fox trots, brass honks, quotes or near-quotes of Porter, Gershwin and folk and patriotic songs (but without the cacophony so typical of Ives). It is a wonderful harbinger of Bernstein's ballets and musicals, and these were written about 20 years later.
As in the Louisville disc, there is a jarring stylistic chasm between Skyscrapers and the music of Paine, MacDowell and Foote. I'll set aside Dudley Buck's Festival Overture on The Star-Spangled Banner, because, although Buck is, with Paine, the oldest composer of the group (1839-1909) and another Germany-trainee, the very tune he develops upon - the Star-Spangled Banner - is so part of the American vernacular and psyche that it is impossible to hear it with a neutral ear. In a way Buck is here a forerunner of Ives, although he (predictably) embeds the National Anthem not in Ivesian cacophony but in a cogently architectured, classical sonata form. It sounds more like Reger meets the Star-Spangled Banner.
John Knowles Paine (1839-1906 and born a couple of months before Buck) was the oldest of all that group of East Coast composers, and an important figure, both as the teacher, during his 30-year tenure as Director of Music at Harvard, of Carpenter, Converse, Foote and Edward Burlingame Hill (himself later the teacher of Bernstein, Sessions, Carter, Piston and Virgil Thompson), and as a member of a New England group of composers known as "The Boston Six" which included Foote, Chadwick, Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), Horatio Parker (1863-1919, often mentioned not so much for his own achievements as for being the teacher of Ives at Yale), and the youngest (and latest survivor of all that group), Amy Beach (1867-1944). Among those, MacDowell is the one who achieved the greatest and most lasting international fame, and his piano concertos and piano sonatas are still played and recorded, occasionally. Nonetheless, the compositions of Paine (Oedipus Tyrannus, subtitled "Prelude", composed in 1881) and MacDowell (the symphonic poem Lamia, from 1889) illustrate again what I had already heard on the Louisville disc: the overriding models here are not so much Brahms or Liszt or Wagner, as Spohr, Raff and, in the obviously descriptive nature of the music, the world of ballet and opera. In my review of the Louisville disc, I commented that it was no wonder that this was a "lost" generation: other than being born in and citizens of the United States, they didn't have anything to say that was specifically American. An authentically American Classical music was created by the later generation(s) of Ives, Carpenter, Gershwin, Cowell, Antheil, Copland, Thompson and all - and add Converse in his later years.
But the Suite for Strings of Foote (1908) illustrates one more thing: it is not so much the imitation that maters, as the model imitated and the quality of the imitation. Foote's Suite evokes Wagner's Siefried Ydill (some whiffs in the Praeludium) and Dvorak's own Serenade for Strings, and he is not immensely inferior to his models. Particularly noteworthy is the wonderful "raining" pizzicato second movement framing a sentimentally passionate but never saccharine slow section, but even the concluding fugue avoids being just a dry, cerebral and boring exercise, and despite its seriousness, it also develops great sweep and passion. All this makes the Suite a very enjoyable piece, independent of its derivativeness and of the fact that it was composed at least 25 years too late (Dvorak's Serenade for Strings is from 1875).
Kenneth Klein at the helm of the LSO seems to conduct these pieces, and especially the Carpenter, with all the required verve. TT is 67:41. Considering the nature of the music gathered on this CD as I've described it, the cover photo of the reissue is a misleadng absurdity, more suited to the Cowboy ballets of Copland. In the original issue "Skyscrapers" got top billing and it featured a much more apposite view of the Empire State Building. If you want to give more importance to the "other music of the American East Coast School", as the title of the original CD had it is small type, a photo of the German embassy in Washington would have been appropriate too.