ARTHUR FOOTE: Music For Cello And Piano
Douglas Moore, cello
Paula Ennis Dwyer, piano
by David M. Greene
You may recall that for several heady decades following the last global unpleasantness the artistic avant-garde seemed to be advancing at an increasingly accelerated rate--toward what, no one seemed to know or care. The effect was especially noticeable in the graphic arts in this country, what with Abstract Expressionism g1vmg way to Distract Impressionism, and then in dizzying succession to Pop Art, Op Art, Bop Art, Cop Art, Fop Art, G.O.P. Art, and so on down the alphabet at least as far as "W."
Well, take it from me: if you have doubts about your tastes, wait! Their time will come, as that of mine surely has. In Washington, over Christmas, I discovered the museums were proudly displaying the stuff they used to keep in the janitor's closet and that Mr. Hirschhorn's great collection of modern art was beginning to look old and tired. In the past few years a handsome magazine has come into being devoted to splendid reproductions of Prendergast and Sloane and such people. And just last week, I read in the N. Y. Times that the old avant-garde has advanced resolutely backward to proclaim what I was taught to consider Victorian sentimentality and sniggeringly-polite eroticism to be masterpieces.
For two hundred years and more, we've had a similar problem with American music. We've been told that all American composers before Copland, with the signal exceptions, of course, of Ives and Gottschalk, were epigones, fawning slavishly at the feet of this or that European deity (especially Brahms), and that if we know what is good for us, we will ignore the hell out of them. Yet there have been a few hardy souls who have stoutly defended the best of them in the face of critical snarls and boos--Koussevitzky, Howard Hanson, and, since LP, record producers like ARS, Louisville, Desto, and New World. And suddenly there are signs that there is a more general surge of interest. Mrs. Beach, for example (a comic figure for decades), was suddenly discovered to be a considerable composer. John Knowles Paine's big Mass gets rapturous reviews .. Arthur Farwell becomes a sort of cause celebre. There's a rush on to record the complete works of Charles Tomlinson Griffes. And so on.
Let me suggest an explanation. I found it in the recently published second volume of Julian Budden's great study of the Verdi operas--on page 3, to be exact. He is discussing, with reference to Italian opera in Verdi's time, the radical change from the demand that one work within a tradition to the demand that one "be original"--the curse placed on the arts by the century's Cult of Personality. And he draws this conclusion: '' A good tradition can sustain the minor craftsman-composer; he will be listened to with pleasure not for his individual voice so much as for the ease and resource with which he exploits the current idiom.''
By those lights, it seems to me that if it's all right to admire Dittersdorf and to enjoy Michael Haydn, by golly it should be all right to admire and enjoy the American Brahmsians and Wagnerians and Mendelssohnians. One of these was Arthur Foote, who admitted to his affection for both Brahms and Wagner. Not the most exciting of the breed, he is nonetheless a solid musician with something to say--and an interesting figure. He was perhaps the first important American composer not to have had European training. Except for piano study, he had no music in his background, and went to Harvard planning to do something quite different. But he conducted the Glee Club and took some courses with old Paine and wound up with the first M.A. in music given in this country. For the rest of his 84 years, save for a couple of brief teaching stints in institutions, he made his living as an organist and piano teacher and composed at his leisure. He wrote orchestral music and concerti, chamber music, and choral music. The Brahmsian side is heard most clearly in the chamber music, the Wagnerian in the cantatas.
This record contains, as I understand it, all the music for cello and piano--which performer Douglas Moore is about to publish in his own edition. (He is not the late composer of that name, but the very-much-alive Chairman of the Music Department at Williams College.) In his Foote-notes, he claims to find an admixture of Wagnerian chromaticism in this music, but my ear is too dull to detect it. There's no doubt about the Brahmsian influence--most strongly in the Drei Stucke (Three Pieces), with their plum-pudding quality; but the rest have a songfulness that, I think, comes out of the home-songbook tradition in America.