Friday, August 2, 2013

Tuckaway in Early Summer: Part One

The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT!
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut

As I mentioned before, the first program in this series of recitals will begin with some of my most recent compositions for the piano and conclude with pieces written much earlier. (See the blog of July 30th for the list.) The one exception is “Forty Times Forty,” written in 1995. I’ll discuss that in due course. Today I’m going to write about the first piece on the program, “Tuckaway in Early Summer.”

For many years I was active as a performer at the Florence Griswold Museum, one of our state’s most beautiful small museums. Located on the shores of the Lieutenant River, only a stone’s throw from Interstate 95 (though you would never know it, so cleverly is the noisy highway masked by trees and water), the FGM is devoted to American art, particularly American impressionism. Before it was a museum it was the home of Florence Griswold, heiress, spinster, and patron of the arts. It became an artists colony, frequented by painters of all backgrounds and levels of reputation, including the great Childe Hassam.

As part of a silent auction in 2007, to benefit the museum, I agreed to write a piece for whoever made the high bid. The couple who did this wanted me to compose something inspired by their vacation property, named Tuckaway. In the fall of 2007 I made a visit to the site, manuscript paper in hand. I revisited the property in the spring of 2008, to make more on-site sketches. I composed the piece at my home, and played it informally at Tuckaway in June of the same year.

The official premiere of the piece took place at the FGM on Wednesday 23 July, 2008. It opened a concert called Piano as Palette,  a tribute to American impressionist composers, performed in conjunction with a major exhibit of paintings by American impressionists. The museum has a very fine piano, which was moved into the largest of the galleries. The music, presented in the middle of so many gorgeous paintings, made a wonderful effect.

After “Tuckaway” I played the Roman Sketches of Charles Griffes, “Impressions of the Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas” by Arthur Farwell, and a virtuoso piece by Farwell entitled “Flame-Voiced Night,” inspired by a poem of Tagore. After intermission I performed lighter fare by Zez Confrey and Bix Beiderbecke. The evening closed with Phyllis singing Gitanjili by John Alden Carpenter—six of the finest Tagore settings you will ever hear.  (Phyllis loved this cycle and sang it beautifully. More on this subject in a later blog.) Here’s what I wrote in the program notes, which includes what I wrote in the score:

“’Tuckaway in Early Summer’ is my most recent piano piece. Its method of composition directly parallels that of many of the American impressionist painters working in Giverny. The listener will clearly hear the influence of Debussy, the master of musical impressionism, as well as other early twentieth century composers (including Ives). As I say in the score:

“This composition is inspired by property (buildings and grounds) atop a hill on Black Point, near Niantic, Connecticut. There are three smaller buildings (a woodshed, a playhouse and a workshop/boathouse) and a grand house suitable for entertaining. A magnificent stone wall crawls in the direction of the water. The wind is almost constant. One imagines people gathered around the piano, singing songs of another time. One is always aware of the weather.

“All of the musical ideas used in this work were scribbled on location, then made into a piece at my home studio, much as a visual artist might sketch en plein air and paint in his or her atelier.”

“Tuckaway in Early Summer” is my only descriptive piano piece. I have loved the genre of descriptive piano music, déclassé as it is, ever since I discovered it as a teenager—quite serendipitously. In a small volume of Elizabethan works for the virginals (selections from My Ladye Nevells Booke), I found “The Battell” by William Byrd. When I became so fascinated by American parlor music in graduate school, I discovered lots of other descriptive stuff. Although I never played the Byrd battle piece in public I made up for it by recording “The Battle of Marengo” by Bernard Viguerie, and playing many. many performances over the years of “The Battle of Trenton” by James Hewitt. There are lots and lots of other action-packed descriptive pieces in the American repertory — “Ben Hur’s Chariot Race” by E. T. Paull, for example, or “The Great Crush Collision March” of Scott Joplin.

“Tuckaway” is a description of a landscape, rather than an action, and it has a very different feel from the aforementioned battles, or even something like “A Day at Berkeley Springs” — a description of a famous resort hotel in West Virginia, composed in 1851 by Erneste Szemelnyi. (Now there’s an obscure piece! It’s wonderful, BTW.) Today’s comments are by way of introduction. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the music itself.

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