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March 14, 2000

Modern ComposersAmerican Classics: Elie Siegmeister, Piano Music, Volumes One & Two. Vol 1: American Sonata; On This Ground; Theme and Variations No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 4; Piano Sonata No. 5. Vol 2: Sunday In Brooklyn; Piano Sonata No. 2; Theme and Variations No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 3; From These Shores. Kenneth Boulton, piano. (Naxos, CD # 8.559020, 8.559021) 1999.

Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) is one of the large group of American composers who have productive careers -- as performer and influential educator as well as composer in this case -- but who are hardly known to the public. Siegmeister was born in New York "into an upper- middle-class family of Russian-Jewish origin." His father's enthusiasm for serious music infected young Elie, and he studied music theory and composition first at Columbia, then in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. After four years in Paris, he returned to New York, where he spent the rest of his life. During the 1930s, he was involved with the Composers' Collective of New York, a group whose project was to introduce "classical" music to students and workers. In the 1940s, Siegmeister continued in that vein by incorporating "the American folk-song tradition" in his compositions. "Many of his most popular works come from this period and coincide with an overall shift in American composition towards music of simplicity and directness."

This pair of new releases from Naxos contains a sampling of Siegmeister's works for piano, spanning more than forty years, from American Sonata, composed in 1944, to the Piano Sonata No. 5 from 1987. Though this collection includes only piano works, Siegmeister also wrote orchestral and chamber works, and in the 1930s write a Broadway musical, Sing Out, Sweet Land. The titles of some of his orchestral works from the 1940s convey a hint of his intent in these compositions -- Sunday in Brooklyn, Wilderness Road, Prairie Legend, Western Suite. And the piano works heard on the present albums, though not all overtly programmatic, similarly aim for a distinctly American flavor. This is most apparent in the five-part suite From These Shores.

Written in 1985, the suite From These Shores is a reflection "on various aspects of the American experience." The five sections are named after five of the nation's greatest and most characteristically American authors -- Whitman, Mark Twain, Thoreau, Langston Hughes, and Faulkner -- and are based on specific passages from the work of each one. The first movement was inspired by "Starting From Paumonok" from Leaves of Grass. The composer said he chose this passage because is "asks where we came from." Fittingly for such a profound question, it is "the most rhapsodic movement, containing sweeping arpeggios, loosely woven counterpoint and fluctuating tempi." The second section, much lighter in tone, was inspired by Tom Sawyer's fence-whitewashing party. Section three, Thoreau, recalls the "sunlit loneliness of the New England woods" described in Summer in Walden. The fourth section takes an abruptly different tone. Whereas Thoreau reflects a scene of "quiet stillness," this high-energy movement is based on Montage of a Dream Deferred, which Siegmeister saw as Hughes' "dancing, laughing, sardonic, bitter-sweet images of Harlem." The final movement is inspired by Faulkner's words from A Fable: "I don't fear man...because man and his folly will endure....They will do more. They will prevail." This note of open-eyed optimism perfectly captures the mood of Siegmeister's music.

You can hear From These Shores by Elie Siegmeister on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, March 16 at 7:00 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

---J. Green

The Harbinger