Arthur Foote: Piano Quintet in Am, op. 38

performed by the DaVinci Quartet and James Barbagallo, or as below by five other people

second and third/fourth movements

(cover image by Matthew Landers)

Arthur William Foote was born on March 5, 1853 in Salem, Massachusetts. He was organist of the First Church in Boston for 32 years, starting in 1878. There’s not a lot about his musical upbringing on Wikipedia, which is honestly as far as I tried looking. He was a member of the Boston Six, along with Chadwick, Beach, Paine, MacDowell, and Parker.

Of note, though, with regard to his training, is that he’s the first “noted American classical composer” be trained entirely on American soil, leading Wikipedia to say that “in some sense he is to music what American poets were to literature before Walt Whitman.”

He also took an interest in the music of Brahms and Wagner, arranging performances of their music. Imagine a time where Brahms and Wagner were new and like, not popular, and came from across The Pond and needed good press.

Aside from his compositions, he was also a teacher and writer on music, writing books on subjects such as harmony and piano technique. His musical output is largely chamber music, with pieces for cello or violin with piano, including ballads and sonatas, three string quartets, two piano trios, a piano quartet, a suite for strings, and today’s piano quintet, completed in 1897. Naxos tells us that “The first performance took place on 31st January, 1898 in Boston with the Kneisel Quartet and the composer at the piano.”

As with some of the pieces we discussed earlier in the week, I’d say this piece is more a testament to the irrefutable quality of American composers at the end of the 19th century, easily on par with their European counterparts, rather than the emergence of an identifiably American voice. You’ve gotta start somewhere, though, and there are glimpses of folk-like passages and some American-sounding sections of this work. What do you think?

Foote’s quintet begins in medias res, almost mid-phrase, even. The piano writing stands out from the beginning of this work, which isn’t to say the writing for strings lacks anything. In fact, it sounds full, almost symphonic at times, but always intimate. There is a Brahmsian sound to this work as well, an inherent, rich musicality, but also a Dvorak-ian rustic nature, an undeniable European influence, but again, we’ll hear a few things that I’d like to attribute to an American composer finding an American voice.

Overall, the first movement covers a lot of ground to be less than 7 minutes in length, accomplishing quite a lot in a small package. Themes are crystal-clear as they reappear in the recapitulation (and really throughout the first movement). I am bittersweet about the movement’s end, because it is thoroughly enjoyable, compact, but almost too much so. I feel that the movement could have easily been twice as long, with its three themes, and still have something more to say, but we move on to the second movement.

This is the longest of the four, at least in this Naxos recording. From the opening, almost lullaby-like first utterance of the piano, the movement is peaceful, even comforting. Strings enter, and there’s a serenade-like lyricism to the music. I’d say something about the piano’s material sounds American-esque, perhaps in its almost hymn-like quality. It’s truly beautiful, delicate, and this slow movement, in a more relaxed atmosphere, is a perfect compliment to what came before it. The instruments stand out more individually, even among the strings, and we have a chance to savor some really delicious, masterful chamber music, like being in a comfortable bed with a cup of something delicious at the end of the day, with a crackling log in the fireplace. It ends quietly.

The scherzo is the shortest movement of this rather small chamber work, and it’s buzzing with energy, a bit of a quirky piece, with plucked strings, some interesting rhythms, and lots of piano flourishes and runs, vivid textures. We’re not talking anything like Copland obviously; it’s still squarely within the Romantic tradition, but an interesting little movement with a quaint trio.

The finale is a four-part rondo, which begins with celebratory spirit, quickly cooling off to another pentatonic, maybe almost American-sounding phrase before that opening gesture returns. I feel like this content is related to what came before somehow, but Naxos tells us that only the “fourth part is based on the third theme used in the first movement,” and that it’s rare for Foote to use any kind of cyclical structure in his works. This movement sounds more overtly virtuosic, but then again, these kind of fireworks are suitable for a finale. That opening gesture obviously appears here and there, and its celebratory sound comes at least in part from the whole quintet sounding together in that one phrase before continuing on with their own parts.

As a chamber work, the first we’ve discussed in our American series, Foote shows a keen ability to write for a chamber ensemble, presenting a work that is rather compact but full of treasures to enjoy. The only reason I can imagine a piece like this isn’t played more often is just because it needs more exposure. I’d never heard of Arthur Foote until I began this series and it took a little digging to come across his name. Thankfully, people like Naxos are working to present music like this instead of yet another set of recordings of Brahms’s chamber music or something. This stuff is more than worthy of a few listens.

In any case, stay tuned, because tomorrow, we finally move out of the 19th century tomorrow and into the 20th, but next week, we’ll do one quick little backslide to another piece from around this time, because its composer needs to be mentioned. Aside from that, it’s all 20th century from here, but that’s nothing to be afraid of, at least not yet. Thank you so much for reading.

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3 thoughts on “Arthur Foote: Piano Quintet in Am, op. 38

    1. I do quite a bit of research for these series I write, and a lot of it goes back to who was whose teacher, who sits in the shadows, somewhat forgotten, while their students, or students’ students, get all the glory. There’s so much out there to discover, and it’s so much easier now than in the past. Nice piece, this one.

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