Horatio Parker: Suite for Piano Trio in A, op. 35

performed by the Rawlings Piano Trio

(cover image by Kassey Downard)

Horatio Parker was born on September 15, 1863 in Auburndale, Massachusetts. He studied first with his mother, then with Chadwick at the New England Conservatory. He also studied, as did Chadwick, with Rheinberger, in Munich. He returned to the U.S. in 1885, eventually becoming a professor of music at Yale in 1893, and Dean of Music in 1904. Before that, he actually spent some time under Dvorak at the National Conservatory in New York (says Edition Silvertrust). His oratorio Hora Novissima was the first work ever to be played by an American at the Three Choirs Festival.

His music is generally considered to be quite conservative, adhering closely to the Germanic tradition. This is the first work in our series to come after the turn of the century, but listening to it, you wouldn’t know. It’s quite vanilla if you compare it with some other stuff from around that time. No matter though; his students included such influential people as Charles Ives and Roger Sessions. Overall, Parker composed oratorios, cantatas, two operas, only one symphony, a bit of chamber music and some piano works.

Today’s work dates from 1904, but you wouldn’t be able to tell just from listening. We have a four-movement form in the span of about 21 minutes, and it’s titled as a suite, not just a plain old piano trio. One of my favorite resources for more obscure chamber music, Edition Silvertrust, thankfully has a little blurb on this piece (the same linked above).

As is clearly evident, Parker wasn’t a modernist of any kind. The opening, nocturne like movement is not in sonata form (again, this is a suite), but is full of lush, rippling piano textures and yearning, sweet lines in violin and cello that echo each other’s expressions.

As discussed on Silvertrust, Parker apparently had the Baroque era in mind, with his ‘suite’, maybe calling Bach to mind, but this is clearly a Romantic-era work, almost to a fault.

What follows the unabashedly sentimental first movement is a minuet, and the violin introduces a melody that sounds more identifiably baroque, with ornamentation, that the cello echoes. There are pizzicato passages and other things here, but we are reminded by the nature of the music that this is not by any means a scherzo, but in fact more akin to a waltz, as Silvertrust states. It’s of a mild, romantic nature, although it does get more spirited in places, which places I enjoy very much.

As if we weren’t already drowning in sentimentality, we have a third-movement Romance, the slow movement of the work, which again begins with violin, then cello echoing, over lush piano sounds. It’s more pretty music.

The finale begins promisingly, with a bass voice from the piano, something almost ominous sounding that develops into a march, says Silvertrust, but it’s one of the most light-heared marches I’ve ever heard, but even it has a soft, tender passage. I’d say it’s contrasting, but the march was hardly hard-edged enough to give us any kind of contrast with the sentimental swooning shimmers that came before. It’s pretty enough, sure, and well written for the three instruments, but if you haven’t noticed, I am not really a fan.

We’ll see the first of Roger Sessions on the blog this coming week, and he was one of Parker’s students. In Frederik Prausnitz’s book Roger Sessions: How a “Difficult” Composer Got That Way, he quotes Sessions (on p. 58) as saying that “Parker himself had never broken the mold,” and spoke of his “staunch New England heritage.” 

This statement perhaps won’t make sense unless you’re aware of the history between Parker and Sessions, and of their composing styles, but Prauznitz says:

Even toward the end of his life, Sessions owned to a nagging sense of having betrayed Parker when he decided to study with [Ernest] Bloch. He was fond of his old teacher at Yale, and well aware of how, for all his [Sessions’s] distinguished professional achievements, Parker remained dissatisfied with him as a composer.

In the book, Prausnitz goes on to relate, often through Sessions’s own words, how much he enjoyed Bloch’s tutelage and how effective it was, but that’s beside the point.

The impression I get of Parker is that of a pretty staunch conservative. His music, or at least this piece, strikes me as sentimental and saccharine, almost to a fault. It’s something like a lemon cake, maybe, really delicious for a few small bites, but sour and sweet, and I certainly couldn’t eat a whole slice, much less the entire pie.

I find the sentimental sweetness and stubborn lyricism of all four movements to lack contrast and interest, and while it is indeed very pretty music, 20 minutes of it doesn’t do much for me. I’m leveling against the composer judgments based on only one of his pieces, but I would like to hear something like a true scherzo, or a funeral march, or something melancholy or fiery or something else from him aside from what this piece offers. For now, as the first work from the 20th century, it’s certainly a pretty piece, but I doubt I’ll return to it or ever need to give it another listen ever again.

But that’s just me, and Parker himself was an influential figure in American music, as we shall see, so he’s certainly worthy of mention. Sessions wasn’t the only other composer to have studied under Parker. Stay tuned next week (actually tomorrow) to see who else spent some time as Horatio Parker’s student, also at Yale. Thank you so much for reading.

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