performed by the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein
(cover image by Freddie Marriage)
Henry Dixon Cowell was born on 11 March, 1897 in Menlo Park, California “to two Bohemian writers,” says Wikipedia. “His father was an Irish immigrant and his mother, a former schoolteacher, had relocated from Iowa.” He showed great musical aptitude from an early age, and began playing the violin at the tender young age of five. His parents divorced in 1903, and he went to live with his mother. In his teens, before he had had any sort of professional or formal musical training, he began composing.
Eventually, he made it to UC Berkeley and studied harmony and other music stuff under Charles Seeger. He spent two years there, eventually moving to New York to study with, of all people, Leo Ornstein, who we discussed years ago. Ornstein is a very interesting figure, if you’d like to read an outstandingly interesting biography of a man whose life spanned three centuries, but that’s for another time. Unsurprisingly, after this tutelage, tone clusters and all sorts of things made it into Cowell’s compositions, but as Neil Butterworth states:
All but the first of Cowell’s 20 symphonies were written after 1935 by which time he had abandoned his experiments, returning to tonality and simplifying the complex rhythmic patters which had been a significant feature of previous works.
That’s not really the reason why we’re discussing the second, but it’s worth noting.
All in all, Cowell composed twenty symphonies, and was working on the next at his death, but sadly a comprehensive list of all his compositions is difficult to come by. There are a few sources that list smatterings of his published/recorded pieces, and one that seems quite comprehensive but is equally difficult to use/search. In any case, we’ll discuss his second symphony today, from 1938.
It was composed during the composer’s time in San Quentin State Prison. He was sentenced to 15 years for some indiscretions, but only ended up serving four years. The work is in four movements, labeled as follows:
The symphony totals around 24 minutes of playing time, the third movement being the longest by a wide margin. Mark Swed wrote a concert review in 2010 for the concert whence I believe this recording comes. In this article, he says:
Modern performances are exceedingly rare. The current thinking about Cowell is that he was a brilliant innovator who was broken by prison and never amounted to more than a facile polymath.
Mind you, the title of that article included the word ‘revelatory’, and Swed mentions that Cowell was highly respected by the likes of Ormandy, Koussevitzky, Schoenberg, Busoni, and others, but that he virtually disappeared after his death. Let’s see why that’s a shame.
The first movement is relatively slow, and would sound quite broad if it weren’t marked by many stops and starts. It has a number of solos that stand out from the tapestry, like flute and horn. Harry Rolnick writing for Concerto Net says that in this performance, these phrases “resembled a series of easy physical exercises. Three or four measures, and stop. Repeat. Different cadences, different harmonies, but the same concept.” He describes it as very relaxing, reminding one of the subtitle of the movement, but I hear a sense of melancholy, perhaps regret, in this movement, maybe the way someone looks out at the free world from the confines of a cell. I’ve read lately about the perils of interpreting absolute music too literally, though, so we’ll stop there. Undeniably, Cowell has a masterful hand when it comes to orchestral color and texture. Even if the movement is a bit repetitive or stagnant, the picture painted is still very beautiful.
In stark contrast with this is the percussive, clicky second movement. Its almost Latin-sounding rhythms and bouncy nature suite the ‘Activity’ subtitle of this movement. It’s the shortest of the four and doesn’t really go much of anywhere but slightly upward. It continues to fill out with a xylophone (?) standing out from the orchestral texture. It’s not quite frenetic, nor is it as intoxicating and intricate as what we heard from Copland, but it’s certainly interesting.
The title of the third movement calls to mind the composer’s incarceration. Rolnick describes it as “over-long” and mentions quotes from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I don’t find it to overstay its welcome, and as the longest movement, feels like the center of the work. There are some beautiful moments of comfort and resolution here, but certainly a spirit of languor or melancholy prevails.
‘Liberation,’ the final movement, is maybe the most literal of the four subtitles. It’s instantly Irish-sounding, and jigs and Gaelic folk music was apparently a mainstay, or at least a recurring character, in much of Cowell’s music. There’s not much to say here except that Cowell yet again does an excellent job of writing for the orchestra. The music is celebratory, has plenty of power but is never weighed down. It’s spirited and lives up to its subtitle.
The only criticism I might give to this work is that the four movements seem a bit unrelated. Individually, they’re convincing enough; the first and third movements show the greatest finesse in writing for the ensemble, and the finale has plenty of jubilance. However, as a whole, I’m not sure I feel the work has a distinct narrative or connection. That may seem like a silly criticism, but the individual images are a bit disjointed. Sure, maybe they’re snapshots and shouldn’t have any interconnectedness, but I’m not sold there either.
One could say that this work is related to the time of Cowell’s incarceration, or on a larger scale, perhaps of humanity as a whole. Who knows? This is just one of Cowell’s twenty (completed) symphonies, so there’s lots more to hear of him, and we’ll someday get around to another of his works. In the meantime, stay tuned for a few of my absolute favorite selections for this series, and thank you so much for reading.