88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

War is a relatively recent phenomena in the brief history of the human species, at least as argued by Velikovsky, but whatever socio-economic, psychological, and cultural “reasons” (and therein may lie the problem) that create wars, societies have encoded the experience in some form, celebrating nationalistic fervor or exposing their inhumanity, from the ancient Mahabharata to the faux bravura of contemporary Hollywood. As long ago as the 15th century, in Heinrich Isaac‘s A la battaglia (circa 1487), battle pieces have been an occasion for inventing novel musical effects: in Heinrich von Biber‘s Battalia à 10 (1673) the strings are hit with the wood of the bow (col legno battutta, centuries before Bartók‘s use of this technique), the instruments imitate drunken soldiers singing eight different tunes simultaneously in different keys, and paper is attached to the string of a violin to imitate a snare drum. Many early American keyboard works inspired by the battleground are equally…revolutionary!

In some battle pieces, national tunes represent the conflicting armies, descending scales often depict flying bullets, sword stabs are rolled chords, and horses gallop in jaunty triplet time; there are trumpet calls, passages depicting exuberance and sorrow, minor seconds (as in François Devienne‘s The Battle of Gemappe, 1796) stand for the marching feet of infantry, low trills are the rolling of drums, fast two-octave glissandi (like Jonathan Blewitt‘s The Battle of Waterloo, 1816-1818) denote the quickly retreating enemy, and in Bernard Viguerie’s The Battle of Maringo (1802) huge tone clusters (!) covering the lowest three octaves of the keyboard, and notated by a circle covered with an X, represent cannon fire. Clusters such as those would re-appear 60 years later in “Blind” Tom Bethune‘s The Battle of Manassas (1860) and, minus the war association, more than 50 years after Bethune in the works of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell.

Approximately 16 battle pieces by Europeans were published in the U.S. between 1796 and 1828. The first of them was apparently Filippo Trisobio’s “The Clock of Lombardy or the Surrender of Milan to General Buonaparte” (1796-98). Trisobio arrived from London in 1796 only two months after the fighting and events were still fresh in his mind. For the second section, Trisobio depicts Napoleon ordering his officers to communicate his orders to the army in an unusual Recitativo ad libitum style.

Philip Laroque resided in New Orleans as Americans under Andrew Jackson fought the British. He reenacted this conflict in his Battle of the Memorable 8th of January 1815 (published that same year). This battle piece contains many detailed effects: when “the enemy fires a Congreve rocket as the signal of attack” in the second section, a trill breaks into an ascending quick chromatic run that turns into a minor scale. The ascent continues to an inverse trill (top note to half-step below), which shatters into flares (arpeggios) that fall back to the initial inverse trill. All movement stops as the remaining fragments float slowly away (a carefully upward-moving chromatic scale). Laroque uses quickening and lessening of rhythmic motion (e.g. quarters to eights to sixteenths, and vice versa) to indicate advance and retreat of the troops. While the Americans are aiding the wounded enemy, the British fire upon them: Allegro and Andantino tempi alternate as harmonic tensions are created and resolved over an anxious pedal point.

One may be tempted to wonder whether actually witnessing the battles and vividly recalling them would increase the number of and sensitivity to details in the resulting composition. Laroque’s piece seems to suggest that that may be so.

Peter Ricksecker employed Viguerie’s tone clusters to emulate cannon fire in his The Battle of New Orleans (1816), and like Laroque, Ricksecker constructs wonderfully written passages of gradually quickening motion.

Denis-Germain …tienne’s Battle of New Orleans (1816), which adds percussion to the piano, opens with a long impressionistic passage of slowly ascending and floating G major to G major seventh arpeggios that poetically suggest a smooth transition from “The Night Calm” to the “Dawn of Day.” After the “Furious Attack by the Americans,” the “Total Defeat of the British” is depicted with a corybantic descent from high on down to a bass roar that slowly vanishes in fragments.

Other battle pieces that are perhaps more historically than musically interesting include Peter Weldon’s The Siege of Gerona (1810-1812) with its quickly descending scales depicting falling shells, and descending first-inversion (6/3 position) chords describing the French “driven back by the Patriots,” and Francesco Masi’s The Battles of Lake Champlain and Plattsburg”(1815).

James Hewitt‘s Battle of Trenton (1797) —A Sonata dedicated to General Washington—was adapted from Natali Corri’s The Siege and Surrender of Valenciennes (ca. 1792, published in Edinburgh). Hewitt inserted American tunes in place of Corri’s Austrian melodies, and the substitution seems to have worked well enough because the piece was popular for many years. Hewitt’s finest works are his three Piano Sonatas (1795-1796), which show Haydn‘s influence, and the Mount Sonata in C (1809). Hewitt’s Mark My Alford: A Favorite Air with Variations (1808) is a delightful set of 10 variations on the melody we know as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” This prolific composer, who came to America from England in 1792, was a violinist, conductor, organist, and successful music publisher, who also composed overtures, ballad operas, and songs.

Hewitt also contributed his share of “medleys” which were another very popular form in the late 1790s and early 1800s—bound, in sentiment, to both patriotic songs and battle pieces. His first medley, the New Federal Overture (1797), combined “Yankee Doodle” and the “President’s March” with an original tune, “Washington’s New March,” and six French songs, indicating that the composer took a pro-French republican, anti-Federalist stance toward government. Hewitt’s A New Medley Overture As Performed at the Theatre with Great Applause (1799-1800) contains “Hail Columbia” and “Yankee Doodle” as well as Irish, Scottish and French airs.

By creating battle pieces in particular, composers of this time were not only generating new harmonies, gestures, etc. that would re-appear (by influence or coincidence) in later musical styles, but they were also breaking up the habitual linear sense of time by means of opera-like scenes, rushing forward and slowing down, emotional outbursts, etc, much like the tricks filmmakers would later invent: irrational cutting and interpolation, time reversal of the physical film or its plot, characters changing bodies, etc. in order to escape the inevitable linear sequencing of their medium. As programmatic sounds began to separate from their original imagery, this “secondary effect,” the creation and modulation of the sense of time would later re-emerge as a “theme” in the mid-20th century.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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