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Volume 3 of the American Piano Music Series

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Album Notes

 

Volume 3 of the American Piano Series focuses on the following American composers. Click on a composer name to see full biographies.

 

William Bolcom (b1938)

Frances Marion Ralston (1880 - 1958)

Tom Brier (b1971)

Frances Ulric Cole (1905 - 1992)

George Winston (1949 - 2023)

Harry Burleigh (1866 - 1949)

Edward MacDowell (1860 - 1908)

 

I've recorded three pieces by each of these seven composers and, as I did in Volumes 1 & 2, I've mostly dovetailed the pieces from each composer in a more programmatic fashion, as opposed to playing the pieces sequentially by composer. The only time I didn't do this is with the compositions of Frances Marion Ralston and Ulric Cole. Their pieces were meant to be played sequentially; Ralston's three pieces forming her "Metropolitones" suite and Cole's comprising her "3 Little Waltzes" suite.

 

There’s a lot of nuance and detail in this music. The very best way to appreciate the album is to listen with a good pair of headphones. Try it - It makes a big difference!

 

I hope you enjoy listening to each of these pieces as much as I enjoyed recording them.

 

​- Corte Swearingen, November, 2023

 

Notes on the Music

1.  Graceful Ghost Rag (1970) - William Bolcom 
William Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost Rag" is a celebrated piece of classical music that has captured the hearts of listeners for several decades. Bolcom, an American composer, pianist, and academic, composed the ragtime piece in 1970.

The "Graceful Ghost Rag" is characterized by its nostalgic, haunting melody, which has been described as "elegiac" and "bittersweet." The piece's minor-key tonality and melancholic harmonies evoke a sense of sadness and longing, while its syncopated rhythms and jaunty melody provide a playful and energetic counterpoint. The result is a musical experience that is both emotive and enjoyable.

The piece has been performed by numerous pianists and ensembles over the years, and its popularity has led to several arrangements and adaptations for different instruments and musical contexts. In addition to its popularity as a concert piece, "Graceful Ghost Rag" has been featured in various films and television shows, further cementing its place as a beloved piece of American music.

2.  Metropolitones: I. Harlem Meander (1943) - Frances Ulric Cole
With echoes of James P. Johnson and early jazz, Frances Ulric Cole's "Harlem Meander" is a captivating composition that serves as the opening movement of her three-part piano suite, "Metropolitones." This piece, published in 1943, stands as a vibrant tribute to the dynamic and influential era of jazz music and Harlem's cultural renaissance in the early 20th century.

 

"Harlem Meander" takes the listener on a musical journey through the bustling streets and vibrant atmosphere of Harlem during the heyday of jazz. The piece captures the spirit of innovation and improvisation that defined this musical genre. It embodies the essence of early jazz, with its lively syncopated rhythms and spirited melodies, reminiscent of the great James P. Johnson, a pioneer in the stride piano style.

3.  Metropolitones: II. Lullaby In The Park (1943) - Frances Ulric Cole
“Lullaby In The Park” is the second movement to Cole’s Metropolitones, and captures a sense of tranquility and serenity that stands in stark contrast to the tumultuous times in which it was created. The piece unfolds in the gentle embrace of 12/8 time, a meter that imparts a comforting rocking motion, evoking the image of a mother gently cradling her child to sleep in a peaceful park setting.

This beautiful composition is a testament to Cole's ability to convey profound emotions through her music. As a composer, she possessed a unique sensitivity and a gift for crafting melodies that resonate deeply with the listener's heart, offering solace and tenderness through its delicate harmonies and graceful phrasing.

4.  Metropolitones: III. Man-About-Town (1943) - Frances Ulric Cole
"Man-About-Town" is the exhilarating final movement of Frances Ulric Cole's "Metropolitones" suite for solo piano. Composed in 1943, this piece stands as a tour de force of rhythmic syncopation and innovative jazz voicings. Cole's composition, ahead of its time, transports the listener to the vibrant and bustling Manhattan of the early 1940s. It paints a vivid musical portrait of a sophisticated man navigating the dynamic cityscape while retaining an air of class and refinement.

5.  Winter (1888) - Edward MacDowell
"Winter," the fourth composition in Edward MacDowell's piano suite "Four Little Poems," offers a poignant musical reflection on the season's somber beauty. Composed in 1888, this piece draws its inspiration from Percy Bysshe Shelley's evocative poem. In "Winter," MacDowell captures the melancholic essence of the season, where nature's stillness and frigidity are reflected in both the verse and the music.

6.  A Jubilee (1910) - Harry Thacker Burleigh
"A Jubilee" is the fourth movement of Burleigh's only piano suite, "From The Southland," composed in 1910. This composition encapsulates the jubilant spirit of a celebratory gathering or "jubilee." The jubilee tradition in African American culture was marked by music, dance, and religious fervor, often serving as a commemoration of freedom from slavery.

Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1866, Burleigh became a pivotal figure in American music, best known for his compositions rooted in the spirituals and religious songs that originated during the era of slavery. Inspired by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, Burleigh's work blended African American musical traditions with European classical influences, achieving both national and international acclaim as a composer, arranger, and performing artist.

7.  Breadline Blues (2001) - Tom Brier
"Breadline Blues" is a captivating blues piano composition penned by the American composer Tom Brier. Although primarily known for his contributions to the ragtime genre, Brier demonstrates his versatility and deep musical understanding with this fantastic blues piece. Composed in 2001, "Breadline Blues" reflects Brier's ability to transcend genres and create music that resonates with a wide range of listeners.

8.  Lullaby (1991) - George Winston
George Winston was an American pianist and composer. He was born in Michigan in 1949 but raised mainly in Montana. He has a very melodic and direct approach to his piano music. His early album releases with Windham Hill records in the late 70s pigeonholed him as a "New Age" piano artist, a tag Winston was happy to disavow. Winston himself describes his style as "rural folk piano." This piece is from Winston's 1991 album titled "Summer."

The opening notes of "Lullaby" are gentle and understated, with a simple melody that repeats throughout the piece. As the music progresses, Winston introduces additional layers of harmony and rhythm, building a sense of complexity while still maintaining a delicate and calming mood.

Throughout the piece, Winston makes full use of the piano's dynamic range, alternating between soft, gentle passages and more forceful, expressive sections.

9.  New York Lights (2003) - William Bolcom
"New York Lights" by William Bolcom is a majestic piano composition that masterfully captures the spirit of New York City. Originally conceived as part of Bolcom's second opera, this piece was later arranged for solo piano in 2003. With its vivid and evocative musical language, "New York Lights" transports the listener to the heart of the city that never sleeps.

 

Throughout the piece, Bolcom employs a variety of compositional techniques to create a musical experience that is both engaging and challenging for pianists. The piece is full of complex rhythms, intricate runs, and unexpected harmonic shifts, requiring a high level of technical skill and musicality from the performer.

Bolcom's decision to arrange "New York Lights" for solo piano allows for a more intimate exploration of the composition's intricate textures, rhythms, and harmonies.

10.  At An Old Trysting Place (1896) - Edward MacDowell
Edward MacDowell's "At an Old Trysting Place" is the third piece in his exquisite collection of piano compositions known as the "Woodland Sketches." These ten short piano pieces were crafted during MacDowell's 1896 sojourn at his summer retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Each piece in the suite draws inspiration from the surrounding natural landscape, and "At an Old Trysting Place" is no exception.

MacDowell's mastery of expressive and romantic music shines through in this piece. The melody unfolds with a heartfelt tenderness, accompanied by lush harmonies that convey a sense of deep emotion. The composition's rich, lyrical lines and sensitive phrasing draw the listener into its emotional narrative.


11.  3 Little Waltzes: I. Avowal (1946) - Frances Marion Ralston
Frances Marion Ralston (1880-1958) was an American composer and pianist who contributed significantly to American music in the early 20th century. One of her charming and delightful piano works is her "Three Little Waltzes," which was published in 1924.

"Avowal" opens with a joyful and inviting melody that immediately draws the listener into its enchanting world. The piece's playful character is evident from the outset, and Ralston's melodic ingenuity shines through as she weaves delightful, sprightly tunes that evoke a sense of carefree joy.

Throughout the piece, Ralston introduces playful and unexpected melodic turns that add a touch of whimsy and surprise. These melodic twists and turns keep the listener engaged and create a sense of spontaneity in the music. 

12.  3 Little Waltzes: II. Estrangement (1946) - Frances Marion Ralston
"Estrangement" is the second waltz in Frances Marion Ralston's piano suite titled "3 Little Waltzes." In this composition, Ralston delves into a more contemplative and introspective realm compared to the preceding waltz. While the first waltz may have radiated with light-heartedness, "Estrangement" takes the listener on a journey characterized by complex harmonies and occasional dissonances, infusing the music with a touch of tension and quiet angst.

13.  3 Little Waltzes: III. Reconciliation (1946) - Frances Marion Ralston
"Reconciliation" is the third and final jewel in the crown of Frances Marion Ralston's delightful piano suite, aptly titled "3 Little Waltzes," published in 1924. An American composer and accomplished pianist of the early 20th century, Ralston's music is virtually unknown, which is a shame.

"Reconciliation" is a tour de force that showcases Ralston's virtuosic command of the piano. It is a waltz of utmost elegance, with sweeping melodies and intricate figurations that beckon the listener into a world of enchantment. In this piece, Ralston blends the grace of the waltz tradition with a touch of American flair, creating a composition that is as captivating as it is endearing.

14.  A New Hidin’ Place (1910) - Harry Thacker Burleigh
"A New Hidin' Place" is a poignant and evocative piano composition by the American composer Harry Thacker Burleigh. This composition is the sixth movement from "From The Southland," a suite of six pieces that collectively pay homage to the cultural heritage and the enduring spirit of the American South. Each movement within this suite paints a vivid musical portrait of a specific facet of Southern life, and "A New Hidin' Place" is no exception.

As we listen to this piece, we are invited to reflect on the enduring power of music to transcend time, to preserve the stories of generations past, and to offer solace and inspiration to those who seek refuge in its embrace. Harry T. Burleigh's "A New Hidin' Place" stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of the American Southland and the transformative power of music.

15.  Carmine (2012) - Tom Brier
"Carmine" stands as a testament to the multifaceted talents of the prolific ragtime composer and pianist, Tom Brier. In this composition, Brier reveals a different facet of his musical personality, one characterized by introspection, subtlety, and a deep appreciation for the expressive potential of the piano.

Born in Oakdale, California, in 1971, Tom Brier's musical journey began at a remarkably young age. By the tender age of 11, he had already composed the scores for nearly two dozen rags, foreshadowing a prolific career that would see him create over 100 original ragtime compositions.

16.  Early Morning Range (1991) - George Winston
"Early Morning Range" is a quintessential George Winston composition that showcases his signature blend of contemplative melodies and evocative storytelling through music. The piece takes the listener on a gentle expedition through the tranquil beauty of an early morning landscape. As the notes cascade from the piano, one can almost visualize the soft hues of dawn breaking over a distant mountain range. Winston's delicate composition conjures images of dew-kissed grass, the slow awakening of nature, and the promise of a new day.

17.  A Deserted Farm (1896) - Edward MacDowell
Inspired by the picturesque beauty of the New Hampshire countryside, MacDowell crafted a collection of musical vignettes, with "A Deserted Farm" serving as the eighth installment of his “Woodland Sketches.”

The piece opens and concludes with a somber and introspective theme in a minor key, immediately drawing the listener into a contemplative and melancholic atmosphere. This melancholy theme reflects the image of the abandoned farmstead that served as MacDowell's muse—a place where life once thrived but has since been reclaimed by the passage of time.

Lawrence Gilman, a prominent music critic, aptly described "A Deserted Farm" as the "quintessence of MacDowell's style." Indeed, this composition encapsulates the essence of MacDowell's artistic vision, which seamlessly blends elements of nature and human emotion into his music.

 

In "A Deserted Farm," we are invited to explore the contrast between the past and the present, the melancholy and the mirth, all within the confines of a musical narrative.

18.  The Eternal Feminine (1969) - William Bolcom
“The Eternal Feminine” is part of Bolcom’s 4-movement piano suite titled “The Garden of Eden.”

It’s a captivating ragtime piano composition by the American composer and pianist, William Bolcom. Born in 1938, Bolcom has made significant contributions to contemporary classical music, embracing a wide range of styles and genres in his extensive body of work. "The Eternal Feminine" is a delightful example of his mastery of the ragtime style, a genre that has deep roots in American musical tradition.

Bolcom's use of syncopated rhythms and catchy melodies invokes a sense of celebration and playfulness. The piece is characterized by its lively tempo, intricate pianistic techniques, and a sense of improvisational freedom that is central to the ragtime style.

19.  Through Moanin’ Pines (1910) - Harry Thacker Burleigh
"Through Moanin' Pines" serves as the opening movement of Burleigh’s 1910 piano suite titled "From the Southland," which stands as his sole solo piano work. This suite, comprising six captivating pieces, takes the listener on a remarkable journey through the distinctive American style that Burleigh pioneered during this period.

In "Through Moanin' Pines," Burleigh invites us into a musical landscape that is deeply rooted in the American South. The composition reflects his profound understanding of the spiritual and emotional depth of African American music, infusing it with his own unique compositional voice.

The piece opens with a sense of anticipation, as if we are embarking on a journey through the vast expanse of the Southern landscape. Burleigh's use of melodic fragments and harmonies reminiscent of spirituals immediately draws the listener into the heart of this evocative music.

20.  Peace (1982) - George Winston
George Winston's "Peace" is a beautifully haunting piano composition that stands as a testament to the power of music to evoke deep emotions and transport listeners to a realm of serenity and contemplation.

Composed in the early 1980s, "Peace" is a minimalist and introspective piece that showcases Winston's unique style, characterized by its delicate, cascading notes and gentle, repetitive motifs. The composition unfurls like a delicate tapestry, weaving together a sense of tranquility and introspection. It's as if the piano becomes a storyteller, whispering a profound narrative to the attentive listener.

The tempo of "Peace" is deliberate and measured, allowing the listener to savor each note and immerse themselves in the rich textures of the piano. It's a composition that encourages introspection and self-reflection, inviting the listener to explore their own inner landscape as they navigate the ebb and flow of the music.

21.  Just Peachy (1992) - Tom Brier
Written in 1992, "Just Peachy" stands as a testament to Tom Brier's undeniable prowess in the realm of ragtime piano. Brier, a virtuoso pianist with a penchant for the raucous, crafted this composition to showcase his heavy two-handed technique. The yearning for the golden era of ragtime is palpable in every note.

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