This compilation, released in 1997, was
part of CRI’s “American Masters” series. Although the label
no longer exists, it is presently available through the website
of New World Records.
Gardner Read was born just north of Chicago
in the college town of Evanston, Illinois on 2 January 1913
and went on to have a prolific career as a composer, conductor,
teacher and author until his death at his home in Manchester-by-the-Sea
in Massachusetts on 10 November 2005 from complications of pneumonia.
After initial lessons in composition and
counterpoint at Northwestern University’s School of Music, Read
subsequently (1932-1941) studied with Bernard Rogers, Howard
Hanson, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Jean Sibelius and Aaron Copland.
Later, regarding his time with Copland, Read recalled that “Copland
and I were at sword’s point for some days because he called
me a romanticist …But it did make me question whether
or not my music was a bit too lush, too complex, for contemporaneous
expression. It made me sure that if I were standing on my own
ground, it was with reason”. Read also has the distinction of
beating out both Copland and Leonard Bernstein on two separate
occasions in competitions: his Symphony #1 was the winner
of the New York Philharmonic’s American Composers Contest of
1937 over Copland’s El Salon Mexico and in the Paderewski
Fund Competition a few years later, Read’s Symphony #2 bested
Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony – much to Bernstein’s dismay.
The pieces on this recording span a 23 year
period and considering them in the context of earlier and later
works of Read’s proved quite interesting. He produced nearly
200 compositions over a 70 year career.
Toccata Giocosa, Op. 94 (1953)
This short piece was written in 1953. This
was the same year that Aaron Copland was called to testify before
McCarthy’s sub-committee and his Lincoln Portrait was
banned from being performed at Eisenhower’s inaugural. The work
was commissioned from the Louisville Orchestra and is performed
here with absolute conviction by those same forces under the
direction of Robert Whitney. Read himself called this work an
“orchestral tour-de-force” and it certainly qualifies as a display
piece. An accelerated, driving rhythm dominates throughout and
the title “Giocosa” (playful) surely is apt as would have been
“Fantasia”. The brass utilize a variety of mutes as well as
wood-blocks struck with a range of sticks – manic forward propulsion
from beginning to end.
Night Flight, Op. 44 (1936, revised 1942)
This piece, composed in 1936/37 and then
revised in 1942, was named after and inspired by Antoine de
Saint-Exupéry’s 1929 novel about the mail planes that flew the
South American Andes - also made into a movie starring John
Barrymore and Clark Gable in 1933. Howard Hanson conducted the
first performance, given by the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra
on 27 April 1944.
Read wrote that in this work: “… the composer
has sought to express the loneliness and mysterious beauty of
the space in which these planes must fly”. Admittedly, the impression
upon first hearing this music was that of a Sci-Fi movie soundtrack
– Forbidden Planet immediately came to mind. Of course
the eeriness and mystery of “night-flying” is depicted quite
precisely and surely must have made rather an impression in
its day. There is hollowness and vacuity to this music that
evokes the loneliness and ambiguity of space in an uncanny manner
– very effective!
The orchestra employs a tam-tam - a type
of Chinese gong - rolled with soft wool sticks, harp and vibraphone
with oboes, trombones and bassoons used to evoke the flight
of the plane as it passes overhead and then fades away into
the silent distance. This is six and a half minutes of taut
material perfectly balanced and presented most successfully
by the Louisville Orchestra once again led by Robert Whitney.
Symphony #4, Op. 92 (1958)
Gardner Read composed four symphonies, the
first of which was premiered by Sir John Barbirolli and the
New York Philharmonic in 1937, the second in 1943 by the Boston
Symphony Orchestra under the composer’s direction, the third
in 1962 by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra led by William
Steinberg and this final one, in two movements, premiered by
the Cincinnati Symphony under Erich Kunzel on 30 January 1970
– 12 years after it was completed! This recording is a live
performance of the Cleveland premiere of 10 April 1980 featuring
the Cleveland Orchestra lead by Lorin Maazel.
The common denominator of these four symphonies
is the prevailing mood of romanticism. As a point of reference, other symphonies
of note by American composers from 1958 included: Henry Cowell’s
Symphony #13, Ross Lee Finney’s Symphony #2, Vincent
Persichetti’s Symphony #7, Roger Sessions’ Symphony
#4, William Grant Still’s Symphony #5 and Charles Wuorinen’s
The first movement, marked “Largo con intenzita,
Tranquillo assai”, starts with a tender melody played by a lone
cello soon to total six cellos playing an extended canon. The
cello sextet gives way to the brass and the movement changes
direction, texturally and emotionally. There is a transitory
shift and the music relaxes through the lovely and plaintive
lament of a solo clarinet – here, once again, is the Gardner
Read of the earlier song-cycles, romantic and sensitive. This
brief respite however is ultimately overtaken by the passion
of searing violins leading to the eventual return of a solo
clarinet, then the cello sextet again and finally the solo cello
as the movement dissolves as it began - an orchestral palindrome.
The second movement, “Lento sostenuto, Allegro
scherzando”, begins with a short introduction, orchestra playing
at full force - although lento, leading into a grotesque, Mahlerian
scherzo. This music is more percussive and complex than in the
preceding movement, but not any less affecting. The heralding
of four horns in unison leads us to a grave melody played by
the cellos, then a quiet theme in the woodwinds, strings and
brass as the symphony peacefully fades away.
The sound, especially for a live recording,
is of demonstration quality and the Cleveland Orchestra is in
world-class form – the impression left is that Maazel must have
had a sincere affinity for this music.
Los Dioses Aztecas (The Aztec Gods), Op. 107 (1959)
This suite for percussion ensemble was composed
as a result of a trip that Gardner Read made to Mexico in the
summer of 1957 and the personal impressions inspired by the
sculptures of the Aztec deities on display at the National Museum
in Mexico City. The suite is scored for six percussionists performing
on 60 instruments! Included are: marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone,
tom-toms, tambourines, gongs, chimes, triangles, woodblocks,
sandpaper blocks, claves, raspers, maracas and even a thunder
The work was dedicated to Paul Price and
the Manhattan Percussion Ensemble who premiered the work on
8 March 1960 at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.
The Aztecs believed that they existed in
a turbulent and antagonistic world that was ruled by unpredictable
deities who needed to be appeased. They worshipped clouds, fire,
the earth and forests and identified different gods with such
phenomenon as the sun, the moon, planets and stars, earthquakes,
water, rain. To please these gods the Aztecs would make them
offerings - the highest act of piety being human sacrifice -
the victims’ burned after their hearts were removed.
Read chose seven Aztec Gods as the subjects
of this suite: Xiuhtecuhtli: Dios del Fuego (God of Fire), Mictecacihuatl:
Diosa de los Muertos (Goddess of the Dead), Tlaloc: Dios de
la Lluvia (God of Rain), Tezcatlipoca: Dios de la Noche (God
of Night), Xochipilli: Dios de la Alegria y la Danza (God of
Pleasure and Dance), Coyolxauhqui: Diosa de la Luna (Goddess
of the Moon) and Huitzilopochtli: Dios de la Guerra (God of
I. Xiuhtecuhtli: Dios del Fuego (God of
(With savage energy)
The God of Fire, also known as “The Turquoise
Lord”, was considered the creator of all life, the mother and
father of all the gods.
The opening ritualistic drums and bells
shortly fade into silence, and then return, accompanied by chimes
and woodblocks followed by another silence and an abrupt flurry
to finish. A definite “hard bop” feel à la Art Blakey and The
II. Mictecacihuatl: Diosa de los Muertos
(Goddess of the Dead)
(Slowly and solemnly)
The Goddess of the Dead was believed to
have been sacrificed as an infant, her purpose being to watch
over the bones of the dead.
This music starts, continues and ends very
quietly and mystically – almost as if rising out of the ground
– hushed, only a whisper, a hint of life - so quiet in fact,
that I had to check my system and listen on another player just
to make sure.
III. Tlaloc: Dios de la Lluvia (God of Rain)
(Moderately fast, with steadiness)
The Rain God ruled with a grim humor often
“forgetting” to provide rainfall and had a legion of admirers
but was also greatly feared and tragically, was appeased by
the drowning of children. It is said that the children’s tears
were collected and offered up to Tlaloc before they were put
This music also starts with drums, but with
a much more ominous and sinister impression - fearful with a
warning of some sort – a bare interlude.
IV. Tezcatlipoca: Dios de la Noche (God
(Slowly and mysteriously)
The God of Night inspired fear – usually
depicted as black with a yellow stripe across his face, he also
represented enmity and strife.
The sweet tinkling of the xylophone and
chimes belies the fear that this deity imposed – played “piano”
V. Xochipilli: Dios de la Alegria y la Danza
(God of Pleasure and Dance)
(Gracefully and lightly)
The God of Pleasure and Dance, also known
as the “Flower Prince”, is often depicted as being in a state
There is a slightly hallucinogenic quality
present here in a way reminiscent of the Bacchanale from
Saint-Säens’ Samson et Delilah - the gentleness of the
xylophone and blocks giving way momentarily to the drums.
VI. Coyolxauhqui: Diosa de la Luna (Goddess
of the Moon)
(Quietly, with serenity)
The Goddess of the Moon was also a magician
and leader of the “Star Gods”. Legend has it that her head was
cut off, was thrown into the sky and became the moon.
The music is ethereal and transparent, effectively
evocative of the emptiness of space, or perhaps, a lunar landscape.
VII. Huitzilopochtli: Dios de la Guerra
(God of War)
(Broadly; Fast and fiercely)
The God of War was also the tribal god of
the Aztecs and was identified with the sun – worshipped fanatically
by Moctezuma who once captured sixty-two Spaniards and sacrificed
them to Huitzilopochtli in front of Cortes and his men.
War drums, rolling thunder, a call to arms
and an army on the march – drums and blocks dominate the first
half as the playing accelerates. Drums, bells, crashing cymbals
as the battle rages on to the end.
The Paul Price Percussion Ensemble led by
Paul Price himself acquit themselves most impressively – beyond
After becoming familiar and quite enamored
of such earlier compositions of Read’s as the Four Nocturnes,
Op. 23 of 1933/34, Songs for a Rainy Night, Op. 48 of
1939/40 and the particularly moving A Sheaf of Songs, Op.
84 of 1949/50 (all available on Albany Records, Troy CD-336),
and a later composition such as the Concerto for Piano and
Orchestra, Op. 130 of 1973/78 (available on Albany Records,
Troy CD-245), these works were certainly an unexpected surprise.
His ability to work within varied genres in such a substantial
manner, so tastefully and so convincingly is both admirable
Gardner Read is a creative artist clearly
worthy of the utmost respect and his music deserves to be more
widely known and much more generously represented in the catalogue.