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Dr David C F Wright


Wallingford Constantin Riegger was a very fine composer but barely recognised in his lifetime and then not until the 1950s. Today, his music is almost totally forgotten.

He was born in Albany, Georgia in 1885. He learned the violin and the cello as a child and in 1904 went up to Cornell University but the following year transferred to the Institute of Music and Art, later known as the Juillard School. Between 1907 and 1910 he was in Munich and Berlin continuing his studies. He made his conducting debut with the Blüthner Symphony Orchestra in 1910. On his return to America he earned his living as a cellist in the St Pauls Symphony Orchestra in Minnesota. Surprising he returned to Germany from 1913-17 when the Great War was in progress. Here he conducted several opera and symphony concerts.

He was a craftsman. He did not scatter notes on paper as a farmer may throw seed to chickens as some composers do. If you look at his scores with a professional eye you will see that every note counts.

He was not a show-off. He composed music as he felt it, and not to gain public acclaim and that, to my mind, makes both a great and sincere musician. He found his own style through the study of the many masterpieces of Arnold Schoenberg and yet he was not a copy cat. He developed his own kind of serialism and his music has a tremendous strength and power yet it is never noisy or overwhelming. His music flows and evolves naturally. Yet he would insist that music must never be just cerebral or dry.

Like many composers he wanted to be original which is the greatest essential for any composer. He wanted to get away from neo-classicism and both the romantic and expressionistic movements in music. Yet he believed in classical form and structure. The idea of loose music did not appeal to him.

Teaching in various locations from 1917 to 1923 was his first calling but he returned to New York where the throb of the city influenced him to become a composer. He was a friend of composers such as Cowell, Ives, Ruggles and Varèse and formed the Pan-American Association of Composers giving concerts in various parts of the world.

He believed in a certain freedom in music. His masterly ‘Study in Sonority’ (1927) is for ten violins or any multiple of ten and confronts the difficulties posed by form, harmony, rhythm and texture. The ten instruments have four players with the melody line and four provide the harmony and the remaining two a bass line. The motif is a four note theme and the music has a glowing intensity. Everything is meticulously notated. For example, the four notes all have differing degrees of dynamic range. Metronome marks are precise. The four note motif is in three guises which predicts his interest in serial music or twelve note music as it is often called.

In the 1930s he supplemented his income by writing scores for choreographers in America and under many pseudonyms made innumerable arrangements .

Among his dance scores are Bacchanale (1931), Evocation (1933) Candid (1937), Case History Number...... (1937) and Pilgrim's Progress (1941)

Riegger has a great sense of humour. This is seen in his Canons for Woodwind Instruments of 1931. He was always looking at new departures. Dichotomy for chamber orchestra is so named because it has two note rows which conflict in a work of great tension and integrity. New Dance (1932) won some popularity and was rearranged for two pianos due to public demand.

Riegger had great insight and a vivid imagination as shown in his Music for Brass Choir of 1949. There is also a Nonet for brass.

He composed three splendid string quartets (1939, 1948 and 1947), a Piano Quintet (1951), a Piano Trio (1930) and a Woodwind Quintet (1952). His Opus 1 was a Piano Trio dating from 1919 which was available in a record GC 4117, many years ago.

His interest in literature is shown in his choral works La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1924), From Some Far Shore (1946), The Dying of the Light (1954) and Who Can Revoke? (1948).

He seems to have been reluctant to write a conventional concerto. There are the Variations for piano and orchestra of 1953, the Variations for violin and orchestra of 1959 and the Introduction and Fugue for cello and wind instruments of 1960. His only 'concerto' is that for piano and woodwind quintet of 1953. It is probably due to his dislike for showing off and display and I feel sure that his far left politics influenced him considerably. Music is music, not a feat or a contest such a trapeze artist trying out a new death-defying stunt.

But there are four impressive symphonies dating respectively from 1944, 1945, 1946-7 and 1957, the first three being written in consecutive years. They deserve our attention.

The circumstances of Riegger's death in New York in 1961 are both bizarre and tragic. One day some eccentric person was walking several dogs who were somewhat out of control and their respective leads became entangled around Riegger's legs and he fell heavily. He was never well after that.

Dr David C F Wright



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