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Frederick Shepherd CONVERSE (1871-1940)
The Mystic Trumpeter (1904)
Flivver Ten Million (1927)
Endymion’s Narrative (1901)
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
Recorded Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, February 2001
NAXOS 8.559116 [53.13]


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Converse’s studies proper – after graduation from Harvard – began with George Chadwick in Boston and subsequently with Rheinberger in Munich. The air of German academicism has clung tenaciously to Converse’s posthumous reputation despite the fact that The Pipe of Desire (1905) was the first American opera to be performed at the Met in New York in 1910. His theatrical career though never blossomed; later works never receiving stagings. Looking at his worklist in Baker’s one can see that he did his fair share of contributing to the oratorio tradition. What, one wonders, is Job like – a dramatic poem for soloists and chorus first performed at the Worcester (Mass) Festival in 1907 and the first American oratorio to be performed in Germany? Indeed his oratorio and cantata output was notable. He clearly relished settings for voice: La Belle Dame sans merci dates from 1902. He had excellent opportunities to write for such notables as Schumann-Heink for whom he wrote Hagar in the Desert, a work she took to Hamburg in 1908.

But what little reputation Converse’s name now carries is inextricably bound up with the tone poem. Here in one of the latest instalments of Naxos’s American Classics series we have three such examples. The Mystic Trumpeter is based on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Converse employs five sections in his tone poem, broadly moderato, amoroso, Allegro con molto fuoco, Adagio lamentoso and a grazioso final section. The sectionality is highlighted by poetic superscriptions (Mystery and Peace, Love, Joy etc) though the composition is seamless and deft. There is no doubt that Converse was a splendid orchestrator; the examples are everywhere to be heard. However, equally and ominously, the words "superb orchestrator" are often synonymous with "lack of distinctive harmonic and melodic invention." This is not invariably the case but it is part of the Converse Problem. The overarching Wagnerianisms and Straussian influence on The Mystic Trumpeter are hard to avoid though they are never blatant or crude. The work is sympathetically laid out with a particularly emotionally charged melodic curve from 11.10 though for much of the time the thematic material hangs fire. The final eruptive anticipations of Joy, the final section, are brassy and delightful however. Flivver Ten Million (‘flivver’ is slang for one of Ford’s cheap cars) is a twelve-minute piece following hard, it is always alleged, in the musical footsteps of Honegger’s Pacific 231 in its depiction of industrial power. That said, I doubt, judging from the date of composition, and style, that Converse could have heard much Honegger much less Mossolov. Given his literary inclinations Converse headed the eight sections with cod expressive titles such as The Din of the Builders, The Joy Riders, and my favourite Phoenix Americanus – the Hero, righted and shaken, proceeds on his way with redoubled energy, typical of the indomitable spirit of America (great fun). Here’s Converse in relaxed mood, loosening himself from those academic shackles, for a brief respite of pictorial colour. So this atmospheric piece takes in hammer blows and construction noises, imbued all the while with a Straussian mini-epic quality. There are Ford car horns, a little romantic interlude, good time percussion, a pesky triangle, whistles and wails before an automotive pile up concentrates the musical mind. After which there’s some flaky Barnum and Bailey stuff before an inconclusive ending – a rather abrupt one, as if the celebratory life force just unleashed is somehow still going on, distantly, unheard. Perhaps the most accomplished of the three works, in terms of sheer deft and imaginative writing is concerned is Endymion’s Narrative. The previous year Converse had set The Festival of Pan, itself based on Keats’ ‘Endymion’. The later work concentrates on the struggles of the mind. It opens with solo string lines and extreme romantic tracery, becoming more energetic and decisive but still embodying and exemplifying those still very current academic influences previously alluded to. It’s a finely constructed if ultimately not particularly distinguished symphonic poem that shows the thirty-year old not yet quite settled though also displaying a degree of potential.

The much earlier Louisville/Mester recording of Flivver Ten Million and Endymion’s Narrative is back in the catalogue (Albany TROY 030-2). I’ve not heard it – but Naxos does include The Mystic Trumpeter. At 53 minutes this is not an especially generous timing and whilst I’m by no means prescriptive about this sort of thing it would have been valuable to have included, say, the Elegiac Poem or the early overture Euphrosyne (Boston, 1903) amongst others that could have been selected. Still, those not seeking unmistakable greatness might find Converse’s canvass sympathetic enough for company.

Jonathan Woolf

See also review by Rob Barnett

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