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Frederick Shepherd CONVERSE (1871-1940)
The Mystic Trumpeter (1904) [20:30]
Flivver Ten Million: A Joyous Epic Inspired by the Familiar Legend "The Ten Millionth Ford is Now Serving Its Owner." (1927) [12:08]
Endymion's Narrative (1901) [20:33]
Buffalo PO/JoAnn Falletta
Rec. 19-21 Feb 2001, Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, USA. DDD


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Graduate of Harvard and of the Munich Royal School of Music (1898), pupil of Paine and Chadwick, Converse had one eminent 'hit' in the shape of the Indianist opera The Pipe of Desire. This was the first American opera to be performed at the Met (1905). Later operatic success eluded him though he kept plugging away for over a decade with The Sacrifice (1911), The Immigrants (1914) and Sinbad the Sailor (1917). There were various concert overtures and tone poems from c.1905 to 1917 with titles ‘on the run’ from the Bantock catalogue (Euphrosyne, Ormazad, Festival of Pan, Ave Atque Vale).

For this disc we turn from the operas to three orchestral fantasies. The Mystic Trumpeter (premiered by Fritz Scheel in Philadelphia on 5 March 1905 and published by Schirmers in 1907) takes us into Whitman territory also possessed by Holst in his work of the same name for soprano and orchestra. The Converse version is a discursively succulent tone poem, heady in the manner of a passionate Tchaikovskian ballet score but also showing a kinship with Charles Martin Loeffler's A Pagan Poem after Virgil (premiered in a chamber version in Boston in 1901 and then in orchestral form in 1907) and early Scriabin. The themes, including the slow and noble nodding horn waves at 09.03, are fresh if the manner is redolent of the people I have mentioned. Tchaikovskian touches are not uncommon and there is a welter of them towards the end when we are reminded of moments from 1812, Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. The philosophical plot coasts close to the synoptic approach of Strauss in Don Quixote and Also Sprach Zarathustra and of Scriabin in the Poem of Ecstasy.

The five episodes played attacca are: 1) Mystery and Peace (Moderato molto e tranquillo): Hark, some wild trumpeter; some strange musician, hovering unseen in air; vibrates capricious tunes to-night I hear thee trumpeter, listening alert I catch thy notes, now pouring, whirling like a tempest round me….thou freest, launchest me, floating and basking upon heaven's lake. 2) Love (Poco più moto, amoroso): Blow again trumpeter! And for thy theme, take now the enclosing theme of all, the solvent and the setting - Love, that is pulse of all, the sustenance and the pang, the heart of man and woman all for love, no other theme but love - knitting, enclosing, all-diffusing love. 3) War and Struggle (Allegro con molto fuoco): Blow again trumpeter - conjure war's alarums Swift to thy spell a shuddering hum like distant thunder rolls - Lo, where the arm'd men hasten -Lo, mid the clouds of dust the glint of bayonets, I see the grime-faced cannoneers, I mark the rosy flash amid the smoke, I hear the cracking of the guns; 4) Humiliation (Adagio lamentoso): O trumpeter, methinks I am myself the instrument thou playest, thou melt'st my heart, my brain - thou movest, drawest, changest them at will; And now thy sullen notes send darkness through me...I feel the measureless shame and humiliation of my race…Utter defeat upon me weighs…Yet 'mid the ruins Pride colossal stands unshaken... resolution to the last. 5) Joy (Poco largamente, Grazioso, Allegro molto): Now trumpeter for thy close, vouchsafe a higher strain than any yet, sing to my soul, renew its languishing faith and hope, rouse up my slow belief, give me some vision of the future, give me for once its prophecy and joy...O glad, exulting, culminating song!… Joy! joy! all over joy!

We are told by Edward Yadzinski's notes that Flivver was inspired by Honegger's Pacific 231. Do not however expect a naturalistic suggestion of the sound of a car although there are motor horn calls, a Daphnic wind machine, factory whistle and the clang of hammer and anvil. Neither is the music like Honegger's. This is a picaresque mood-piece written around incidents in the life of the car (the ‘Flivver’) and its entwining with social and family life in North America’; more Caprenter’s Adventures in a Perambulator than Mossolov’s Iron Foundry. It is all pretty fanciful stuff prefiguring at one point David Barry's music for the amorous scene between the monster and Jessica Lange in the 1978 King Kong remake. Converse is not averse to throwing in the odd fragment of popular tune either - both Mystic Trumpeter and Flivver contain a reference to Yankee Doodle and there are sporadically wispy hints of other tunes as well; nothing intrusive or kitsch.

Flivver is scored as a series of eight musical vignettes played without pause: 1 Dawn in Detroit (sunrise over the city); 2 The Call to Labor (the auto workers report to work); 3 The Din of the Builders (factory noises); 4 The Birth of the Hero - He Tries His Metal (the car wanders off into the great world in search of adventure); 5 May Night by the Roadside - America's Romance (love music via solo violin); 6 The Joy Riders - America's Frolic (happy, have-a great-time music); 7 The Collision -America's Tragedy (poignant, sad intonations); 8 Phoenix Americanus - The hero, righted and shaken, proceeds on his way with redoubled energy, typical of the indomitable spirit of America. (great fun)

The Endymion Narrative was first aired in Boston on 11 April 1903 and published by H.W. Gray six years later. It is rather Franckian in the manner of Les Djinns, Les Eolides and Psyché - delicate, sensuous without being impressionistic. It is as if the silkiest gestures from a Tchaikovsky ballet had been extrapolated and interspersed with emphatic Brahmsian material. The touch of Tchaikovsky is not hard to find but try 05.01 for a start. Truth to tell this is a rhapsodic piece - meandering and garrulous.

There is plenty more Converse to record. The violin concerto is from the turn of the century. In concertante form there are two Whitman poems (piano, 1905), a fantasy for piano and orchestra as well as a piano concertino (1932). The symphonies are also likely to be promising prospects: 1 in D minor (1898, later discarded and the others renumbered accordingly), 2 in C minor (1920), 3 in E minor (1922), 4 in F major and 5 in F minor (1941). David Ewen's American Composers - A Biographical Dictionary claims a Sixth (I cannot reconcile this with the listing in Grove 5) but says it was premiered posthumously on 7 November 1940 by the Indianapolis Symphony conducted by Fabien Sevitsky. The violin sonata has been recorded on New World but let's not forget that there are also two string quartets (1902, 1904). In 1924 he provided the music for a film of Percy Mackaye's The Scarecrow.

The Naxos recording is fine. The playing is good though no doubt more polished performances are not out of the question. Most listeners with an audacious exploring mind and late-romantic leanings will find a great deal to appreciate in this. There are some wondrously conjured dynamic contrasts.

One small criticism. I am not a great one for literary props and subtexts. However both the Whitman and 'Ford' pieces have a distinct text backdrop and a sectional outline: five in Trumpeter and eight in Flivver. These are printed in full in the insert but the music is not separately tracked. A pity; though frankly, a small detail.

Mr Converse’s music is not exactly numerous in the catalogue. However you can sample his violin sonata alongside two by Daniel Gregory Mason on a recital by Kevin Lawrence (violin) and Phillip Bush (piano) (New World Records- 80591-2)

I do hope that Naxos have not forgotten Loeffler and Farwell.

Rob Barnett

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