The first thing to
say is that listeners must not expect
music like Krazy Kat or Skyscrapers
on this disc. The prevailing style owes
more to Edward MacDowell than to Gershwin.
But this does not mean that we should
ignore these largely derivative piano
works. It is a common fallacy that composers
must continually break new ground. It
is truly possible to write well in the
prevailing style and be successful.
The Sonata which
is the major work on this interesting
CD is a student work. It was composed
in Carpenter’s senior year at Harvard
under the supervision of John Knowles
Paine. The cover of the holograph is
inscribed with ‘Graduation Exercise,
Music Department 1897.’
We must avoid making
two mistakes here. The first is to forget
that it is a young man’s music – and
secondly to criticize it for its obviously
derivative style and conservative sound-world.
There is little in this work that suggests
he would become one of the leading American
composers of his day. However we cannot
deny that the craftsmanship and musical
invention is all present and correct.
The first movement
is the most interesting aspect of this
sonata. The slow introduction gets the
work off to an impressive start. Soon
other more interesting and involved
tunes begin to compete for attention.
All the fingerprints of the romantic
tradition are present here although,
as the programme notes rightly point
out, it is tinged with the soberness
of the academic setting for which it
The second movement
owes most to MacDowell. It is actually
quite an introspective ternary movement
into which the light hardly breaks.
The middle section is more approachable.
The last movement is the most forward-looking.
Here we glimpse the future direction
that Carpenter was to take. Of course
there is no jazz here, nor even ‘cakewalk,’
however there is an interesting example
of 5/4 metre which the composer was
to use so effectively in the Concertino
for Piano and Orchestra and Skyscrapers.
The Diversions are
five short sketches that were published
in 1923. This is music that has been
well thought out and fully worthy of
the composer’s reputation. The first
piece, a Lento is a perfect and
gorgeous example of a purely impressionistic
piece. Debussy could not have done better!
Perhaps it is the one piece on this
disc that I would want on my Desert
Island. The short allegretto con
moto is an interesting experiment
in combining two disparate melodic ideas
into a miniature toccatina. The ending
is hypnotic. The animato is written
very much in a Spanish style – as imagined
by an American! The moderato
is a little faster than I expected.
There is an oom-pah accompaniment to
an interesting little phrase in the
opening section. However the piece develops
into something a little more up-market,
with hints of jazz and a touch of dissonance
that makes this piece bitter sweet.
The last diversion is an adagio
which again seems to be faster than
‘adagio’. It is an exploration of Spanish
and American idioms and is completely
No-one claims that
these ‘Diversions’ are masterpieces,
but they form an attractive little set
of pieces that deserve to be aired every
The remaining works
can quite easily be categorized as ‘salon’
music. This is most certainly not to
belittle them, only to concede that
typically they would not really be at
home in the concert hall or recital
The Nocturne (1898)
is particularly attractive. I accept
that it may not quite come up to the
standards of Chopin or more appropriately
Fauré. However there is a gorgeous
tune running through the four minutes
of this work that never ceases to impress.
In fact there is almost a ‘pop’ feel
to the melody. I feel that I have heard
The Polonaise Américaine
(1912) makes some use of Spanish rhythms,
though not in the sense of an Albeniz
or Granados. There is even a little
touch of the cakewalk here.
(1913) is a much more introverted work.
The chromatic nature of this music makes
it sound more involved than it actually
is. Carpenter uses a variety of exotic
scales which tend to further confuse
the sound-world of this work. This being
said it is an enjoyable piece.
The Tango Américain
was written in 1920 and has the most
obvious nod to Hispanic melodies and
chords of any piece on this CD. This
could certainly feature as an encore
in a piano recital.
The Minuet (1893)
is a lovely miniature that has memorable
tunes. It is one of those pieces that
stay in the mind long after the last
note has fallen silent. A small treasure.
The Little Indian
and the Little Dancer are two
very short pieces that were written
in 1916 and 1917 respectively. These
are relatively simple and most competent
pianists could play them quite well.
Yet the subtlety is in using this straightforward
material and producing two perfect miniatures
that, although not related, sit well
with each other when played back to
The Twilight Reverie
(1894) is like so many salon pieces
that were composed at this time. The
present offering was written by the
17 year old composer along with the
Minuet. Somehow this reminds
me neither of dusk nor of reveries.
It is a little too lively for that!
But a pleasant offering all the same.
The last piece is the
Danza. It is the latest work
for piano having been composed in 1935.
One of its features is the complex changes
of metre. The programme notes cite 35
changes in 190 bars. Use is made of
5/4 meter and apparently a bar in 3½/4
time. I was not able to identify this
rhythmic anomaly. However in spite of
these mannerisms, this is totally enjoyable;
full of good tunes and interesting harmonies.
This is a good work with which to close
So where does this
CD fit into the canon of Carpenter’s
works? His most famous pieces are, as
noted above, Kit Kat and Skyscrapers.
These are undoubtedly masterpieces.
His Concertino for piano and
orchestra is not less accomplished.
I have still to fully absorb his two
This present CD is
not critical to an understanding of
Carpenter’s music. However it does fill
in a few gaps and allows us to form
some idea as to how the composer developed
over the years. The earliest work is
the Minuet from 1893 and the
latest is the Danza from 1935.
So we witness a trajectory of the composer’s
style over a period of about 42 years.
None of these works are essential listening
for the majority of listeners, yet all
are attractive and certainly enjoyable.
What is important, vital even, is the
fact that New World Records have chosen
to record this part of American musical
history. There was always a great danger
that these ‘minor’ items would be lost
in the mists of time and that would
have been a huge pity.
Denver Oldham plays
well. At no time is he patronizing with
what is mainly salon music. However
this is probably the one and only recording
that will be made of the ‘Collected
Piano Works of John Alden Carpenter.’
And as such it deserves the attention
of all those who love American music.