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The Enlightenment in the New World: 18th Century American Harpsichord Music
William Selby (c1738-1798) Voluntary VIII in A major [3.19]
Mr. Newman (fl 1807-1810) Sonata III in D major [4.27]
Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809) Lee Rigg - a Scots tune with 3 variations and a Gigg (qv) in A major [3.42]
John Christopher Moller (1755-1803) Sinfonia in E flat major [3.36]
Victor Pelissier (c 1745-c1820) Three Hornpipes [1.57]
James Hewitt (1770 – 1827) Yankee Doodle with 9 variations [8.55]
William Brown (fl 1783-1788) Rondo III in G major [4.56]
Benjamin Carr (1768-1831) Sonata VI in B flat-major [5.20]
Benjamin Carr The Maid of Lodi: Prelude Air and 4 variations in G major [2.44]
James Hewitt The Battle of Trenton – A Favorite Historical Military Sonata dedicated to George Washington [10.50]
Olivier Baumont, harpsichord
Harpsichord built by Jacques Goermans, Paris 1774
Recorded in the Chateau de Bény-sur-Mer (Calvados) France on 31st January & 1st February 2001.
WARNER ELATUS 2564 61571-2 [50.51]


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This is a fascinating CD. I would go as far as to say that, for me, it is the biggest eye-opener of the year so far. Big words for a programme of unknown works by unknown composers? Not so. This is top-rated entertainment. They may not be masterpieces, but each and every work on this CD is a little, or not so little, gem. They prove once again that somewhere in the world there is an Aladdin’s Cave full of attractive music that just waits to be discovered.

A quick look at the list of composers above tells us that probably not a lot is known about any of them. I doubt that there are any biographies or web sites devoted to their lives and works. With Messrs. Newman and Brown the only dates known are when they ‘flourished’.

A number of these composers hailed from England or continental Europe and decided to make their home in the USA. William Selby had been an organist in London until he went to New England in the 1771. Alexander Reinagle was born in Portsmouth and shipped to the States in 1792. Moller was of German origin, but first came to light in London before arriving in New York around 1790. Victor Pelissier was born in Paris before turning up in orchestra pits of theatres in New York and Philadelphia. James Hewitt was born on Dartmoor – probably not the prison – and had a successful career in London before accepting a post as organist of Trinity Church in New York. Benjamin Carr was pupil of Samuel Wesley before becoming something of a musical celebrity in Philadelphia.

So what is this music like? It is hard to describe in a few words – but what I can say is that the selection varies from fairly profound to fun; from the lighthearted to as good as some of Handel’s keyboard suites.

I have a favourite. Not every piece of music that attaches to itself a ‘Scottish’ soubriquet appeals to my ‘north of the border’ sensibility. In fact the ‘Star o’ Rabbie Burns’ type of musical offering does not make me particularly proud of my Caledonian musical heritage. Yet there was a time in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when Scottish style was chic. This movement was led largely by the great Sir Walter Scott; composers and other writers began to produce what they imagined to be Scottish songs. What they achieved was often pastiche. Yet the work on this disc by Alexander Reinagle is not second rate. Lee Rigg, a Scots Tune with three variations and Gigg is one of the finest Scottish pieces written by anyone, Scots or otherwise. It is full of life, fun, melancholy and love. To my mind only Sir Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Scottish Dances’ excel this ‘Sassenach’ effort.

Close to this for sheer pleasure, fun and enjoyment is James Hewitt’s ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy Variations’. I could listen to this work over and again. It is just so good! I accept that it does not have the sort of subtlety you would get from a Haydn or a Beethoven or a Mozart. However it is pure and adulterated fun! And the keyboard technique is not simplistic either.

The oddest work is also by James Hewitt. The Battle of Trenton is similar to many pieces that were composed during the nineteenth century: pure programme music. I cannot claim to be impressed with this kind of music where detailed descriptions of ‘Cannons, Trumpets sounding the Charge and The Hessians begging quarter’ are musically depicted. But just listen to the music; see it as a kind of rhapsodic variations and enjoy the sound. Mentally try to dump the programme –although his can be a wee bit hard as the Baumont gives a spoken running commentary as he plays-in line with contemporary practice. Apparently it was a fad of an earlier age. Yet, on the other hand it does goes us a good insight into what was once a very common and popular genre –and this is an important musical lesson in taste for those of us who tend to musical snobbery!

There are a number of interesting and competent ‘absolute’ musical works on this disc to. For example the Rondo III by William Brown has one of those main themes that appears to be well known but which one cannot quite place. Mr. Newman’s Sonata III in D major is a fine example of the genre – almost more interesting than a number of better know works by Handel! The same can be said if the Sonata VI by Benjamin Carr.

The short Sinfonia in Eb by John Christopher Moller is interesting for its almost ‘Lurch of the Adams Family’ style opening. Further movements of this work exhibit a very ‘lute-y’ sound from the harpsichord which is quite lovely. Variations on the Maid of Lodi by Benjamin Carr and the Voluntary VIII by William Selby provide attractive insights to the music of the period.

And finally, the Three Hornpipes by Victor Pelissier deserve special mention for their Purcellian charm, freshened by a kind of nautical sea breeze.

The programme notes for this CD are written by Olivier Baumont and are extremely helpful, bearing in mind the general lack of information this period of music. The harpsichord chosen for this recording, by Jacques Goermans, Paris 1774, adds to the wonderful sound quality if the disc.

The playing sounds absolutely convincing. Even the programme music by Hewitt is taken seriously. This is a fine example of little known music being given the best possible chance in life by a committed player. Many of these pieces will probably never be recorded again, although some of them deserve to become favourites. It is fantastic to have this glimpse into the musical life of the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. It is an era that probably few music lovers have ever explored.

John France



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