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Harold Shapero (b.1920)
Serenade in D for String Quintet (1945) [35.18]
String Quartet (1941) [20.56]
String Trio (1937) [11.01]
Lydian String Quartet, (with Edwin Barker, double bass in the Quintet)
Recorded at Slosberg Auditorium Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts. Serenade 13th June 2003; Quartet 12th November 2001; Trio 30th May 2002.
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80569-2 [67.15]

I did a quick survey amongst a few of my friends – ‘Have you heard of the American Composer Harold Shapero?’ Well, not one of them knew. True, one gentleman of a certain age remembered Helen Shapiro and another lady recalled a poet by name of Karl. But both these had an ‘I’ in the surname and not an ‘E’.

Once again we appear to be in a situation that prevails so often - so few composers are actually known to a considerable majority of music listeners. Beyond the three ‘Bs’ there can often be a huge void in people’s perceptions. This is even more acute, I think, among folk in the UK, with American composers. All of us have heard of Ives, Copland, Barber and Gershwin. But how many have explored works by John Alden Carpenter, David Diamond, or Elie Siegmeister? All are great men, but virtually closed books to most listeners and even musicologists. However, Naxos’ American series has done much to remedy this omission – I just hope that they are flying off the shelves!

So when it comes to Harold Shapero we have a relative unknown quality. As we shall see, he was not helped in his career by the double-edged criticism of Aaron Copland.

A few brief chronological notes will not be out of place as this composer is not at all well known or documented in the readily available reference books.

He was born in Lynn, Massachusetts on 29th April 1920. He took piano lessons at an early age and soon graduated to playing jazz. He co-founded the Hal Kenny Orchestra which does not appear to be noted amongst the great swing bands of the time. Gradually the interest in classical music came to the fore. Shapero studied with what reads like a litany of great 20th century composers. They included Ernst Krenek, Paul Hindemith, Nadia Boulanger and Walter Piston. He met Stravinsky at Tanglewood.

Shapero was later to meet Stravinsky again. He showed the older man his latest Symphony for Classical Orchestra. One can only assume that Igor was not impressed. He advised Shapero to become a conductor!

In 1951, the Brandeis University appointed Shapero to head up the creation of a music department. He stayed there for 37 years and oversaw many developments and changes including the use of synthesisers and other electronic gadgetry.

In 1988, he retired from the University faculty in order to devote himself to composing. He lives in Natick in his birth state.

I will assume that many people will not be aware of Shapero’s musical style. I must confess that I had only a hazy notion of what ‘kind’ of composer he was before I plugged into this present CD.

Perhaps the first thing is to say that he is not innovative in the ways that say John Cage or even Charles Ives were. The defining quality of Shapero could be referred to as pouring new wine into old bottles – as exemplified by neo-classicism. That does not means to say that he lacks originality – far from it. But, it must be admitted that there is a lot in his music that harks back to previous styles. However, this is no bad thing. Bach relied on Buxtehude and Pachelbel to forge his own sublime style.

The problem that Shapero had was being praised by Aaron Copland; not so much the praise but the sting in the tail.

Copland actually highly rated Shapero’s compositional technique and his inventiveness. Yet he said that the younger composer "seems to feel a compulsion to fashion music after some great model. Thus his…Serenade…. is founded upon neo-classical Stravinskian principles, his three Amateur Piano Sonatas on Haydnesque principles, and his recent long Symphony is modelled after Beethoven. …he seems to be suffering from hero-worship complex…"

This criticism had the effect of putting Shapero off composing. In fact, during the fifties and sixties he composed very little.

The Serenade in D for String Quintet is the longest work on this CD. It is an arrangement of an original orchestral work that was made in 1998. The Serenade for Strings was originally composed in 1945; however the composer felt that a ‘reduction’ would lead to more performances of this technically difficult work. The score is dedicated to Nadia Boulanger.

There is a confidence in this work that is obvious from the first note to the last. It is true to say that the Serenade is neo-classical. Certainly, as noted above, Copland had said that it was based on Stravinskian neo-classical principles. But I answer ‘so what!’. Why is this criticism? This work is full of interesting and memorable tunes and harmonies. The formal element ensures that the listener’s attention does not wander. There is a certain vitality about this music that carries us along with it. Sometimes Mozart and then Haydn haunt these pages. But they were great composers and surely they still have much to teach writers today. They deserve to be used as models and paradigms.

The performance of this work by the Lydian String Quartet, assisted by Edwin Barker ‘on the double bass’ makes the charm and classical ‘simplicity’ of the piece self evident.

I look forward to hearing the original string orchestral version of this work for comparison.

The String Quartet is in many ways a deeply moving work. It owes its genesis to Walter Piston, who was teaching Shapero at the time of its composition. It is presented in four movements with the heart of the work being the eight minute long ‘Very Slowly’ third movement. However it cannot be said that this is derivative of Piston or anyone else. It has a unique sound that balances dissonance with nods to traditional harmonic devices. Of course the sound-scape is quite ‘angular’ especially in the faster passages. But this angularity is always juxtaposed with more classical shapes and thematic constructs.

Parts of the intense slow movement are deeply moving – it is hard to see this as the ‘opus’ of a 21 year old. To my mind it ranks as an excellent example of an American String Quartet from the mid-century.

The String Trio is an interesting piece. It is an atonal work that does not hide the influence of Ernst Krenek and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. Yet it is a personable, atonal work. It is fun and enjoyable and certainly does not encourage us to believe it came from the pen of a 17 year old – although it was finally completed in 1957. There is a good sense of understanding of how string instruments work. It is not possible to hide anything in a string trio; every note counts. This is a good work, yet hardly representative of his later style which was to move away from ‘tone rows.’

The music is well played by the Lydian String Quartet. They enter into the neo-classical world with enthusiasm and passion. These works sound vital and the playing does nothing to diminish the force of Shapero’s creativity.

The programme note is perfect. It is effectively an 8 page essay that gives lots of useful information about this shamefully little known composer and his music. In addition to this text there is a selected bibliography and discography. You should note that there is also a CD of Shapero’s Nine Minute Overture and the Symphony for Classical Orchestra. Other CDs include his three piano sonatas and the Sonata for Trumpet. Yet this is virtually the sum total of all that is presently available. I find it almost beyond belief that a composer of such quality and, if I may boldly disagree with Aaron Copland, considerable formal and melodic invention and originality, is so under-represented.

This is a landmark recording of Shapero’s major chamber works and deserves to be listened to by all those who enjoy music that is both modern and traditional whilst never being dull or uninteresting. Shapero’s time will come.

This recording of Harold Shapero’s key chamber works deserves to be listened to. The whole Shapero canon will soon be rediscovered. A great neo-classicist to rival Poulenc and even Stravinsky himself.

John France

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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