This is volume 6 in
the Continuum series first issued on
Musical Heritage Society and now presenting
to a world audience with Naxos and their
American Classics series. Continuum
fascinatingly occupy the revolutionary
periphery with collections of Nancarrow,
Kirchner, Ives and Cowell amongst others.
Who knows perhaps we will have collections
of Dane Rudhyar, Carl Ruggles and Leo
Ornstein next ... I hope so.
Ruth Crawford Seeger
lived and studied in Chicago and there
came in contact with Alfred Frankenstein
later to become one of America’s most
influential music critics. Frankenstein
introduced her to the music of the European
avant-garde of the 1920s. It was at
his hand that she met the poet Carl
Sandburg. She was to set many of Sandburg’s
poems. On moving to New York in 1929
she met and later married Charles Seeger.
Their children were Mike, Peggy, Barbara
and Penelope. The famous folk singer
Pete Seeger was Charles’ son by his
first marriage. Ruth was active in transcribing
folksong but there is one short orchestral
work, the 1941 Rissolty, Rossolty
- what price a recording of that!
From 1952 there is a suite for wind
Seeger's three movement
Suite for six instruments employs modest
Schoenbergian dissonance in a crepuscular
and sometimes chilly idiom. The five
wind instruments and piano meld perfectly.
The third movement is more sparky and
humorous but the levity is bone-yard
From just a few years
earlier comes the Violin Sonata in much
the same shivering stark idiom although
the violin does sing amid the desolation.
The central movement has a telling little
homunculus dance. The tolling finale
looks forward to the bleakness of the
Suite especially its first movement
and to the Prelude No. 9 from 1928.
The Two Ricercari are
songs setting H.T. Tsiang. They are
stark and sour with disillusion. These
are imbued with protest against social
and racial injustice - proselytising
songs like the settings of Alan Bush
- try Bush’s cycle Voice of the Prophets
and the choral finale of his Piano
Prelude No. 1 is another
moonstruck essay in desolate lunar illumination.
The tetchy propulsive Study in Mixed
Accents peppers and syncopates its unstoppable
way forward - stride piano with malice
aforethought. The Diaphonic Suite No.
1 for solo flute takes Debussy's Faune
out of the Mediterranean idyll into
some peripheral wasteland. The performance
by Jayn Rosenfeld is a tour de force.
Seeger marries bassoon
with cello in the Diaphonic Suite No.
2 and it's a startlingly good match.
Gawky Weill-like humour plays amid the
pages. The balance if interest is egalitarian
with each instrument sharing the spotlight.
This music seems less dissonant than
the other works. The Three Songs set
poems by Carl Sandburg (who, it will
be remembered, was the orator in the
premiere of Copland's Lincoln Portrait).
These are the most protesting sour and
dissonantly challenging works here.
They are lit by the variety of Nan Hughes’
voice and by pointillist instrumentation.
These are fascinating and provocative
settings which show a confident handling
of Seeger’s material. The final song
is masterful; setting verse about honey
bees dwelling in a horse's skull. Sandburg's
steely expression and tendency towards
the provocatively grotesque is matched
by Seeger's richly jewelled instrumental
detail. A rewarding setting but not
for the faint of heart.
Not for the faint of
heart is a pretty good characterisation
of this fascinating music. Such a pity
the disc did not give us Rissolty,
Rossolty, the 1952 wind quintet
and the 1931 string quartet.