The Music Room > Composer Discussion

Henry Cowell (1897-1965)

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I have some bits and pieces by this composer but never made much of them.  However, I just bought a second hand Bay Cities CD of music by American composers including Cowell's Symphony No 5 from 1948.  This is by far the best music I have heard from him - lyrical, moving (especially the slow movement) and well-integrated. I think that it is a fine American symphony.

Any other views on Cowell?

Mirror Image:
Honestly, I wish I knew more of his music, but this will soon change. I've heard he was a bit of a radical, but he was also not afraid to compose something of lyrical beauty.


--- Quote from: Mirror Image on March 06, 2011, 08:34:36 PM ---Honestly, I wish I knew more of his music, but this will soon change. I've heard he was a bit of a radical, but he was also not afraid to compose something of lyrical beauty.

--- End quote ---

Thanks for your response. On the strength of Symphony No 5 I've just ordered a CD entitled 'Persian Set' which I'll report back on in due course.

Hello everyone. Regarding the Persian set'. I have had this cd for some time. Cowells use of vocal  contributions from the orchestra reminded me of the different but similairly colourful 'Eventyr' by Delius. There are some newer recordings of Cowell,conducted by Botstein,available on Amazon,(and maybe some other site),for download,which include his Second & eleventh symphonies & a deleted Koch cd,which includes some more symphonies. The sound quality on the latter seemed a bit 'thin' & this should be taken into account before downloading or buying. The Naxos cd's are Cowell in more experimental mode & I must admit to not being so keen on those. Cowell is very neglected at the moment & his interest in the the East makes him an interesting comparison to the better known Hovhaness. There also recordings of Cowell playing & announcing some of his piano music on another cd. Unfortunately Cowell doesn't have a cult following like Hovhaness,but in my opinion he is an intriguing figure who certainly deserves more exposure. No doubt some of the smaller & more adventurous record labels will reach him in the end.

I went through a Cowell discovery process. My BottomLine with Cowell is not that complimentary, but, within such a wide ranging WorksList, there will probably be something for everyone.

1) Piano Music: if you like Cage's Sonatas & Interludes, you'll like Cowell's playful experiments. One certainly cannot overlook Cowell's contribution to 20th Century Piano Music. There is also some Harpsichord Music. I'm not sure about guitar or harp, but I think Lou Harrison overshadows on both.

1A) Piano & Violin Music: I believe there are four pieces(?), including the Suite, the Sonata, a Hymn & Fuging Tune, and perhaps an Air (?). They are all on a 'Complete' cd.

1B)...Cello...: There is the early Sonata (which hasn't got all favorable reviews; I haven't heard it (they say it sounds juvenile)), and a few anniversary pieces, and a solo piece ('Vigorously & Gravely'). I believe all pieces are fairly available. There might be a DUO for violin & cello, but I can't think of why.

1C) Piano Trio: Koch has a cd of all PTs (plus other bits I believe), which I think amount to three(?).

2) String Quartets: Nos. 1-2 are in HC's ultra dissonant style. No.3 is a mixture, from the '30s. The most famous might be No.4, United, which i have not hear. No.5 is Late, and may be very conservative.

3) Chamber Music: regardless of the instrumentation, HC's music will either be in the ultra dissonant style, or the Late, much much more conservative, Style. There are Piano Trios, of which I like Four Combinations for  (preferred version by hartley Trio). Fluffy trifles for cello and violin (Violin Sonata?) tend to be frivolous. Special mention should be made of the set of Hymn & Fuguing Tunes for different combinations of instruments, up to orchestra (I think).

3A)The Quartet Romantic is for 2 flutes and 2 strings. There's the 6 clarinet pieces. There's an oboe piece on a Crystal recital (is it the Hymn& Fuguing Tune, or something else?). There's probably a few other pieces for the other instruments, but I don't think we'll find much substance: at 700 pieces, there must be a lot of small stuff, no? The Woodwind Quintet is one such piece.

3A II) Brass Music: there's a Hymn & Fuguing Tunes for brass ensemble, and I believe one for three trombones.

3B) There's a harpsichord Quintet of the Naxos disc, and there's a harp Quintet on the Mode set.

There's the Set of Five, Persian Set, and Homage to Iran. I don't know how many ensemble works we get here in the trio-quintet-octet range, but the aren't many 'famous' things, so, maybe, if we just look at what's available, and have a Complete Works List, I'm sure we can fill in the blanks in our heads, no? We probably don't need to even scour too far. But there are the pieces Ensemble (including the 'Adagio' (with 'thunderstick')), Polyphonica, 36 Simultaneous Mosiacs, a few of the Hymn & Fuguing Tunes, and the other pieces mentioned previously. That sounds like the beginning of a portrait.

As a rule, HC's LateMusic is all very conservative and pretty, all written after his stint in jail. This can be slightly maddening. This music all sounds very much like Lou Harrison's more fluffy style (the two share more than their share of sounds).

I have a great Mode 2cd set called 'Mosaic', which includes a nice swathe of Chamber Music, in all his different styles. There is a Late harp quintet that is as light and gay as anything. This may be the best overall HC set out there.

3C) Percussion: HC also has a few percussion pieces from the dawn of that era, also. Pulse, Return

4) String Orchestra: the early Adagio is in the ultra dissonant style, but the Hymn&FuguingTunes are all light. I have Koch cds of really light, 'American' sounding 'melting pots' that really do nothing for me. There is also a CPO disc of the same material

5) Symphonies: what?,... we have 17? Perhaps vandermolen got one of the good ones (No.5). I've heard a few bits here and there, and I hear a lot of HC's conservative style. I still haven't heard a very good overview of these Works, and have pretty much given up here.

5A) Piano Concertos: There's a disc of about 4-5 different concertante works. I can't off hand think of ANY OTHER CONCERTOS; can you help me here?

5B) Other Orchestral Music: Music 1957, Synchrony, various orchestrated suites like the American Melting Pot, and so forth, and what seems like a bewildering array of pieces called Air (there's one for violin and one for sax).
There might be pieces called 'Chorale' or Fiddler's Jig, or all kinds of things like that.

6) Eclectic/Indigenous Music: the Iran and Persian musics are ok. The Japanese stuff,... eh. I just find this StoneAge,... so much more has been learned since the the advent of WorldMusic. One cannot discount HC, but I find him obsolete here. Harrison certainly took over here.

All I can say to any prospective Cowell seeker is: WatchOut!!,... there is a lot of research, but not that much reward, IMHO. The Mode set is my pick for a OneStop Cowell class. Perhaps those two Naxos discs will be enough.

I have two Koch discs (one has the Late Concerto Grosso, which sounds very Middle Ages to me), the Mode set, and some other, random, pieces (that Piano Trio, 4 Combinations, I like). I have, more than once, really tried,... TRIED to get to the bottom of Cowell, but I truly think his personal life overshadowed his talent. Whatever happened,... or,... whatever proclivities he might have had,... seem to me to have caused a reaction in his music. He just got so,... fake?,... writing all this 'pretty' music so as not to make any further waves? I don't know, but it sure seems as if that were the case. His LateMusic certainly has no testosterone. btw- he was quite the looker as a young man,... quite the typical gay WestCoast look as an elderly man. Perhaps he was just a Cat Lady in drag? I find Cowell a tragedy. :( Perhaps I've opined too much here,... I'm not seeking a gay debate, however interesting the 'manly' sounds of Ives and Ruggles might compare to the more 'feminine' sounds of Cowell, Harrison, etc.,... CRI certainly poisoned me against this whole topic, oy vey!! ::) ok, just disregard the last paragraph! ;D 8)


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