Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Dawning of Music in Kentucky

I recently came upon a nice short essay by Kyle Gann called 'American Romanticism: Music vs. Painting'.  It discusses nineteenth century music in relation to the paintings of artists like Frederic Edwin Church and Martin Johnson Heade, mentioning in particular three early orchestral works inspired by landscapes: 'The Ornithological Combat of Kings (1836) by Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861), the Niagara Symphony (1854, though it doesn’t seem to have been performed before the current decade) by William Henry Fry (1813-1864), and Night in the Tropics (1861) by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). All three were based on New World subject matter – South or Central America in Heinrich’s and Gottschalk’s cases, like so many of Church’s and Heade’s best paintings. All three offer effects unknown to European music of the time – particularly Gottschalk’s pop-music syncopations and the rumble of eleven timpani with which Fry evokes Niagara’s cascade. All three are marked by a technical ineptitude that any sensitive amateur could pinpoint – Heinrich’s marching-band momentum badly needs a rest now and then, Gottschalk’s harmonic rhythm is deadeningly predictable, and Fry lapses into Wagnerian banality whenever he’s not being onomatapoetically athematic. They seem today like brave but Quixotic figures, would-be heroes whom the passage of time reduces to clowns.'

Frederick Edwin Church, Niagara Falls, 1857

Anthony Philip Heinrich is a particularly interesting figure: a Bohemian wholesale dealer in linen, thread, wine, and other goods who settled in America and only decided to take up music after the failure of his business and death of his wife.  According to David Barron, he travelled to Kentucky and in the spring of 1818, where, in a move that anticipates Thoreau, 'he withdrew from the musical society of Lexington, Frankfort, and Louisville and went to live in a log cabin in the woods around Bardstown. This was a significant moment in Heinrich's life, for here he paused to study and instruct himself in the art of music by improvising on the violin, and finally to write down these expressions as vocal, piano, and violin compositions.'  His first major publication, a collection of songs and pieces for violin and piano, was called The Dawning of Music in Kentucky or the Pleasures of Harmony in the Solitude of Nature (1820).  Like William Henry Fry, he composed a noisy piece inspired by the Niagara Falls, The War of the Elements and the Thundering of Niagara. He was friendly with John James Audubon and in addition to the The Ornithological Combat of Kings mentioned above, composed The Columbiad, or Migration of American Wild Passenger Pigeons. Heinrich's music was performed to acclaim in New York in the 1840s and there were successful concerts back in Prague in 1857, but four years later the old man died in poverty. 

John James Audubon, Passenger Pigeon, from Birds of America (1827-38)

The article by David Barron quoted above includes an amusing description of an occasion on which Heinrich was introduced to President Tyler, written by John Hill Hewitt, the piano teacher to Tyler's daughter:
'The composer labored hard to give full effect to his weird production; his bald pate bobbed from side to side, and shone like a bubble on the surface of a calm lake.  At times his shoulders would be raised to the line of his ears, and his knees went up to the keyboard, while the perspiration rolled in large drops down his wrinkled cheeks.
The ladies stared at the maniac musician, as they, doubtless, thought him, and the president scratched his head, as if wondering whether wicked spirits were not rioting in the cavern of mysterious sounds and rebelling against the laws of acoustics. The composer labored on, occasionally explaining some incomprehensible passage, representing, as he said, the breaking up of the frozen river Niagara, the thaw of the ice, and the dash of the mighty falls. Peace and plenty were represented by soft strains of pastoral music, while the thunder of our naval war-dogs and the rattle of our army musketry told of our prowess on sea and land.
The inspired composer had got about half-way through his wonderful production when Mr. Tyler restlessly arose from his chair, and placing his hand gently on Heinrich's shoulder, said;
“That may all be very fine, sir, but can't you play us a good old Virginia reel?”'

1 comment:

Southern pride Tree Farm said...

A gorgeous painting indeed and a wonderful post.