Chamber Music by Lou Harrison, Ben Weber, Lukas Foss, and Ingolf Dahl
At the end of World War II, American composers faced a more promising prospect than most of their predecessors had experienced. On the material front, the return to a peacetime economy implied more leisure time for potential audiences, more money for cultural activities. Professionally, there would be a chance to consolidate the gains made in the immediate prewar years and during the period of national mobilization, when composers had discovered that there was a demand for functional music – for theater, dance, film, and school use – as well as for concert works. And the growth of music departments in colleges and universities, opportunities for teaching were on the increase, with the wartime baby boom encouraging projections of further increases. A time for optimism indeed – an optimism evident in the genuinely graceful, occasionally ecstatic lyricism shared by the four works in this album, disparate though they may be in other respects.
In earlier time, optimism had not been a particularly appropriate stance for American composers. Their problem was of long standing, and predated the difficulties encountered by the strange ‘new music” that came from Europe in the early years of the century. Back in 1854, William Henry Fry, composer of operas and symphonies, was complaining of the new York Philharmonic Society that it “is an incubus on Art, never having asked for or performed a single American instrumental composition during the eleven years of it’s existence.” But this did not mean a prejudice against living composers: in the season of 1882-83, some sixty percent of the music played by that same Philharmonic – a fairly representative organization in its tastes – was the work of men still living, and later there were those who felt that Tchaikovsky’s American visit, to inaugurate New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1891, represented the high point of the nation’s musical life to date.
Even the battle for Wagner, Europe’s most significant musical conflict of the century, did not take long in America. The owners of New York’s expensive new Metropolitan Opera House discovered very quickly that German opera could be put on much more cheaply than the fashionable Italian literature with its expensive stars. Fro seven seasons (1884-85 to 1890-91) a repertory centering around Wagner’s dramas fixed them so firmly in the public ear that the succeeding Italian-oriented impresarios kept them on the boards. As a result, New York saw the major Wagner works – and repeatedly – even before Paris.
Only in the next generation, when the novel sounds of Debussy and Richard Strauss began to float across the Atlantic, did it begin to seem a handicap for a composer to be still alive. But to be American – even a dead American – had always been a handicap. -- Carter Harmon, from the liner notes