Polish National Radio Orchestra; Norwegian Choir of Solo Singers; Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; William Strickland, Conductor
Variations for Orchestra, which Henry Cowell composed for Thor Johnson and the Cincinnati Orchestra, was completed in 1956 and revised for Leopold Stokowski, before he conducted it in Houston in 1959. It may be said to belong to Cowell's final "period," a period of esthetic retrenchment, of complete control of all the idioms which he had absorbed and digested for so many years.
Cowell said of the theme that, though it makes use of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale, it is not developed according to the row technique; he said, paradoxically, that it is "diatonic without following any particular mode," The harmonic language is equally eclectic, ranging freely, as he said, from simple triads to large segundal combinations and polychords — his own mature meta- morphosis of the early tone clusters.
The title, "... if He please" is taken from the text of "The Preface," by the Puritan clergyman and poet, Edward Taylor (1645-1729). The poem is in praise of God Almighty:
"His hand hath made this noble work which Stands
His glorious Handywork not made with hands,
Who spoke all words from Nothing and with ease
Can speak all things to Nothing if He please."
The music synthesizes many elements from Cowell's earliest experimentation and exploration — including the segundal dissonances characteristic of his early tone cluster piano pieces (CRI 109) and the American colonial style of his hymn and fuguing tunes that he composed during the 1940s. The effect is of a majestic "ecumenical music" (to use Hugo Weisgall's phrase from his survey of Cowell's work in the October 1959 Musical Quarterly) that captures both the picturesque imagery and the sheer grandeur of Taylor's visionary poem.
Synchrony was conceived as a collaborative effort between Cowell and the modern dancer, Martha Graham, in 1930. The title reflects the collaborators' thesis that the composition as a whole be a synthesis of the arts, with music, dance and ''stylized lighting" making equal, though semi- autonomous, contributions toward the total effect.
The novelty of Synchrony was to be that instead of the music providing a "floor" for the dancers, upon which they would match their movements to the rhythms of the orchestra, the two elements were to perform in counterpoint and even in opposition to each other. In a program note written for a premiere that never took place, the creators stated their recognition of the age- old conflict between choreographer and composer for the attention of the audience, and then their solution: "Just as in a three-part polyphonic musical work one will find very often one of the three parts stationary while the other two move in contrary motion, so one finds in Synchrony that, if the music is at its climax the dance is quiescent and vice versa . . . The attention of the auditor will not be diverted by trying to follow two climaxes at the same time."
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