The collected evidence of my compositional life has long been in a scattershot and often inaccessible state, owing to a) my persistence in hand-writing my scores well into the 21st century; b) my excessively casual habits of hard drive backup and maintenance; and c) my general indifference to self-promotion. Thanks to an uncharacteristic spasm of gainful behavior, however, you can now access many more of my scores than before by investigating the “Compositions” tab on that upper menu up there. There’s an intricately daffy bit of chamber-orchestra metaphysics, a string quartet engineered from leftover Beach Boys DNA, some pop-culture graffiti for solo flute, a flock of choral music, and more.
There’s a few more old pieces I’d like to engrave and upload, but I like how the list already reads like a coded autobiography: you can see when I was working hard to get traction as a composer, when I started my church job, when freelance work would go through a dry spell so I would compose out of boredom, when life took over, &c. Sounds make their own oddly-textured archives.
For research (some fruits of which may emerge soon), I’ve been spending another stretch buried in post-World War II, mid-century magazines. And I ran across this ad for Ella Fitzgerald’s 1956 Cole Porter Songbook album:
The drawing is by David Stone Martin, for many years Norman Granz’s go-to artist for album covers. (If you have more than a couple jazz albums from the 50s and 60s, Martin probably did one of the covers.) But the interesting data point here is the suggested list price: $9.96. That is a lot of money; adjusted for inflation, the album went for about 90 2018 dollars. Record albums—some albums, anyway—were not always the disposable-income commodities that they would eventually become.
More fruits of my church-job labor, this one a hymn that we’re singing as an introit for a few weeks in order to soften up the congregation for it. Familiarity breeds… familiarity? That’s the hope.
“Morven” was the Ossianic name of the Princeton mansion that was home to Annis Boudinot Stockton (1736-1801), author of the text. Stockton was a member in good standing of the early American power elite, such as it was: her husband signed the Declaration of Independence, and she maintained a correspondence with George Washington.
A minor historical datum: A review by “D. C. B.” (Lady Dorothy Pratt) of the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, published in the June 20, 1945 issue of Punch:
The opera’s musical skill is praised on extravagantly English terms—”One can only liken its glittering exactness to that of a Pope or a Bryden, for Mr. BRITTEN chooses a sound as they would choose a word”—but the bulk of the review is given over to Lady Pratt’s disapproval of the subject matter and its treatment.
Mr. BRITTEN and his librettist, MONTAGU SLATER, are followers of the pseudo-Freudian school of psycho-analysts who lavish their affection on the pervert and for whom any sordid criminal is a hero. To win sympathy for him they have endowed Grimes with visions and aspirations and described him as suffering from “social maladjustment.” “Social fiddlesticks!” as the White King would have said….
No. Instead of trying to whitewash a Grimes, Mr. BRITTEN might have taken for his theme the wickedness of a system which allowed children from the workhouse to be sold to anyone who could pay for them, or hired out to work in factories until they died. This would, alas, have a topical interest, for similar evils exist in our own day.
If the insistence on clear, old-fashioned demarcations of right and wrong was characteristic of Punch, the pivot to a modicum of social consciousness was not. I love how palpably the contrast embodies the tension between the magazine’s essential conservatism and the overwhelming sense, as World War II reached its end, that society had to change, that there was no going back to the old ways of doing things. A month after Lady Pratt’s review appeared, British voters handed the reins of government to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, laying the cornerstone for the modern British welfare state. The result was a surprise at the time, but an inevitability in retrospect. Even the Tories whose worldview Punch distilled had to admit that the old world was gone. Arthur Bryant, the popular historian of past English glory, offered a stoical sigh: “We can’t return, even if we wanted to, to the social and economic framework of 1939,” he wrote, “for it no longer exists.”
The month after that, the war ended in two bursts of novel atomic fire. (Evidence of the era’s disorientation: Punch cartoons wrestling with the new atomic reality drawn by E. H. Shepard, better known as the illustrator of Winnie-the-Pooh.) For all its musical ingenuity, the provincial setting and concerns of Peter Grimes feels far removed—perhaps deliberately so—from such global cataclysms. The opera was more commonly heard and seen as a postwar expression of renewed, essential Englishness: Britten’s realization of his national heritage, sparked by the war’s dislocation, but somehow parallel to, or even outside of it. Lady Pratt’s review, though, is a reminder that art—and the reaction to it—is never just about art.