Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonata No. 1
Bug ’n’ Bear.
Otis French, cond;
Andrés Cárdenes (vn);
David Brunell (pn);
Roger Frisch (vn);
Paul Murphy (vla);
William Schrickel (db);
Catherine Marchese (bsn);
Nino Cocchiarella (pn);
Kimberly Stephans (tpt);
Patrick Burke (hn);
Christopher Dearth (tbn);
Paul Hartin (tb);
Mitch Serslev (hn);
Carl Lenthe (tbn);
Kimberly Carballo (pn)
ENHARMONIC ENCD08-017 (77:08)
Intrada on a Hymn tune of Ralph Vaughan William
Eine kleine Blechmusik
Elegy for Terri
Violin Sonata No. 2, “Sighs and Sorrows
David DeBoor Canfield, cond;
Benjamin Cord (tpt);
Shaun Cooper (hn);
Phillip Erskine (tbn);
Alan Lourens (eup);
Paul Hartin (tb);
Lynn Schubert (fl);
Jonathan Jamsa (ob);
David Feller (cl);
William Abramowitz (hn);
Rodney Ackmann (bsn);
Michael Hackett (tpt);
Mitch Serslev (hn);
Heather Gibson (tbn);
Kaitlyn Henry (vla);
Nino Cocchiarella (pn);
Jason Chen (vn);
David DeBoor Canfield (vn);
Cole Tutino (vc);
James Romeo (fl);
Rachel Patrick (vn);
Benjamin Boren (pn)
ENHARMONIC ENCD10-018 (68:56)
These assorted works of chamber music were all performed by various professional associates of the composer over a span of 31 years and in several different venues. The First Violin Sonata was recorded in 1979; the Woodwind Quintet in 1986;
in 1987 (in Minneapolis, the only piece here not recorded in Bloomington, Indiana); the
Bug ’n’ Bear
in 1997; and the remaining works between 2007 and 2010. Although the first three items were recorded in analog rather than digital media, there is no appreciable variation in the sound quality (clean, clear, and generally up close rather than distant). Canfield has written his own detailed program notes for each piece, as well as biographies of all the major performers. While he describes his compositional style as one of “free tonality,” adding facetiously that this “basically means whatever I want to write at the moment,” he is no producer of the postmodernist pastiche. There is a consistent voice throughout the seeming eclecticism, with certain recurring features—neoromantic melodic and thematic material; extensive passages (particularly in piano accompaniment) of cascading runs of eighth or 16th notes, often with a very distinctive spiky staccato. While a majority of works are unabashedly tonal, a few flirt to various degrees with atonality, though with one exception there is nothing outside the stylistic ambit of Barber, Piston, or William Schuman. While a goodly array of instruments is represented here, Canfield has a special affinity for the violin (his own instrument) and brass (he also played trombone in his youth).
The First Violin Sonata, penned between 1975 and 1977 during his graduate studies in composition at Indiana University, is one of the earliest works that Canfield has retained in his official catalog of some 80 compositions (with more than 100 pieces of juvenilia excluded). It is quite attractive, with neoromantic leanings tempered by a more classical reserve. The opening theme of the first movement (Allegretto e tranquillo) has a flavor that variously calls to mind mature Hindemith and the tonal side of Berg, with lengthy flowing thematic phrases. A lyrical second subject features an undulating piano accompaniment as the violin spins out long-breathed, frequently ascending lines. The second movement (Quasi lento–Andante) also opens in a neo-Bergian tonal vein with an extended solo violin, albeit one more choppy and dissonant, as if communicating some painful inner struggle, before reverting to a more lyrical style with the entrance of the piano. The third movement (Presto volante) reflects a rather different musical style, with stormy, roiling drama verging on a
, peppered with slashing attacks on the violin and cascading runs on the piano, though it briefly recalls the first-movement opening before coming to its close.
was commissioned in 1986 by the Minneapolis Artists Ensemble after the composer won the Jill Sackler Cello Composition Contest with
, a work scored for cello quartet and orchestra of cellos. The title is a pun, being the Italian word for “majesty” and a jocular acrostic for Minneapolis Artists Ensemble String Trio Adventure. This work inhabits a harsher, more Bartókian world; it is less tonal and melodic, with abrupt, neurotically agitated thematic cells and rather wiry, astringent harmonics (emphasized by the players’ performance style). Only the first movement (Allegro assai) is briefly relieved by a slightly more lyrical second subject. In the second movement (Lento) the violin pursues a constantly moving line of eighth notes in a meditative, somber vein, supported by the viola and cello in accompaniment roles. The finale (Allegro moderato–Vivo–Presto) opens with a peasant dance-like figure, and at the close segues to a furious flurry of 16th notes.
The Bassoon Sonata was composed in 1987, and then extensively revised in 2001 and again in 2004. As with the remaining works on this disc, it shows the composer reverting to a more tonal vein and displays certain affinities to the First Violin Sonata. In the opening Allegro spirito, running 16th notes on the piano underlie a melodic but quirkily humorous bassoon part. The succeeding Andante cantando is a leisurely stroll of walking eighth notes, with a brief tumultuous middle section and a short cadenza near the end. The Vivace volante finale features a bubbly, fluent cascade of 16th notes in 3/8 time.
Bug ’n’ Bear
, a four-movement suite for brass quintet, is a personal love note from the composer (“Bear”) to his wife, Carole (“Bug”), the title being their pet names for one another. The first and fourth movements were written for their wedding in 1984, and the middle two movements added later for Carole’s 40th birthday. The very brief first movement (31 seconds) is an engaging fanfare in a standard Americana mode and employs a device the composer has used in several other compositions (inspired by the well-known B-A-C-H and D-S-C-H musical motifs) of using initials of the dedicatee’s name to construct the theme. It then turns without warning to “The Bug ’n’ Bear Song,” a jazzy pop tune that the composer and his wife jointly created and often sing to one another. The third movement, “Turnin’ 40 Ain’t So Bad,” is based on a Christmas carol by the composer, “What Do We Celebrate.” The finale, “Music for a Nuptial Day,” humorously includes parodied snippets of the wedding music chestnuts, Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” and Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus.”
The Horn Sonata from 2000 is another work with a theme that uses initials of the dedicatee’s name, this time the daughter of an employee of Canfield’s onetime Ars Antiqua record business. A Vivace ma non troppo opens the piece with a rippling 16th-note undercurrent in the piano part and an assertive, cascading melody for the horn. The following Adagietto has a strumming accompaniment underneath a meandering thematic line, while in the concluding Allegro vigoroso the material turns more spiky, with the overall mood somewhat reminiscent of an agitated
Created in 2007, the Trombone Sonata takes the last movement of the Horn Sonata several steps further into an overtly blues-jazz idiom, employing glissandi, syncopated rhythms, and other similar effects. Cast in four movements (Allegro giusto; Grazioso; Lento; Vivace glorioso), it reminds me remarkably in structure and idiom of the trombone sonatas by John Stevens and Joseph Blaha (particularly the latter) I reviewed in
34:2, right down to a third movement in which a lovely melody is disrupted by dissonant chords (here, meant by the composer to symbolize worldly assaults on the Christian faith), followed by a partially redeeming finale with a swaggering, attractive dance-like melody. Unfortunately, it shares the defects of those works as well, and is the one work on this disc that I dislike.
Whereas the first CD consists entirely of multimovement compositions, the second offers three short single-movement works as well. Scored for three trumpets, three horns, three trombones, euphonium, and tuba, the brief
from 1977 is Canfield’s thoroughly enjoyable riff on and homage to Vaughan Williams’ famous hymn tune
Sine nomine. Wertschöpfung
(Creation of Value) is another wedding piece, a postlude for string quartet composed for a friend’s 2006 nuptials in a vigorous folk-dance vein. The four performers, including the composer, are members of the Calvin Quartet, named after the 16th-century Protestant reformer and reflecting the composer’s theological convictions. These are further expressed in another work from 2006,
Elegy for Terri
for viola and piano, commemorating the ill-fated Terri Schiavo. A grim work, bordering on the atonality of the Second Viennese School, it quotes the well-known hymn
Abide with Me
. A slow, brooding opening gives way to a restless middle passage with meandering 16th notes and triplet motifs and concludes with a musical depiction of gradually ceasing heartbeat. This is the one instance here in which a work receives a less than first-rate performance, as the violist plays with a somewhat scratchy and dry tone with occasional flaws in intonation.
Cast in three movements but likewise brief (just over six minutes total) is the
Eine kleine Blechmusik
for brass quintet. It opens with a surprisingly austere Allegro vivo, passes on to a Larghetto at the close of which the performers softly breathe through their instruments to produce a sound evocative of windswept steppes, and ends with a slightly jazzy Allegro giocoso.
Of the three longer works, the Woodwind Quintet is the earliest, originally dating from 1974 but substantially revised in 1981. Cast in three movements—Allegro con fuoco, Andante semplice, and Allegro vivo—this engaging piece with a recurring three-note birdcall motif is more neoclassical in style than the other compositions under review here, bringing to mind the Nielsen Quintet leavened with a soupçon of Stravinsky.
The Flute Sonata from 2008, composed as a surprise gift for a music major at Indiana University who is a member of Canfield’s church, consists of four movements. An opening Allegro giocoso is crafted in a post-Impressionist French style distantly akin to Roussel, though more lyrical and weighty in tone. The agitated Molto vivo that follows is marked by a mixture of running staccato and legato passages interrupted by trills, suggesting someone dancing on hot coals. Meditative and elegiac at its start, the third-movement Lentamente riformando becomes progressively more clangorous and dissonant toward its close. The concluding Grazioso has the staccato running 16th-note patterns typical of several Canfield compositions.
The Violin Sonata No. 2, “Sighs and Sorrows,” requires special consideration, as a work likely to elicit unusually strong reactions due to its controversial subject matter. Although many composers have penned works expressing strong moral and political convictions—Britten’s
, and Corigliano’s
immediately come to mind—Canfield is surely correct in stating that “Protest pieces are probably rare among composers who are conservatives and hold firmly to Christian orthodoxy.” Long active with his wife in various anti-abortion causes, the composer here addresses one of the most inflammatory issues in modern American society through a three-movement work graphically depicting a woman going through the travails of an abortion and its aftermath. With unintentional irony the work itself went through an unusually long and difficult gestation, being originally penned in 1987, set aside as unperformable, and then drastically rewritten from beginning to end in 2010.
The sonata falls into three movements, for which the composer provides a detailed exposition, stating, “Of course, this work can be listened to without any knowledge of what was going on in the composer’s mind during its composition, but its significance cannot be understood without that knowledge.” In the opening Lento doloroso, a young woman finds herself pregnant in adverse circumstances; by turns the music depicts her anguished feelings, the growth of her baby within her, and her decision to abort. A violently discordant second movement, Molto agitato e tormentoso, presents the agony of the actual abortion. The concluding Tranquillo come un sogno portrays the woman as remorseful and seeking God’s forgiveness for having killed her unborn child. The piece is mostly atonal and highly dissonant, being far more avant-garde than is Canfield’s wont, relatively speaking. It occasionally employs unusual techniques such as quarter tones in the violin part, a rapid sliding of successive fingers over the same harmonic, and inside-the-piano effects reminiscent of John Cage. (The final movement opens with a peculiar dribbling sound generated by lightly stopping a piano string near the damper with the left hand and repeatedly striking the note while moving the hand toward the harmonic of the 12th. It closes with the same effect, followed by a jarringly dissonant final chord produced by scraping a credit card across several wires, meant to convey the remaining destructive effects of sin even after forgiveness is granted.)
Evaluating a work of this nature is particularly challenging, as the critic or listener risks losing objectivity and being prejudiced for or against it in advance by his or her own particular convictions on the subject matter. I believe that such a piece can and should be evaluated in two ways: as absolute music in formal terms apart from its programmatic significance, and also to the degree to which it successfully conveys the composer’s own intentions, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with those. In my view, the work succeeds to a limited degree regarding the latter, but is a failure with respect to the former. That may be because I am completely unsympathetic to dissonant atonal music employing such avant-garde effects (Penderecki being a significant exception). However, I believe it also suffers from a failing common both to many avant-garde and programmatic musical compositions, that of striving too hard for particular effects at the expense of coherent formal construction and listenability. Music that is meant to portray the ugliness of horrific aspects of life should not itself be ugly. For me, this is simply grating on the ears. However, as with the Trombone Sonata, those whose tastes encompass such styles will probably find this musically engaging and rewarding.
In sum, out of the 14 works offered on these two CDs, I find 12 are very much worth acquiring as excellently crafted examples of modern chamber music, while only two are not—a proportion seldom attained in many other similar anthologies. Barring insuperable objections to the composer’s musical expressions of his particular religious convictions, these discs are very much worth acquiring and are warmly recommended.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Works on This Recording
Intrada on a Hymn Tune of Ralph Vaughan William by David DeBoor Canfield
Quintet for Winds by David DeBoor Canfield
Rodney Ackmann (Bassoon),
Jonathan Jamsa (Oboe),
David Feller (Clarinet),
William Abramowitz (Horn),
Lynn Schubert (Flute)
Eine kleine Blechmusik by David DeBoor Canfield
Paul Hartin (Tuba),
Eddie Ludema (Trumpet),
Mitch Serslev (French Horn),
Heather Gibson (Trombone),
Michael Hackett (Trumpet)
Elegy for Terri by David DeBoor Canfield
Nino Cocchiarella (Piano),
Kaitlyn Henry (Viola)
Wertschöpfung by David DeBoor Canfield
Sonata for Flute and Piano by David DeBoor Canfield
James Romeo (Flute),
Nino Cocchiarella (Piano)
Sigs and Sorros by David DeBoor Canfield
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