Music Of Edward Joseph Collins Vol 9, Daughter Of The South / Alsop, Et Al

Release Date: 8/10/2010
Label: Albany
Catalog Number: 1210
Conductor: Marin Alsop
Number of Discs: 1

Physical Format:

Notes and Editorial Reviews

COLLINS Daughter of the South Marin Alsop, cond; Lisa Milne (Mary Lou Randolph); Peter Auty (Robert Warren); Peter Coleman-Wright (Col. Edmond “Ezra” Randolph); Andrea Baker (Melda); Keel Watson (Jonah); Roland Wood (Confederate Sergeant); Royal Scottish Natl O and Ch ALBANY TROY 1210 (75:06 Text and Translation)

Joel Flegler never forgets. At least I assume the reason Fanfare ’s editor sent this CD is because, back in 1998, I reviewed the second installment of Albany Records’ series devoted to the music of the Chicago-based composer Edward Joseph Collins (1886–1951.) I enjoyed that release, a program of orchestral music, enough to include it on my 1998 Want List. Although I’ve acquired two other discs in the survey—Volumes 3 and 4, which feature two of Collins’s three piano concertos and his only symphony—it appears that only Vol. 8, a disc of chamber music, solo piano works, and songs, has been covered in Fanfare (by Jerry Dubins, in 33: 1) since my write-up 13 years ago.

Volume 9 presents Collins’s one-act, two-scene opera, composed in the late 1930s. The plot is easy to summarize. The woman referred to in the title is Mary Lou Randolph, the daughter of a Virginia plantation owner, Col. Edmund Randolph. Mary Lou is about to be married to Robert Warren, a Yankee. Their timing couldn’t be worse, as news of the declaration of the Civil War comes during their engagement party, and Robert flees to join the Union army. End of scene 1. In scene 2, four years later, Robert returns to the plantation, having escaped from Confederate captivity. The war is ending, and he’s there, he says, to protect his beloved from “overzealous Northern soldiers.” Robert is arrested as a spy and is about to face the firing squad when his father-in-law-to-be shows up with a copy of General Grant’s Letters of Paroles. The execution is aborted, and all ends well. (If Puccini had written this, Col. Randolph would have arrived with the amnesty after Robert had been shot, which I think would have made for a better opera. But maybe that’s just me.)

This is the first performance of the complete work (“substantial portions” were offered in Chicago in November of 1938 and there was a similar event in 1940) but there’s a big asterisk here. As recently as 10 years ago, the music was assumed to have been lost. All of scene 1 and most of scene 2 were found, but 42 pages were unaccounted for. Through the efforts of librettist Charles Kondek and composer Daron Hagen, a convincing completion was created. Although we’re not exactly dealing with Turandot or Lulu here, I’m glad that the keepers of the Collins flame went to the trouble. Despite some reservations noted below, this 75-minute work would make for a rewarding half-evening in the theater.

Collins’s training was thoroughly European. In Chicago, he was a pupil of Rudolf Ganz, a Swiss-born Busoni pupil, and then headed across the Atlantic to study composition with Humperdinck and Bruch. His musical language is resolutely tonal—an advanced, fluid tonality—and the musical architecture is firmly rooted in the 19th century. (Elsewhere, Collins’s orchestral music manifests echoes of Debussy and Hindemith; the composer evoked most powerfully may be Arnold Bax.) Still, Daughter of the South generously employs American musical idioms, including jazz, spirituals, and dance forms such as the waltz and cakewalk. Several orchestra-only sections are especially appealing—a 10-minute ballet in the first scene with a soulful slow midsection, a funeral march in scene 2, and the elegant conflation of two Civil War songs (“The Girl I Left Behind Me” and “Dixie”) that closes scene 1. As a young man, Collins was an anti-Wagnerian, but that changed as he studied the German master’s operas more closely; Collins eventually had an abbreviated stint as an assistant conductor at Bayreuth in 1914. The love duet in scene 1 is a much shorter (and considerably more wholesome) take on Tristan und Isolde ’s act II duet. At the close of the section, when the loyal slave Jonah rushes in to warn the couple that Confederate soldiers have arrived to arrest Robert, Mary Lou exclaims: “Save yourself!”—the exact words the loyal Kurwenal directs to Tristan when Melot and his men surprise Wagner’s pair.

Daughter of the South ’s one major failing, in my eyes, is the treatment of its African-American characters. There are two black principals, Melda, Mary Lou’s “Mammy,” and Jonah, the head slave. Albany’s thorough notes attempt to preempt any charges of racism with an essay, “A Word on the N-word,” by a Harvard law professor who’s published on the subject. But the occasional appearance of “nigga” in the libretto is the least of the opera’s problems regarding matters of race. Collins’s representation of Melda and Jonah as simple, cheerful, docile participants in what was, in fact, an often brutally oppressive social system is an unfortunate stereotype that should have been rejected by thoughtful people in the mid 20th century. The notes mention in passing that George Gershwin made a serious study of Gullah traditions when composing Porgy and Bess around the same time and that Collins did nothing of the kind when writing his opera. Porgy is a masterpiece: A white composer has created complex and believable African-American characters we care about, as opposed to the two-dimensional caricatures that Collins gives us.

The performance, led confidently by Marin Alsop, who has been on the podium for the other five Albany Collins programs involving symphonic forces, won’t be bettered anytime soon. The singers are all capable but special praise is warranted for Peter Coleman-Wright, whose richly textured, agile baritone is just right for Col. Randolph. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra makes the most of both the syncopations and Wagnerian effusions of the score. The recording from Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow is a tad constricted by current standards, in terms of dynamics and soundstage. A fascinating, if flawed, musico-dramatic specimen that will be of interest to many. Recommended.

FANFARE: Andrew Quint
Works on This Recording
1. Daughter of the South by Edward Joseph Collins
Performer: Roland Wood (Baritone), Peter Auty (Tenor), Peter Coleman-Wright (Bass), Lisa Milne (Soprano), Keel Watson (Bass Baritone), Andrea Baker (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor: Marin Alsop
Period: 20th Century
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