Ever heard of John Antes?
He’s an early American composer—very early. Born in 1740, he was a composer, a watchmaker, inventor, instrument maker, missionary, officer of the Moravian Church and all-around good guy. Believed to be the first native-born composer of chamber music, he was also a world traveler, spending most of his life abroad. He found himself in Egypt, Greece and Germany, before settling in England. It is believed that Franz Joseph Haydn was one of his pals, on the island. He also had a cool nom de plume, “Giovanni A-T-S Dilletante Americano.”
But here’s the thing: John Antes never wrote music in America, always abroad. In fact, he wrote his first chamber music in Egypt. So, the more you know...
Anyway, today I caught Victor Carr Jr., another one of the boys over at ClassicsToday.com, reviewing a disc with one of John Antes’ String Trios—the disc is called: American Voices.
On it you’ll find:
John Antes – Trio in D minor (1780)
George Gershwin – Lullaby (1919)
Samuel Barber – Quartet for Strings (1936)
Ruth Crawford Seeger – String Quartet (1931)
Leonard Bernstein – Clarinet Sonata (1939)
Joan Tower – A Gift (2007)
Here’s what he has to say about the Antes:
Antes was trained in Germany, so his music not surprisingly is in the style of Haydn and Mozart (don't expect any "Yankee Doodle" here), and this trio is a well crafted, tuneful, and satisfying piece.
Okay. That’s pretty positive. The Gershwin:
The program leapfrogs over the 19th century [...] to land at Gershwin's haunting Lullaby for String Quartet, played here with an affecting tenderness.
Trite, but positive. Barber?
Here the power and passion of the music comes through even in its original four-strings version.
The concert shifts abruptly toward modernism with Ruth Crawford Seeger's String Quartet, a prickly and complex work that lies stylistically at the midpoint between Bartók and Elliott Carter.
Hilarious! “Mozart lies stylistically at the midpoint between Bach and Beethoven.” M’kay. I'm not sure what he's trying to say, there.
Either way, “prickly and complex” are both rather neutral descriptors, neither good nor bad, tempered even.
So how about Lenny?
Seeing Bernstein's name could give the impression of impending tuneful relief from Seeger's gnarly atonality...
I take that back. He’s happy that he might get some relief from the Ruth. His impression of Ruth is, thus, not positive. (that’s fine; it’s an opinion)
...but actually the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano catches Bernstein in his "serious music" mode, and you'd be hard pressed to recognize the composer of West Side Story and Chichester Psalms in this angular but very well constructed music.
Weird, but positive. It seems that precisely what he didn’t like about the Ruth, he was able to ignore in the Lenny.
Whatever. How ‘bout Joan?
Finally, we arrive at the 21st century with Joan Tower's A Gift, for piano, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, written in the composer's usual darkly dramatic style. The brooding of Memories leads to the agitation of A Song, followed by the mournful With Feeling. Though there's nothing remotely toe-tapping about the concluding To Dance With, it does end the work with a stimulating display of nervous energy.
A very positive, two thumbs up. Sounds great.
So what's my problem, today?
Overall, this is a very interesting program, but one that could have been made more lively, and certainly more representative of America, by including one of the many pieces for string quartet by, say, William Grant Still.
Exactly! One would be hard-pressed to call Antes’ music American, since he wrote all of it in the old world. Right? Wrong.
There's a certain trendiness in the selection of the more modern pieces that perhaps shows a lack of imagination.
Huh? It’s trendy to program newer music? As I see it, only one of the pieces was written in the past 70 years, and it got a glowing review. What’s wrong with that? If we’re talking, however, about newer pieces on this disc that didn’t receive a positive review, we can cross-out Lenny, Sam and Georgie.
That leaves us with Ruth, the only negative on the disc. Translation: Ruth Crawford is not representative of America.
Saying that takes some big, fucking balls.
Ever heard of John Antes?