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ClassicsOnline Home » BOLCOM: Works for Cello (Complete)
William Bolcom’s compositions, widely performed and recorded, include seven symphonies, various concertos, six operas and an extensive catalogue of chamber music. This recording of his complete works for cello begins with Capriccio, written in a sonata-like form that combines aspects of Milhaud and Brahms. Bolcom’s Suite No. 1 expands on stage music written for Arthur Miller’s tragic Broken Glass, and reflects the play’s somber mood. The one-movement Décalage is strongly influenced by the music of Pierre Boulez, and the bleak and barren universe of Dark Music recalls certain plays of Samuel Beckett. In contrast to these last two works, Bolcom’s Cello Sonata returns to a traditional form and world of sound, echoing the models of Schubert and Brahms.
By Edward Reichel
By David Denton
William Bolcom (b. 1938): Complete Works for Cello
Capriccio • Suite No. 1 • Décalage • Dark Music • Sonata
Almost fifty years ago, as a very young graduate student studying with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in California – a women's school, which admitted about fifteen male masters' degree candidates into an environment of some seven hundred young females – I was walking by the school's art gallery one day when a wildly moustachioed dark-haired man rushed out of the door, grabbed me roughly and pulled me in. Shoving me against the wall he shouted in my face, breathing hard, "You're a musician! I just heard Piatigorsky on the radio last night and I want to learn to play the cello! The cello, man! How long do you think it'll take me?" Laughing, I answered "maybe about twenty years", which cooled him down somewhat. (Richard, a graduate art student, and I became friends, and he would later marry the girl I was going with.) As with all strings, it takes probably at least twenty years to learn to write for cello, never mind about learning to play it, which takes much longer to do well, and here are examples of my 44 years in this pursuit.
Capriccio has been recorded several times, including by the Fischers; written for the Clark/Schulman Duo and given its première by them at the Library of Congress in 1988, it is much like a sonata in form, combining aspects of Milhaud and Brahms. The lively Allegro con spirito, short like many opening Milhaud movements, is followed by an elegiac Molto adagio. The rather-Brahmsian third movement, Like a Barcarolle, heralds the closing Gingando, that title being a common marking in the music of the great tango composer Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934), whom Heitor Villa-Lobos claimed as the father of Brazilian music. The word gingando – a Brazilian not regular Portuguese word, I'm told – has been variously described as the shaking of a woman's hips and as a joyful surge in the dancing. I expanded upon my piano solo Rag-Tango to fashion this capricious last movement.
Suite No. 1 in C minor for solo violoncello expands on stage music composed for Arthur Miller's tragic 1995 Broadway play Broken Glass. The somber mood of the opening movements is both leavened and sent deeper underground by the final added Sarabande'svariations, which recall in mood and tone the Bach C minor Solo Suite. Norman Fischer's recording of the stage score was used both in the Long Wharf Theater and Booth Theater productions, and the première of the complete Suite was at Tanglewood by Norman Fischer in July 1996.
The 1961-62 one-movement Décalage is strongly influenced by the music of Pierre Boulez in sound if not in methodology. The late fifties and early sixties was the era of what is now called "process" music – twelve-tone or serial music, set theory, "total organization" of durations, pitches, registers and timbres, "chance" or aleatoric music, and so forth – but the only serious exploration I ever undertook in that direction was in my own formulation of interval series, which I believe had something to do with this piece's construction (memory is hazy after 45 years). Larousse defines décalage as displacement in time or space, and throughout the work accents, entrances, and gestures constantly come at unexpected places. (The most common use of the word today is in décalage horaire, or jet lag.) The cellist Juliet Dillard and I gave the première of the piece in January 1962 at San Francisco's Legion of Honor Auditorium.
Matthew Naughtin's 1977 note for a previous recording of 1970's Dark Music for Cello and Timpani strongly recommends "that the listener hear this piece in the dead of night when all is still … and with all the lights turned off." The bleak and barren universe of this piece recalls certain plays of Samuel Beckett, a world "of emotional anomie and dissociation." In this mostly pianissimo work both instruments employ microtones (notes between those of the normal chromatic scale), and the cello's glissando harmonics and toneless pizzicatos, effects like "dead" strokes on the timpani (no traditional rolls here), and a liberal use of long silences intensify the pitch-black strangeness of Dark Music's mood.
In violent contrast to the previous two pieces, 1989's Sonata for Violoncello and Piano returns to a traditional form and world of sound. Written while at Aspen for the Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax Duo, the work strongly recalls Schubert and Brahms models; I jokingly asked the Duo not to program the piece with the Brahms E minor Sonata – the two openings seem at first similar – but of course they went ahead and did it anyway. As with classical models the opening material gives way to a second group of themes in the relative major, followed by a development and recapitulation. The second movement, Adagio semplice, is the central movement in every sense of the word, juxtaposing a peaceful E-major theme with extremely agitated and tragic contrasting music. The short final rondo, full of Sturm und Drang, recalls the "midnight-rider" last movements of the early Romantic era.
Bill Bolcom and I have been working together off and on since he composed his Ninth String Quartet (1972) for the Concord String Quartet. Since that time I have been fortunate enough to perform most of his major chamber music compositions involving the cello. The pieces represented here have had long roots in performances through the years and some with the most memorable associations. The Fischer Duo (with Jeanne Kierman) took the Capriccio on a tour of South America and it was a joy to see their enthusiasm for the tango especially. The Suite had a tremendous reaction following its Tanglewood première, but I also remember the moving circumstances of playing this great work at the memorial for Michael Hammond (Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts) at the National Council of the Arts meeting in Washington following his untimely death. The eye-popping reaction to a performance of Décalage in Houston was also particularly notable with an audience that thought they knew the full range of Bill's musical "voices". This recording is a wonderful collection of the many ways in which Bill expresses his awesome musical gifts. May he continue to write many more works for the cello!
A note to cellists (and pianists and timpanists) who will be playing these pieces: In the course of working closely with Bill for this recording, we discovered some discrepancies between notes in the printed editions and his intentions. We have taken great pains to record what Bill intended, so if one hears different notes than what one sees on the printed page, the ones you are hearing are the right ones. I am sure that subsequent editions will correct these slight errors.
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BOLCOM: Works for Cello (Complete)