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ClassicsOnline Home » HEADLEY: California Suite / Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Symphony No. 1
During the 1940s Hubert Klyne Headley became internationally known as a composer, concert pianist, and conductor. Given the former popularity of Headley’s music – Howard Hanson described the California Suite as a “brilliant score” – and its immediate emotional accessibility, its disappearance from the concert hall is to be greatly regretted. Throughout all of Headley’s compositions one can sense beneath the veneer of romantic impressionism an undercurrent of greater depths that leads the listener to, as Headley himself put it, “The way I have always felt inside.” A fitting tribute to a uniquely talented American composer, this recording of four major works brings Headley’s music back from undeserved obscurity.
By David Denton
Hubert Klyne Headley (1906-1995):
California Suite • Piano Concerto No. 1 'Argentango'
Piano Concerto No. 2 • Symphony No. 1 for Radio
Hubert Klyne Headley, born in West Virginia in 1906, was recognized as a piano and organ prodigy at an early age. His mother was an accomplished organist and his father a prominent educator. The family moved to California when he was six, and at ten he was introduced to Maurice Ravel, an encounter which had a profound influence on his musical development. In 1928 he took his Bachelor's degree in music at the University of the Pacific, and in 1937 he graduated with a Master of Music degree from the Eastman School of Music. Headley did graduate work at Eastman for the next two summers. From 1939-1954 he taught theory and composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During the 1940s he became known internationally as a composer, concert pianist, and conductor. In 1942 he was awarded the prestigious Edward MacDowell Fellowship in Composition. A notable event was his 1946 concert tour, where he performed as pianist and conducted his own compositions in Paris, London, Budapest, Prague and other European venues.
Headley left the University of California in 1954 to take a position as head of the department of composition at the Cornish School of Applied Arts in Seattle, Washington. He became the founder and conductor of the Cornish Junior Symphony Orchestra and served as Executive Vice President of the Allied Arts of Seattle. While there he wrote two powerful and innovative chamber works, a Septet for Wind and Strings, and a Quintet for Piano, Strings and Clarinet. Following his stay in Seattle he took up residence in Vancouver, British Columbia. In Vancouver he wrote Peace, a triptych for orchestra and children's choir, commissioned by the Brno Children's Choir, Czechoslovakia. Headley's magnum opus was Prelude to Man, a Symphonic Cycle in Four Volumes for orchestra, speech choir, chorus, and ballet, with a text by poet Chard Powers Smith. Although some portions of this work were performed, it has never been heard in its entirety. Headley remained in Canada until his death in 1995 at the age of 89.
Speaking of the nature of music and its rôle in human life, Headley wrote in 1946, "Somehow, music can stir our souls and bridge the gap between what we imagine the world to be and what we conceive as its potential state of being. When hungry souls hear from a great symphony those cherished, dreamed of and longed-for expressions and can say 'that is the way I have always felt inside, but I never knew until now how it should be said!' – then great art is born."
In Headley's works, with their ongoing contrasts of conflict, peace and grandeur, one can sense his dedication to this ideal. Headley's début composition for the American concert repertoire was his California Suite, commissioned by the Standard Oil Company for the 1939 opening of the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. There were many performances over the next decade, including those by Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony on The Standard Hour, Paul White conducting the Eastman Symphony, the Duluth Symphony with the composer conducting, and the Rochester Philharmonic directed by Howard Hanson. Hanson called it a "brilliant score" while Pierre Monteux referred to Headley as "one of our best California composers".
The Piano Concerto No. 1, subtitled Argentango, was written under a grant from Mrs Edward MacDowell and had its première in 1941 on The Standard Hour with Henry Svederovsky conducting. In 1942 José Iturbi performed and conducted the work with the Rochester Philharmonic in New York. Iturbi wrote "I can only express a very high opinion of the composer". The Piano Concerto No. 2 was written about 1945, followed by a commission from Radiodiffusion Française for the writing of Symphony No. 1 for Radio, accepted for performance by conductor Karl Munch and given its première in Paris in 1946 during Headley's European tour, Jean Clerque conducting the French National Symphony. In the same year Headley wrote an Opera, Noche Serena, on commission from the Santa Barbara Old Spanish Days Fiesta.
Given the former popularity of Headley's works, their immediate emotional accessibility and clearly American individuality, their disappearance from the concert hall is to be greatly regretted. The present recording of four major works, brilliantly realized by Dmitry Yablonsky and pianist Anna Bogolyubova with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, brings this music back, with its evocations of the American musical milieu of the mid-twentieth century and as a tribute to a uniquely talented American composer.
Headley's music in general moves through smoothly linked series of emotionally charged episodes rather than traditional movements. Especially notable is his dynamic use of the brass choir, emerging already in Golden Gate from the California Suite (1939), and reaching a high point in the Symphony No. 1 for Radio (1946). Golden Gate yields an impressionistic depiction of the sights and sounds of San Francisco : the haunting calls of foghorns in the Bay, the ships, the celebrations and the martial history. In Yosemite Headley invokes the peace and grandeur of California's famed Yosemite Valley, punctuated by a magnificent extended fanfare suggesting the emotional impact of the great granite cliffs and domes. The final movement, Fiesta, celebrates the festive life of the State's varied cultural heritage. Beneath this seemingly romantic-impressionistic canvas lie some remarkably innovative sounds. We encounter Headley's rich orchestration also, for example, in the opening of Argentango, where a brittle dissonant rush of strings punctuated by a sharp brass fanfare leads to a brilliant introduction by the solo piano. Throughout all of Headley's compositions one can sense beneath the veneer of romantic impressionism an undercurrent of greater depths that can lead the listener to "the way I have always felt inside."
After the fierce rhythmic drive of Argentango, the second concerto marks a distinct change. By 1945 Headley was moving into an intensely personal style. According to Headley's wife Constance, the composer dedicated the second concerto to the suffering and triumphs of oppressed peoples. Here we now find deep spirituality, interrupted but not overcome by passages of severe conflict. At one stunning moment the piano seems to battle with the brass section, bringing the music to a momentary halt. The concerto ends with a triumphant affirmation of the opening "spiritual" theme.
With the Symphony No. 1 for Radio (1946) Headley reached a point of creative expression truly symphonic in its intimations of pathos, tenderness, and grandeur. It is a remarkable score, featuring solo instruments at times, and using the piano as a member of the orchestra alternately with the harp. Comparisons are perhaps inappropriate for such an individualistic work, yet one tends to hear the influence of the lean, wiry, economical orchestration of Sibelius combined with the expansiveness of a Carl Nielsen. It is a loss that Headley wrote no further symphonic works. What we have are distinctly the signs of an American musical genius whose works amply reward repeated hearings.
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