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ClassicsOnline Home » MASON: Piano Music
By Jed Distler
William Mason (1829-1908) Piano Music
While it is true that nineteenth-century America resonated with new-found confidence in the areas of political, military and material success, American musical culture in the same period reveals a distinct lack of nationalistic identity. Indeed, the influence of long-standing and revered European traditions weighed heavily on native-born American composers and musicians, an attitude that persisted well into the twentieth century. Nevertheless, those American composers indebted to the European style crafted musical works of considerable beauty, charm and even substance. Representatives of this movement included such figures as John Knowles Paine, Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell and William Mason. These composers, among others, established a foundation of solid musicianship and technical polish out of which would grow a truly innovative, "modern" American musical rhetoric.
As talented and intellectually gifted as he was, William Mason is better known to many through the extensive reputation of his New England-based family than for his own accomplishments. His father, Lowell Mason (1792-1872), garnered well-deserved fame in the areas of public music education and church music; his brother, Henry Mason (1831-1890), gained prominence in the manufacture of musical instruments as co-founder of the Mason & Hamlin Company; finally, his nephew, Daniel Gregory Mason (1873-1953), achieved distinction as a composer, author and professor of music at Columbia University.
William Mason was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 24th January, 1829, the third of four sons born to Lowell and Abigail Mason. Although William showed an early proclivity towards music, he was not strongly encouraged by his parents to develop his talent, partly owing to his fathers desire that he opt for a career in the clergy. Nevertheless, around 1845, William began productive piano study with Henry Schmidt at the Boston Academy of Music, while also composing and publishing his first pieces for the piano, Deux Romances sans paroles, Opus 1. His professional début came a year later at the Boston Academy of Music, with a performance of the Variations on the Air from Méhuls "Joseph," Opus 20, by Henri Herz, for piano with string quintet accompaniment.
In 1849, William Mason did what virtually every aspiring American composer and performer was expected to do: he immersed himself in rigorous European training. Mason set sail for Germany and the city of Bremen, to begin a period of piano study, which ultimately lasted for five years and took him to Leipzig, Prague and Weimar. His considerable talent and abilities afforded him the privilege of concentrated instruction from such legendary pianists as Ignaz Moscheles, Alexander Dreyschock and Franz Liszt.
Mason returned to the United States in 1854, his sights set on a career as a concert pianist. For a while, he succeeded admirably in building a reputation through several ambitious recital tours. Within a year, however, Mason became convinced that the life of a touring virtuoso, while rousing to the ego, was intellectually and musically unfruitful. He decided to relocate to New York City, his geographical center for the remainder of his life, and began a multi-faceted career of performing, teaching and composing. Of special significance during this time was the formation of a chamber ensemble, that included Mason and violinist Theodore Thomas. Over the next thirteen years, the Mason-Thomas Quartette would present many world and U.S. premières, including that of Brahms Trio in B Major, Opus 8.
Possibly more noteworthy than any of the aforementioned accomplishments, Mason carved out an influential reputation as a piano pedagogue. In 1867, his first pedagogical work was published, A Method for the Piano-Forte, co-authored with E. S. Hoadly. Later notable titles would appear, among them, A System for Beginners in the Art of Playing upon the Piano-Forte (1871), A System of Technical Exercises for the Piano-Forte (1878), and Touch and Technic, Opus 44 (1891-92). In addition to his publications, Mason held numerous posts that reflected his commitment to sound musical instruction for students of all ages, including the presidencies of the National Musical Congress and American Vocal Music Association, and membership on the board of piano examiners for the American College of Musicians.
In 1901, Masons illuminating autobiography Memories of a Musical Life was published. Thereafter, he maintained an active schedule as a teacher, working primarily from the studio in Steinway Hall that he had occupied since 1866. Following a brief illness, William Mason died at his home in New York City on 14th July, 1908, at the age of 79.
William Masons piano music is not only a product of his own substantial technical pedigree, but also a reflection of that period of American music when it was fashionable- even advisable- to imitate European models. Almost without exception, his works favour a clear ABA structure and make no pretence toward weighty thematic development. They are simply a creation of their generation: unfailingly entertaining, colourful and, at times, intriguing "salon" pieces. In spite of these generalised qualities, Mason did not escape a subtle evolution in his own compositional approach to the piano, which, after all, spanned a full sixty years. This recording not only seeks to document the prolific variety of Masons piano music, but also the three discernible phases through which his compositional style passed.
Many of Masons earliest published works, composed between 1849 and 1856, are born of the grand virtuoso style of the mid-nineteenth century. His exploitation of brilliant octaves, cadenza-like flourishes, extreme registers and intricate arpeggio figuration reflect the influence of Liszt and the great Austrian pianist Sigismond Thalberg, whom Mason heard and closely observed on many occasions. Masons Valse de Bravoure, Opus 5, and Silver Spring, Opus 6, are contrasting yet complementary examples of the Age of the Virtuoso. In particular, Silver Spring, which would be Masons signature work, illustrates the impression of a third hand projecting the exquisite melody amidst a web of rapid, rippling arpeggiation, a technique for which Thalberg was famous.
Following closely on the heels of Masons decision to abandon a solo concert career was a discernible shift in his piano music towards a style somewhat more modest in scope. With few exceptions, Masons compositions from the years from 1857 to 1890 are replete with the melodic poeticism and dance-like rhythms characteristic in many works of Chopin. Masons Rêverie Poétique, Opus 24, for example, with its cantabile melody over a subtle, undulating accompaniment, is clearly modelled after Chopins famous Nocturne in D flat major, Opus 27, No. 2. Likewise, Masons gentle and lyrical Lullaby, Opus 10, is reminiscent of Chopins Berceuse, Opus 57. Four other works on this recording represent Masons fondness for dance forms: Valse-Caprice, Opus 17; Polka-Caprice, Opus 23, No. 1; Mazurka-Caprice, Opus 23, No. 2; and La Sabotière: Danse aux Sabots, Opus 33. The infectious rhythmic allure and variety of these works evoke Chopins masterful collections of mazurkas and waltzes.
Masons pedagogical interests were occasionally manifested in collections of pieces for one piano four-hands, many of which were specifically designed for student/teacher pairings. The few that were intended for two equal partners include the engaging duet, Badinage, Opus 27, also composed during his middle period.
Finally, Masons late piano works, composed mainly between 1890 and 1905, resemble the more personal and complex idioms of Brahms, Schumann and Fauré. Masons Amourette, Opus 48, Capriccio Fantastico, Opus 50, and Improvisation, Opus 52 show intensive contrapuntal layering, extreme harmonic instability and carefully dictated rubato. All previous excesses are now stripped away, revealing the true sophistication of the mature master on which modern American pianism could find a native identity.
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MASON: Piano Music