ClassicsOnline Home » SCHOENFIELD, P.: Refractions / 6 British Folk Songs / Peccadilloes (Tocco, Hanani, Fiterstein, Schoenfield)
Paul Schoenfield’s music attracts listeners with its combination of exuberance and seriousness, familiarity and originality, lightness and depth, often with sly twists. Six British Folk Songs was written in 1985 as a tribute to the cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Each of the six Peccadilloes is based on a particular ‘bad taste’ motif, which the composer invites us to enjoy with ‘the same sort of guilt and pleasure that accompany one while eating a large chocolate sundae’. Refractions, a wonderful addition to the chamber repertoire, is based on music from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947)
Refractions • Six British Folk Songs • Peccadilloes
This Schoenfield recording represents a fortuitous convergence: old friendships going back to our student days at Marlboro, when Paul was studying with Serkin and I with Casals, and his shared Detroit childhood with James Tocco; the wish of Dr Magda Gabor Hotchkiss of Lenox, Massachusetts, to dedicate a piece of music to the memory of her husband, the illustrious Rockefeller University biochemist and geneticist Dr Rollin Hotchkiss who, like Einstein, loved Mozart above all other composers; and the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. All these contiguities, plus—with our studios at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music on the same floor—James’s and my ardent admiration of Paul’s work, set the stage for the commissioning of Refractions, a wonderful addition to the clarinet/piano/cello repertoire, and to the recording of two other inspired works, with the composer’s participation at the piano for several movements in the Six British Folk Songs.
Paul Schoenfield, a man whose music is widely performed and continues to draw an ever-expanding group of devoted fans, combines exuberance and seriousness, familiarity and originality, lightness and depth. His work is inspired by the whole range of musical experience, popular styles both American and foreign, vernacular and folk traditions, and the “normal” historical traditions of cultivated music making, often treated with sly twists. Like that of certain other 20th–21st century composers, his musical ingenuity is rooted in the national spirit, which in his case he describes specifically as that of the Jewish/American. This spirit is, however, multifaceted: like Charles Ives, he enjoys the mixing of ideas that grew up in entirely different worlds, making them converse, so to speak, and delighting in the surprises that their interaction evokes. Above all, he has achieved the rare fusion of a complex and rigorous compositional mind with an instinct for accessibility and a reveling in sound that sometimes borders on the manic.
A native of Detroit, Paul Schoenfield began playing the piano at the age of six and wrote his first composition the following year. In addition to studying piano with Julius Chajes and Rudolf Serkin, he holds an undergraduate degree from Carnegie-Mellon University and a Doctor of Music Arts degree from the University of Arizona. Now on the faculty of the University of Michigan, he has received commissions and grants from the NEA, the Ohio Arts Commission, Chamber Music America, the Rockefeller Fund, the Minnesota Commissioning Club, American Composers Forum, Soli Deo Gloria of Chicago, the Juilliard School—for its centennial—and many other organizations and individuals. Although in recent years he has rarely performed (sections of this recording are an exception), he was formerly an active pianist, touring the United States, Europe, and South America as a soloist and with groups including Music from Marlboro. His recordings as a pianist include the complete violin and piano works of Bartók and his compositions have been widely recorded. A man of many talents, Paul Schoenfield is also an avid scholar of the Talmud and mathematics.
Six British Folk Songs
A six-movement suite for cello and piano, Six British Folk Songs was written in the summer of 1985 as a tribute to the cellist Jacqueline du Pré. It was commissioned by the Sewell family and was premiered by cellist Laura Sewell who had been a student of du Pré and of Yehuda Hanani. Like Refractions, the Six Songs use existing traditional material as points of departure for Schoenfield’s flights of creativity. The texts of the songs (which in some cases are quite lengthy) can be summarized as follows:
Jack Tar: A classic tale of Sailor Jack on shore-leave embarking on an epic spree.
The Basket of Eggs: A ballad about the sailor who is tricked into paying for the woman he deserted and the child he fathered.
The Gypsy Laddie: An encounter depicting the sad fate of a man who is visited by a band of gypsies and joins them.
The Parting Kiss: A heart-throbbing description of two lovers who must part forever.
The Lousy Tailor: A tale of pusillanimity—a butcher lies in bed with a tailor’s wife while at the same time forcing her husband to wait patiently under the bed.
A Dream of Napoleon: Early in his career Napoleon was admired by many radicals including the English and Irish Jacobins. This song is but one of many English ballads dealing with Napoleon’s liberations.
While each of the movements in this work is a complete piece in itself, there are various discernible motivic elements throughout that provide cohesion to the suite as a whole. The listener might also perceive some other devices which are utilized to guide the work’s overall dramatic design, the most obvious being the gradual increase in tempos of the odd-numbered movements and the gradual decrease in the evennumbered. And although the movements steadily increase in length, the ratio of durations between adjacent movements remains constant.
Paul Schoenfield’s suite for piano entitled Peccadilloes is a fascinating homage to the baroque suites of Bach and Handel, with passing references to Ravel (viz. Le Tombeau de Couperin, another homage to the clavecinists), Joplin, Gershwin, Ives and—implicit in the title—Rossini, whose late piano pieces were published under the rubric “Sins of My Old Age.” The verve with which Schoenfield incorporates and synthesizes all these disparate elements, as well as the sheer brilliance of his invention, make for an exciting excursion into Schoenfield’s musical world. Much of the music is exquisitely beautiful, with gossamer textures and beguiling harmonies. And ultimately, this is a collection of pieces for the virtuoso pianist, one that makes formidable technical and musical demands on the performer, not the least of which is the madcap, non-stop, Harold-Lloyd-channeling boogie that ends the work.
It was a great honor when in 1997 the Schubert Club of St Paul, Minnesota commissioned me to write a solo piano piece for presentation on their international series. Perhaps because I have (more or less) kept up my own piano playing over the years they considered the project a natural choice for me. Nonetheless I found it intimidating. It was not due to lack of time that I had not written a solo piano work since college days, but due to a conviction that the solo-piano medium had written itself out decades ago. What more could be added to the clusters of Bartók, Ives, and Cowell, the ultra-serialism of Schoenberg’s followers, or the inside-of-the-piano composers like George Crumb?
Then I remembered having read an article by a living widely known composer/conductor. His comment on one of the twentieth century’s most beloved composers, that “Mr. B’s later works showed a lack of taste,” was an incentive. If Mr. B’s works show a lack of taste, think what I could do, I mused…And thus was born my Peccadilloes, in which each one of six movements is based on a particular “bad taste” motif. From the opening Allemande (an attempt to write music à la the opening credits of a Hollywood romantic comedy) to the final Boogie (patterned after the ostentatious Harlem Stride competition pieces of the 1920s), each movement of this suite was inspired by and is enclothed within an element of what is generally considered bad taste or inferior culture.
Of course, I wrote these movements with the same sort of guilt and pleasure that accompany one while eating a large chocolate sundae, and would ask of the listener only to share in this sort of unsophisticated cuisine for a brief eleven minutes or so. After all, as Herman Hesse once wrote, life is a mere eternity, just long enough for a joke. And while we all hope that life is not just a mere joke, perhaps we “serious musicians” while pursuing our work in earnest could occasionally benefit from being a bit more lightweight.
A trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, Refractions was written in the early months of 2006 and was jointly commissioned by Close Encounters With Music, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, and the University of Cincinnati. Yehuda Hanani, artistic director of Close Encounters With Music, provided the stimulation for this composition when he suggested that Schoenfield write a piece inspired by Mozart’s music, in commemoration of the composer’s 250th birthday. The work is almost totally based on Le nozze di Figaro and shares a certain likeness to the nineteenthcentury virtuosic opera paraphrases written by Liszt and others. However, unlike these transcriptions, Schoenfield’s work takes Mozart’s material and convolutes it to a degree that makes the original just barely recognizable. Listening to Refractions is tantamount to gazing at a painting through a glass of water slightly tinted with food coloring. It is this phenomenon, as well as the association with the dedicatee, scientist Rollin Hotchkiss, that suggested the work’s title.
The Toccata, based mainly on the opera’s overture, is a tribute to the pianist James Tocco. Schoenfield first heard Tocco play at Detroit’s Cass Tech High School where he dazzled students with his performance of the Toccata by Aram Khachaturian. This recollection inspired the composer to write his own toccata for Tocco who has become a friend of Schoenfield over the years. In addition to the Figaro overture, the toccata movement incorporates a Chassidic wedding tune—a typical Schoenfield display of erudite mischief as it also relates to the theme of the opera. The March is written in a simple ABA song form: the A sections based on Figaro’s aria “Non più andrai” and the B section contorting and parodying music from various recitatives. The Intermezzo is a set of variations on the Countess’s aria “Dove sono i bei momenti.” The tune itself is intertwined with a recurring five-note motive that, at one point, dominates the music completely.
The Tarantella uses Figaro’s cavatina “Se vuol ballare” (played at a tempo approximately three and a half times as fast as the original) as its major source material. Complementary music from the finales of Act II and Act IV, as well as the duettino “Aprite, presto, aprite,” is utilized as well.