Monday, May 28, 2007

Music Musique

Music Musique: French and American Piano Composition in the Jazz Age
By Barbara Meister
Indiana University Press

Observers of the French political scene wonder if the election of Sarkozy heralds an end to the anti-American insecurity of the Chirac years. Such periods have precedence French history, as the country dealt with the national defensiveness and anti-Germanic biases in the 1870’s following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Barabara Meister’s Music Musique examines the efforts of both French and American composers to develop a national compositional identity free of Germanic influences, and the degree to which composers of each country influenced each other, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Musique is strongest when it makes those connections between classical and jazz. The degree to which classical music has influenced Third Stream jazz artists like John Lewis is well documented. Less known may be the extent to which classical greats, like Maurice Ravel, were inspired by jazz. According to Meister, Ravel studied with Leo Vauchant, a French jazz bassist, for four years. She explains how this exposure to jazz influenced his compositions:

“Ravel quickly incorporated the new stylistic devices—principally blue notes and jazzlike syncopations—into several major compositions. The first Ravel composition to manifest these new elements was the charming one-act opera L’enfant et les sortil├Ęges of 1925.” (p. 98)

It is not just French classical composers Meister credits with an interest in American jazz. For instance, she finds some intriguing connections in Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata:

“Its texture is dense and amorphous, with plenty of rhythmic pizzazz, including some mighty jazz sequences, but no discernable rhythmic pattern. A theme that resembles the popular song Autumn in New York, which was written in 1934 by Vernon Duke . . . comes and goes, harmonized in various ways.” (p. 45)

While Musique traces interesting connections between idioms and countries, Meister clearly seems to come to the material from a classical point of view and frequently makes recommendations for programming classical recitals. That does not result in any disrespect for jazz though. Perhaps jazz readers might find her sections on early jazz history perfunctory, but classical experts might have similar complaints. In fact she recommends Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Pianistally Allied” as: “a delightful and surprising encore for four-hand recital.” (p. 79)

Musique might sound like an academic tome, but it is concise and surprisingly readable. It might even intrigue some readers to check out some piano music from a different genre.